Aug 14 2015

Dating Hominin Tool Use

Published by under Evolution
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When did our ancestors first start to use tools? That is a very interesting question, and immediately leads to the question of how we could know. What kind of evidence could there be to establish human tool use?

The most obvious evidence would be the tools themselves. Fortunately stone tools are made of stone, which is highly durable and can last millions of years. Earlier this year researchers published evidence of the now earliest known stone tools, from 3.3 million years ago. This finding was significant for several reasons.

First, it pushed back tool use 700,000 years. Perhaps even more significant, prior to this find the oldest confirmed stone tools were associated with the species Homo habilis, the first of the Homo genus that led to modern humans. It could therefore be said that sophisticated tool use (meaning modified tools that can be recognized) was unique to the Homo genus. These new tools, called the Lomekwian tool culture, predate Homo habilis, and are likely associated with Australopithecus afarensis.

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Aug 13 2015

Does Science Prove God?


I could just stop there, but I’ll elaborate. Earlier this year Prager University posted a Youtube video hosted by Eric Metaxas in which he argues that science is the best argument for the existence of god. (The text is the same as his 2014 WSJ article.) It was nothing surprising – he simply trots out the old fine-tuning of the universe argument. (I wrote about this here, but it’s making the rounds again so I’ll take another swipe.)

He starts, however, by quoting Carl Sagan from a 1966 Time article. Sagan said that there were only two criteria for life to exist, the right kind of star and a planet the proper distance from that star. he wrote:

Given the roughly octillion—1 followed by 24 zeros—planets in the universe, there should have been about septillion—1 followed by 21 zeros—planets capable of supporting life.

This of course was a rough order of magnitude estimate based upon what information we had at the time, prior to any exoplanets being discovered. Metaxas then goes on to argue that since Sagan science has discovered that there are more than 200 factors, and the number of potential planets therefore has shrunk to “thousands.”

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Aug 11 2015

Bishops Meddle in Health Care

The headline almost says it all: Catholic Bishops In Kenya Call For A Boycott Of Polio Vaccines. Catholic Bishops, or any religious officers, have no business meddling in public health care. NPR reports:

“the country’s Conference of Catholic Bishops declared a boycott of the World Health Organization’s vaccination campaign, saying they needed to “test” whether ingredients contain a derivative of estrogen. Dr. Wahome Ngare of the Kenyan Catholic Doctor’s Association alleged that the presence of the female hormone could sterilize children.”

Where did they get this idea? From conspiracy theories. That’s it. There is no medical or scientific reason, no credible investigative journalism, and no evidence to suspect that vaccine (the polio vaccine or any other) contain estrogen compounds that will sterilize children.

This is an old conspiracy theory in Africa, based on the idea that “The West” wants to sterilize Africans in order to control their population and keep them down. This is pretty typical fear mongering – based on fear from outsiders who wish the community harm. It is a form of mass delusion.

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Aug 10 2015

Rethinking the Skeptical Movement

This week on the SGU we interviewed Jamy Ian Swiss about the scope and nature of the skeptical movement (a longer version of the interview is also available to SGU premium members). From time to time I like to step back and take a serious look at skeptical activism, to see how we are doing and what we can do better or differently.

It seems to me that the skeptical movement has had a lot of growing pains in the last decade, which is good because it means we are growing and evolving. However, the growth of the movement has been entirely from the bottom up, without any actual plan, coordination, and without much discussion. There are strengths and weaknesses to this kind of growth.

We also have to recognize the role of social media, which has transformed the movement (as it has transformed massive social interaction in general). Where does all this leave us?

Jamy and my SGU co-hosts and I explored two issues: the scope of the skeptical movement and quality control within the movement. I have already written extensively about the scope of scientific skepticism and the various related movements and how they differ. Please read these links for a full discussion, but here is a quick overview.

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Aug 07 2015

Industry Conflicts of Interest

This is an old issue but seems to have been heating up in the last decade – concern over ties between academia and industry. The concern is legitimate, but often overblown, and can easily be abused to justify an unfair witch hunt.

A Nature article published yesterday discusses a recent round of accusations against scientists who support the technology of genetic modification. Before I discuss this article directly, let me give some background.

There is the potential for useful and productive collaboration between industry and academia. Academics are the experts and they have knowledge and resources that could benefit industry. Meanwhile, to put it simply, industry has the money. They can fund research, labs, and educational programs. Academics often survive on meager pay, living grant to grant.

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Aug 06 2015

Registering Studies Reduces Positive Outcomes

The science of science itself is critically important. Improvements in our understanding of the world and our technological ability to affect it is arguably the strongest factor determining many aspects of our quality of life. We invest billions of dollars in scientific research, to improve medical practice, feed the world, reduce our impact on the environment, make better use of resources, to do more with less.

It seems obvious that it is in our best interest for that scientific research to be as efficient and effective as possible. Bad scientific research wastes resources, wastes time, and may produce spurious results that are then used to waste further resources.

This is why I have paid a lot of attention to studies which look at the process of science itself, from the lab to the pages of scientific journals. To summarize the identified problems: most studies that are published are small and preliminary (meaning they are not highly rigorous), and this leads to many false positives in the literature. This is exacerbated by the current pressure to publish in academia.

There is researcher bias – researchers want positive outcomes. It is easy to exploit so-called
“researcher degrees of freedom” in order to manufacture positive results even out of dead-negative data.  Researcher can also engage in citation bias to distort the apparent consensus of the published literature.

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Aug 04 2015

Convincing Antivaxxers

A new study has been published in PNAS exploring methods for changing the attitudes of those who are anti-vaccine. The results differ from a previous study published last year in Pediatrics. Let’s explore their methods and results.

Both studies questioned subjects about their attitudes toward vaccines and their willingness to vaccinate their children. The Pediatrics study was web-based and recruited 1759 parents. They divided them into four groups:

(1) information explaining the lack of evidence that MMR causes autism from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; (2) textual information about the dangers of the diseases prevented by MMR from the Vaccine Information Statement; (3) images of children who have diseases prevented by the MMR vaccine; (4) a dramatic narrative about an infant who almost died of measles from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fact sheet; or to a control group.

The PNAS study was in person, but only recruited 315 subjects. They divided people into three groups: 1) given information debunking vaccine myths, 2) told about the risks of measles and shown graphic images, 3) control group given information unrelated to vaccines.

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Aug 03 2015

The Holistic Doctor Murder Conspiracy

The antivaccine and CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) communities love a good conspiracy. When you live on the fringe of science and reason, conspiracy theories are your bread and butter. You need some reason to explain why the mainstream scientific community does not endorse your version of reality. It can’t be that the evidence doesn’t support your position, so it must be a conspiracy.

It is therefore no surprise that when a series of CAM practitioners die within a short period of time, antivaxxers see a conspiracy. A conspiracy would support their narrative so nicely, they just know it has to be true.

This story started with the death of Jeff Bradstreet, a “holistic” doctor who believed that vaccines caused his son’s autism. He was overtly anti-vaccine, supported the discredited mercury hypothesis of autism, and treated autism (including his son’s) with a variety of biomedical treatments including chelation therapy and hyperbaric oxygen.

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Jul 31 2015

GMOs and Making Up Your Own Science

Dedicated anti-science groups engage in a number of methods to maintain their propaganda upstream against the scientific evidence. It’s actually not difficult- people are generally very good at motivated reasoning. We can demonize or lionize anything.

Methods include dismissing scientific studies whose conclusions you don’t like, supporting low quality studies you do like, misinterpreting and distorting other studies, and of course cherry picking. Sometimes, however, dedicated activists seem to literally make up studies out of whole cloth, or ideological scientists perform dubious studies to create fodder for their side.

This week on the SGU we interview Kevin Folta (the show will be published tomorrow) about some of his experiences with anti-GMO activists who have no problem making up the science to advance their ideological agenda. The more I look into anti-GMO activism the more I realize that the anti-vaccine movement has nothing on them when it comes to pseudoscience. Their methods are identical. The only real difference is that anti-GMO propaganda is much more mainstream.

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Jul 30 2015

Big Data and Personalized Medicine

Jun Wang, a famous Chinese geneticist, announced that he is going to shift his career into developing an AI (artificial intelligence) system that correlates genetics, behavior, and environmental factors with personal health. The goal is to provide individual recommendations about health and lifestyle based upon those factors.

In this case AI does not refer necessarily to a self-aware computer but just an intelligent system, like the AI that determines the behavior of characters in video games, or that won Jeopardy against human champions.

The real centerpiece of Wang’s vision is the data. He wants to build a database including the genomics data from one million people (and eventually much more), and correlate those genetic factors with lifestyle, environment, and health. What he is proposing, essentially, is using big data and AI systems to take the next step in personalized medicine.

Personalized medicine is currently a popular buzzword – you will find it frequently on alternative medicine sites. This is not because CAM practitioners are ahead of the curve. Rather, they latch onto the latest concepts and then make up the details as they go. It’s easy when you don’t have to do actual research or be science-based.

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