Oct 05 2018

Neanderthal Healthcare

Neanderthals were our close cousins. They are the closest species to modern humans that we know of. There is also the Denisovans, which are currently classified as a subspecies of Homo sapiens, but may eventually be classified as their own species.

Neanderthals lived from 400,000 to 40,000 years ago. They spread out of Africa, and throughout Europe and Asia. When modern humans arrived later, there was some clear interbreeding going on – Europeans and Asians have about 2% Neanderthal DNA. In fact a recent study suggests that modern humans specifically retained Neanderthal genes that conveyed improved resistance to European viruses.

The first fossil specimen of Neanderthal was discovered in 1829, although this was not recognized until later. The first recognized specimen was collected in 1856 in the Neander valley in Germany. This was the first early hominid specimen found. Perhaps because of the time it was discovered, our image of Neanderthal is still colored by the notions of the day. “Primitive” was synonymous with brutish and animalistic.

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Oct 04 2018

Evolution Under Attack

As an American it’s very easy to look at issues from a narrow American-centric view (we have a well-earned reputation for this). I am often reminded of this by my many international SGU listeners, and I have had to discipline myself to keep this in mind.

For example, when it comes to teaching science in public schools, I do, of course, feel the most responsibility for my own backyard, but this is an important issue everywhere. But this is an issue in many countries, not just the US. Recent reports indicate that the teaching of evolution is under attack in Israel and Turkey. The Guardian also reports:

This news follows the astonishing statements made by India’s minister for higher education earlier this year. Satyapal Singh claimed Darwin was “scientifically wrong”, and is demanding that the theory of evolution be removed from school curriculums because no one “ever saw an ape turning into a human being”.

India has 1.35 billion people, which is 17.7% of the world population. (China is 1.4 billion, 18.5% – so India and China combined have 36.2% of the world population). I think it’s reasonable to say that it matters what happens in these countries, especially with our increasingly globalized world. Our efforts to curb climate change depend on cooperation from China and India, and having a scientifically literate population will help these efforts.

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Oct 02 2018

SGU Book Releases Today

If you will allow me a bit of shameless self-promotion – my first book releases today:  The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake. (You can find places to purchase the book, reviews, and a schedule of live book-signing events here.)

This has been a two year project, and was as much work as I thought it was going to be. It took about a year to write from first conception, and then another year to go through the publishing process. My final task was recording the audio version, which took two weeks, and I completed just two weeks ago.

The book is intended to be both a primer for someone new to the world of scientific skepticism, and also a thorough reference even for experienced skeptics. We tried to make it as light and fun to read as possible, while also being dense with facts and concepts. Early reviews suggest we were reasonably successful.

I say “we” because I have four co-authors on the book, my fellow rogues at the SGU. They provided some of the first drafts of chapters, although I did the final edit to keep the book in a consistent voice and narrative.

Regular readers here will certainly find the subject matter familiar. The book is largely based, in fact, on this blog, and I thank the many regular commenters here for contributing to the conversation that has informed my writing over the years. Writing a book, however, is very different from writing a blog, I found. Blog entries are stand-alone essays. This book is not a series of essays, as some books are, but rather walks the reader through a continuous narrative. It is framed as an intellectual journey, reflecting on my own journey towards skepticism.

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Oct 01 2018

Cheating vs Loyalty

How people make ethical decisions is a very interesting line of psychological research. Perhaps the most well-known study is the famous trolley experiment. It is a theoretical question, if you are at the controls of a switch that can change tracks, and a trolley is out of control and heading toward five people that it will surely kill, would you switch the trolley onto another track that only has one person on it? Most people say that they will – they will sacrifice that one person in order to save five.

However, if you are standing next to the track and a very large person is in front of you, would you push them onto the tracks in order to stop the train and save five people (just go with the premise for the sake of the ethical conundrum). Most people will say no. In scenario 1 they will sacrifice one person to save five, in scenario 2 they will not. Why?

Conventional wisdom is that people are more willing to passively allow someone to die rather than actively kill them. The outcome matters less than the mechanism – emotionally, at least.

The deeper issue here, beyond this one ethical calculation, is how we make ethical calculations generally. This mainly comes down to conflict resolution – when competing motivations are moving us toward different behaviors, how do we resolve the conflict? We make such ethical decisions on two levels, intuitive and analytical (the two basic modes of thought that have been elucidated in other contexts as well).

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Sep 28 2018

Alien Technosignatures

I have long maintained that one of the greatest scientific questions for humanity is – are we alone in the universe? How common is life, and how common are alien technological civilizations? When we finally reach out into space, will it be empty for us to inhabit, or will we quickly encounter a galactic civilization? What will alien intelligent species be like, and what will that tell us about ourselves?

It is unfortunately likely that we will not have any real answers to any of these questions anytime soon. But that does not mean we shouldn’t look. Recently NASA held a workup to explore possible avenues of looking for alien technosignatures – signs of advanced alien civilizations that we can see from Earth. Some of the participants also held a Reddit AMA.

So – what are alien technosignatures and how can we find them?

The most basic type is radio signals. There has been an effort to listen for alien radio signals for decades, often referred to as SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. The idea is that radio signals are a convenient way to communicate across lightyears, and perhaps an alien world is sending out such signals for others to find. But really, we have been looking for radio signals because we can. It’s like the person looking for a lost item under a lamp post, not because they have any reason to find it there, but because the light is good.

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Sep 27 2018

The New Epistocracy

OK – this is my new favorite word: epistocracy. I first encountered it reading an article about attempts by the Indian government to control what passes for knowledge. It has the same root as “epistomology” – which is the philosophy of knowledge, or how to legitimately separate opinion from fact.

Epistocracy is essentially rule by the knowledegable. It is a relatively new term (the oldest reference I could find was from 2015), and replaces an older term, noocracy (dating from the 1930s). It refers to any system in which voting rights are restricted by some measure of intelligence or knowledge.  The most recent advocacy for epistocracy was by Georgetown University political philosopher Jason Brennan, in his controversial book, Against Democracy.

The idea is that we already restrict voting rights, excluding those who are too young, are convicted felons (in some states), are mentally ill or cognitively impaired, or are naturalized citizens until they pass a civics test. So why have an arbitrary age cutoff, which is presumably to limit voting by citizens who are too young to have sufficient knowledge and judgment? Why not just test civic knowledge and let that be the criterion? Why should someone ignorant of politics have the same right to vote as someone who has invested the time and effort to reasonably understand the issues of the day?

To be clear – I think epistocracy is a horrible idea. I am not the first to point out that any such system would not only be ripe for abuse, it is practically a guarantee. Those in power could set the rules to favor those in power (they already do this – why make it easier). This would establish a self-reinforcing system of rule by a class of elites, with a patina of philosophical legitimacy.

In fact this has already been happening – from the moment, for example, that African Americans were given the right to vote, their political power was limited by epistocratic laws such as requiring literacy tests to register to vote. Voting rights legislation was required to strike down such laws.

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Sep 25 2018

Fighting Back Against GMO Pseudoscience

The organic food lobby has been successfully demonizing safe and effective biotechnology for the last two decades. Part of their strategy is to create a false dichotomy between GMO (genetically modified organisms) and non-GMO. In reality there is a continuum of methods used to alter the genetics of crops that we have been using for centuries. There are real differences among these various techniques, but they do not divide cleanly into two categories (more on this below).

The Non-GMO Project is part of this strategy. You have probably seen the labels, with the appealing butterfly reassuring consumers about the wholesomeness of products. Even when there are no GMO options for a food type, you can get the label. This scam makes money for the Non-GMO Project and is good for marketing. The goal is to eradicate any technology this non-expert and private group decides is GMO.

Now, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation is hitting back. They are a non-profit science think tank whose purpose is to provide non-partisan science information to inform policy. They have submitted a petition to the FDA:

The Non-GMO Project food label deliberately deceives and misleads consumers in violation of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. ITIF petitions FDA to prohibit such labels. The “Non-GMO” Project butterfly logo and label on consumer foods and goods misleads and deceives consumers through false and misleading claims about foods, food ingredients and their characteristics related to health and safety, thus constituting misbranding under the law. ITIF therefore requests, in a Citizen’s Petition submitted to the Commissioner of Food and Drugs, that FDA issue a regulation to prohibit the use of the term “Non-GMO” on consumer foods and goods, and to require distributors of foods and goods to revise their labeling to omit any “Non-GMO” term, symbol, or claims.

This is essentially correct – one could argue that the purpose of the Non-GMO label is to confuse and misinform consumers, in order to extract more money out of them for equivalent or even inferior products.

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Sep 24 2018

Oldest Animal Identified

Published by under Evolution
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Beginning 542 million years ago there was what scientists call the Cambrian Explosion. The name may be a bit misleading, because it is only an explosion in geological terms, taking tens of millions of years. This event refers to the geologically rapid appearance of many different phyla of multi-cellular creatures. All modern phyla (the taxonomic level just below kingdom) are represented in the Cambrian, along with many that did not survive to modern times.

The idea is that once multicellular life appeared, this new strategy was wildly evolutionarily successful, undergoing extreme adaptive radiation. Further, multicellular life evolved hard parts, like shells and bones, that fossilize well. The fossil record essentially turns on at this point, creating the impression of a rapid appearance of many species. However, there are fossils of older living organisms without hard parts, but they are more rare, requiring special conditions for their preservation.

One such pre-Cambrian group is called the Ediacaran fauna, from 571 to 541 million years ago. These are mostly large flat creatures, as if multicellular life had not yet worked out the trick of three-dimensionality. Getting oxygen to deep tissues requires specialized structures, not necessary for a flat organism. Scientists, however, did not know what the Ediacaran fauna were. Were they mats of fungi, or a failed dead-end branch of life wiped out the the more advanced three-dimensional Cambrian fauna? And if either of these two possibilities were true, then were are the precursors to the Ediacaran fauna? Their absence is not shocking, given that they would have been entirely soft creatures, but still, it would be nice to find some evidence of the lead up to the Cambrian.

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Sep 21 2018

Croydon Cat Killer Found

You know, investigating can be difficult. There are many pitfalls, and it is easy to fool yourself, even when others are not trying to fool you. Critical thinking skills are indispensable to any investigative endeavor – along with specific domain knowledge.

Case in point – the mysterious case of the Croydon Cat Killer. For three years the mystery mutilator killed pet cats, eviscerated them, removed their heads and tails, and deposited the remains on display. Tabloids warned that the perpetrator would likely soon move onto humans. Veterinary pathologists and the metropolitan police were flummoxed. PETA offered a reward, and detectives from South Norwood Animal Rescue and Liberty (SNARL) found evidence of human involvement.

Investigators even worked up a profile of the likely suspect (40, male, problems with women, etc.).

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Sep 20 2018

The Chinese Medicine Gestapo

In China, don’t criticize traditional Chinese medicine, that is, if you want to stay out of jail.

Tan Qindong, an anaesthesiologist in Guangzhou, did what I and a lot of my SBM colleagues do – he wrote an article explaining to the public that a popular snake oil cure-all was – snake oil. For his troubles, he was jailed for almost 100 days, and forced to apologize. He had to admit that he was “not thinking clearly” when he defended science and the health of his patients against pseudoscience.

The company, Hongmao, not only filed the legal complaint but sued him in civil court. They then dropped their suit after Tan Qindong apologized.

Tan was jailed on an apparently seldom used law against damaging a company’s reputation. That would make consumer protection a little difficult in China. The government, however, is increasing its crackdown on any criticism, or expression of civil rights.

For example, Zhou Shifeng, director of Beijing’s Fengrui law firm, was jailed for 7 years for his part in exposing the baby formula scandal. Two people were executed as scapegoats for the practice of adding melamine to baby formula to fool tests assessing the amount of protein in the formula. But the Chinese government doesn’t like activists, and is doing a thorough job of squelching any criticism, no matter how legitimate.

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