Archive for January, 2010

Jan 12 2010

Endogenous Viruses and “Junk” DNA

Published by under Creationism/ID

A recent report in Nature discusses the finding of a new type of viral inclusion in animal DNA, including humans. About 8% of the human genome is actually comprised of viral DNA – bits of viral genetic code that have been inserted at sometime in the past through a process called endogenization.

Up until now the only source of these viral endogenous elements was retroviruses – virsues that can take their RNA and make it into DNA that can be inserted into the DNA of the host organism it is infecting. Retroviruses then exploit the replicating machinery of the host to crank out more copies of themselves.

So it makes sense that these retroviruses can have their DNA occasionally wind up in the genomes of the animals they infect – which can happen when the viral DNA is inserted into a germline cell (sperm or egg) and then can be passed onto the next generation. Usually cells that are so infected die, but it can happen that a mutation occurs in the viral DNA after it is inserted rendering it non-functional. It is therefore stuck there and gets pass on as “junk” in the DNA.

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Jan 10 2010

Newsweek Article on Rom Houben Case

I think I am getting a feel for the new science news cycle (post web 2.0). First a science news story hits the mainstream media. This can either be a press release that was uncritically passed along as news, or perhaps a local news story that was uncritically picked up by the national media (uncritically being the operative word). Then the science blogging community gets involved. We dissect the story and provide analysis and insight. There is, of course, a lot of noise in this phase of the news cycle, as there are many science blogs of varying quality. But in my experience those blogs that float near the top of aggregators and rankings tend to be high quality.

The second wave of science blog analysis is often just damage control – but this is where the real story is told, often by experts in the field. If the story surrounds a published peer-reviewed article, then we get first hand scientific analysis of the article (noted by the “peer-reviewed blogging” logo). If it is a personal story or claim, this is trickier, as the bloggers often rely upon traditional journalists to do the actual investigation and they can only comment on that investigation. Although sometimes we can add a little investigation of our own (whatever can be done via e-mail or the internet). At times the role of the science blogger is not so much correction as context – putting a science news item into the proper context of the scientific literature.

There also appears to be a third wave – sometimes – back in the mainstream media. It occasionally happens that big media journalists will pick up on the real story being told by science bloggers (and increasingly journalists troll popular blogs for this reason) and will write a follow up story echoing (not necessarily copying – they may be duplicating) the corrections made by the second wave of bloggers to the first wave of reporting. Sometimes they even go a step further, adding some more journalistic investigation. This seems to me to be an excellent niche for the big media outlets to fill.

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Jan 08 2010

Ray Tallis on Consciousness

Published by under Skepticism

Raymond Tallis is an author and polymath; a physician, atheist, and philosopher. He has criticized post-modernism head on, so he must be all right.

And yet he takes what I consider to be a very curious position toward consciousness. As he write in the New Scientist: You won’t find consciousness in the brain. From reading this article it seems that Tallis is a dualist in the style of Chalmers – a philosopher who argues that we cannot fully explain consciousness as brain activity, but what is missing is something naturalistic – we just don’t know what it is yet.

Tallis has also written another article arguing that Darwinian mechanisms cannot explain the evolution of consciousness. Curiously, he does not really lay out an alternative, leading me to speculate what he thinks the alternative might be.

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Jan 07 2010

Chelation Fraud

Published by under Skepticism

Chelation therapy is a legitimate FDA approved therapy for heavy metal poisoning. It uses either oral or intravenous drugs (EDTA – Ethylene-diamine-tetra-acetate) that bind to heavy metals and make them easier to excrete. The treatment is FDA approved for lead poisoning, hypercalcemia, and digitalis toxicity.

However, as discussed in a recent Forbes article, chelation therapy also leads a double life, and at the fringes of established medicine it has been used off label for decades to treat a long list of diseases and disorders. The first target of fringe chelation therapists, such as Dr. H. Ray Evers who was an early proponent, was cardiovascular disease. Dr. Evers won a court ruling in 1978 validating his right as a physician to prescribe off-label medication. However, of interest Dr. Evers in 1986 had his license to practice medicine revoked for gross malpractice.

The claim for chelation and heart disease is that heavy metals cause the build up of plaque on artery walls, and this plaque can be melted away by leaching off those metals with chelation. “Bypass bypass” has been the slogan of proponents of this idea. It would certainly be nice if physicians could perform a lucrative procedure in their office and improve their patient’s health, and even avoid risky and more expensive interventions. Medical doctors (if not heart surgeons) have every incentive to accept and promote the claims of the chelation therapists – except that it doesn’t work.

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Jan 06 2010

Is There a G-Spot?

Published by under Neuroscience

The existence of a G-spot – a special location in the female vaginal wall that is especially pleasurable – has been a raging controversy since it was first proposed about a half-century ago. Now a  new study by British scientists concludes the G-spot is a myth.

Ernst Grafenberg, a German gynecologist, discovered what he believed was a “second clitoris” – a bean-shaped area of the anterior wall of the vagina behind the pubic bone – that could be stimulated to create a “vaginal orgasm.” The “G-spot” was then popularized by Beverly Whipple, who studied the G-spot and wrote popular books about it.

But the very existence of the G-spot remains scientifically controversial. The problem is that there is no clear anatomical and physiological correlate – although there are some tantalizing candidates.

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Jan 05 2010

No Evidence for Autism Associated GI Disorder

Published by under autism

In a recent supplement of the journal Pediatrics is published the report of a consensus panel on the issue of gastrointestinal (GI) disorder in children with autism. This is not a new study and no new evidence is presented – it is a systematic review of the literature by 28 experts from various disciplines. These formal expert reviews are often a helpful way to make sense of a large and complex medical literature on a specific question.

The most significant finding of the panel is that:

The existence of a gastrointestinal disturbance specific to persons with ASDs (eg, “autistic enterocolitis”) has not been established.

In addition they found that there is no evidence for benefit from special diets. About 1 in 5 children with autism are on a special diet designed to improve the symptoms and outcome of autism, usually by removing gluten or casein from the diet, but there is simply no scientific evidence that such diets are helpful.

The alleged link between GI disorder and ASD was started by the now-discredited study by Andrew Wakefield in 1998. He proposed a “leaky gut syndrome” that allowed the measles vaccine to cause an infection which eventually led to the brain damage that causes autism. His research was later refuted and he is now even suspected of fraud. But the idea that GI disorders contribute to ASD was out in the public and took on a life of its own, separate from scientific evidence.

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Jan 04 2010

Another Libel Suit – This Time Against Paul Offit

We are still in the midst of the libel suit brought by the British Chiropractic Association against Simon Singh, and now another defender of science has been targeted by such a suit. Paul Offit, Amy Wallace, and Wired Magazine have been sued for libel by Barbara Loe Fisher, the head of the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC).

Here is a pdf of the complaint.

The subject of the suit is the excellent article by Amy Wallace criticizing the anti-vaccine movement. Wallace was attacked for this piece by anti-vaccinationists – essentially because she got the story correct. Wallace pointed out that the science strongly favors vaccine effectiveness and safety, and that the anti-vaccine movement is dangerously wrong – hurting the public health with their misinformation. The anti-vaccinationists were apparently very upset over be called out by a mainstream journalist. They got a lot of bad press this year, the Chicago Tribune also did a series of articles detailing the dangerous pseudoscience of the anti-vaccine movement. Wallace’s article earned her a place in the infamous baby-eating photo (along side Offit and yours truly) that only served to further embarrass the anti-vaccine movement via the blog, Age of Autism.

The lawsuit, in this context, seems like just the next step in the campaign against Offit and Wallace.

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