Archive for February, 2014

Feb 11 2014

New Burgess Shale Find

Published by under Evolution

For those familiar with the Burgess Shale, the news of a new “phyllopod bed” is exciting.

A century ago Charles Walcott discovered (in what is now called Walcott quarry) an amazing fossil bed from the Cambrian era. These were soft-bodied fossils preserved in shale from the very dawn of multicellular life, the Cambrian explosion. From 570 to 530 million years ago multicellular plant and animal life appeared in fossils and diversified. Every major group we see today is represented in Cambrian fossil beds, along with phyla that are now extinct. Walcott Quarry is by far the most prolific and best preserved such fossil bed.

Now researchers report on the discovery of another fossil bed 40 km southeast of the Walcott quarry, in Kootenay National Park. The report:

The assemblage, discovered in 2012, occurs at the top of the Burgess Shale Formation and is significantly younger than the localities of the type area. In situ excavation and talus collections from a two-meter thick interval have so far yielded 3053 specimens representing at least 52 taxa. Among these, half are known from the Walcott Quarry and at least 15 are new.

Wow. This is a massive find from somewhat later in the Cambrian, perhaps showing even more early diversity of multicellular life. Already they are finding new species and more details about known species. It may be a little early to speculate, but the researchers feel that this find could be even bigger than the Walcott Quarry.

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Feb 10 2014

Anti-Flu Vaccine Rants at the HuffPo

The Huffington Post continues to be a venue for all sorts of pseudoscience, alternative medicine propaganda, and anti-vaccine sentiments. Two recent posts by Lawrence Solomon in the HuffPo Canada indicate that the nonsense is international.

His first article claims that the majority of health care workers “resist” or “refuse” the flu-vaccine – therefore it can’t be that great. The second attacks the CDC estimates for the number of flu-associated deaths. Together they demonstrate how a bit of motivated reasoning can seem like actual journalism when in fact it leads to misinformation.

Solomon cites statistics about low rates of flu-vaccine update among healthcare workers:

In the UK, only 46 per cent of health care workers — slightly less for doctors (45 per cent) and nurses (41 per cent) — are vaccinated for the flu, despite concerted government efforts according to Public Health England. This startling failure is similar to that seen in Canadian jurisdictions for health care workers today, and those seen in the recent past in the U.S.

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Feb 07 2014

Questions from the Nye-Ham Debate

Published by under Creationism/ID

There has been a lot of discussion about the Bill Nye-Ken Ham creationism debate from the other night. Questions about whether or not the debate was a good idea, and who won, are probably too overwhelmed with subjectivity for there to be any definitive answer. We talked about it on the SGU this week so you can listen to the next show to hear my thoughts.

One sideshow that emerged from the debate that I do want to talk about came from journalist Matt Stopera. He reports:

I asked 22 self-identifying creationists at the Bill Nye/Ken Ham debate to write a message/question/note to the other side. Here’s what they wrote.

Take a look at the 22 photos – this is not a scientific survey by any means, but probably does reveal something about what the “rank and file” creationist on the street believes. I thought it would be fun to actually answer the 22 questions, since there are likely to be many creationists out there who believe the same sorts of things.

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Feb 06 2014

Fructose vs Glucose

Health conscious individuals have been systematically informed about how important nutrition is to health. This is no doubt true, nutrition is very important. But the nutrition industry, and “natural” health gurus selling vitamins would like you to think that “nutrition is everything,” (in quotes because I have been told that phrase more than once).

Nutrition is important, but it is only one factor among many affecting health. It is not the cause of all problems, and therefore it is not the solution to all health issues.

The overhyping of nutrition, however, creates an obsession with endlessly tweaking one’s diet in the hopes that the perfect combination of “superfoods” will cure all ills and optimize health. The unstated major premise of such claims is that our bodies perform best within very narrow nutritional parameters. It is closer to reality, rather, that our bodies are resilient to a fairly broad range of nutritional parameters. It is helpful to get the broad brushstrokes correct (do not overconsume calories, have a varied diet, etc.), but obsessing over tiny details is likely to be a waste of time.

In the middle of all this is also the ever-present naturalistic fallacy.

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Feb 04 2014

The GMO Controversy

Published by under General Science

The controversy surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMO) has intrigued me for some time, and recently I have been reading everything I can on the topic. It is an excellent topic for skeptics – it is mainstream (not a fringe topic), it has real importance for society, there are complex scientific and logical issues to sort through, and the topic is rife with misinformation and motivated reasoning.

I wrote recently about the fact that beliefs concerning GMO tend to be dominated by two opposing narratives: GMO critics despise corporate control and greed, and fear the unnatural, while GMO advocates see this technology as an example of the triumph of human ingenuity and science. I admit that with regard to this issue my bias is toward the latter narrative, however, I can understand caution regarding huge corporations (the tobacco industry comes to mind).

But, as a skeptic I have really tried to follow a critical thinking process and pull back from my initial gut reactions. Here, then, is my overview of the issues regarding GMO.

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Feb 03 2014

Sharks Eat Life Caps

Mark Cuban is generally known as the skeptic on the popular show, Shark Tank. In the show, investors hear pitches from inventors looking to sell part of their company for investment capital. On a recent episode the sharks were pitched a product known as “Life Caps.”

The product website declares:

LifeCaps is the ultimate solution when food is not an option. Great tasting and simple, you can take LifeCaps with you everywhere you go.

LifeCaps contains the perfect amount of nutrients that work together with our proprietary micro-particulate blend to create a metabolic trigger. This allows your brain and vital organs to utilize the sugars, proteins and carbohydrates that are stored within body fat for energy.


LifeCaps is bioavailable with the vitamins and nutrients that are essential on a daily basis for intake. Through the Krebs Cycle of the metabolization of the body, it absorbs in to the bloodstream within 20-25 minutes of ingestion. Once absorbed, LifeCaps is designed to maintain efficiency for approximately 240-280 minutes (depending on the individual and their circumstances).

In other words, LifeCaps is a multivitamin. It also contains the herb, hoodia, as an appetite suppressant (which I will get to below), but otherwise it is a multivitamin. This is the result of the lax regulations in the US – you can sell a vitamin pill with all kinds of claims and implied claims, say that it’s “scientifically formulated” and market it toward a specific use – when the pill is just vitamins.

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