Friday, January 30, 2004

They Weren't Kidding When They Said No Blood for Oil

All those anti-war people kept screaming "No Blood for Oil" with regards to Operation Iraqi Freedom. Well, what they meant was they didn't want U.S. troops and Iraqi freedom fighters to shed their blood removing Saddam because then they'd have to give up their bloated oil bribes. Zeyad from Healing Iraq has a list of the individuals and entities that received oil bribes under Saddam's regime in violation of international law. Let's see...who received the most? Looks like Russia (even the Orthodox church!) benefited the most by far, but so did France, China, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Indonesia,Turkey, Ukraine, etc. etc. Well, color me surprised.

Update: Here's a link to an article in the Weekly Standard that discusses the links between Scott Ritter, former U.N. arms inspector, and Saddam's blood money.

Thursday, January 29, 2004

A Sociological Case Against Gay Marriage

I was listening to Dr. Laura by some fluke on the way back from judging a science fair yesterday when I heard her mention an interesting article on marriage in the Weekly Standard, The Death of Marriage in Scandenavia. Here's some of the choice bits:
MARRIAGE IS SLOWLY DYING IN SCANDINAVIA. A majority of children in Sweden and Norway are born out of wedlock. Sixty percent of first-born children in Denmark have unmarried parents. Not coincidentally, these countries have had something close to full gay marriage for a decade or more. Same-sex marriage has locked in and reinforced an existing Scandinavian trend toward the separation of marriage and parenthood. The Nordic family pattern--including gay marriage--is spreading across Europe. And by looking closely at it we can answer the key empirical question underlying the gay marriage debate. Will same-sex marriage undermine the institution of marriage? It already has.

Now I'm kind of conflicted about gay marriage. On the one hand, I think that people should have religious freedom including the freedom not to believe in the sinfulness of homosexuality, fornication, etc. But on the other hand, I feel that legalizing gay marriage would further weaken families in general and thus affect the stability of our society. I mean not everyone can perform every sort of religious practice based on the first amendment. For example, I cannot smoke marijuana and claim that it's part of my religion when the cops bust me. Mormons in the late 1800's could not practice polygamy, although it was part of a strong religious belief. I think that sometimes the government has a compelling interest in defining things like marriage and what constitutes free speech if some types of marriage and free speech would be harmful to children and society in general.

SCANDINAVIA has long been a bellwether of family change. Scholars take the Swedish experience as a prototype for family developments that will, or could, spread throughout the world. So let's have a look at the decline of Swedish marriage.

In Sweden, as elsewhere, the sixties brought contraception, abortion, and growing individualism. Sex was separated from procreation, reducing the need for "shotgun weddings." These changes, along with the movement of women into the workforce, enabled and encouraged people to marry at later ages. With married couples putting off parenthood, early divorce had fewer consequences for children. That weakened the taboo against divorce. Since young couples were putting off children, the next step was to dispense with marriage and cohabit until children were desired. Americans have lived through this transformation. The Swedes have simply drawn the final conclusion: If we've come so far without marriage, why marry at all? Our love is what matters, not a piece of paper. Why should children change that?

Now that type of attitude is frankly scary. It sounds like children are just some kind of fashion accessory, mother and father optional. I come from a broken home. My parents have both been married multiple times. My siblings and I still carry scars from these experiences. We learned well that the happiness of one's children doesn't matter as much the happiness of the parents. And we also learned that children are expendable because if you mess up with one batch, heck, you might as well make a few more and try again.
Two things prompted the Swedes to take this extra step--the welfare state and cultural attitudes. No Western economy has a higher percentage of public employees, public expenditures--or higher tax rates--than Sweden. The massive Swedish welfare state has largely displaced the family as provider. By guaranteeing jobs and income to every citizen (even children), the welfare state renders each individual independent. It's easier to divorce your spouse when the state will support you instead.

The taxes necessary to support the welfare state have had an enormous impact on the family. With taxes so high, women must work. This reduces the time available for child rearing, thus encouraging the expansion of a day-care system that takes a large part in raising nearly all Swedish children over age one. Here is at least a partial realization of Simone de Beauvoir's dream of an enforced androgyny that pushes women from the home by turning children over to the state.

So from this article, I learned that if Americans want to predict what societal effects a certain law will have, just let the Europeans pass the law first, wait 10-20 years, and then see what the results are before deciding to pass a law. Do we really want to see the number of emotionally scarred children increase as a result of divorce or the ending of temporary relationships?

Some gay marriage advocates claim that legalization of gay marriage will strengthen heterosexual marriage. This has not been the case in Scandenavia.

So rather than strengthening Norwegian marriage against the rise of cohabitation and out-of-wedlock birth, same-sex marriage had the opposite effect. Gay marriage lessened the church's authority by splitting it into warring factions and providing the secular media with occasions to mock and expose divisions. Gay marriage also elevated the church's openly rebellious minority liberal faction to national visibility, allowing Norwegians to feel that their proclivity for unmarried parenthood, if not fully approved by the church, was at least not strongly condemned. If the "conservative case" for gay marriage had been valid, clergy who were supportive of gay marriage would have taken a strong public stand against unmarried heterosexual parenthood. This didn't happen. It was the conservative clergy who criticized the prince, while the liberal supporters of gay marriage tolerated his decisions. The message was not lost on ordinary Norwegians, who continued their flight to unmarried parenthood.

Gay marriage is both an effect and a reinforcing cause of the separation of marriage and parenthood. In states like Sweden and Denmark, where out-of-wedlock birthrates were already very high, and the public favored gay marriage, gay unions were an effect of earlier changes. Once in place, gay marriage symbolically ratified the separation of marriage and parenthood. And once established, gay marriage became one of several factors contributing to further increases in cohabitation and out-of-wedlock birthrates, as well as to early divorce. But in Norway, where out-of-wedlock birthrates were lower, religion stronger, and the public opposed same-sex unions, gay marriage had an even greater role in precipitating marital decline.

I'm not sure how this issue should be resolved in the U.S. I personally think some heterosexuals have done much already to damage marriage, but that's not an excuse to weaken it further. Ultimately, I think the choice of how to define marriage should be left up to the citizens of the U.S. to decide. I don't think that a few judges, with their self -ppointed roles of benevolent dictators or guardians of the Republic, should decide. So let a marriage amendment be proposed and let the voice of the people decide.

Update: Here's Andrew Sullivan's response to the article and Stanley Kurtz's response to his response.

Another Reason Why Wearing Deodorant Is a Good Idea

It's known that mosquitos are attracted to their hosts (e.g. succulent human flesh) through olfactory cues, but the exact molecular mechanisms are unknown. In the January 15th 2004 issue of Nature, a research group from Yale showed that an odorant receptor in mosquitos responds to human sweat. The receptor, called AgOr1, is found in female Anopheles mosquitos which transmit malaria to humans. The researchers expressed the receptor in fruit flies and showed that the fruit fly neurons that contain the receptor are activated by 4-methylphenol, a component of human sweat.

I'm guessing that the reasearchers used fruit flies for their experiments because the methods for electrical recording of fly neurons and the manipulation of genes in fruit flies are better established versus in mosquitos. I'm sure this research will add in the design of better insect repellents. They'll contain chemicals that specifically block various insect odorant receptors. But for now, if you live in a mosquito infested swamp, I recommend lots of DEET and Right Guard.

Juicy sweet!

Monday, January 26, 2004

I Love It When Myths Get Busted

Here's a great article on media-fed myths by John Stossel of 20/20, whose "Gimme a Break" segment is the only part of that show worth watching. : Stossel on the Top 10 Media-Fed Myths (hat tip LT Smash).

I love to see myths based on bad science and old wives' tales exploded. Here's one of the top ten myths that has caused the deaths of millions of people.
Myth No. 4 — Chemicals Are Killing Us

In America today, there's this myth that quietly, secretly, everywhere, chemicals are gradually poisoning us. Of course some chemicals, in high enough doses, do kill people.

Americans' fear of chemicals has caused us at times to obsess needlessly about everything from hair dye and dry cleaning to coffee and artificial sweeteners, even though there's no proof that the small amounts of the chemicals in those products have harmed anyone.

Cancer death rates are actually declining in America. But our fear is contagious and sometimes deadly.

Health Minister Jim Muhwezi of Uganda points out that as many as two million to three million people may die annually because of DDT. But not because DDT is bad, but because Americans' fear of it has deprived much of the world of the DDT that could have saved them.

How did this happen? Well, 50 years ago, Americans sprayed tons of DDT everywhere. Farmers used it to repel bugs, and health officials to fight mosquitoes that carry malaria. Nobody worried much about chemicals then.

Today DDT is rarely used. America's demonization of it caused others to shun it. The U.S. government does spend your tax dollars fighting malaria in Africa, but it will not spend a penny on DDT.

The result has been a huge resurgence of malaria. More than 50 people million have died — most children — since the U.S. banned DDT.

"If it's DDT, it must be awful. And that's fine if you're a rich, white environmentalist," says Amir Attaran, a scientist leading a campaign urging the use of DDT to fight malaria. "It's not so fine if you're a poor black kid who's about to lose his life from malaria."

The U.S. Agency for International Development defends its approach saying its programs are as effective as DDT. Yet, it fights malaria with drugs that the government's own Web site admits fail up to 80 percent of the time. USAID acknowledges DDT is safe as currently used, but won't pay for it.

Read the rest.

Unfortunately, nothing works as well as DDT for killing mosquitos. I live in North Texas and in the past few years there has been a dramatic rise in cases of West Nile virus every summer. You can't go outside without repellent and this is a disease which is not indigenous to the area. I'm sure a little DDT would go a long way to getting rid of West Nile.

Update: The word of the day is swivet which means a state of anxiety or tizzy. The mention of DDT causes a swivet amongst envirowackos. Hee-hee!

Friday, January 23, 2004

Wacky Science - Russian Study Says Red Sea Parting Was Possible

Apparently, a study published by Russian mathematicians concludes that the parting of the Red Sea by Moses was possible according their calculations.

Study: Red Sea parting was possible - (United Press International)
The study, published in the Bulletin of the Russian Academy of Sciences, focused on a reef that runs from the documented spot where the Jews escaped Egypt, which in Biblical times, was much closer to the surface, according to Naum Volzinger, a senior researcher at St. Petersburg's Institute of Oceanology, and a colleague based in Hamburg, Alexei Androsov.

The mathematicians calculated the "strong east wind that blew all that night" mentioned in the Bible needed to blow at a speed of 67 miles per hour to make the reef, said Volzinger, who specializes in ocean phenomena, flooding and tidal waves.

"It would take the Jews -- there were 600,000 of them -- four hours to cross the 4.2-mile reef that runs from one coast to another. Then, in half an hour, the waters would come back," he said.

The Egyptian army that followed them drowned in the sea.

"I am convinced that God rules the Earth through the laws of physics," Volzinger told the Times.

I also believe that there are scientific explanations for miracles, but that it takes time for us to figure them out. Never say something is impossible, because it's only improbable.

Go Chuck!

Thursday, January 22, 2004

George W. Bush Conspiracy Generator

I know I said I was not going to talk politics for a while, but this was just too funny.

Buttafly blog has created a George W. Bush Consiracy Generator that would put to shame. You can choose to generate a random one or you can design your own by choosing the event, co-conspirators, the victim, and the goal. I chose the Jews and Ann Coulter as co-conspirators, the event as Michael Jackson's trial, the victim as the French, and the goal as conquer and got this:

"George W. Bush had Michael Jackson arrested so that The Jews and Ann Coulter could conquer The French."

Heh. I'm adding Buttafly to my sidebar under Wacky Fruit. (Hat tip Lord Kirel from LGF)

Skewering Fly Eyes in the Dark, What Fun!

Some of you may be wondering what it is I've been doing locked away in a dark room all week. I've been imaging fruit fly eye cells (also called photoreceptors) that contain fluorescent proteins and recording the electrical current that passes through them. I do this by literally poking the cells with a microscopic electrode and taking pictures with a CCD camera attached to a microscope. First I have to cut off several flies heads, rip the eyes off with tweezers, and then dissociate the eye cells by pulling them up and down in a pipette tip. After squirting the cells in a recording dish under the microscope, I carefully place a glass electrode right on a cell and gently use suction and a electrical pulse to rupture a hole in the cell membrane. The cells are about 15-20 micrometers (or microns) in length and the tip of the electrode is about 1-2 microns in diameter (see below).

What you see in the picture is an individual unit eye or ommatidium that is a cluster of 8 photoreceptors. The electrode is stuck to one of the cells in the cluster. I can measure the electrical current passing into the cell when light activates sodium channels in the cell membrane. The normal state of the inside of the cell is slightly negative, about -70 millivolts (mV). When the sodium channels open, positive sodium charges rush in and cause the inside of the cell to become more positive. The signal I read out on the oscilloscope looks similar to the one below. The blue arrow indicates where the light flash went off. The y axis is in picoamps (pA) and the x axis is in milliseconds (ms).

I wrote a post earlier on calcium imaging with a picture of a fluorescent photoreceptor here and here.
And there you have it. A genuine electrical recording from a tiny little fly photoreceptor cell. If you are a science geek and want more information on electrophysiology recordings of cell see this link.

Saturday, January 17, 2004

Comment on the Philosophy of Science

I should say here that I don't agree with everything Wade stated in his essay on the Philosophy of Science that I cited below. One thing he said was that there was no such thing as the scientific method. Obviously, through use of the scientific method science and technology have made significant advances over the past 200 years, as one reader (Russell) points out. But according to guys like Quine, the scientific method is not fool-proof because one can never prove anything absolutely based on empirical evidence (see ontological relativity). I like to think of truth as a straight line and scientific knowledge as an asymptotic line which forever gets closer and closer to the straight line, but never crosses it. As science and technology advance, mankind gets closer and closer to the truth, but because of problems like ontologocal relativity, we never arrive at the actual truth. But I'd say we're doing pretty well considering a hundred years ago we were still riding horses and bleeding people as medical treatment.

Update: My philosopher husband, Randy, commented on this article that what I termed ontological relativity is actually confirmation holism or the Quine-Duhem thesis.

My Vote for This Week's New Weblog Showcase

I'm voting for Ivy is Here in the non-political blog category. Ivy is a writer from Dublin and she discusses poetry, short stories, other literature. I like her word of the day feature on her sidebar. Check out her post on a discussion on poetry she had with her significant other, Crows and ravens was yesterday's theme. Maybe she'll inspire me to start writing poetry again. Grad school has a tendency to make the creative side of your brain atrophy and the logical side overgrow. For this reason, I'm no fun at sci-fi movies.

None of the political blogs peaked my interest. I think I'm burned out on politics for the moment. I hope November comes soon.

Anyway, vote for your favorite new blogs in the Truth Laid Bear's New Weblog Showcase here.

Friday, January 16, 2004

This Just In, Most Science Geeks are Guys

An article from CNN cites a recent study shows that just 3-15% of of full professorships at American universities are held by women. Of course, there's a choice quote that imples that sexism is the reason behind this disparity.
"Women are less likely to go into and remain in science and engineering when they lack mentors and role models," the survey said. "When female professors are not hired, treated fairly and retained, female students perceive that they will be treated similarly."

The survey said, huh? I didn't know surveys could actually speak, let alone give an opinion. Anyway, I'm annoyed that the authors of this study didn't explore others reasons behind the smaller number of women in full professorships. Well, maybe they did, but CNN didn't bother to find out what they are. Personally, I just think that many women, if they're even interested in science in the first place (have a high geek factor), realize that all the years of education and hard work don't necessarily pay off financially or emotionally.

Happy Friday!

I've crawled out of my dark hole known as the physiology room long enough to post. If I keep this up much longer, I'll soon be wearing sunglasses at night and hissing "my precioussss fliesesssss." Anyway, I'd like to thank all my blog buddies, especially Denita of Who Tends the Fires for their encouragement. I will probably not be posting as much in the next few weeks since my experiments are finally taking off and I'm working on graduating this summer.

In celebration of Friday, I've taken a really silly quiz (hat tip Denita) to determine what level of hell I should go to after I leave this mortal coil
The Dante's Inferno Test has sent you to Purgatory!
Here is how you matched up against all the levels:
Purgatory (Repenting Believers)Extreme
Level 1 - Limbo (Virtuous Non-Believers)High
Level 2 (Lustful)Low
Level 3 (Gluttonous)Very Low
Level 4 (Prodigal and Avaricious)Very Low
Level 5 (Wrathful and Gloomy)Low
Level 6 - The City of Dis (Heretics)Very Low
Level 7 (Violent)Low
Level 8- the Malebolge (Fraudulent, Malicious, Panderers)Low
Level 9 - Cocytus (Treacherous)Low

Take the Dante's Inferno Hell Test

Yes, I'm a goody-two shoes who just landed in purgatory. Whaddya expect from a Mormon?

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Philosophy of Science or Scientific Facts Are a Figment of Your Imagination

The philosophy of science is an interesting topic. I had no idea there was such a thing until my husband, who majored in philosophy, pointed it out. Here's a great article on the philosophy of science by a college student named Wade A. Tisthammer. I've included a few excerpts, but read the whole thing.

Scientists are unbiased observers who use the scientific method to conclusively confirm and conclusively falsify various theories. These experts have no preconceptions in gathering the data and logically derive theories from these objective observations. One great strength of science is that it is self-correcting, because scientists readily abandon theories when they are shown to be irrational.

This first part had me rolling on the floor. Scientists unbiased? Hah! Fortunately, that was just a lead-in for the rest of the article.
Although such eminent views of science have been accepted by many people, they are almost completely untrue. Data can neither conclusively confirm nor conclusively falsify theories, there really is no such thing as the scientific method, data become somewhat subjective in practice, and scientists have displayed a surprisingly fierce loyalty to their theories. There have been many misconceptions of what science is and is not. I'll discuss why these misconstruals are inaccurate later, but first I'd like to begin by talking about some of the basics of what science is.

Hmm...intriguing. Just who does this fellow think he is saying scientists can't conclusively confirm or falsify theories? And is misconstruals a word?
Science is a project whose goal is to obtain knowledge of the natural world. The philosophy of science is a discipline that deals with the system of science itself. It examines science's structure, components, techniques, assumptions, limitations, and so forth.

Well examine away, Wade. He then outlines the basic structure of science, composed of data, theories, and shaping principles. Data is empirical information about physical processes, theories are ideas about how physical processes occur based on data, and shaping principals are non-empirical factors and assumptions used to shape a theory. This is a good introduction to the scientific method and how it has evolved throughout history.
Mistaken Beliefs of the Scientific Method
Many students (including me) were brought up with a somewhat eminent view of science, or at least a fairly eminent view of science as it should be done. As I have found however, the status of science which most of us were taught may have been a bit misleading. Some ideas of what "the scientific method" is have also been erroneous. This is perhaps because scientists themselves tend to be ignorant of the philosophy of science.[5] Changes have been made in history about what science is and how it should be done.

This is absolutely true. I think it would be helpful if science students were required to take a course on the philosophy of science and logic. I think it would help student realize the limitations of science and to reduce the amount of that goes on in the scientific community.
In the early years of science, the system of acquiring knowledge was viewed as completely objective, rational, and empirical.[6] This traditional view of science held that scientific theories and laws were to be conclusively confirmed or conclusively falsified based on objective data. This was supposed to be done through "the scientific method." Apparently some sort of method was necessary because humans seemed to have a variety of tendencies and feelings that were not very trustworthy, including biases, feelings, intuitions, and so forth. These kinds of things had to be prevented from infecting science so that knowledge could be reliably obtained.[7] Rigorous and precise procedure ("the scientific method") was to be followed so that such imperfections of humanity would not hinder the process of discovering nature.

Yes, it's true that such human imperfections such as Gargantuan Cranium Syndrome often hinder the progress of science.
Shaping Principles
It is evident that theories and data by themselves are insufficient for science to work, and thus other factors are needed for science to operate. This group of factors in the nature of science is that of shaping principles, which can be used to select theories and form the foundations of science. Many assumptions are made in science. One example is the uniformity of nature. That is, the belief that natural processes operate in a fairly consistent manner. This shaping principle is the basis for the idea of natural laws. For example, Newton's laws are said to apply throughout the universe.[33] This is believed even though scientists have not actually tested the laws everywhere in the universe. Natural laws could not exist in science without assuming the uniformity of nature. Other assumptions made for science to operate include that there exists an external objective reality, that our senses are generally reliable, and so forth.

So what makes one assumption or shaping principle better than another? Consensus? "Common" sense?
Limitations of Science as a Result of Scientists (Snicker! -ed.)
Some have pictured the scientist as a completely objective individual who is free of bias and preconceptions, and who is willing to quickly abandon even the most well accepted theory if it were shown to be scientifically inadequate. This belief is not close to the truth.[44] The reality is that scientists are humans, and humans are fallible beings. They have weaknesses just like the rest of us. For one thing, a bias towards favored theories is actually built into all scientific research.[45] (Recall the necessity of background assumptions to make predictions and test theories.)
A related imperfection, and to many a startling one, is a shaping principle called tenacity (also referred to as belief-perseverance by psychologists).[46] Scientists throughout history have shown a surprisingly severe loyalty to their theories, even with theories that are in trouble with the evidence.

Furthermore, this sort of tenacity persists in scientists for rather long periods of time.[47] Why is this the case? The reasons become clear when one considers what scientists do in their field of work. When people put enormous amounts of effort into something over great lengths of time, as scientists often do with their theories, they have a tendency to become attached to it. Scientists in such cases have an inclination to want the theory to be true and it becomes psychologically more difficult for them to reject it as false, even if they are presented with strong evidence against the theory. ...Needless to say, not everyone has been aware of this, including scientists.[50] How is it then that new theories emerge in science? Nobel prize winning physicist Max Planck has said, "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."[51]

Yes, it's true. Scientists become attached to their work and their pet theories. I myself am quite attached to my wee mutant flies and my own theory as to what's going on inside their beady little eyes. But if my theory turns out to be wrong based on my interpretation of the data, oh well. It's back to the drawing board.
However, tenacity is not necessarily a bad thing.[52] Ironically, belief-perseverance is one of the reasons science has advanced as far as it has. This is because scientific theories are not perfect, and the only way to make real progress with a theory is to be committed to it.[53] Virtually every scientific theory has some sort of problems with the scientific evidence; which are sometimes explained away by ad hoc hypotheses, at times there is some waiting for the problems to be eventually solved, sometimes the problems are unnoticed, at times they are simply ignored, and from time to time a theory is kept because there is no better alternative. If science abandoned every theory that had contradictory evidence, science would barely have any theories at all. Furthermore, if a theory's problems are eventually solved, then we have tenacity to thank for preventing the premature abandonment of the theory.

So even though there are some problems with the scientific method, it's the best we got right now. Scientists would be wise to show a little humility from time to time and acknowledge the weaknesses in their various theories.
Another imperfection is that of observation. Because scientists are human, we cannot obtain completely objective observations even if there could be total theoretical neutrality. One time it was believed (because of direct observation) by Thomas Huxley that he discovered a being halfway between a living organism and a dead one. Many other scientists made observations that came to support that view. Later, however, it was discovered to be purely mineral.[55] Over a hundred independent observations corroborated Rene BlondlotÂ’s concept of N-rays, but later it was discovered that there were no such things as N-rays.[56] These are, of course, extreme cases, but it does demonstrate that data are not totally uncontaminated by humans. In practice, data are somewhat subjective. This is because shaping principles influence the data we perceive, and also because of the tendency for the mind to unconsciously fill in patterns based on these notions. Such human contamination is called internal theoretical orientation of data.[57] As a result, totally objective data cannot be obtained.

Here's where peer-review helps a lot. Reviews of experimental results by other scientists can help uncover biases unsupported by the data.
Besides honest confusion of data, there is also deliberate distortion. Often times the scientist who commits the fraud thinks he knows the answer.[58] Some people may have justified faking the data by thinking they were just speeding up the process. Some examples include that of Cyril Burt; a psychologist who forged data on identical twins to support the idea that intelligence was inherited.[59] It is possible this was done because finding thirty-three identical twins who were separated at birth would be a bit tricky. A more famous case would be that of Piltdown man, an alleged missing link in human evolution. This is also an example of internal theoretical orientation of data, because the fraud was an obvious one[60] and yet persisted for over forty years. Of course, these things do not happen all the time, but it should be noted that scientists are not perfectly moral beings either, and sometimes this can have a debilitating effect on science.

There was recently a report in the journal Science about a Korean physicist who plagiarized whole papers from foreign language journals and republished them under his name. Guess he didn't think that some scientists might be able to read physics papers in more than one language. Doh!

Some have believed that science has been successful in acquiring knowledge, yet there really is no way of verifying this. Data are incapable of conclusively proving theories, and we can't exactly read an omniscient "book of truth" to see how often our theories have been correct. Historically speaking, almost every theory in science eventually becomes discarded as wrong.[82] Consequently, there have been so many false starts in science that it would be rather incredible if we were the ones who are finally on the right track.[83] It would be especially amazing considering that the theories that we've already discarded have not even been conclusively falsified by the data. Even so, this is not to say science isn't worth having around.

On the contrary, science provides significant benefits for humanity. For one thing, science has helped us to alleviate the struggle to survive.[84] Whether or not we are on the right track, it seems clear that science is conducive for useful technology. Various aspects of science can be used for the needs of people, understanding ourselves and even our place in the universe.[85] Although there is a very real possibility of being wrong, we can increase our chances of being right through further accumulation of data. Despite all its imperfections and limitations, science may very well be the best tool we have for discovering nature.

Overall, I thought this essay was thoughtful and brought up many good philosophical points. Wade's writing style is a little repetitive and he needs to chop up this essay in to smaller, more concise paragraphs, however. Humongous paragraphs are a pet peeve of mine. Now I dare you to go watch a Discovery channel documentary (especially on archeaology or paleontology) and try not to snicker every time the haughty narrator says "we know x" or "z proves y."

Monday, January 12, 2004

Blogger Blues

I think I've come down with a case of Blogger Blues. You know, when you feel like nobody reads your useless, pathetic blog no matter how much work you put into it, you're bored stiff of the same old Dean this, Bush that, France sucks, etc, and fisking LLL tripe seems unappealing. I need a good laugh and if all fails, take a useless quiz. I found this one via The Anti-idiotarian Rottweiler.

Which muppet are you?

Bunson jpeg
You are Dr. Bunson Honeydew.
You love to analyse things and further the cause of
science, even if you do tend to blow things up
more often than not.

Scientific inquiry, Looking through microscopes,
Recombining DNA to create decorative art.
"Now, Beakie, we'll just flip this switch and
60,000 refreshing volts of electricity will
surge through your body. Ready?"

John Cougar Melonhead

"Quantum Physics: 101 Easy Microwave

An atom smasher and plenty of extra atoms.

What Muppet are you?
brought to you by Quizilla

Beaker was always one of my favorites because I felt sorry for him always being the guinea pig (I like to root for the underdog). I always wanted him to get even with Dr. Honeydew. Some jerk in my O Chem lab started calling me Beaker after I dropped a piece of glassware though. Grrr.....

Update: Frank J. is also great for those Blogger Blues. And I found a great comic strip for blogger geeks called Dork Tower (via Who Tends the Fires). Excellent!

Who is My Neighbor?

"A certain man drove down from New York City to Chicago, and fell among gangsters, which stripped him of his clothing, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead next to his stripped automobile.

And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when she saw him and the BYU bumper sticker on his car, she passed by on the other side.

And likewise a politician, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, seeing the "Proud Republican" bumper sticker, and passed by on the other side.

But a certain registered Democrat, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him,

And went to him, and bound up his wounds, and set him in his car, and brought him to an emergency room, and took care of him.

And on the morrow when he departed, he took out his checkbook, and wrote it out to the hospital, and said unto the nurse, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.

Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbor unto him that fell among the gangsters?

And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise (adapted from the New Testament, Luke 10:30-37)."

Apparently, if you are Dr. Howard Dean or one of his groupies, the above does not apply to conservatives, especially George W. Bush. When I heard Dean's remarks, I felt kind of depressed because it emphasizes the extent of the division in this country. I would have respected Dean if he had said well, neighbors can disagree with one another in order to improve our country or something like that. This presidential race is going to get uglier and uglier. I wish it was over already. Sigh!

Thursday, January 08, 2004

Crazy Biology Poetry

Here's some poems I wrote when I was working for the Animal Resources Center at the University of Utah as an animal technician. Now you know why I stick to working on flies and bacteria rather than cute and fuzzy critters.


Frozen rabbits and mice clink
Together like ice cubes
Gray hallways fill with smoke
From the incinerator.
Primary and secondary burners
Turn animal matter into ash
That falls on my skin and clothing.
Colors it gray like the floors.
A malamute used for testing
Stares at me from the board.
His name is Max.
He’s free for adoption,
"A friendly and beautiful dog."
I open a door
To let the smoke escape
Cold air rushes in.
The smell won’t leave,
Stays in my hair,
Stays in my clothes,
And won’t wash out.

3/8/96 (revised 1/11/01)

An Ordinary Day

The other day
I crushed

a tiny white mouse
beneath the wheels

of the water cart I use
to fill the rat’s bottles

the music was
so loud

that I didn’t hear
it squeak—if

it even made
a sound

Adrienne Hahn 1/9/96

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Evolution and Mormonism

Evolution has been a topic of much debate in many Christian churches, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or Mormon Church). Members fall into various categories: those who reject evolution outright, those that accept some principles of evolution, and those that accept the theory of evolution in its entirety thus far. I fall into the middle camp since I accept some principles of evolution such as adaptation and natural selection, but I find some parts of the theory problematic. However, I believe that the theory of evolution is currently the best scientific theory that attempts to explain how life began on Earth. I also don’t think that the theory of evolution necessarily precludes belief in God.

As an LDS biologist, I’ve taken several courses on evolution and I’ve extensively read papers on both sides of the evolution/creation debate. In this essay, I will focus mainly on the pro and cons of evolution and its place in LDS theology. The pros and cons of creationism will not be discussed here.

Natural Selection and Adaptation
First of all, I have no problem with the concepts of natural selection, adaptation, and speciation. Natural selection is basically the increase in a subset of individuals in a population of organisms based on their increased adaptability to their environment. Adaptation is the process whereby an organism’s physiological structure, function or habits change so as to allow it to survive in new surroundings. I’ve observed natural selection, adaptation, and speciation in the wild when I was working as a fish biologist in the US Forest Service. Several species of non-native trout were planted in Utah streams and lakes many years ago and over time, because of their increased adaptability to their environment, they pushed out the native trout species. I also observed the crossbreeding of farm-raised non-native rainbow trout with native cutthroat trout, resulting in a hybrid subspecies that has characteristics of both species. These are phenomenon that can be observed and documented.

Now where I start having problems is with the beginning of life on Earth and the emergence of today’s creatures from a primitive cell. This part of evolutionary biology relies many on the interpretation of the fossil record, the relatedness of genes, and experimental chemistry based on numerous assumptions about the conditions of prebiotic Earth. This type of science is more speculative because one draws conclusions about collected data without observing the actual processes that produced the data.

The RNA World Theory
The prevailing theory for the beginning of life is known as the RNA World theory. The genetic material within each of our cells is known as DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid, and forms double-stranded sequences of 4 different chemical bases. A related chemical compound also found within our cells, known as RNA or ribonucleic acid, forms single-stranded chains, and is involved in transcription and translation of our genes into the building blocks of our bodies, proteins. RNA is also the genetic material in some viruses. Typically, proteins called enzymes catalyze the chemical reactions that keep our cells running, but some unique chains of RNA have been shown to catalyze simple chemical reactions. Now because RNA is chemically simpler and can act as an enzyme in some cases, many scientists theorize that the first beginnings of life consisted of simple sequences of RNA catalyzing reactions, such as polymerization and copying of other RNA sequences, i.e. an RNA world.

The major problems with this theory are basically questions of organic chemistry and the natural selection and heritability of these molecules over time without the advantages of a full-fledged living cell. I won’t go into details of the chemistry, but I’ll outlines the basic problems that need to be solved in order for the RNA world theory to be more plausible. First, the prebiotic soup was thought to be composed of a mixture of various simple organic compounds, some possibly arriving by hitchhiking on meteorites. Assuming that all the chemical reactions occurred that are needed to form sequences of self-replicating RNA, how are the products of these reactions enriched and selected for when there are many competing reactions occurring at the same time? Second, all the chemical reactions needed for formation of self-replicating RNA sequences from simple organic compounds are highly improbable events. The prebiotic chemical reactions that are thought to have formed the basic building blocks of RNA have not been reproduced the laboratory as of yet. No known natural ribozymes can catalyze template-directed polymerization of RNA, although some have been artificially synthesized and selected for in several labs.1

In fact, the products of these hypothetical chemical reactions are so difficult to obtain (read improbable), that some scientists believe that an even simpler self-replicating system must have arisen first. Some scientists have suggested that amino acid / nucleic acid hybrids called protein nucleic acids (PNAs) or inorganic clays with self-replicating crystals as the first “living” organisms. Leslie Orgel, a prominent biochemist at the Salk institute, believes that PNAs or RNA are still too complicated.

"We want something really simple, like a polymer of aspartate and glutamate [two very similar amino acids]. Anything much more complicated than that is implausible. It's so hard to make RNA. If nothing simpler can replicate, that would be a strong argument for the existence of God."2

But the evidence for these theories is scanty and also left unexplained is how a PNA- or clay-crystal-based organism switched over to a DNA / RNA-based organism.

Another big problem for evolutionary biology is how the random organization of bases of RNA and later DNA coded for proteins that actually did something to increase the “organism’s” fitness. If you throw a jumble of amino acids together, most likely you’ll get proteins that do nothing except sit there in an aggregated mess. To put it bluntly, what we have for the beginnings of life is science’s best guess as to the chemical make-up of the prebiotic Earth and a long string of improbable events that somehow lead to an organism that was able to perform all the biochemical reactions to keep it “alive” and to be able to pass these traits onto its offspring.

After the first living cells appear in the fossil record about 3.9 billion years ago, then I have fewer problems with the theory of evolution. I think it is possible, though not highly probable for modern multicellular organisms to have gradually evolved from single-celled organisms, a process called macroevolution. I have often wondered if 3.9 billion years is sufficient time for modern organisms to evolve from a single cell via natural selection. But calculating the amount of time necessary for evolution of modern humans is a herculean task that involves numerous assumptions as to the rate or rates of mutation, and the ratio of beneficial to harmful to neutral mutations, and the rate of transmittance of mutations to offspring. David A. Plaisted, a professor of computer science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, performed such a calculation3 and concludes that his study neither supports nor disproves evolution based on his many assumptions. Basically he shows that both evolutionary biologists and creationists can both come up with answers to support their theories based on their biased assumptions. This seems to be a major problem in both evolutionary biology and creationism.

Some evidences in support of macroevolution include the homology (relatedness) of certain genes between distantly related groups and the discovery of transitional fossils. Humans share a 47, 63, 15, and 20% homology (relatedness of genes) with the fruit fly, the mouse, baker’s yeast, and Arabidopsis (a model plant organism), respectively4. Transitional fossils are defined as fossils of species that have morphological features that appear to transition between an older and a younger specimen of a particular family lineage. Some persuasive evidence for evolution of whales from four-legged land mammals are the recently discovered fossilized remains of Ambulocetus natans (estimated at 50 million years old) and Rodhocetus (estimated at 46 million years old)5 Both species have strong tails for swimming, but the former has weight-bearing hind legs while the hind legs of the latter are much smaller and useless for walking on land.

Of course, creationists might argue that the homology of genes between distantly related groups and the presence of seemingly transitional fossils supports their thesis that God created life. Homology might be explained by God’s use of the same tools (DNA and proteins) to create different species of organisms. So-called transitional fossils might be the remains of unique organisms that were in no way ancestors of today’s creatures. However, since science has not been able to prove the existence of God, I would not expect that the scientific community would prefer the creationists’ theories. Proponents of macroevolution predicted that transitional fossils would be found and molecular biology has shown that organisms classified as most closely related based on morphology are also most closely related genetically.

Evolution and Mormonism
While many Christians may have a hard time reconciling the theory of evolution and their belief in God, members of the LDS Church may have an easier time based on their unique theology. Although LDS members believe the Bible to be the word of God, they also believe that errors of translation may have occurred or that parts were lost. For example, the Hebrew term for day, yowm, used in the Torah creation account can be translated as a time or an age rather then the 24-hour day as translated in the King James version.6 Furthermore, they believe that the Bible is incomplete because revelation from God to man continues up to the present. More information as to how the world was created may be forthcoming revelation. In addition, some parts of the Bible including parts of Genesis should be read figuratively, not literally. For example, the word “created” in the creation account is could be thought to denote organization of matter rather than creation ex nihilo. Brigham Young, leader of the LDS church in the late 1800’s commented on the figurative nature of Genesis :

As for the Bible account of the creation we may say that the Lord gave it to Moses, or rather Moses obtained the history and traditions of the fathers, and from these picked out what he considered necessary, and that account has been handed down from age to age, and we have got it, no matter whether it is correct or not, and whether the Lord found the earth empty and void, whether he made it out of nothing or out of the rude elements; or whether he made it in six days or in as many millions of years, is and will remain a matter of speculation in the minds of men unless he give revelation on the subject.7

In addition, the LDS church has a different view on the nature of God. Contrary to the traditional Christian doctrine of the Trinity with God being formless and one in three, LDS members view God, his son, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost as separate beings with the God and Christ having exalted bodies of flesh and bone. Joseph Smith also taught that God works in harmony with natural laws, rather than by supernatural means: “True science is a discovery of the secret, immutable and eternal laws, by which the universe is governed.”8 So it is not inconsistent for an LDS member to believe that God created the earth and everything on it, but also believe that evolution may have played some role in the creation. The theory of evolution is man’s attempt to explain the miracle of the creation in terms that are understandable to him.

Leaders of the LDS church have not really taken a stand one way or the other on theory of evolution, except with regards to the creation of man. In November of 1909, the First Presidency of the Church (President Joseph F. Smith and his counselors) released an official statement on the subject of the origin of man.

“…It is held by some that Adam was not the first man upon this earth, and that the original human being was a development from lower orders of the animal creation. These, however, are the theories of men. The word of the Lord declares that Adam was "the first man of all men" (Moses 1:34), and we are therefore in duty bound to regard him as the primal parent of our race. It was shown to the brother of Jared that all men were created in the beginning after the image of God; and whether we take this to mean the spirit or the body, or both, it commits us to the same conclusion: Man began life as a human being, in the likeness of our heavenly Father….”9

This statement seems unequivocal in its assertion that man was created by God, rather than evolving from lower organisms. Yet it does not deal directly with the question of how the other organisms arose. Many church leaders have since seemed to be content with letting scientists deal with that issue. The First Presidency under Heber J. Grant in 1931 stated, “Leave geology, biology, archaeology and anthropology, no one of which has to do with the salvation of the souls of mankind, to scientific research, while we magnify our calling in the realm of the Church.”10 So it seems that the debate between evolution and creationism is really a moot point in the LDS community. For as long as one acknowledges God’s hand in the creation, any theory is fair game.

1 Joyce, Gerald F. (2002) “The Antiquity of RNA-based Evolution.” Nature 418:214-221.

2 Koerner, David W. and Simon LeVay. Here Be Dragons: The Scientific Quest for Extra- Terrestrial Life. (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000) pg.17.

3 Plaisted, David A. “Rates of Evolution.” A Creative Perspective. (Jan. 4, 2004).

4 Lesney, Mark. (2001). “Ecce homology: A primer on comparative genomics.” Modern Drug Discovery 4(11): 26-38, 40.

5 Hunt, Kathleen. (1997) “Transitional Vertebrate Fossils FAQ.” Talk.Origins Archive. (Jan. 4, 2004).

6 “The Days of Genesis for Those Who Can’t Read Hebrew.” Genesis Research. (Jan. 6, 2004).

7 Journal of Discourses, (Liverpool Publishers, 1873) 15: 127.

8 Times and Seasons 4:46.

9 Clark, James R., ed. Messages of the First Presidency, vol. 4. Bookcraft, 1970.

10 Ludlow, Daniel H., ed. Encyclopedia of Mormonism vol. 4. (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1992), pg. 478.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Winner of the 2002 Fiskie Campaigns for His Second Fiskie in Row

Dennis Prager of pens a brilliant piece of satire based on former President Carter's position on the War on Terror.

Jimmy Carter: 'Compassion for Mordor'

OSLO, Norway (Prager News Service, Jan. 5, 2004) -- In a just-published interview with the Norwegian Society for Universal Neutrality (NSUN), former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said that the blockbuster trilogy "Lord of the Rings" is sending dangerous messages to the world's young people.

"For three hours in this latest installment of 'Lord of the Rings,' young people the world over watch my work in the United States and your work here in Europe -- to get nations to disarm, not to make moral judgments about any nation other than America or Israel -- undone.

"We who love peace," the Nobel Peace Prize laureate continued, "have to initiate a campaign to jolt people back to our view of the world. Let's be clear about the dangers. What if young people start identifying George W. Bush with Aragorn or Gandalf, and Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden with Saruman? Even worse, impressionable moviegoers might identify the American war against Iraq and so-called 'Islamic terror' with the war against the Orcs and Mordor.

"Who knows what might happen if enough young people start thinking that war is an option, or that some people or countries can be labeled 'evil,' or that there is something noble about a soldier who kills for a 'just' cause?"

The former president continued, "I hope that the European community, enlightened Democrats and progressives in America begin to realize the potential consequences of this film. There may even be a demand among American college students to allow the return of ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) recruiters to campuses. People might start regarding war as an option.

"When I saw the audience in the movie theater cheer when Orcs were killed, I shuddered," Mr. Carter said, visibly pained. "The message of 'Lord of the Rings' is just plain bad.

"We must do something to counteract this celebration of violence," Mr. Carter said emphatically. "To see even trees fight and kill is enough to make any right-thinking person sick to his or her stomach.

"You Europeans, and we in America who identify with your beautiful values of moral neutrality and pacifism, must create a major public relations campaign against these films. We have to use our access to people's hearts and minds to counter that of Hollywood, which is almost always on our side, but for the sake of profits has produced this reactionary propaganda.

"We have to publicize our vision of what the movie should have portrayed. We have to make it clear, for example, that the proper response to Saruman and the Orcs was for Gandalf and his followers to go to the negotiating table, not the battlefield. And if only the Middle Earth had a United Nations and a World Court, no unilateral war against Mordor would ever have been waged."

Mr. Carter went on to offer suggestions about how to wage a public relations campaign to turn people against the martial messages of "Lord of the Rings."

"Let us get the academic community to sign ads in the New York Times and other journals that identify with our pro-peace vision of the world. These ads would declare Gandalf a war monger and imperialist, and emphasize that the Orcs were not evil, but rather suffered from poverty and hopelessness.

"We also need," the former American president continued, "a major bumper sticker campaign. Every progressive must get a 'War is not the answer' or 'Visualize world peace' sticker to proudly respond to 'Lord of the Rings.'

"The stakes are enormous," the distinguished former president said with great emotion. "If enough people start thinking in terms of good and evil, all our years of cultivating moral and cultural relativism, anti-military thinking, pacifism and internationalism will be jeopardized. And college students, our greatest hope, may no longer accept their professors' view of America as an imperialist war monger."

At the conclusion of the interview, Mr. Carter was asked if his campaign against "Lord of the Rings" had a name. The peace activist thought for a moment, and replied, "Compassion for Mordor."

This story is fictional, but not false.

Simply hilarious. But so close to the truth that it's scary.

Note: Vote for the recipient of the 2003 Fiskie (or Idiotarian award) at LGF.

Monday, January 05, 2004

Forget Einstein, I'm schtoopid!

Frankly I'm getting a little sick of the condescending attitude of the liberal "intelligentsia." According to this guy at the Seattle Investigator, people that voted for Bush in 2000 and that will vote for him in 2004 are either millionaires, charistmatic Christians, or schtoopid (via LGF).

It's increasingly obvious, for example, that none of the so-called theories can explain President Bush's popularity, such as it is. Even at this date in his presidency, after all that has happened, the president's popularity hovers at around 50 percent -- an astonishingly high figure, I believe, given the state of people's lives now as opposed to four years ago.

What can explain his popularity? Can that many people be enamored of what he has accomplished in Iraq? Of how he has fortified our constitutional freedoms with the USA Patriot Act? Of how he has bolstered our economy? Of how he has protected our environment? Perhaps they've been impressed with the president's personal integrity and the articulation of his grand vision for America?

Is that likely?

Um, how about yes?

Granted, there are certain subsections of the American polity that have substantially benefited from this presidency. Millionaires and charismatic Christians have accrued either material or spiritual fortification from Bush's administration. But surely these two groups are a small minority of the population. What, then, can account for so many people being so supportive of the president?

The answer, I'm afraid, is the factor that dare not speak its name. It's the factor that no one talks about. The pollsters don't ask it, the media don't report it, the voters don't discuss it.

I, however, will blare out its name so that at last people can address the issue and perhaps adopt strategies to overcome it.

It's the "Stupid factor," the S factor: Some people -- sometimes through no fault of their own -- are just not very bright.

Gee, since I'm not rich, and I'm not Pat Robertson, that must make me SCHTOOPID!

It's not merely that some people are insufficiently intelligent to grasp the nuances of foreign policy, of constitutional law, of macroeconomics or of the variegated interplay of humans and the environment. These aren't the people I'm referring to. The people I'm referring to cannot understand the phenomenon of cause and effect. They're perplexed by issues comprising more than two sides. They don't have the wherewithal to expand the sources of their information. And above all -- far above all -- they don't think.

Whoah, there buddy. You're going all Frenchy on me. "You stupeed, sillee Amer-ee-can cowboyz cannot posseebly grasp zee nuancees of foreen policee...."

All of the liberal people I know don't bother to try to see the point of view of those of us that are more conservative. They don't take into consideration our religious beliefs, our life experiences, our personalities, or our education. They just jump to the conclusion that if you are conservative and/or Republican, you must be a)evil or b)schtoopid because they don't see how a reasonable person could believe different things (unless you're a terrorist trying to kill us, then it's understandable). Talk about black and white thinking. I have many friends that are liberal and I don't believe that they are evil or stupid. They just have different points of view. Sometimes I think their ideas are dead wrong, but I don't stop being their friend because of it. Come on people, grow up already!

Update: Read iowahawk's hilarious parody of this article here.

Saturday, January 03, 2004

My Votes for the New Weblog Showcase

My favorites from this week's New Webblog Showcase at The Truth Laid Bear are:

Non-political- in cyberspace no one can spit in your eye: a dog's opinion
Thomas links to a hysterical webpage called "My cat hates you" where people posts pics of their p.o.'d kitties. The origami dog relieving himself was funny too.

Self-composed: Banning Smokers
This blog has witty commentary and a nice design. I especially liked his article on Kwanzaa.

Viewing the Media with a Skeptical Eye

Here's another great speech by Michael Crichton on the problems with speculation in the media (via Instapundit).

Why Speculate?
A talk
by Michael Crichton
International Leadership Forum
La Jolla
April 26, 2002

Here's my favorite part:

Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I refer to it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray's case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the "wet streets cause rain" stories. Paper's full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

Who knew Michael Crichton was such a smart guy? Read the whole thing.

Friday, January 02, 2004

Viewing "Pop Science" With a Skeptical Eye

Pop science is one of my biggest pet peeves. You know what I mean. Pop science is medical studies you read about in popular magazines that tell you to eat this or avoid that for better health. It's also those Discovery Channel documentaries such as "The Real Eve," where the narrator blathers on for TWO HOURS about one study of human mitochondrial DNA. There are actors portraying ancient humans walking dramatically into a body of water as they migrate out of Africa. This is Hollywood science. What the narrator doesn't tell you is that the conclusions of this study are disputed by several other research groups. To explain it briefly, multiple but equally valid phylogenetic trees (diagrams that cluster genes based on relatedness) can be developed from the analysis of the mitochondrial DNA markers, some of which don't support the out of Africa hypothesis. The narrator never uses the words theory or possibly. All is presented as indisputable fact and is quite misleading to the average non-scientist.

I ran across this speech by writer Michael Crichton that eloquently expresses the problems that arise in scientific inquiry when theories are based on poor scientific method and consensus rather than rigourous experimental science (via Instapundit). The title is great!

Aliens Cause Global Warming
A lecture by Michael Crichton
Caltech Michelin Lecture
January 17, 2003

Here's some of my favorite excerpts:

...Even as a child I believed that science represented the best and greatest hope for mankind. Even to a child, the contrast was clear between the world of politics-a world of hate and danger, of irrational beliefs and fears, of mass manipulation and disgraceful blots on human history. In contrast, science held different values-international in scope, forging friendships and working relationships across national boundaries and political systems, encouraging a dispassionate habit of thought, and ultimately leading to fresh knowledge and technology that would benefit all mankind. The world might not be avery good place, but science would make it better. And it did. In my lifetime, science has largely fulfilled its promise. Science has been the great intellectual adventure of our age, and a great hope for our troubled and restless world.

But I did not expect science merely to extend lifespan, feed the hungry, cure disease, and shrink the world with jets and cell phones. I also expected science to banish the evils of human thought---prejudice and superstition, irrational beliefs and false fears. I expected science to be, in Carl Sagan's memorable phrase, "a candle in a demon haunted world." And here, I am not so pleased with the impact of science. Rather than serving as a cleansing force, science has in some instances been seduced by the more ancient lures of politics and publicity. Some of the demons that haunt our world in recent years are invented by scientists. The world has not benefited from permitting these demons to escape free.

Absolutely. Science and politics haveindeed become intermingled. Of course scientists are human and therefore are not free of biases. But I think scientists can do a lot better in trying to be objective. One reason why I'm interested in science and public policy is that I think we need good scientists to get involved in public policy to keep the junk science out of it. Politicians need good scientists to give the best data so they can make the best decisions regarding resource management, healthcare, ethical issues such as cloning, etc. What we don't need is a bunch of partisan hacks that practice bad science pushing their agenda on the rest of the country.

But let's look at how it came to pass.

Cast your minds back to 1960. John F. Kennedy is president, commercial jet airplanes are just appearing, the biggest university mainframes have 12K of memory. And in Green Bank, West Virginia at the new National Radio Astronomy Observatory, a young astrophysicist named Frank Drake runs a two week project called Ozma, to search for extraterrestrial signals. A signal is received, to great excitement. It turns out to be false, but the excitement remains. In 1960, Drake organizes the first SETI conference, and came up with the now-famous Drake equation:

N=N*fp ne fl fi fc fL

Where N is the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy; fp is the fraction with planets; ne is the number of planets per star capable of supporting life; fl is the fraction of planets where life evolves; fi is the fraction where intelligent life evolves; and fc is the fraction that communicates; and fL is the fraction of the planet's life during which the communicating civilizations live.

This serious-looking equation gave SETI an serious footing as a legitimate intellectual inquiry. The problem, of course, is that none of the terms can be known, and most cannot even be estimated. The only way to work the equation is to fill in with guesses. And guesses-just so we're clear-are merely expressions of prejudice. Nor can there be "informed guesses." If you need to state how many planets with life choose to communicate, there is simply no way to make an informed guess. It's simply prejudice.

As a result, the Drake equation can have any value from "billions and billions" to zero. An expression that can mean anything means nothing. Speaking precisely, the Drake equation is literally meaningless, and has nothing to do with science. I take the hard view that science involves the creation of testable hypotheses. The Drake equation cannot be tested and therefore SETI is not science. SETI is unquestionably a religion. Faith is defined as the firm belief in something for which there is no proof. The belief that the Koran is the word of God is a matter of faith. The belief that God created the universe in seven days is a matter of faith. The belief that there are other life forms in the universe is a matter of faith. There is not a single shred of evidence for any other life forms, and in forty years of searching, none has been discovered. There is absolutely no evidentiary reason to maintain this belief. SETI is a religion.

...Back in the sixties, SETI had its critics, although not among astrophysicists and astronomers. The biologists and paleontologists were harshest. George Gaylord Simpson of Harvard sneered that SETI was a "study without a subject," and it remains so to the present day.

I agree completely. The paucity of testable hypotheses is one reason why I view evolutionary biology as a weak science. It's impossible to reproduce the conditions on the prebiotic earth, so one must guess and speculate, and make a lot of assumptions.

...The fact that the Drake equation was not greeted with screams of outrage-similar to the screams of outrage that greet each Creationist new claim, for example-meant that now there was a crack in the door, a loosening of the definition of what constituted legitimate scientific procedure. And soon enough, pernicious garbage began to squeeze through the cracks.

Now let's jump ahead a decade to the 1970s, and Nuclear Winter.

In 1975, the National Academy of Sciences reported on "Long-Term Worldwide Effects of Multiple Nuclear Weapons Detonations" but the report estimated the effect of dust from nuclear blasts to be relatively minor. In 1979, the Office of Technology Assessment issued a report on "The Effects of Nuclear War" and stated that nuclear war could perhaps produce irreversible adverse consequences on the environment. However, because the scientific processes involved were poorly understood, the report stated it was not possible to estimate the probable magnitude of such damage.

Three years later, in 1982, the Swedish Academy of Sciences commissioned a report entitled "The Atmosphere after a Nuclear War: Twilight at Noon," which attempted to quantify the effect of smoke from burning forests and cities. The authors speculated that there would be so much smoke that a large cloud over the northern hemisphere would reduce incoming sunlight below the level required for photosynthesis, and that this would last for weeks or even longer.

The following year, five scientists including Richard Turco and Carl Sagan published a paper in Science called "Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Explosions." This was the so-called TTAPS report, which attempted to quantify more rigorously the atmospheric effects, with the added credibility to be gained from an actual computer model of climate.

At the heart of the TTAPS undertaking was another equation, never specifically expressed, but one that could be paraphrased as follows:

Ds = Wn Ws Wh Tf Tb Pt Pr Pe etc

(The amount of tropospheric dust=# warheads x size warheads x warhead detonation height x flammability of targets x Target burn duration x Particles entering the Troposphere x Particle reflectivity x Particle enduranceand so on.)

The similarity to the Drake equation is striking. As with the Drake equation, none of the variables can be determined. None at all. The TTAPS study addressed this problem in part by mapping out different wartime scenarios and assigning numbers to some of the variables, but even so, the remaining variables were-and are-simply unknowable. Nobody knows how much smoke will be generated when cities burn, creating particles of what kind, and for how long. No one knows the effect of local weather conditions on the amount of particles that will be injected into the troposphere. No one knows how long the particles will remain in the troposphere. And so on.

And remember, this is only four years after the OTA study concluded that the underlying scientific processes were so poorly known that no estimates could be reliably made. Nevertheless, the TTAPS study not only made those estimates, but concluded they were catastrophic.

According to Sagan and his coworkers, even a limited 5,000 megaton nuclear exchange would cause a global temperature drop of more than 35 degrees Centigrade, and this change would last for three months. The greatest volcanic eruptions that we know of changed world temperatures somewhere between .5 and 2 degrees Centigrade. Ice ages changed global temperatures by 10 degrees. Here we have an estimated change three times greater than any ice age. One might expect it to be the subject of some dispute.

But Sagan and his coworkers were prepared, for nuclear winter was from the outset the subject of a well-orchestrated media campaign. The first announcement of nuclear winter appeared in an article by Sagan in the Sunday supplement, Parade. The very next day, a highly-publicized, high-profile conference on the long-term consequences of nuclear war was held in Washington, chaired by Carl Sagan and Paul Ehrlich, the most famous and media-savvy scientists of their generation. Sagan appeared on the Johnny Carson show 40 times. Ehrlich was on 25 times. Following the conference, there were press conferences, meetings with congressmen, and so on. The formal papers in Science came months later.

This is not the way science is done, it is the way products are sold(emphasis added).

...At the conference in Washington, during the question period, Ehrlich was reminded that after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, scientists were quoted as saying nothing would grow there for 75 years, but in fact melons were growing the next year. So, he was asked, how accurate were these findings now?

Ehrlich answered by saying "I think they are extremely robust. Scientists may have made statements like that, although I cannot imagine what their basis would have been, even with the state of science at that time, but scientists are always making absurd statements, individually, in various places. What we are doing here, however, is presenting a consensus of a very large group of scientists(emphasis added)"

I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet(emphasis added), because you're being had.

Let's be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results(emphasis added). The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

There is no such thing as consensus science. If it's consensus, it isn't science. If it's science, it isn't consensus. Period.

This is one reason why I am extremely skeptical of the "salesmen scientists." These are the guys (or gals) that you see commonly on T.V., in magazines, in Barnes & Noble. They often water everything down, leave out important details, and promote their pet theories as the gospel truth. Examples include Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, and Steven Jay Gould. I bet you've all heard of these guys. That's because they are good at self-promotion. My mentor is also a gifted salesman.

...Finally, I would remind you to notice where the claim of consensus is invoked. Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough (emphasis added). Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way.

But back to our main subject.

What I have been suggesting to you is that nuclear winter was a meaningless formula, tricked out with bad science, for policy ends. It was political from the beginning, promoted in a well-orchestrated media campaign that had to be planned weeks or months in advance.

Further evidence of the political nature of the whole project can be found in the response to criticism. Although Richard Feynman was characteristically blunt, saying, "I really don't think these guys know what they're talking about," other prominent scientists were noticeably reticent. Freeman Dyson was quoted as saying "It's an absolutely atrocious piece of science but who wants to be accused of being in favor of nuclear war?" And Victor Weisskopf said, "The science is terrible but---perhaps the psychology is good." The nuclear winter team followed up the publication of such comments with letters to the editors denying that these statements were ever made, though the scientists since then have subsequently confirmed their views.

At the time, there was a concerted desire on the part of lots of people to avoid nuclear war. If nuclear winter looked awful, why investigate too closely? Who wanted to disagree? Only people like Edward Teller, the "father of the H bomb."

Teller said, "While it is generally recognized that details are still uncertain and deserve much more study, Dr. Sagan nevertheless has taken the position that the whole scenario is so robust that there can be little doubt about its main conclusions." Yet for most people, the fact that nuclear winter was a scenario riddled with uncertainties did not seem to be relevant.

I say it is hugely relevant. Once you abandon strict adherence to what science tells us, once you start arranging the truth in a press conference, then anything is possible. In one context, maybe you will get some mobilization against nuclear war. But in another context, you get Lysenkoism. In another, you get Nazi euthanasia. The danger is always there, if you subvert science to political ends.

That is why it is so important for the future of science that the line between what science can say with certainty, and what it cannot, be drawn clearly-and defended.

What happened to Nuclear Winter? As the media glare faded, its robust scenario appeared less persuasive; John Maddox, editor of Nature, repeatedly criticized its claims; within a year, Stephen Schneider, one of the leading figures in the climate model, began to speak of "nuclear autumn." It just didn't have the same ring.

A final media embarrassment came in 1991, when Carl Sagan predicted on Nightline that Kuwaiti oil fires would produce a nuclear winter effect, causing a "year without a summer," and endangering crops around the world. Sagan stressed this outcome was so likely that "it should affect the war plans." None of it happened.


What, then, can we say were the lessons of Nuclear Winter? I believe the lesson was that with a catchy name, a strong policy position and an aggressive media campaign, nobody will dare to criticize the science, and in short order, a terminally weak thesis will be established as fact. After that, any criticism becomes beside the point. The war is already over without a shot being fired. That was the lesson, and we had a textbook application soon afterward, with second hand smoke.

Crichton goes on to talk about how poor science in the case of 2nd hand smoke has affected public policy via the EPA, but I'll spare you the details since you are probably aware of them since this is fairly recent. In brief, no studies support the "fact" that 2nd-hand smoke is a severe health hazard.

As the twentieth century drew to a close, the connection between hard scientific fact and public policy became increasingly elastic. In part this was possible because of the complacency of the scientific profession; in part because of the lack of good science education among the public; in part, because of the rise of specialized advocacy groups which have been enormously effective in getting publicity and shaping policy; and in great part because of the decline of the media as an independent assessor of fact. The deterioration of the American media is dire loss for our country. When distinguished institutions like the New York Times can no longer differentiate between factual content and editorial opinion, but rather mix both freely on their front page, then who will hold anyone to a higher standard?

I love it. Someone outside the blogosphere takes the Old Gray Lady to task.

And so, in this elastic anything-goes world where science-or non-science-is the hand maiden of questionable public policy, we arrive at last at global warming. It is not my purpose here to rehash the details of this most magnificent of the demons haunting the world. I would just remind you of the now-familiar pattern by which these things are established. Evidentiary uncertainties are glossed over in the unseemly rush for an overarching policy, and for grants to support the policy by delivering findings that are desired by the patron. Next, the isolation of those scientists who won't get with the program, and the characterization of those scientists as outsiders and "skeptics" in quotation marks-suspect individuals with suspect motives, industry flunkies, reactionaries, or simply anti-environmental nutcases. In short order, debate ends, even though prominent scientists are uncomfortable about how things are being done.

When did "skeptic" become a dirty word in science? When did a skeptic require quotation marks around it?

To an outsider, the most significant innovation in the global warming controversy is the overt reliance that is being placed on models. Back in the days of nuclear winter, computer models were invoked to add weight to a conclusion: "These results are derived with the help of a computer model." But now large-scale computer models are seen as generating data in themselves. No longer are models judged by how well they reproduce data from the real world-increasingly, models provide the data. As if they were themselves a reality. And indeed they are, when we are projecting forward. There can be no observational data about the year 2100. There are only model runs.

Biophysical papers that rely mainly on computer models are generally not given much credence. You won't see them in the top science journals usually, but I have noticed that some papers in these journals seem to be there because they are "sexy" subjects and not necessarily examples of good science.

...Nobody believes a weather prediction twelve hours ahead. Now we're asked to believe a prediction that goes out 100 years into the future? And make financial investments based on that prediction? Has everybody lost their minds?

Stepping back, I have to say the arrogance of the modelmakers is breathtaking. There have been, in every century, scientists who say they know it all. Since climate may be a chaotic system-no one is sure-these predictions are inherently doubtful, to be polite. But more to the point, even if the models get the science spot-on, they can never get the sociology. To predict anything about the world a hundred years from now is simply absurd.

Look: If I was selling stock in a company that I told you would be profitable in 2100, would you buy it? Or would you think the idea was so crazy that it must be a scam?

...I remind you that in the lifetime of most scientists now living, we have already had an example of dire predictions set aside by new technology. I refer to the green revolution. In 1960, Paul Ehrlich said, "The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s undergod will undergoe famines-hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death." Ten years later, he predicted four billion people would die during the 1980s, including 65 million Americans. The mass starvation that was predicted never occurred, and it now seems it isn't ever going to happen. Nor is the population explosion going to reach the numbers predicted even ten years ago. In 1990, climate modelers anticipated a world population of 11 billion by 2100. Today, some people think the correct number will be 7 billion and falling. But nobody knows for sure.

But it is impossible to ignore how closely the history of global warming fits on the previous template for nuclear winter. Just as the earliest studies of nuclear winter stated that the uncertainties were probabilities that could never be known, so, too the first pronouncements on global warming argued strong limits on what could be determined with certainty about climate change. The 1995 IPCC draft report said, "Any claims of positive detection of significant climate change are likely to remain controversial until uncertainties in the total natural variability of the climate system are reduced." It also said, "No study to date has positively attributed all or part of observed climate changes to anthropogenic causes." Those statements were removed, and in their place appeared: "The balance of evidence suggests a discernable human influence on climate."

What is clear, however, is that on this issue, science and policy have become inextricably mixed to the point where it will be difficult, if not impossible, to separate them out. It is possible for an outside observer to ask serious questions about the conduct of investigations into global warming, such as whether we are taking appropriate steps to improve the quality of our observational data records, whether we are systematically obtaining the information that will clarify existing uncertainties, whether we have any organized disinterested mechanism to direct research in this contentious area.

The answer to all these questions is no. We don't.

Crichton then proposes an interesting solution to the problem of mixing policy and science. I don't know if it would work, but it's a start.

Just as we have established a tradition of double-blinded research to determine drug efficacy, we must institute double-blinded research in other policy areas as well. Certainly the increased use of computer models, such as GCMs, cries out for the separation of those who make the models from those who verify them. The fact is that the present the present structure of science is entrepeneurial, with individual investigative teams vying for funding from organizations which all too often have a clear stake in the outcome of the research-or appear to, which may be just as bad. This is not healthy for science.

Sooner or later, we must form an independent research institute in this country. It must be funded by industry, by government, and by private philanthropy, both individuals and trusts. The money must be pooled, so that investigators do not know who is paying them. The institute must fund more than one team to do research in a particular area, and the verification of results will be a foregone requirement: teams will know their results will be checked by other groups. In many cases, those who decide how to gather the data will not gather it, and those who gather the data will not analyze it. If we were to address the land temperature records with such rigor, we would be well on our way to an understanding of exactly how much faith we can place in global warming, and therefore what seriousness we must address this.

Crichton then shows how political science has become by discussing the witchhunt of a statistician, Bjorn Lomburg, who published a book questioning the validity of the studies used to support global warming.

The scientific community responded in a way that can only be described as disgraceful. In professional literature, it was complained he had no standing because he was not an earth scientist. His publisher, Cambridge University Press, was attacked with cries that the editor should be fired, and that all right-thinking scientists should shun the press. The past president of the AAAS wondered aloud how Cambridge could have ever "published a book that so clearly could never have passed peer review." )But of course the manuscript did pass peer review by three earth scientists on both sides of the Atlantic, and all recommended publication.) But what are scientists doing attacking a press? Is this the new McCarthyism-coming from scientists?

Worst of all was the behavior of the Scientific American, which seemed intent on proving the post-modernist point that it was all about power, not facts. The Scientific American attacked Lomborg for eleven pages, yet only came up with nine factual errors despite their assertion that the book was "rife with careless mistakes." It was a poor display featuring vicious ad hominem attacks, including comparing him to a Holocust denier. The issue was captioned: "Science defends itself against the Skeptical Environmentalist." Really. Science has to defend itself? Is this what we have come to?

When Lomborg asked for space to rebut his critics, he was given only a page and a half. When he said it wasn't enough, he put the critics' essays on his web page and answered them in detail. Scientific American threatened copyright infringement and made him take the pages down.

Further attacks since have made it clear what is going on. Lomborg is charged with heresy. That's why none of his critics needs to substantiate their attacks in any detail. That's why the facts don't matter. That's why they can attack him in the most vicious personal terms. He's a heretic.

Of course, any scientist can be charged as Galileo was charged. I just never thought I'd see the Scientific American in the role of mother church (emphasis added).

Ouch and double ouch.

Is this what science has become? I hope not. But it is what it will become, unless there is a concerted effort by leading scientists to aggresively separate science from policy. The late Philip Handler, former president of the National Academy of Sciences, said that "Scientists best serve public policy by living within the ethics of science, not those of politics. If the scientific community will not unfrock the charlatans, the public will not discern the difference-science and the nation will suffer." Personally, I don't worry about the nation. But I do worry about science.

This is also why religion should be left out of science and vice versa. They are two different things. Nothing irritates me more than arrogant atheist scientists that rip on others' religious beliefs or creationists that refuse to acknowledge the merits of any scientific theory other than their own. One can be a good scientist and a good Christian or Hindu or Jew or whatever.