22
Jul
14

Why Are We Still Arguing About Evolution


scopes-trial-cartoon89 years ago this week, a jury in Dayton, Tennessee convicted substitute science teacher John Scopes of violating the Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of “any theory that denies the story of the Divine

Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” Scopes was convicted of violating the act by teaching evolution and fined $100. That

John Scopes being arrested for teaching evolution.

John Scopes being arrested for teaching evolution.

conviction was later overturned on a technicality, but it would take 42 years for the Butler Act to be repealed.  Of course, that didn’t settle the matter. To this day, biblical literalists have been trying, to the dismay of biologists everywhere, to deny evolution and have Creationism taught in the classroom.

This begs a number of questions. First of all, why do these religious zealots have it in for biology? Just because some people believe that the world rests upon the back of a cosmic turtle, doesn’t mean that anyone is calling for legislation banning the teaching of planetary motion in physics classes. The Bible talks about Jesus changing water into wine, but nobody demands that chemistry textbooks be changed in accordance with that. It also teaches that Moses parted the Red Sea, but the publishers of oceanography books don’t seem to be under much pressure to cover it. Why does Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection merit such special attention? What put such a biblical bee in their bonnets? I don’t have an answer for that one.

scopes_trial_0210The second, and more important question is, why not teach creationism alongside evolution? That one’s easy to answer. It would utterly destroy science. That sounds hyperbolic, but it’s not. Science depends upon evaluating evidence. If we allow science students to simply ignore the evidence they don’t like or that contradicts their beliefs, it undermines the entire scientific method.

It also contradicts the entire language of science. Many Creationists will argue that evolution is only a theory, without any clue of how scientists actually use the word theory. Contrary to its use in common speech, a theory is not simply a guess. Even what scientists call a hypothesis isn’t just a guess. A hypothesis is a specific testable prediction. For instance, Darwin made a hypothesis when he said that if populations of animals and plants change over time, we should be able to see those changes in the fossil record. If we couldn’t see those changes, the hypothesis would have been disproven and Darwin would have had to go back to the drawing board and come up with a new hypothesis. He didn’t.

SCO_EVOLThe word theory, as scientists use it, refers to a well-researched explanation for something that is supported by large quantities of data, and can stand up to rigorous attempts to question or undermine it. Evolution has passed that test. It has, not simply a few pieces of evidence supporting it, but literally mountains of evidence. For over a hundred and fifty years it has withstood every challenge.

There have been minor changes, for instance, Darwin thought that evolution occurred over a long period at a constant rate. Today we know that it can occur suddenly over a relatively short period, what scientists call punctuated equilibrium, but in spite of that, the central tenet of Darwin’s theory remains intact. When the environment changes, organisms with advantages that help them survive are more likely to survive and pass those advantages on to their young. Those without the beneficial advantages go extinct. You can imagine that this is a natural phenomenon or that God designed this mechanism, but whether or not it happens is not up for debate.

03
Jul
14

Ebola Outbreak has Killed Nearly 500 People

Health workers carry the body of an Ebola virus victim in Kenema, Sierra Leone, June 25, 2014.  REUTERS/Umaru Fofana

Health workers carry the body of an Ebola virus victim in Kenema, Sierra Leone, June 25, 2014. REUTERS/Umaru Fofana

The West African countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia are currently in a confirmed outbreak of the disease known as Ebola. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) as of Wednesday, July 2, 763 people were known to be infected and there had been 468 fatalities. The first cases began appearing in south-east Guinea back in February. By March, it had spread to Liberia, and in May, Sierra Leone confirmed that it too had cases of the disease. In June Medicins Sans Frontieres, also known as Doctors Without Borders, declared the outbreak “out of control.”

The first reported cases of Ebola appeared in 1976 in the Democratic Republic of Congo along the Ebola River. It was first brought to the attention of much of the public with the publication of Richard Preston’s book The Hot Zone in 1993. Caused by a virus,

Source: World Health Organization.

Source: World Health Organization.

it does not respond to antibiotics. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) the early symptoms resemble the flu with fever, headache, weakness, joint and muscle aches and loss of appetite. It can progress to include vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain and both internal and external bleeding. Symptoms can appear anywhere from 2 days to 3 weeks after infection. There is no known cure, and the disease typically kills 9 out of 10 people infected.

It is considered highly contagious and is spread by direct contact with body fluids. Healthcare workers treating victims of the disease are at particular risk of infection. One factor contributing to the rapid spread of the disease may be traditional West African burial practices, which involve the body of the deceased being washed by hand by members of his or her family.

Misinformation and fear are also aiding the spread of the disease. Liberia’s deputy health minister, Bernice Dahn was quoted by Reuters News Agency as saying, “In Liberia, our biggest challenge is denial, fear and panic. Our people are very much afraid of the disease.” She went on to explain, “People are afraid but do not believe that the disease exists and because of that people get sick and the community members hide them and bury them, against all the norms we have put in place,”

WHOWest African health ministers from affected and surrounding countries are currently meeting in Ghana to develop a regional plan to deal with the outbreak. On Friday, the WHO issued a warning to the neighboring countries of Male, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Guinea Bissau to be on the lookout for infected people spreading the disease into their countries. Dr. Bart Janssens, director of operations for MSF told reporters, “The WHO, the affected countries, and neighboring countries must deploy the resources necessary for an epidemic of this scale. In particular, qualified medical staff needs to be made available, training in how to treat Ebola needs to be organized, and awareness-raising activities among the population need to be stepped up.”

08
Aug
13

Mega Whoops

Image

In the interest of full disclosure, let me just say up front that Megalodons are awesome. I mean, what could be cooler than a shark similar to the great white, but three times the size, who fed on whales? They may have been the single scariest predator to ever swim the seas, armed with the most powerful jaws of any creature that ever lived. These remarkable animals are more than interesting enough to hold the interest of an audience who wants to hear about real scientific discoveries. They don’t need an agent or a publicist or a script writer who thinks that Sharknado was just a titch too academic.

megalodon-shark

Megalodon in comparison to T-rex.

The Discovery Channel apparently didn’t realize this. In a craven attempt to get their Shark Week off with a bang, they presented a 2 hour-long show called Megalodon: The Monster Shark Live. Right off the bat let me point out that these magnificent creatures aren’t live. They went extinct approximately 1 to 2 million years ago, and there is no credible evidence that they’ve been swimming around any more recently than that. The Discovery Channel didn’t let a little thing like that stand in the way?

 

They presented a plethora of “scientists” who claimed otherwise, and gave accounts of “real-life” encounters with the beast. These included supposed camera phone video taken by passengers aboard a charter boat attacked and sunk by the prehistoric monster. As the footage ends, the narrator informs the audience that the bodies were never found. Later, the scientist excavated a fossilized Megalodon tooth they claim was intermingled with the fossil skeleton of a whale that the shark killed. The fossilization process was so complete, that not only was the tooth completely intact, but it appeared to come out of the ground already polished.

megalodonWhy would any respectable scientist lend his or her name to such a sensationalistic piece of coprolite? Well, they didn’t. It turns out that the experts in the show weren’t scientists, respectable or otherwise. They were actors. There were no real scientists involved. No research was performed. The entire thing was what’s known as a mockumentary, a work of fiction presented to make it seem like a real documentary. Hey, I love This is Spinal Tap as much as the next guy, but if that’s the kind of thing the Discovery Channel wanted to do for entertainment purposes, then they should have been more up front about it.

Discovery_Channel_logo_800w_600hThat’s not what they did. Discovery Communications, which owns the Discovery Channel, along with The Learning Channel, Animal Planet and the Science Channel and bills itself as “the world’s #1 non-fiction media company,” foisted this thing upon the public as if it were an actual documentary. Yes, they did have a disclaimer, but It came during the end credits, and was just explicit enough to cover their asses, but vague enough to let anyone without a law or science degree think the Megalodon they nick named “Submarine” might still be swimming around out there ready to munch on any unwary charter boats to come its way. Here is their disclaimer.

 “None of the institutions or agencies that appear in the film are affiliated with it in any way, nor have approved its contents. Though certain events and characters in this film have been dramatized, sightings of ‘Submarine’ continue to this day. Megalodon was a real shark. Legends of giant sharks persist all over the world. There is still debate about what they might be.”

Is that clear enough for you? The deception was so complete that after the show aired, the Discovery Channel had the gall to do its own on-line poll, and surprise, more than 70% of the respondents who watched said they believed there was evidence that Megalodon was still alive. When confronted with a social media barrage by outrage viewers who knew better, the producers defended the show and the way it was presented. They did, however, remove the poll. This isn’t the first time the company has tried to pull the wool over the eyes of its viewers. These are the same folks who aired Mermaids: The Body Found on Animal Planet.

children_tvFor any company to broadcast material like this under false pretenses is unethical. For the Discovery Channel and its partners to perpetrate this sort of fraud is unforgivable. Not only do millions of viewers tune in to watch what they believe is real information about real creatures, but millions of parents consider it educational, and let their children watch specifically because they think it will help their kids learn something. Apparently what they were supposed to learn is that ratings count more than science, advertising trumps ethics and, “there’s a sucker born every minute.”

14
Jul
13

Rising Waters and Flat Earthers

20120626-floating-worldDo you remember back when owning ocean front property was a good thing? Most of us had the dream of looking out our windows and seeing endless waves lapping at our doorstep. That’s one of the reasons 39% of Americans live near the ocean. 123 million of us call coastal counties home. Now we’re learning that ocean front property might not be such a good thing. Rising sea levels are rapidly turning that ocean front view into a front row seat for a looming disaster.

The current issue of Rolling Stone paints a bleak picture of the future facing Miami. With a population of 430,000, Miami is looking at the same rising waters of many coastal cities, but its particular geography is making the problem more acute. First of all, it’s flat. I mean really flat. Most of the city is no more than 5 feet above sea level. The highest point in the city is a ridge, only 12 feet above sea level. On top of that, Miami residents not only have to worry about water coming from the Atlantic on the East, they also have to worry about it coming in from Biscayne Bay on the West.

SLR_MiamiDade_3foot“Why not just build dikes like the Dutch do?” It’s a good question, but the answer isn’t that simple. First, building what amounts to a wall to hold back the sea is hideously expensive. In some ways, Miami is similar to the Dutch resort city of Scheveningen. Engineers there created an elaborate dike to protect the city; at a cost of $100 million dollars, but that project is only a half-mile long. Miami is closer to 7 miles, and that’s just on the ocean side. If you want to protect the bayside too, double it. The other problem is that Miami is not Schheveningen. The two cities have radically different geology. The Dutch city sits on impermeable bedrock. Miami sits on very permeable limestone. It’s a porous layer that water flows easily through. No matter how high you build the wall, the sea water will just seep under it and flood the city anyway. Harold Wanless, the chairman of the department of geological sciences at the University of Miami summed up the situation. “Miami, as we know it today, is doomed. It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when.”

image[5]That dreary prognosis is shared by a lot of cities, particularly those farther north along the East Coast. According to a report titled Nature Climate Change by the U.S. Geological Survey, sea level rise is increasing three to four times faster along a heavily-populated 600-mile stretch from Cape  Hatteras, NC to north of Boston than it is globally. There are several reasons. First, the Gulf Stream that runs off our Atlantic seaboard pulls a considerable volume of water along with it, and away from our coast. As the climate changes, we’re seeing evidence that the Gulf Stream is slowing down. The slower it gets, the less water is pulls away, and the higher the sea level rises along our shores.

The second factor brings us back to geology again. The land along the East Coast was pushed up dramatically during the last ice age by the weight of the glaciers pushing southward. When the glaciers retreated, the land began to slowly return to its original elevation. It’s been doing this ever since, and it’s still sinking. Rising sea levels and sinking land do not equal a happy future for the millions of Americans who live in this region.

now-see-what-the-east-coast-will-look-like-if-sea-levels-riseWe’re already seeing the effects. Scientists are still debating how much of Hurricane Sandy was caused by global warming, but no one is arguing the fact that sea level in New York is a foot higher than it was a century ago, and that the damage wouldn’t have been as severe if the storm surge hadn’t come on top that. In my home state of Maryland, between the ocean and the Chesapeake Bay, we’ve got over 3,000 miles of coast line that are vulnerable. Our southern neighbor, Virginia, is just as vulnerable. All up and down much of the East Coast, the story is the same.

That’s why many of us were cautiously optimistic when President Obama made his most recent climate speech. He spoke forcefully about the need to reduce our carbon production, and laid out concrete steps his administration has taken. He also condemned those standing in the way, saying. “I don’t have much patience for anyone who denies that this challenge is real. We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society.” Along with this, he proposed ways to get around the flat earthers in Congress by using regulations and executive orders to increase our fuel efficiency standards, invest in alternative energy sources and dramatically lower our carbon production.

Barack Obama speech on climate change

President Obama speaking in Georgetown.

It was a good speech, but follow-up is everything. Even as he was laying out his dramatic goals, Obama left some things conveniently vague. For instance, he pledged that within the next 7 years, the U.S. government would generate 20% of its electricity from renewable sources. It’s a noble goal, but he neglected to mention that he’s only going to be around for the first half, and if his successor is a Republican it could all be easily undone. He’s also still playing coy on the issue of the Key Stone pipeline.

Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward.

It sounds good, but he left himself an easy out if someone in his administration can satisfy him that it won’t exacerbate carbon pollution. The State Department has already said as much.

Now that the president has made a public commitment to reducing carbon emissions and fighting global warming, it’s up to voters to hold his feet to the fire and see that he actually does it. If he tries to satisfy both the environmentalist and the climate deniers by making pro-environment pronouncements in public, but privately letting projects that make the problem worse, like Key Stone, go ahead, Americans have to make it clear that they won’t stand for it.sea_level_rising_371845

15
Jun
13

The STEM Gender Gap: Monday

middayheaderAlthough studies have shown that females are just as competent as their male counterparts in math and science, they represent only a small fraction of the U.S. science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce. This hour, we’ll look at the STEM gender gap with Midday on Science contributor John Monahan; University of Maryland Baltimore County psychology professor Nicole Else-QuestSuzanne Jenniches, former vice president and general manager of government systems at Northrop Grumman Corp.; and Sridevi Sarma, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at The Johns Hopkins University. Women-in-Science

 

Midday with Dan Rodricks: The Stem Gender Gap

 

Do you think there is a significant gender gap in science and technology? What can be done about it?

11
Jun
13

National Academy of Sciences Soliciting Input on Human Space Flight

space flight 2I just received some interesting email about the NRC looking for input on human space flight. This is a great opportunity to let our voices be heard on an important issue, so please share this, and considering submitting a short input paper of your own.

From: David Brandt-Erichsen
To: nss-board-discuss@nss.org
Announcement of Opportunity to Submit Input to Study on Human  Spaceflight

Deadline is July 9

The U.S. National Research Council  (NRC) of the National Academy of
Sciences is currently  conducting a congressionally-requested study
to examine the  goals, core capabilities, and direction of human
space flight.  This study, which is being carried out by the NRC’s
Committee  on Human Spaceflight, will provide findings and
recommendations  to guide the U.S. human spaceflight enterprise in a
sustainable  manner. The Committee on Human Spaceflight recognizes
the  importance of reaching out to the communities interested in
human exploration and is using several approaches to solicit input
regarding the motivations, goals, and the possible evolution of
human spaceflight. One important source of input is this call  for
short papers from communities around the world with an  interest in
human spaceflight.

The Committee on Human  Spaceflight invites interested individuals
and groups to submit  input papers describing their own ideas on the
role of human  spaceflight and their vision for a suggested future.
In  developing their papers, respondents are asked to carefully
consider the following broad questions.

1. What are the important  benefits provided to the United States and
other countries by  human spaceflight endeavors?

2. What are the greatest challenges to  sustaining a U.S. government
program in human spaceflight?

3. What are the ramifications and what would the nation and  world
lose if the United States terminated NASA’s human  spaceflight
program?

In discussing the above questions,  respondents are asked to describe
the reasoning that supports  their arguments and, to the extent
possible, include or cite  any evidence that supports their views. In
considering #1  above, submitters may consider private as well as
government  space programs.

This request for input papers is open to any and all  interested
individuals and groups. For more information on the  committee and
the goals of the study, please see the statement  of task at http://www.nationalacademies.org/humanspaceflight.

Formatting  and Length Requirements

To facilitate document management, the Committee  asks that
submitters abide by the following formatting  guidelines:

• Input papers should not be more than 4 pages in length.  Papers can
include web links to other documents among the  references.

• Use a 10 or 12-pt font with 1-inch margins on all sides of  the
document.

• Use Microsoft Word (.doc) or Adobe  Acrobat (.pdf). No other
formats will be accepted.

•  Authors are responsible for obtaining any permissions necessary to
use, or for the NRC to reproduce, copyrighted material.

• Position  papers must be less than 50 MB in size. For file
management  purposes, please compress your figures if this does not
detract  from the clarity of your white paper. You should feel free

to include hyperlinks to high resolution versions.

• A cover page can be  included (beyond the 4-page limit) that shows
the title of the  white paper, a short abstract, the primary author’s
name, phone  number, institution, and email address, and a list of
co-authors with their respective institutions.

Utilization of the  Papers

All submitted papers will be reviewed by the Committee on  Human
Spaceflight. Note that, because participants will be  self-selected,
these input papers will not be used to judge the  prevalence of
attitudes or opinions within various communities.  However, they will
help ensure that the committee hears about  important issues from
interested parties. The submitted papers  will also be available for
public viewing at  http://bit.ly/13mEg1i. All input papers will be considered non-proprietary for  distribution with attribution.

Submission Instructions

Please  submit your white paper by navigating to http://bit.ly/11edCc8. Clicking on the  appropriate link there which will take you to a page where you can upload your  input paper as instructed. You must agree to the copyright consent form on that  page before uploading your document. Doing so will ensure that your paper will  be reviewed by the committee and that your contribution will be made publicly  available.

Submissions must be made through  http://sites.nationalacademies.org/DEPS/ASEB/DEPS_083343 by no later than July  9, 2013. All submitted white papers will be made public.

 

What do you think? Should we pursue human space flight, or leave it to the robots?

21
May
13

Take a Bug to Lunch: Helping the Planet by Eating Insects

bugonplateTelling someone to eat a bug used to be a bad thing, but not anymore. Now the United Nations thinks we should all be eating bugs. In the recently released U.N. report, Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security, the authors point out that by the year 2050, we can expect the world’s current population of 7 billion to grow to 9 billion. That will require our current food production to nearly double. Making that harder are the facts that most of our fisheries are over fished or near collapse, and climate change will make growing traditional crops and livestock increasingly difficult.

Insects may be a nutritious and economical solution to our problems. They’re almost pure protein. According to the Insects Are Food web site, 100 grams of beef contain 23.5 grams of protein, 288.2 calories and 21.2 grams of fat. An equivalent portion of crickets contains less protein by weight, 12.9 grams, but only 121 calories and a mere 5.5 grams of fat. Unlike beef, pork and chicken, though, the fat in insects is unsaturated and therefore better for us. They’re also a good source of iron, riboflavin, niacin, and many other important vitamins and minerals.

2007-08-20-CattleRaising insects for food is also better for the environment. The livestock industry is one of the biggest producers of greenhouse gasses. Raising cows, pigs and chickens for our tables produces more CO2 and methane than all the world’s cars, busses and trucks combined. Insects produce only a small fraction of that. They also require much less water and food, not to mention land, to raise than conventional livestock. Producing a pound of beef uses approximately 20 times as much food and 1000 times as much water as an equivalent amount of insect protein.

O.K., but bugs? Really? Yes, really. With the notable exceptions of the U.S. and Europe, insects are eaten by people all over the world. Termites and winged ants are considered a seasonal treat in much of Africa. Food vendors in Thailand and Vietnam sell all manner of insectoid snacks on sticks, and Agave worms are in more than just bottles of Tequila. There are even insect recipe books, and innovative chefs all over the country are integrating insect ingredients into haute cuisine.

penaeid shrimp 001If the idea of eating something with an exoskeleton still bothers you, just think of all the weird things we already eat. If you like shrimp, take a look at one with its head still on. You’d be hard pressed to differentiate it from something you’d find lurking under a rock in your backyard. Calamari is a nice euphemism, but we all know it’s squid, and Cajun cooking wouldn’t be Cajun without crayfish. Louisiana natives even call them mudbugs. Those of us who live near the Chesapeake Bay, like I do, know the joy of raw oysters, but let’s be honest. No matter how much lemon and hot sauce you put on it; the dish still looks like nothing so much as snot on the half shell.

eating-insectsDon’t worry about insects being dirty or spreading disease either. They’re actually quite clean, and carry fewer human diseases than cattle, pigs or chickens. The other thing to remember is if eating insects was going to cause massive outbreaks of disease, it already would have. The FDA already allows processed foods to be sold if the amount of insect matter in them is under a certain level. Granted, most of that insect matter is too small to be seen, but if you consider all the processed foods we eat, the average American eats between one and two pounds of insects per year. Get over it.

I’m not saying that eating insects is for everyone. It took me years just to get my kids to try sushi, but as our population grows and our climate changes, we’re going to have to look beyond our cultural biases if we’re going to find sustainable solutions. Eating insects is good for us and good for the environment, and I can tell you from personal experience that they’re a lot tastier than you think, so swallow your apprehensions and give them a try.

So, what do you think? Would you eat a bug? Tell me why or why not.

2005_0727




About Mad4Science

I've always aspired to be a mad scientist. The closest that I have come is being a science teacher since 1997. This gives me an excuse to play with glassware full of bubbling chemicals, electrical devices, creepy and crawly creatures and other cool mad scientists stuff. Along the way, I have tried to convince my students that science isn't a bunch of dry facts to be memorized. It's a way of exploring the universe, of harnessing our wonder, and a great excuse to play.

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