Upcoming speaking schedule

Over the next couple months I’m going to be making my way from coast to coast. Here’s my current schedule, in case you want to catch one of my talks:

2/19/2011
Thousand Oaks, CA
Secular Student Alliance Southern California Leadership Summit

Then my Spring Break Minnesota Tour!

3/22/2011
St. Cloud, MN
Secular Student Alliance at St. Cloud State University

3/23/2011
Morris, MN
University of Minnesota Morris Freethinkers

3/24/2011
Minneapolis, MN
Campus Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists at the University of Minnesota

Woooooo, partaaaay! …Wait, doesn’t everyone go to Minnesota for spring break? No? Hey, any SSA affiliates in warm states, you know you totally want me to come visit next winter.

I’ll release the specific times and locations for the Minnesota talks once we get closer.

4/09/2011
Boston, MA
American Humanist Association Annual Conference

I may have a trip to North and South Carolina thrown in there, but those aren’t completely set in stone yet.

…Yes, I know, I’m crazy. Also, my PhD is going to take 24 years to finish.

Genetics will not be used to abort straights OR gays

Not because of ethics, necessarily, but because of science.

Genetics is complicated. This is a concept that all non-scientists, regardless of political leaning, seem to have a hard time grasping. I’ve heard liberals who are worried that advances in genomics will result in a simple prenatal test, which bigots would gobble up to make sure they’re not growing the next Ricky Martin or Ellen DeGeneres. This always seemed like a silly fear, since people from the religious right also tend to be not so fond of abortion.

But it’s not just the liberals. Now World Net Daily is worried gays are going to abort straight babies:

If two homosexual men want to use in vitro fertilization to conceive a baby and then use genetics technology to ensure the baby is also “gay,” while disposing of any “straight” embryos, would the law have any ethical problems with that? John A. Robertson of the University of Texas Law School is the chair of the Ethics Committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine and an advocate of what his book “Children of Choice” calls “procreative liberty.” In a paper for the Washington, D.C., think tank Brookings Institution, Robertson presents a futuristic scenario where advancing science and society’s evolving morality could create a once only dreamed-of ethical dilemma:

“Larry, a pediatrician, and David, a wills lawyer, meet in their late 20s, fall in love, and marry on June 15, 2025, in Indianapolis,” Robertson writes. “By 2030, they are well-enough established in their careers to think about having their own child. Larry’s 24-year-old sister Marge has agreed to donate her eggs, and David will provide the sperm, so that each partner will have a genetic connection with the child. … In the process, Larry and David come to realize that they would prefer to have a male child that shares their sexual orientation.” He continues, “The clinic doctors are experts in embryo screening and alteration, but cannot guarantee that the resulting embryos will in fact turn out to be homosexual. To increase the certainty, they will insert additional ‘gay gene’ sequences in the embryos.”

Of course gays, what with their agenda and all, are going to engineer some gaybies! So much more reasonable. Heterosexuals are doomed.

I don’t think you should chose an embryo based on sexual orientation, but let’s put ethics aside for a moment and talk about the science. The ethics debate is irrelevant because the “science” they discuss is ludicrous. As someone who’s studying the “mushrooming” field of genomics, let me try to explain.

Homosexuality almost certainly has a genetic component (1) and has potentially been associated with certain areas of the human genome (2). However, “genetic component” does not equal “gene.” Genetics is way more complicated than what you learned back in middle school – it’s not just single genes with dominant and recessive alleles. You can have multiple genes affecting the same trait, numerous alleles per gene, and interactions between certain combinations of certain alleles between different genes.

If you do find a single mutation that’s associated with homosexuality, it’s likely to be very very rare in humans. If it was more common, we would have identified it a long time ago using traditional genetic tools. Such a mutation would be able to explain just a small percentage of homosexuality. I’m sure by now you’ve heard of studies in the news that have claimed to find a genetic component to heart disease, or schizophrenia, or something. If you read the fine print, it usually only explains something like 3% of the disease. Not really predictive enough to start aborting the breeders.

If this sounds complicated already, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. You can also have mutations in regulatory regions of genes. These aren’t DNA sequences that code for the actual protein, but rather regulate things like how often or in what tissue that protein is made. You can also have copy number variants (CNVs), where some people have extra (or less) copies of a certain gene.

Thanks to massive advances in technology, we can study stuff like mutations, regulatory regions, and CNVs pretty well now… but they’re still not the full story. Often times a single “hit” – one mutation in a gene, or one big deletion in a chromosome – isn’t enough to actually cause a trait. This is especially true when dealing with neurological traits like autism or learning disabilities, and may be implicated in a behavioral trait like homosexuality. Often times you need multiple mutations or deletions – or a combination of both – until you actually show the trait in question.

But it’s still even more complicated than that. It’s not as easy as saying Mutation A + Deletion 2 = FABULOUS! Both of these events are extremely rare, and there are likely thousands and thousands of different combinations of “lesions” (messed up DNA) that could cause a trait. So even if you sequenced a baby’s full genome, you’d have no idea what all the de novo (new) mutations and deletions would do, because they’ve likely never been seen in that combination before.

And all of this isn’t even taking into account epigenetics (which can further regulate DNA, and can even differ between twins), and environmental factors (which can range from hormones you’re exposed to in the womb, to listening to too many show tunes as a small child).

So the odds of Teh Gay being boiled down to a simple test, or a simple gene you can use to infect the population? Basically zero.

Genetics is complicated, and I don’t expect everyone to be able to understand it in depth. Even as a first year PhD student, I tried my best to write the above paragraphs jargon free and without unnecessary detail. But at the very least, admit that it’s complicated and you have no real idea how it works instead of concocting conspiracy theories.

Though I have to admit, it’s amusing that these are the same type of people who claim that simply knowing gays exist, or worse, allowing them to be parents is enough to turn someone gay. Which is it, nature or nurture? Oh right, whatever currently fuels your paranoid hate speech the most.

But you know, maybe the totally wacked out religious types would be content aborting fetuses if they even had a 5% higher chance of being gay. In which case, I’d like to point them to a study that showed each older brother a man has increases his probability of being homosexual by 28% to 48% (3). If they really want to avoid bringing gay men into the world, stop giving birth to sons. And if you’re not willing to rely on abortion, only have one child.

A win-win situation, if I do say so myself.

1. Bailey JM and Pillard RC (1991). A genetic study of male sexual orientation. Archives of General Psychiatry, 48:1089-1096.
2. Mustanski BS, et al. (2005) A genomewide scan of male sexual orientation. Human Genetics, 116(4):272-8.
3. Blanchard R (1997) Birth order and sibling sex ratio in homosexual versus heterosexual males and females. Annual Review of Sexual Research, 8:27-67.

A bias for reality

Astrologers are in a tizzy after Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain called astrology “rubbish” and “nonsense” on BBC2′s “Stargazing Live.” The Astrological Association of Great Britain (yes, they have an organization) released the following announcement, along with a petition to BBC:

The Association will be requesting that the BBC make a public apology and a statement that they do not support the personal views of Professor Brian Cox or Dara O’Briains on the subject of astrology. We also request that the BBC will commit to making a fair and balanced representation of astrology when aired in the future.

The BBC is certainly biased…toward reality. Martin Robbins has the spot on response:

On the second sentence at least I think we can all agree. I’d love to see the BBC give a fair and balanced representation of astrology. In fact sod it, let’s extend that to all newspapers as well.

Such a representation would depict astrology as a pseudoscience with no real basis in evidence that was already being ridiculed in the Dark Ages, and note that after thousands of years astrologers still can’t produce statistically meaningful results.

It would observe that any apparent successes of astrology probably owe more to the use of cold-reading techniques, convenient vagueness, and the exploitation of psychological quirks like confirmation bias or the Forer effect, and express amazement at the continued ability of the astrological industry to lift hundreds of millions of euros, pounds and dollars out of the pockets of customers each year.

Finally, it would make the point that intellectually-speaking, the pursuit of meaningful predictions in astrology isn’t so much flogging a dead horse as punching a piece of rock and wondering why it won’t say anything. Fair and balanced reporting is not the best thing to ask for when your views have about as much credibility as Andy Coulson’s future in journalism.

Ah, beautiful. If only the media would give such a fair representation of hokum like astrology. Maybe we could extend that to religious claims as well, so reporters don’t have to report miracles and end of the world prophecies like they actually have a grain of truth to them.

Off my ASS for the SSA – Week 3

Starting weight: 186.4 lbs
Last week’s weight: 182.8 lbs
Current weight: 179.8 lbs
Weight loss this week: 3.0 lbs

Under 180 pounds, wooo!!!

Though when I look back, I weighed about 175 pounds before my senior year at Purdue. That’s what applying, interviewing at, and actually starting grad school will do to you – stress eating until you gain 10 pounds. Hurray.

Other than that, I don’t have any major weight loss revelations this week. I learned I don’t have to completely deprive myself of stuff like pizza and chocolate – I can just eat them in moderation. Amazing how that works.

Oh, and if you’re doing your own New Years resolution, maybe you’d be interested in the Secular Student Alliance’s Carrot and Stick Project. Executive Director August Brunsman found effective motivation to get healthy – he wrote two checks, one to the SSA, and the other to Campus Crusade for Christ. If he made his goal, he’d tear up the check to CRU. If not, well… you see why he lost the weight. Eek, CRU.

THIS is how feminists should critique science

By actually investigating the merit of its claims. And we have two wonderful examples of that over at Slate. Amanda Schaffer takes down the evolutionary psychology study that claimed ovulating women become more racist to avoid rape, and Emily Yoffe points out the pitfalls of a study claiming women walk unsexily when ovulating to reduce rape.

Notice how they don’t resort to building up straw-men, using emotional arguments, automatically disregarding something because it doesn’t fit with their ideology, asserting that scientific findings make moral judgments, claiming the whole field of evolutionary biology is bunk, or slinging around nonsensical pejoratives like “Dude Science” or “Bro Scientists.”

Other bloggers, take note at these great examples.

Please. If I hear someone seriously use the phrase “Dude Science” again, I’m going to lose my mind.

Are you an undergrad doing research in ecology or evolution?

Are you thinking about attending grad school? Then you should consider applying for the Undergraduate Diversity program for the Evolution 2011 conference. I was part of this program in 2009, and it was amazing for a number of reasons:

  • Evolution is a huge conference, with over a thousand people attending. It’s a great place to learn about cutting edge research, scope out potential graduate schools, and network with other scientists.
  • Presenting your research at a conference as an undergrad is an amazing experience. Not only is it great practice, but it’s excellent resume fodder. Not many undergrads get the opportunity, and it’ll definitely make you stand out on grad school applications.
  • The Undergrad Diversity program will pay all of your expenses (plane, housing, food) to attend the conference. If you have lab mates going, you get the bonus of rubbing it in.

You don’t have to be a minority to reply, but don’t be afraid to mention that you’re an atheist if you do – I did on my application. I know that in the past they haven’t had enough people applying for this, so you have a pretty good chance of getting in. Doesn’t hurt to try! The application is here.

And if you get in, say hello to me! Well, assuming I can convince my advisor (whoever that’ll be) to let me go this year, even though I probably won’t have any research to present. I wouldn’t be motivated to go to any old conference in Norman, Oklahoma, so you know it has to be awesome. That and I want to see my former labmates and meet ERV.

So, go apply!

Goal Unlocked: Attract Audience So Large It Violates Fire Code

Okay, I’m not sure if we were technically breaking any laws at my talk last night…but it was pretty damn close. Most of the Seattle Skeptics meetups in the pub have around 15 people attending, at least the ones I’ve gone to. When I arrived 15 minutes early, there were already 35 people there, and I got the last seat at one of the tables. 20 to 30 more people came after that, and some just could not physically fit into our side room of the pub. We were even making the restaurant run out of clean glasses.

To those of you we had to turn away, I’m sorry! We never thought the talk would be that popular. If you couldn’t hear or see anything, I’m sure I’ll give the talk again in Seattle at some point.

Thanks to everyone who came!

A horoscope I can get behind

Ha:

Scorpio Saturn rising in your sign will subject you to the powerful force of Fate, which everybody knows is stronger by far than electromagnetism, gravity, or the nuclear strong and weak forces.

Indeed! My other favorites include:

Capricorn Faith is the evidence of things not seen, which any well-rounded human being must admit is better than only trusting good hard provable evidence.

And

Aquarius This is a good week to spend with family, which is the kind of advice stupid old Ophiuchus would never have given you.

You can check out the rest here.