Unexpected Good News On The Cuttlefish Front

I have written before with bad news from Point Lowly, Spencer Gulf, in South Australia. That was from 2011; in 2012 the news was even worse, and last year things looked grim indeed.

Unexpectedly, this year, the numbers are up again!

Hundreds of giant Australian cuttlefish have swum into breeding grounds at the top of Spencer Gulf in South Australia, reversing a worrying decline of recent years.

It’s not a return to previously normal levels, but it’s the right direction. There has been federal support for cuttlefish research in the area over the past couple of years; I hope people were looking at the right variables to learn from this. These are beautiful creatures, and an amazing gathering. I still hope to visit some day… and I would hate to be the only cuttlefish showing up for the party.

Cuttlecap tip to Kylie, of course!

Denser Than The Pre-Expansion Universe

Expansion of the cosmos
At a faster pace than light
Renders Genesis a fairy tale,
It seems—alas, not quite.

The mental calisthenics
That it takes to make them fit
Will keep believers straining, when
An honest mind would quit

“A believer and a scientist”,
Is how she chose to live—
But disconfirming evidence
Meant something had to give

Azusa University
Is Christian to the core:
“The big bang proves the bible right!”—
Discrepancy no more!

It isn’t doing science
When, no matter what you find
The conclusion never alters:
See? The cosmos is designed!

All creations need creators
Why, it’s only common sense!
Seems the pre-expansion ‘verse
Is not the only thing that’s dense.

On the CNN Belief Blog, a Dr.Leslie Wickman, director of the Center for Research in Science at Azusa Pacific University, asks “Does the Big Bang breakthrough offer proof of God?

The prevalent theory of cosmic origins prior to the Big Bang theory was the “Steady State,” which argued that the universe has always existed, without a beginning that necessitated a cause.

However, this new evidence strongly suggests that there was a beginning to our universe.

If the universe did indeed have a beginning, by the simple logic of cause and effect, there had to be an agent – separate and apart from the effect – that caused it.

That sounds a lot like Genesis 1:1 to me: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth.”

And she’s a scientist! So you know this can’t just be her faith talking.

As a modern believer and a scientist, when I look up at the sky on a clear starry night, I am reminded that “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). I am in awe of the complexity of the physical world, and how all of its pieces fit together so perfectly and synergistically.

In the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, the writer tells us that God “established (his) covenant with day and night, and with the fixed laws of heaven and earth.”

These physical laws established by God to govern interactions between matter and energy result in a finely tuned universe that provides the ideal conditions for life on our planet.

Just ask the dinosaurs, who ruled for longer than we have been around, or the beetles or bacteria, either of whom dwarf us both by numbers and by mass. Or perhaps for humanity, who can’t live below the sea or above a certain altitude, but who, given the right sort of environment, will multiply ourselves into a famine situation, and who are doing our best to destroy these ideal conditions.

As we observe the complexity of the cosmos, from subatomic particles to dark matter and dark energy, we quickly conclude that there must be a more satisfying explanation than random chance. Properly practiced, science can be an act of worship in looking at God’s revelation of himself in nature.

Properly practiced, of course. And the worth of an explanation is often reflected in how “satisfying” it is.

One wonders how it is that a self-described practicing scientist can look at the same evidence that, for some, banishes God from His last hiding place, and call it evidence for His existence. Oh, that’s right–one doesn’t wonder at all: it’s her job. She’s the director of the Center for Research in Science at a place that already knows what all the really big answers are. After all, you can find these answers in the bible.

On Debating Christian Apologists

Debating an apologist?
Get ready for a fight
Cos you’ve got an obligation
To get all the science right—
If you overstep your knowledge
Just a little, and you’re caught,
Then you’ve lost the weight of science
And you only get one shot

If your expertise is physics,
Or biology, or psych,
Best to know your limitations,
Not just wander where you like.
You may truly be an expert
And be perfect for the task
You may know your science backwards
But that won’t be what they ask

They’ll poke holes in what they’re able
And they’re gonna have a ball—
There’s an awful lot of science
And there’s no one knows it all
They would love to make you falter
And they’re surely gonna try
And your expertise is shattered
If they catch you in a lie

Say your answer misses something;
Say it’s off by one percent;
Say you quote the right researcher
But it’s not quite what they meant
Say the science isn’t settled,
Say there’s genuine debate
In the hands of an apologist
You’ve quickly sealed your fate

Now, it doesn’t really matter
If the one who’s right is you—
See, if science isn’t perfect
Then religion must be true
You’re debating an apologist?
Get ready for a fight
Cos you’ve got an obligation
To get all the science right.

A couple of days ago, Physicist Victor Stenger had a piece in Ye Olde HuffePoe on “How to Debate a Christian Apologist“. Now, Stenger is no stranger to this area–his books are carefully thought out, thorough, and devastating to Christian Apologetics (or rather, would be, if apologetics had to answer to the real world). And, you will note, he explicitly says in his introduction, more or less what I just said in the verse above:

Certainly atheist debaters will make their own arguments for atheism during their opening statements. I advise, again from observation and experience, that they limit these to their particular areas of expertise and avoid subjects outside those areas.

During their opening statements and throughout the debate, apologists are likely to make arguments with which atheists may not be so well versed. So, when the time comes for rebuttals, atheists often cannot provide cogent responses, or any responses at all, and so lose debating points.

An experienced debater will make note of every point his or her opponent makes and try to provide at least a one sentence response. That will prevent the opponent from coming back and saying, “My atheist friend never replied to this point.” This takes experience. I never had enough to be good at it. In a debate, impressions are more important than the substance of an argument and not answering a point makes a bad impression.

The point of his article, though, is to give some quick rejoinders to some of the Apologetic points he has heard again and again, so that the reader can see examples of how to quickly address some of the more common claims. It was not intended to be a thorough rebuttal:

I do not provide any technical details. These suggestions are meant to be short, punchy statements to use during your rebuttals, which are usually time-limited. If you are a cosmologist, biologist, or biblical scholar, you don’t need me telling you what to say on those subjects. If you are a non-expert on any subject, you should not say anything about it beyond your competence. Your opponent may call you out on it. I have seen that happen.

Alas, it seems that the good people at Uncommon Descent are as selective at reading Stenger’s article as they are at anything else, and must have missed that bit. Their reply:

Victor Stenger has his How to Debate a Christian Apologist in the Huffington Post. An atheist PhD physicist is reduced to using arguments many of which go beyond fallacious and border on the risible. I find the article very encouraging. If that’s all they’ve got, they ain’t got much.

Since most of their readers won’t bother to actually visit HuffPo to read the introduction, let alone the rest, score one for the people with a commandment against bearing false witness.

I would add one additional caveat to Stenger’s introduction. Because science works via a structured argument among experts, be aware that your opponent will be able (if properly prepared) to quote experts who appear to disagree with you (or your quoted experts). (For instance, Stenger makes the claim “Thoughts and emotions are observable electrochemical signals in the brain.” You don’t have to have read here long to know I vehemently disagree with this–thinking and emotion are not at all relegated to just the brain; they are observed across time in the interaction of a whole person with their environment, and cannot be reduced to brain signals. Mind you, I think his view is worlds better than theirs, but it’s still wrong.)

If you cannot reasonably expect to enlighten your audience about some substantial philosophical differences (and practical differences, of course, as well) between religious and scientific world views, perhaps the best bet is to stick to forms that are not stacked against the more nuanced and complicated view.

A Tasty And Nutritious Sausage, Low Fat and Low Sodium, With Only A *Hint* Of Baby Poop

The latest health craze? Here’s the scoop:
It’s sausage made with baby poop.
Or (as the press release explains)
With cultured pro-biotic strains
So you can populate your gut
With flora from a baby’s butt
The best advice these authors give?
For better health… eat shit and live!

This is actually a pretty cool paper, despite the sensationalist headlines (including my own). In the search for probiotic foods, various different fermented foods like yoghurts and cheeses have been tried, but this study looks at another sort–dry-cured and fermented sausages.

An appropriate probiotic, then, has to survive two different environments, then–the fermenting and curing sausage, and the human gut. I suppose there are a couple of ways, broadly speaking, to look for potential bacteria: you could look through all the bacteria that naturally appear in sausages, and see which ones do well in the gut, or start out with bacteria that do well in the gut, and see which ones are potential sausage-fermenters. The latter is what the news-making researcher did, testing 6 strains and finding one that survived a particular type of sausage-making well enough to have active strains in sufficient numbers to inoculate a human gut.

The methodology is straightforward, with (to me) a fascinating glimpse into an unknown world of meat science. It’s a nice, useful finding, but likely wouldn’t have made the news, were it not for the last sentence of the introduction, which everyone (yes, including me) have latched onto.

The aim of the present work was to assess the suitability of three potential probiotic lactobacilli strains (L. casei/paracasei CTC1677, L. casei/paracasei CTC 1678 and L rhamnosus CTC 1679), previously isolated from infants’ faeces and three commercial probiotic strains (Lactobacillus plantarum 299v, L. Rhamnosus GG and L. casei Shirota) as starter cultures during the manufacture of low-acid fermented sausages (fuets) with reduced fat and NA+ content and their effect on the sensory properties of the final product.

“Isolated from infants’ faeces”. (For the record, it was one of the baby-poop strains that made the best sausage, in terms of both flavor and availability of probiotics.)

The WA Today article (second link above) asked a local researcher about the source of the bacteria:

It was important to take the bacteria from infant poo rather than adult poo, Curtin University’s Dr Hani Al-Salami said.
“Babies at that young age, the gut content is quite mild and nice compared with an older person,” he said.
“The reason is, as we grow, we do eat a lot of things and not everything we eat is the best in terms of quality.”

Despite the futility of disagreeing with a Dr. Al-Salami on a matter of sausages, I am gonna have to disagree. And suggest something that could make the right investor an awful lot of money. (I will, of course, require a finder’s fee–but this idea is worth it.) So you see, I am watching the Olympic Games, and I know that I will never have the physique of any of the athletes there… but recent popular news stories (take them with a grain of salt–you know how far afield they can be from the studies they allege to report on) tell us that the difference between the person with six-pack abs and the person with half-keg abs is partially determined by gut flora. Fecal transplants are being explored as a means of reprogramming a body, of jumpstarting the path to health.

So here’s my idea… boutique gut flora. (link from a year ago, in case there is a struggle over who had the idea first.) You can have the gut flora of an Olympian, or an actor, or scientist, or poet (well, hypothetically). The sausage scientists are far more concerned with health and safety, and as such are missing out on profit. “Eat Shit And Live!” It practically sells itself!

We know it can be done–scientists have made cheese from the bacteria harvested from particular individuals (you might not want to click). But frankly, I doubt there is much market for food made from Michael Pollan’s belly button bacteria. But sausage that will give you Michael Phelps’s gut flora?

Ok, I think I just went a step too far. I may never eat again.

(Cuttlecap tip to Kylie!)

“You’ve Got To Have Faith In Something”

You must have heard it somewhere. Probably half a dozen times today alone. I think I just saw it over at Hemant’s–somebody making the argument that science requires a faith of its own, what may be called a “faith in reason”, or faith in one’s perceptual or cognitive abilities, or simply faith that the universe is real and observable.

No, actually.

“You’ve got to have faith”—so the argument went,
“Though you might not have faith in my God
You have faith in your senses, your science, your tools,
That reality’s not some façade”

I need not have faith in my senses at all
My senses have earned my trust
They may fool me at times—they’re not perfect, I know,
But I’ll use them, cos frankly, I must

I need not have faith in the methods of science;
Conditional trust is enough
Today’s explanations can all be replaced
If tomorrow’s explains some more stuff

I need not have faith in the tools that I use
I will use them as long as they work
Since others reliably use them as well,
Their results don’t depend on some quirk

I need not have faith in the cosmos itself
Though I see on your face some confusion
The universe is, whether matter or mind,
Or a rather persistent illusion

If everything changes tomorrow, you see,
And the world works a whole different way
Then maybe I might have some theories to change…
But they’re working just fine for today.

The pragmatic and conditional explanations of science need not be a search for “TRUTH” which one has faith exists (although I certainly do not speak for all, and I know that a good many believe that a truth exists, whether or not we ever may know it). Explanations are not true or false, but rather better or worse–that is, explaining more observation with fewer assumptions, or needing to make shit up. Newtonian physics is not so much wrong as incomplete–it works for quite a lot of uses, but not all.

I do not need to have faith that my answers will be right forever–hell, I like the idea of finding out how I am wrong, and learning a better way!

Chronic Pain? Take A Peruvian Green Velvet Tarantula And Call Me In The Morning

A lab in New Haven
Held biotech mavens
Who looked at the functions of nerves
Along came a spider
With venom inside her
So they looked at purpose it serves

See, nature is cunning
And spiders are stunning—
No, really; their bites stun their prey
So maybe a toxin
Some synapse, just locks in
And shuts down the nerve in this way

They’ve explored bites and stings
Of such poisonous things
But they wished they could search even more
The answer’s appearing
Cos, now, toxineering
Yields larger amounts to explore

Now, one such advance
From a kind of tarant-
ula (called the Peruvian Green),
The authors explain
Could relieve chronic pain:
Toxineering pays off, we have seen

But the true coolest thing
(and this makes my heart sing)
Is that, someday, I’m likely to hear
From my neighbor (say, Bob)
When I ask him his job,
He replies “I’m a nerve toxineer”.

Via the NY Times, some really cool science.

Venoms contain many active toxins, not all of them suitable for use in humans. And once a potentially effective toxin is identified, researchers must run further tests to determine which neural pathways it might affect.

But now researchers at Yale University say they have sped up the process by using DNA cloning technology to build large libraries of spider venoms. This makes it easier to test the impact of a broad range of toxins on a particular neural pathway. They refer to the process as toxineering.

Three cool things stand out to me:

Third coolest: Sure, we’ve seen it before, but the whole idea of using naturally occurring venoms as a laboratory for medicine is just plain cool. The paper the Times refers to reviews quite a few examples, only some of which I was familiar with–cone snail toxins, for instance, along with scorpion venom and literally hundreds of different sorts of spider venoms. Evolution did the tinkering to invent the stuff, and all we need to do is discover it before we render it extinct (we are our own worst enemies, sometimes). In this case, a promising treatment for chronic pain and inflammation was found in the venom of Peruvian Green Velvet Tarantula. Yeah, I know–and this is only the third coolest thing.

Second coolest: But you see, naturally occurring venoms are messy–there may be a great many different toxic peptides in one spider’s venom, in varying amounts, and it might be very difficult to see the effects of a low-concentration peptide when it is masked by a much more abundant one. The new research clones individual toxins, such that mixtures of equal molarity can be tested. The specific peptide here was found by systematically exploring a toxin library of around 100 cloned toxic peptides. The procedure can be scaled, too–it doesn’t depend on farming a whole bunch of spiders. So, yeah, there are people who can casually drop into conversation the fact that they happen to have a library of spider toxins that they can mix to order. I expect this from Bond villains, or from Sherlock Holmes, but not in real life. Very cool. But only second coolest.

Coolest: They call the process “Toxineering”. Which, to me, juxtaposes thoughts of SPECTRE and the Mickey Mouse Club. “Toxineer roll call!” I picture lab headgear with, instead of Mousketeer ears, oversized tarantula eyes. Annette Funicello with extra legs. Theme parks located in hollowed out volcanoes. Souvenir lab coats.

But I am easily amused.

Natural Experiment On Gun Availability

If you give the people weapons, is this good or is it bad?
I suppose it all depends upon their aims
Up to now, there’ve been no data, so the arguments we’ve had
All rely on someone’s a priori claims

“But of course we’d be much safer if most everyone was armed!—
Cos the criminals would know they could be shot!”
“No!—more guns would mean more shootings, and more children being harmed!”
But it’s arguments, not evidence, we’ve got.

Now a natural experiment (Missouri” is its name)
Has an answer—and for some, it’s no surprise;
Cos a jump in shooting homicides has policy to blame—
Ease of access means that murder rates will rise.

Via the BBC today, a report (from the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, like yesterday’s post) on a natural experiment on the effects of gun control legislation. Missouri, in 2007, repealed their requirement for licensing and vetting by local law enforcement before purchasing a handgun. So… was this good or bad? My gun-loving friends would predict an immediate drop in crime, now that handguns are easier to purchase, and potential victims are more likely to be armed. The data?

Reporting soon in the Journal of Urban Health, the researchers will say that the repeal resulted in an immediate spike in gun violence and murders.

The study links the abandonment of the background check to an additional 60 or so murders occurring per year in Missouri between 2008 and 2012.

“Coincident exactly with the policy change, there was an immediate upward trajectory to the homicide rates in Missouri,” said Prof Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.

“That upward trajectory did not happen with homicides that did not involve guns; it did not occur to any neighbouring state; the national trend was doing the opposite – it was trending downward; and it was not specific to one or two localities – it was, for the most part, state-wide,” he told BBC News.

So… stopping a bad guy with a gun might involve making it harder for that bad guy to get the gun in the first place. According to the data. Which might explain why the NRA worked so hard to keep the data from being compiled and analyzed.

These arguments, these questions–they do have answers. There are data that could be examined. We need not simply argue from first principles.

And my friends who believe that the most important freedoms of all are those protected by the second amendment can start framing their arguments in terms of how many lives this freedom is worth. Freedom isn’t free, after all. We can *expect* a cost in human lives–like in war, some things are worth a cost in blood and lives.

So… 60 extra murders per year in just one state. Freedom isn’t free. But hey, these deaths buy you the ability to buy a handgun without a background check! So you can feel safer! Mind you, the actual data show that this feeling is an illusion, but you have a right to this illusion!