How we know all life shares a common origin

According to Anthony McCarthy over at Greg’s blog, extrapolating from this information to determine something about how life began on this planet is purely ideological mythmaking. Never mind that every species on the planet shares the same metabolism, by the same enzymes, which must be coded for by the same combinations of chemicals, and these chemicals must come into being by the same chemical processes. Or that as you work your way backward you can determine the lipids and amino acids that must have been how this particular origin of life happened, and that you can replicate in a laboratory the spontaneous generation of these lipids and amino acids from the pure chemicals in varying environments that are similar to, if not identical to, the best models we have of the composition of the early Earth. Meaning we have pretty much every step in the chain replicated plausibly, so even if we don’t know the exact events, we can with a fairly high degree of confidence claim that we actually know a good deal about how life probably emerged here.

Oh, he also doesn’t believe in emergence, meaning he’s never seen a fractal or snowflake under a microscope. And loves to scoff at the idea that we’re skeptics, just because we’re convinced by the evidence presented. I’ve given up on him, now that he’s decided to “copy [my words] as the most irrational series of assertions by the self-identified champions of science and reason [he's] had the dubious privilege of reading.”

CRTC: a pawn in Harper’s larger game?

In reading news about the CRTC of late, I can’t help but notice a few converging threads. I legitimately feel that I am above conspiracy theory, and I like to say that without evidence, our understanding of reality is potentially unreliable. Therefore, I write this post tentatively, knowing I may be drawing incorrect conclusions.

Source: Wikimedia Commons. Click for original.

Pictured: the CRTC.

But if they are correct, they are damning conclusions indeed.

The Tory government appears to have a greater strategy of discrediting and generally casting as an anacronism the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunication Council for at least the last year. Harper’s government — not to be confused with The Harper Government, which you can protest such use by signing this petition — overturned the CRTC’s decision last year to disallow Globalive from entering our wireless market due to regulations requiring telecom companies to be locally owned. On this point, I agree with Michael Geist, that content, not ownership, preserves Canadian culture. The overturning of this decision, while well-founded, undercut the CRTC’s ability to make a second ruling — as they so often have done, given the fullness of time and understanding of the public and experts’ opinion in such matters — with the overturning coming so shortly after the original decision. The problem with this is the impression left of the CRTC as an impotent body that cannot make regulations that under any circumstances contradict what the ruling party happens to believe.

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RCimT: Playing scientific catch-up

Day 3 of my attempt at clearing out old links from my queue of stuff to blog about. Sadly, this one I can’t fit into a coherent narrative, except to say that science rocks.

ClimateCrocks posted a trailer for the movie Carbon Nation, touted as a “climate change movie for people who don’t believe in climate change”. It’s like the movie form of this comic. Frankly, whether you think climate is changing or not, people MUST see that the progress we can make by weaning ourselves off this addiction to hydrocarbons far outweighs any potential economic risks, even if you don’t believe there’s any threat.

There’s some interesting early results from a study regarding public archiving of scientific data — it by all appearances increases scientific contribution by more than a third. Open access to information and data removes one of the larger barriers to scientific contribution, as I have long suspected in other areas of human endeavour.

On a related note, unpublished scientific data may hide the “decline effect”, a noted scientific phenomenon where initial publications show greater effect than subsequent trials. Also unsurprising — if the data “picked” for the first few trials was picked from a superset of data that doesn’t show as great an effect, or if the data in subsequent trials was intentionally skewed against the initial results in an attempt to disprove them, showing all the data would certainly discover both scenarios.

This water flea has more genes than humans — 31,000 genes to 23,000. It is interesting to me that the number of genes it takes to make so complex a creature as a human being is in fact lower than the number of genes to create so tiny a creature as a water flea, but it rings true with the idea that everything in this universe operates like fractals – simplicity can give rise to great complexity, in some cases, accidentally and without inherent design.

Scientists have made a great breakthrough with regard to influenza vaccines — they have discovered a way to vaccinate against a protein common to them all. This could eventually lead to a single vaccine to eradicate influenza in much the same way as we have eradicated polio and smallpox. That is, until some pseudoscientific celebrity gains popular traction against the vaccine and it resurges as a result.

Good news for depression patients — we may soon be able to put things in your brain to make you better. Sounds like sci-fi, sounds like “playing god”, but deep brain electrostimulation may actually significantly improve chronic depression sufferers’ quality of life.

Steven Novella takes on the odd but prevalent belief that scientists are withholding the cure for cancer. Fact is, cancer is a class of diseases or issues, not a single monolithic thing that can be cured. We can cure many of them, such as Hodgkins Lymphoma, but not all of them. Interestingly, we may soon be able to tell which cancers will spread and which will never metastasize at all.

Apparently humankind’s proposed emergence as a modern-LOOKING people first, then a modern-ACTING people second, is less than accurate. We’ve discovered some evidence that the earliest peoples developed both language and ritual, two of the main intellectual hallmarks of our species.

Toxicologists and experts states apart have confirmed that despite the government’s assurances, Gulf seafood is tainted with oil. And/or dispersants, which is just as bad. Take care where your seafood comes from, folks. Though you really should take care as it stands, to eat seafood from sources that are sustainable.

Scientists have for the first time observed the formation of a planet in a protoplanetary ring of dust and debris. I love that this far into our knowledge of stellar and planetary evolution, we keep seeing “firsts” that scientists can collect data on and confirm existing theories.

Meanwhile, science continues apace in its other charge — knocking theories down. Or less so theories as common knowledge — Ben Goldacre covers the revelation that “sniffer” dogs may actually be responding to subtle cues from their masters rather than to any scent of drug or explosives they really learned to seek out. In this way, they may be something like the horse that could do arithmetic. In a funny bit of confluence, I learned just today of a new invention: the Wasp Hound. Wasps can evidently be trained to pick up scents better than any dogs.

That’s everything I had saved up in my Science post-fodder hopper. Perhaps I shall unload my Religion tabs tomorrow. Seems a fitting day for it.