Not you too, New Zealand?

Let’s imagine that you, a rational person, are a high muckety-muck in some prestigious scientific institution — like, say, the Royal Society of New Zealand — and you’re asked whether some fringe subject — like, say, Traditional Chinese Medicine — should receive the endorsement of your society. How would you determine your answer?

If you’re anything like me, you’d go to experts and ask, “Is there good evidence that this really works? Is it a subject we should pursue in greater depth?”

Not the Royal Society of New Zealand, though. No, forget all that business of whether TCM actually works, or even does harm: instead, they hired a consultant psychologist who interviewed 30 people and asked them whether they’d used TCM. Their conclusion:

The Society recommends that TCM should become a registered profession and that registered practitioners should be clinically well qualified.

It apparently doesn’t matter whether it works or not, and the fact that it can cause harm was actually used to support endorsing it in a fine piece of topsy-turvy logic.

There is the potential of harm from the practice of TCM. Apart from the risks already outlined in the proposal document, clients consulting TCM practitioners are at risk of delayed diagnosis and treatment of their conditions, which can carry significant consequences. It is possible that an occult fracture is missed in a client consulting a TCM practitioner for foot pain, or early meningococcal disease overlooked in a client with fevers and general malaise.

Regulation of TCM will ensure that all TCM practitioners are aware of the limitation of their service, and to know when to refer clients to another health service if necessary. Improper practice of TCM, such as tuina (massage therapy) and tei-da (practice of bone-setting), has been shown to induce physical damage (e.g. joint dislocation, spindle damage, deep tissue/muscle damage) to the patients and some herbal medicine may also not be suitable for pregnant women. It will therefore be important to ensure that registered TCM practitioners are responsible and clinically well qualified.

I have decided that chewing broken glass is a cure for cancer. It is irrelevant whether it actually does so; it does cause severe bleeding and oral and throat damage, though, so I’m moving to New Zealand, where that will be cause to officially recognize and register my practice, so that the state can better protect my patients from harm.

(Also on Sb)

The wellspring of grade inflation

I hate to discourage teachers (we need them!), but there’s a problem in teacher education.

Well, guess which students earn the highest grades? It’s future teachers. According to a new study by Cory Koedel published by the American Enterprise Institute:

Students who take education classes at universities receive significantly higher grades than students who take classes in every other academic discipline. The higher grades cannot be explained by observable differences in student quality between education majors and other students, nor can they be explained by the fact that education classes are typically smaller than classes in other academic departments.

This is despite the fact that education majors have the lowest high school grades and standardized test scores of all college students.

(Also on Sb)

The strength of Dawkins, and the murk of accommodationism

Richard Dawkins hits this one out of the park: he slams the ignorance of Rick Perry specifically and the Republican party generally. There is no excuse for the foolishness we get from Perry, or Bachmann, or Huckabee, or Palin, or Robertson, or any of the candidates who have sought validation through the Republicans — it’s as if they’re selecting for stupidity.

There is nothing unusual about Governor Rick Perry. Uneducated fools can be found in every country and every period of history, and they are not unknown in high office. What is unusual about today’s Republican party (I disavow the ridiculous ‘GOP’ nickname, because the party of Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt has lately forfeited all claim to be considered ‘grand’) is this: In any other party and in any other country, an individual may occasionally rise to the top in spite of being an uneducated ignoramus. In today’s Republican Party ‘in spite of’ is not the phrase we need. Ignorance and lack of education are positive qualifications, bordering on obligatory. Intellect, knowledge and linguistic mastery are mistrusted by Republican voters, who, when choosing a president, would apparently prefer someone like themselves over someone actually qualified for the job.

Any other organization — a big corporation, say, or a university, or a learned society – -when seeking a new leader, will go to immense trouble over the choice. The CVs of candidates and their portfolios of relevant experience are meticulously scrutinized, their publications are read by a learned committee, references are taken up and scrupulously discussed, the candidates are subjected to rigorous interviews and vetting procedures. Mistakes are still made, but not through lack of serious effort.

The population of the United States is more than 300 million and it includes some of the best and brightest that the human species has to offer, probably more so than any other country in the world. There is surely something wrong with a system for choosing a leader when, given a pool of such talent and a process that occupies more than a year and consumes billions of dollars, what rises to the top of the heap is George W Bush. Or when the likes of Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin can be mentioned as even remote possibilities.

A politician’s attitude to evolution is perhaps not directly important in itself. It can have unfortunate consequences on education and science policy but, compared to Perry’s and the Tea Party’s pronouncements on other topics such as economics, taxation, history and sexual politics, their ignorance of evolutionary science might be overlooked. Except that a politician’s attitude to evolution, however peripheral it might seem, is a surprisingly apposite litmus test of more general inadequacy. This is because unlike, say, string theory where scientific opinion is genuinely divided, there is about the fact of evolution no doubt at all. Evolution is a fact, as securely established as any in science, and he who denies it betrays woeful ignorance and lack of education, which likely extends to other fields as well. Evolution is not some recondite backwater of science, ignorance of which would be pardonable. It is the stunningly simple but elegant explanation of our very existence and the existence of every living creature on the planet. Thanks to Darwin, we now understand why we are here and why we are the way we are. You cannot be ignorant of evolution and be a cultivated and adequate citizen of today.

Darwin’s idea is arguably the most powerful ever to occur to a human mind. The power of a scientific theory may be measured as a ratio: the number of facts that it explains divided by the number of assumptions it needs to postulate in order to do the explaining. A theory that assumes most of what it is trying to explain is a bad theory. That is why the creationist or ‘intelligent design’ theory is such a rotten theory.

What any theory of life needs to explain is functional complexity. Complexity can be measured as statistical improbability, and living things are statistically improbable in a very particular direction: the direction of functional efficiency. The body of a bird is not just a prodigiously complicated machine, with its trillions of cells – each one in itself a marvel of miniaturized complexity – all conspiring together to make muscle or bone, kidney or brain. Its interlocking parts also conspire to make it good for something – in the case of most birds, good for flying. An aero-engineer is struck dumb with admiration for the bird as flying machine: its feathered flight-surfaces and ailerons sensitively adjusted in real time by the on-board computer which is the brain; the breast muscles, which are the engines, the ligaments, tendons and lightweight bony struts all exactly suited to the task. And the whole machine is immensely improbable in the sense that, if you randomly shook up the parts over and over again, never in a million years would they fall into the right shape to fly like a swallow, soar like a vulture, or ride the oceanic up-draughts like a wandering albatross. Any theory of life has to explain how the laws of physics can give rise to a complex flying machine like a bird or a bat or a pterosaur, a complex swimming machine like a tarpon or a dolphin, a complex burrowing machine like a mole, a complex climbing machine like a monkey, or a complex thinking machine like a person.

Darwin explained all of this with one brilliantly simple idea – natural selection, driving gradual evolution over immensities of geological time. His is a good theory because of the huge ratio of what it explains (all the complexity of life) divided by what it needs to assume (simply the nonrandom survival of hereditary information through many generations). The rival theory to explain the functional complexity of life – creationism – is about as bad a theory as has ever been proposed. What it postulates (an intelligent designer) is even more complex, even more statistically improbable than what it explains. In fact it is such a bad theory it doesn’t deserve to be called a theory at all, and it certainly doesn’t deserve to be taught alongside evolution in science classes.

The simplicity of Darwin’s idea, then, is a virtue for three reasons. First, and most important, it is the signature of its immense power as a theory, when compared with the mass of disparate facts that it explains – everything about life including our own existence. Second, it makes it easy for children to understand (in addition to the obvious virtue of being true!), which means that it could be taught in the early years of school. And finally, it makes it extremely beautiful, one of the most beautiful ideas anyone ever had as well as arguably the most powerful. To die in ignorance of its elegance, and power to explain our own existence, is a tragic loss, comparable to dying without ever having experienced great music, great literature, or a beautiful sunset.

There are many reasons to vote against Rick Perry. His fatuous stance on the teaching of evolution in schools is perhaps not the first reason that springs to mind. But maybe it is the most telling litmus test of the other reasons, and it seems to apply not just to him but, lamentably, to all the likely contenders for the Republican nomination. The ‘evolution question’ deserves a prominent place in the list of questions put to candidates in interviews and public debates during the course of the coming election.

That Dawkins took to clearly stating exactly what was wrong with these bad anti-science candidates doesn’t sit well with some people. Jamie Vernon at the Intersection (of course) thinks his opinion piece was an ineffective violation of all that the mush-brained accommodationists hold dear.

In one short paragraph, Dr. Dawkins has violated nearly everything we have come to know about effective science communication. I cannot, for the life of me, understand how Dr. Dawkins believes hurling insults, like “uneducated fools” and “ignoramus,” can advance his position. How far do you think readers of the opposite mind continued into this article?

Oh, man. These clowns always practice industrial grade irony. If describing Perry in unflattering terms in the first paragraph is a barrier, what is the fact that Vernon called Dawkins a “crotchety old man” in the freakin’ title of his post? I don’t mind if the softies want to try their supposedly subtler, more psychologically informed tactics on the opposition, but somehow they never do — Vernon doesn’t do anything to persuade Perry, and doesn’t even suggest alternatives — and instead they always resort to hectoring activists who do speak their mind. It’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that all they want is passivity and silence, and that they just love wallowing in hypocrisy.

So get out there, Mr Vernon. What are you doing to inform people of the disastrous ignorance of Rick Perry? What are you doing to oppose his candidacy? Are you even willing to state that he’s unfit for office, and why? Don’t you think evolution-denial is a very good marker for science illiteracy?

This is precisely what infuriates me. We have a functional moron running for the presidency, and a small crop of presumably pro-science people are busily trying to shush the opposition up so they can work their clever psycho-mojo and gently enlighten Perry by…I don’t know, wiggling their fingers, thinking happy thoughts, or maybe they’re going to use The Force.

Perry is a disastrously bad candidate (as is Bachmann). Call me a radical, but maybe it’s a good idea for the opposition to oppose them, openly, and with thorough, rational explanations? And if the candidate is an ignoramus, as Perry clearly is, SAY IT.

And then Vernon perpetrates this nonsense:

The problem is that the Governor, and many like him, subscribe to a type of thinking that embraces hierarchical authoritarianism. People who participate in this form of thinking are not satisfied with the uncertainty that comes from evolutionary science. They need black and white answers…answers that the existing science cannot provide.

Let’s see. Perry is an authoritarian who is unpersuaded by science. Isn’t this sufficient to convince Vernon that he must be opposed?

And then, basically what he’s saying here is that evolution is uncertain. It is not. Evolution is an established fact; Dawkins, no doubt intentionally, chose to make that the focus of the title of his piece, “Attention Governor Perry: Evolution is a fact”. There is no uncertainty here. The community of scientists has spoken, and has said repeatedly, in black and white terms, and with near-unanimity that evolution happened.

Vernon is claiming that Dawkins is all wrong because Perry is looking for clarity. But clarity — clarity supported by evidence — is exactly what Dawkins offers. Vernon is full of crap.

What Dawkins does, as do many of us on the side the accommodationists hate, is provide sharp, clear, strong positions. What Dawkins does in that op-ed is play the role of Joseph Welch, confronting wicked folly and stating his position lucidly and with acid contempt for the forces of ignorance and deception.

You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?

If Jamie Vernon had been writing in 1954, he would no doubt have castigated Welch for his harshness, and suggested some compromise…perhaps a few more hearings, helpfully exposing a few more Communists, perhaps asking for a little more respect for the distinguished senator from Wisconsin, Joe McCarthy. Unfortunately for Mr Vernon, history now regards the apologists and the silent as accomplices to a dark period in American government, and the people who spoke up in opposition as the heroes.

(Also on Sb)

A questions about those ancient bacterial fossils…

Both Jerry Coyne and Larry Moran have good write-ups on the recent discovery of what are purportedly the oldest fossil cells, at 3.4 billion years old. I just have to add one little comment: a small, niggling doubt and something that bugs me about them. All the smart guys are impressed with this paper, but this one little thing gives me pause.

I’m a microscopist — I look at micrographs all the time, and one of the things I always mentally do is place the size of things in context. And I was looking at the micrographs of these fossils, and what jumped out at me is how large they are. They’re not impossibly large, they’re just well out of the range I expect for prokaryotes.

Most prokaryotes have diameters in the range of 1-10µm, while typical eukaryotes are about 10 times that size. There are exceptions: Thiomargarita gets up to 500µm across, so like I say, there’s nothing impossible about these cells, it’s just that the micrographs show lots of cells with 10-30µm diameters. And the authors come right out and report that:

The size range is also typical of such assemblages, with small spheres and ellipsoids 5–25 µm in diameter, rare examples (<10) of larger cellular envelopes up to 80 µm in diameter, and tubes 7–20 µm across (see ref. 24).

How odd. When I poke into the nervous system of an embryonic insect or fish, those are the sizes of cells I often see (well, except there aren’t many tubes of that size!). When I poke into a culture or embryo contaminated with bacteria, they’re much, much smaller. So maybe paleoarchaean bacteria tended to be larger? And they do cite a source for that size range of prokaryotes…

Then here’s a new problem: the source cited, ref. 24, is the Schopf paper, the older paper that claimed to have found ancient bacterial fossils, a claim that has since been discredited! Uh-oh. What they’re calling “typical of such assemblages” is a data set that’s widely considered artifactual now. Furthermore, that’s a simplified version of what Schopf said — he actually broke the sizes down into categories, and the range was more like 1-30 µm.

  • Very small solitary, paired or clustered rods (ca 0.75 µm broad, ca 1.5 µm long), inferred to be prokaryotic (bacterial) unicells: one unit (ca 2600 Myr old), one morphotype.
  • Small, solitary, paired or clustered coccoids (average diameter ca 3 µm, range ca 2–5 µm), inferred to be prokaryotic (bacterial, perhaps cyanobacterial) unicells: three units (range 3320–2600 Myr old), three morphotypes.
  • Large solitary or colonial coccoids (average diameter ca 13 µm, range ca 5–23 µm), inferred to be prokaryotic (bacterial, perhaps cyanobacterial) unicells: three units (range 3388–2560 Myr old), four morphotypes.
  • Narrow unbranched sinuous filaments (average diameter ca 1.25 µm, range ca 0.2–3 µm), with or without discernable septations, inferred to be prokaryotic (bacterial, perhaps cyanobacterial) cellular trichomes and/or trichome-encompassing sheaths: 10 units (range 3496–2560 Myr old), 17 morphotypes.
  • Broad unbranched septate filaments (average diameter ca 8 µm, range ca 2–19.5 µm), inferred to be prokaryotic (perhaps cyanobacterial) cellular trichomes: four units (range 3496–2723 Myr old), 10 morphotypes.
  • Broad unbranched tubular or partially flattened cylinders (average diameter ca 13 µm, range ca 3–28 µm), inferred to be prokaryotic (perhaps cyanobacterial) trichome-encompassing sheaths: five units (range 3496–2516 Myr old), five morphotypes (e.g. figures 3a–e and 4l).

So Schopf was reporting larger cells in his older samples, and now Wacey et al. are describing what look like very large cells to me in their 3.4 billion year old rocks. I’m not a microbiologist so I could be way off on this, but…isn’t this just a little bit strange? Maybe there are some micro people out there who can reassure me that this isn’t a surprising result.


Wacey D, Kilburn MR, Saudners M, Cliff J, and Brasier MD (2011) Microfossils of sulphur-metabolizing cells in 3.4-billion-year-old rocks of Western Australia. Nature Geoscience Published online Aug. 21, 20110 [doi:10.1038/ngeo1238]

(Also on Sb)

The fish rots from the head, the tail, and every place in between

Here’s an educational opportunity for everyone!

The Community College of Rhode Island [CCRI] has proudly announced that this fall, a “reiki master” will be holding a seminar on “crystal and mineral healing” at the college. This, we’re told, is

…a type of alternative therapy that involves laying crystals or gemstones on the body. Each student will experience a crystal therapy session and get a really good idea about how it changes your energy and rebalances you.

This instructor at CCRI also does “Cranio Sacral Therapy,” and uses such advanced quackery as “Bio Magnets,” “Light Life Tools,” “Dowsing,” and “Pendulums” She assures students that she is also a teacher and practitioner of many other alternative healing methods, and says that crystals have their own “intrinsic energy,” and will “interact with points on the body’s energy field, known as chakras, to promote balance and well-being.” “Each crystal has its own properties and attributes when laid on the body with a specific chakra,” she says. This collection of talents puts her well up in the tree with the top woo-woos, but she’s teaching at CCRI.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Colleges all over the place are peddling this nonense, and you can tell how administrators are thinking: it’s not about providing a good education, it’s all about what the students will pay for…and if they’ll pay for cheap, meaningless crap, so much the better for short-term profitability. Oh, and long-term damage to the school’s reputation? Let the next chancellor or president or board worry about that.

[Read more…]

A gay Australian poll

I don’t even understand why this is a matter for debate, but yes, Australians are also wrestling with the idea of legalizing gay marriage. It shouldn’t be an issue, but there it is. One thing particularly notable, though: a Catholic(!) MP spoke out clearly in favor of gay marriage.

But Catholic Labor MP Graham Perrett said he supported a change to recognise gay marriage because it would protect young gay people from abuse.

Mr Perrett, who has two gay brothers, said if the Marriage Act was to be changed over night he would not notice a change.

He said his Catholic faith was a “private matter” and he had no qualms about speaking out in support of gay marriage.

So many things said exactly right — he’s my favorite kind of Catholic.

There’s a poll. It’s mostly going the right way, but you can play with it if you’d like.

Do you support gay marriage?

Yes 68.09%
No 31.91%

No weirder than any other religious story

That Jesus guy sure got around. This is a sign in Shingo, Japan, where they claim that Jesus settled down after escaping crucifixion.

Here’s the story:

When Jesus Christ was 21 years old, he came to Japan and pursued knowledge of divinity for 12 years. He went back to Judea at age 33 and engaged in his mission. However, at that time, people in Judea would not accept Christ’s preaching. Instead, they arrested him and tried to crucify him on a cross. His younger brother, Isukiri casually took Christ’s place and ended his life on the cross.

Christ, who escaped the crucifixion, went through the ups and downs of travel, and again came to Japan. He settled right here in what is now called Herai Village, and died at the age of 106.

On this holy ground, there is dedicated a burial mound on the right to deify Christ, and a grave on the left to deify Isukiri.

The above description was given in a testament by Jesus Christ.

I like how Isukiri “casually” let himself be tortured to death.

I also wonder if the people of Shingo intentionally put up the sign to screw with Mormon missionary heads.

Marching on Europe

During the week of 17 September, the National Secular Society is organizing a series of events (in collaboration with other European secular societies) in a Secular Europe Campaign. They will be protesting the privileged status of churches, the political meddling of the Vatican, and faith schools, in support of secularism and state neutrality on religion, along with equal rights for everyone, regardless of their faith. It’s a good cause, I hope many of you take the time to participate.

They’ve made some promotional videos. I’m in one.

But I’m the weird American. Listen to Andrew Copson, head of the British Humanist Association.

Or the guy you’ll really pay attention to, Richard Dawkins.

We Americans will be following along. Remember also that we have the Reason Rally on 24 March in Washington DC!