Where it counts, at Liberty University

Liberty had a star-studded commencement, featuring…

  • A guy who sells duck calls!

  • A football player!

  • A movie star who gets drunk and rants about Jews!

  • Another movie star who made some crude comedies that students are prohibited from watching!

Because, if you’re Liberty University, these are the kinds of people who represent academic excellence or significant cultural influence.

Sadly missing from the gala was any acknowledgment of the quality of LU’s education. Here, let me help you out: as far as the employment prospects of its law school graduates, Liberty University ranks among the worst ten in the nation, with a quarter of LU graduates currently unemployed.

Of course, a lot of lawyers from reputable schools are also unemployed, but it’s still worth noting the special effort it takes to be the fourth worst in the country.

What does it take to get rid of delusional public servants?

Let me qualify that: what does it take to give far right lunatics the boot in Texas? That’s a different ball game, I know.

Currently running for the Texas Board of Education is the infamous Mary Lou Bruner, who is way out there.

On her Facebook page, Ms. Bruner called Mr. Obama “Ahab the Arab,” and wrote that he “hates all white people and all wealthy people because to him wealthy means white.” Although she condemned the Ku Klux Klan in one posting, she wrote positively of its roots, writing that it started “as citizens trying to fight back against a corrupt government when there were corrupt officials or no officials at all to keep law and order in the rural areas.” Of Mr. Obama’s youth, she wrote: “I heard from a reliable source that Obama was also a male prostitute for a while when he lived in New York with his male ‘partner.’ How do you think he paid for his drugs?”

She’s got all kinds of wacky ideas.

On climate change, she wrote last June: “Climate change has nothing to do with weather or climate; it is all about system change from capitalism (free enterprise) to Socialism-Communism. The Climate Change HOAX was Karl Marx’s idea.”

On the Civil War, she wrote in 2014: “Slavery is not the Reason for the Civil War. by [sic] Mary Lou Bruner…. Historians waited until all of the people who were alive during the Civil War and the Restoration were dead of old age. THEN HISTORIANS WROTE THE HISTORY BOOKS TO TELL THE STORY THE WAY THEY WANTED IT TOLD.”

On the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, she wrote last November: “Many people believe the Democrat Party had JFK killed because the socialists and Communists in the party did not want a conservative president.”

Of course she’s a creationist.

When the flood waters subsided and rushed to the oceans there was no vegetation on the earth because the earth had been covered with water. It took a while for grass and trees to grow back and the big plant-eating dinosaurs needed lots of vegetation to live. The dinosaurs on the ark may have been babies and not able to reproduce. It might make sense to take the small dinosaurs onto the ark instead of the ones bigger than a bus. After the flood, the few remaining Behemoths and Leviathans may have become extinct because there was not enough vegetation on earth for them to survive to reproductive age. Most of the dinosaur fossils which scientists have found are permanently preserved in positions of great distress as if they were trying to keep their heads above water or above the mud.

She won 48% of the vote in her district in the Republican primary.

Any of those bizarre claims ought to have been sufficient to get her rejected by sensible voters; the long history and vast collection of infuriating stupidity ought to have been more than adequate to disqualify her.

But now, finally, a Texas Tea Party group has reconsidered their endorsement of Bruner. Was it the dinosaur story? Accusing Obama of being a drug addicted gay prostitute? The open hatred of “Middle Easterners”? No. It was this video of a speech she gave before a group of teachers, in which she misrepresented the number of teachers employed in a school district.

I guess I’ll take it, whatever it takes to discredit her in the eyes of Texas voters. But it’s just odd that it was this bit of casual ignorance, instead of her record of idiocy, that finally broke some of her support.

Glyphosate turns out to be kind of a boring molecule


Derek Lowe has a sensible article about glyphosphate, the herbicide otherwise known as Roundup. Glyphosate is scary: it’s a chemical, don’t you know, and it kills weeds, so who knows what it’s doing to your children and your cats; even scarier, some crops are being genetically modified to be resistant to glyphosate, and then proteins that protect against Roundup might end up in your cornflakes.

And now some people are raving that glyphosate causes autism, because of course every chemical compound that they don’t understand causes behavioral problems that we don’t like. We must have a scapegoat. It doesn’t matter that it has never been found to have an effect on humans.

An extensive scientific literature indicates that glyphosate is specifically not genotoxic, is not a carcinogen or a teratogen, nor has any specific adverse health effect ever been demonstrated to have been caused by exposure to or low-level consumption of glyphosate. It has little effect on non-target organisms other than plants; a contributing factor to this is that glyphosate inhibits an enzyme found in plants. This enzyme is not found in humans, other mammals, birds, fish, or insects.

The use of glyphosate on herbicide tolerant crops has proven problematic to anti-GMO activists since adoption of the technology promotes the switch to a chemical with a lower environmental impact quotient and lower toxicity.

Lowe explains the statistical nature of risk, and the cautious style of chemical classifications, that allows almost any chemical to be judged as risky to some degree, and feeds sensationalist misreadings. All the data really seems to be saying that it does nothing to animals, but let’s cover our bets and keep an eye on it.

I even have an anecdote about Roundup. We tried to see if it has any early teratogenic effects. The results are sadly unpublishable (for very bad reasons) so it’s safe to summarize them here.

We have a simple assay for developmental errors. Zebrafish pop out a bunch of eggs every morning when the lights come on, and we clean them up and separate them out into beakers, with about 100ml of water for 50 embryos. For our controls, we use fish tank water, the same stuff the adults are swimming around in. It’s got fish pee in it, bacteria, fungal spores, even tiny invertebrates (check your home aquarium water — would you drink it?). We use that because it does have some challenges for growing embryos, and provides a good background for comparisons — we lose 5-10% of the embryos, usually to fungal growth, in these situations.

I had a student who wanted to test local water sources for potential teratogens. So they collected jugs of water from nearby ponds and streams, which are rich with agricultural runoff. We then grew embryos in simple, unfiltered water from Lake Crystal, or the Pomme de Terre river, or nearby ponds, just to see if we had any preliminary effect worth pursuing. This is why we use crude tank water for the controls — those sources would also be complex and biologically rich.

Here’s the boring result: nothing happened. Fish grew happily in water from a shallow pond full of duck poop with an ethanol plant on one side and a dairy farm on the other, with no detectable disorders or effects on the rate of development. In fact, the pond water embryos were healthier in one sense — they had reduced mortality from fungal infections than embryos in tank water. Tentative explanation for that: tank water might specifically be a breeding ground for fungi that thrive on fish, or the fungi might be more sensitive to agricultural chemicals than the fish are. Anyway, it was a negative result.

Then we thought to push it, and see if we could get any deleterious effect from those agricultural chemicals, so I bought a gallon of Roundup at the hardware store, and we did a dilution series. Nope, nothing. We had embryos growing in a concentration of several percent glyphosate, and they didn’t seem to mind at all. We used concentrations that were approximately ten times what Monsanto recommends that you spray directly on your lawn, and the zebrafish didn’t care.

Now of course this was a limited and preliminary experiment. All we were examining was survival and basic morphology, and we were only looking at early developmental events, like gastrulation and neurulation and the earliest twitching behaviors, and we can say with some confidence that those were unaffected. We did not look at older animals, so if it were an endocrine disruptor (it isn’t) for instance, we wouldn’t know it. We also don’t have a test for fish autism.

I can also say that I wouldn’t drink glyphosate, but not because I’m afraid it would give me cancer. It’s because the straight stuff is kind of oily and smells nasty. So those stunts where people give Monsanto executives a glass of Roundup and dare them to drink it are really misleading — they’re not going to drink it because concentrated-just-about-anything is unpleasant.

I think the bottom line is that making a claim about the deleterious effects of a substance requires actual data, and not cherry-picking suggestive and vaguely defined effects.

It also says that the file drawer effect is a problem. I suspect there have been lots of preliminary experiments that see nothing, and are abandoned as unpublishable, like ours. That effect is also complicated. You can’t tell me just to take the data we got and publish that, because it really was just a quick pilot experiment to see if there was something worth pursuing. It’s not just that a negative result is unpublishable, but that we didn’t see enough of an effect to make it worth our while to invest enough time and effort to make the results thorough and robust enough to even consider getting it into publishable shape. And thus science staggers on.

Mendel vs. Weldon, a pointless rematch


Classes are over, and that means I have more time to think…about my classes. So I’m on the lookout for ideas to improve my teaching, and gosh, look, Nature has an article on better ways to teach genetics. So I read it eagerly, and was left scratching my head. It’s a short news article, so it’s a bit thin on the details of how to teach genetics the way it recommends, but I’m also confused about how this approach would be useful.

The author, Gregory Radick, advocates teaching Weldonian genetics, rather than Mendelian genetics.

In a recent two-year project, we taught university students a curriculum that was altered to reflect what genetics textbooks might be like now if biology circa 1906 had taken the Weldonian rather than the Mendelian route. These students encountered genetics as funda­mentally tied to development and environment. Genes were not presented to them as what inheritance is ‘really about’, with everything else relegated to ignorable supporting roles. For example, they were taught that although genes can affect the heart directly, they also affect blood pressure, the body’s activity levels and other influential factors, themselves often influenced by non-genetic factors (such as smoking). Where in this tangle, we ask them, is a gene for heart disease? In effect, this revised curriculum seeks to take what is peripheral in the existing teaching of genetics and make it central, and to make what is central peripheral.

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“vagina bones”


Some gamer/anime fan complained about prudish censors painting out the vagina bones in his Japanese TV shows. I’ve dissected cadavers, I’ve gone through bone collections, I’ve even seen the genitalia of a real, live woman (I know! It was awesome!), but sad to say, while knowing about the pelvic bones in the general neighborhood, I’ve never seen bones in the vagina. I was about to laugh at this ignorant guy, but then…

I thought about it. It suddenly makes perfect sense.

What else would the teeth be attached to?

Clearly, the women of the world have been keeping a deep secret from not just your ordinary run-of-the-mill man-on-the-street, but also from all of the scientists. This conspiracy has to run terrifyingly deep. It has been incredibly thorough in hiding this basic fact from everyone. It was perhaps a little too thorough, making its one mistake in a little zealous editing of anime sexy babes, and the whole story has begun to unravel.

Thanks, gamers and guys obsessed with the authenticity of soft-core porn. You have opened my eyes to the Gynocracy.