Everyone loves Volvox

This past weekend, I was off at Lake Itasca with a group of new biology students, and one of the things they did was collect plankton and bring them back to the lab where we took micrographs of what they found — lots of algae and crustaceans and rotifers, etc., etc. But we also saw some colonial protists, and one of the things I saw the students excitedly discuss was Volvox. It’s always nice when I can just sit down and shut up and the students are enthusiastically explaining to each other how biology works.

So, anyway, I think I know a few more people who are in the market for the swag mentioned by Matthew Herron.

ImmyVolvoxBag

What Zika does to fetal brains

It’s not pretty. The NY Times has published images of babies born with Zika-induced microcephaly, and whoa, but that virus really does a number on the developing cortex. Scientists are beginning to figure out how it’s disrupting development, and now there’s concern that even superficially unaffected children might have late-occurring deficits.

Dr. Levine said the images suggest that Zika is like a formidable enemy able to do damage in three ways: keeping parts of the brain from forming normally, obstructing areas of the brain, and destroying parts of the brain after they form.

With such a vicious and unpredictable virus, “it’s key to realize that Zika is more than microcephaly, that there’s a number of other abnormalities as they’ve shown in this paper, and its effects are going to be even more broad,” said Dr. Spong, whose agency has begun a study of what will ultimately be 10,000 babies born in Zika epidemic areas including Brazil and Puerto Rico.

Meanwhile, here in the US, our useless congress is frozen in stupidity, unable to act. Why? Because this problem requires management and screening by family planning groups, and all the Republicans can see is that funding rational responses to Zika will require the assistance of organizations like Planned Parenthood, and that one of the necessary options for affected women should be termination of the pregnancy. The research in Brazil is, in part, trying to find unambiguous criteria for diagnosing affected fetuses in utero, to eliminate false positives and to allow families to respond appropriately to the afflictions.

But we’ve got nitwits like Marco Rubio here.

Obviously, microcephaly is a terrible prenatal condition that kids are born with. And when they are, it’s a lifetime of difficulties. So I get it.

I’m not pretending to you that that’s an easy question you asked me. But I’m pro-life. And I’m strongly pro-life. I believe all human life should be protected by our law, irrespective of the circumstances or condition of that life.

No, it is an easy question. When you’ve got a fetus with a brain that’s been destroyed by a virus, you give the woman you plan to burden with the responsibility of caring it for the rest of its broken, diminished “life” the choice of what to do.

Some women will find that choice difficult, and I can respect that; others will find it easy. What’s wrong is that Rubio has to struggle with the question of whether women should have autonomy.

Australia has anti-science nuts, too

We Americans like to think we’ve got the greatest everything, including the greatest science denialists. Who can forget Sarah Palin’s rage against mere fruit fly research? And now we’ve got Donald Trump, irate about his hair spray.

Over the past few months, we’ve seen Donald Trump lower, again and again, the bar for political discourse. All the while, though, he’s been lowering the scientific bar, too. In May, for instance, while speaking to an audience of West Virginia coal miners, Trump complained that regulations designed to protect the ozone layer had compromised the quality of his hair spray. Those regulations, he continued, were misguided, because hair spray is used mainly indoors, and so can have no effect on the atmosphere outside. No wonder Hillary Clinton felt the need to include, in her nomination speech, the phrase “I believe in science.”

And it’s not just hairspray: there is a legion of scientific issues on which Trump is ignorant and wrong.

Just to be fair, though, I’ll remind everyone that Democrats have sometimes gone down this road: I remember Proxmire and his Golden Fleece award, in which he railed against science he didn’t understand, and then there’s Tom Harkin, throwing away money on quackery.

But now Australia is getting in on the game, in a very Proxmirish move.

absurdresearch

Oh, yeah, how dare they study philosophy, history, psychology, or sociology. We must ridicule what we don’t understand.

Sydney’s Daily Telegraph is suffering one of their frequent relapses into frothy-mouthed panic about government wastage on research grants. Poking at layabout academics for ‘wasting’ tax dollars on seemingly frivolous projects reminds me of nothing more than the schoolyard bully who secretly knows he peaked in year 9. Today, the Tele flattered me by holding up one of my own projects for ridicule, ironically illustrating their point that rusted-on ideology, and patronage provide the most direct route possible to mediocrity.

Don’t academics understand that the only thing we’re supposed to do is cure cancer? It’s a zero-sum game, and every study of medieval history or Renaissance art or the psychology of gender or goddamn fruit flies means another metastasizing tumor and horrible slow death.

So the solution is to demand that the Australian Research Council present grant proposals for review to the beery patrons of local pubs. Yeah, that’ll steer research funds appropriately.

Ray Hadley picked up the Telegraph’s baton in an interview with the Treasurer, Scott Morrison, demanding that the ARC justify its funding decision in the front bar of a Western Sydney or North Brisbane pub.

Yes, after the forlorn cries for better funding of research rang through Science Week last week, and as the ARC sits in Canberra to decide the outcomes of this year’s biggest schemes, the pro-ignorance side of the culture wars has decided to play their favourite game. Their attempts to paint researchers as out-of-touch layabouts draining the public purse are, if you read the comments on Blair’s blog, playing well with the patrons of those very pubs.

Uh-oh. Nobody tell Trump about this idea to put bars in charge of NIH/NSF/NASA. He’d probably think it was a terrific plan. So would his fanatical followers.

Malaugmented reality

Disturbing.

Unfortunately, you don’t need fancy computers and high tech 5-senses interfaces to get this effect, where your reality is distorted by filters in your head. This is the human condition. We do it all the time.

Here’s an example: a comic book used to manipulate the wetware in kids’ brains to make them think gay people are wicked.

gay-cure-comic

We grow up with these little modules planted in our skulls by well-meaning families and friends who also have them in their heads, and it isn’t a little box mounted on our necks that we can conveniently rip out to perceive “reality”. There ain’t no such thing possible — it’s implicit in the modeling of the world we see around us, because we don’t accurately “see” the world, we build it. Everyone is walking around in a virtual reality all the time, and what matters is how well it reflects an underlying substrate of matter and energy, how well it allows us to interact with our fellow avatars, and how much damage and how much benefit we provide to each other. This is true not just for them, fellow liberal/progressive secular humanists, but for us.

The people who made that anti-gay comic are using a version of virtual reality that creates enemies all around them, and justifies wrecking their lives. It’s also kind of crude and generates a blocky, black & white universe that doesn’t have much nuance or fine detail.

How’s yours doing?

Friday Cephalopod: This Pokemon Go stuff is getting out of hand

I mean, really. This team of ‘scientists’ hijacked a valuable research submersible, strapped their gadget to it, and sent it cruising to a depth of 900 meters in the Pacific Ocean just to catch this goofy-looking purple thing.

stubbysquid

Listen to these people…buncha giggly teenagers.

I’m a bit annoyed that they went to all this trouble to find it, and then they apparently were all out of pokeballs.

Theory

I sure wish more people understood the meaning of theory in science, but at least Piers Sellers does a good job of explaining the concept. I try to hammer into my students (as my teachers hammered into me) the primacy of evidence — observation and measurement — but evidence always has to be for or against something, and that something is theory. You can’t have a theory without evidence, and you can’t have evidence without a theory to give it meaning. So I’m always happy to see another explanation of this core concept of science.

Fundamentally, a theory in science is not just a whim or an opinion; it is a logical construct of how we think something works, generally agreed upon by scientists and always in agreement with the available observations. A good example is Isaac Newton’s theory of gravitation, which says that every physical object in the universe exerts a gravity force field around itself, with the strength of that field depending on its mass. The theory—one simple equation—does a superb job of explaining our observations of how planets orbit around the sun, and was more than good enough to make the calculations we needed to send spacecraft to the moon and elsewhere. Einstein improved on Newton’s theory when it comes to large-scale astronomical phenomena, but, for everyday engineering use, Newton’s physics works perfectly well, even though it is more than three hundred years old.

One danger of the public misunderstanding of this idea is that they do equate theory and opinion; they tear down successful theories with rhetoric and ignorance, and they also elevate nonsense by labeling it, without comprehension, a theory. And I could piss in the snow and call it a book, too.

But theories are abstract, after all, so it’s easy for people to get tricked into thinking that because something is based on theory, it could very likely be wrong or is debatable in the same way that a social issue is debatable. This is incorrect. Almost all the accepted theories that we use in the physical and biological sciences are not open to different interpretations depending on someone’s opinion, internal beliefs, gut feelings, or lobbying. In the science world, two and two make four. To change or modify a theory, as Einstein’s theories modified Newton’s, takes tremendous effort and a huge weight of experimental evidence.

This is something that should be explained to everyone visiting Answers in Genesis and their horrible dishonest “museum” and “ark park”. The central argument Ken Ham always makes is a demolition of the whole concept of theory — he claims that any alternative explanation, no matter how much it ignores the evidence, is a theory, and all theories are equal, and therefore, his bizarre, highly subjective and ideologically driven interpretation of the words of his holy book are just as much deserving of the title of “theory” as the hard-earned, constantly tested, well-supported by evidence theory of evolution.

And that’s dangerous. Ken Ham uses the degradation of theory to peddle nonsense to the rubes and make money and promote his narrow religion, but as the article explains, it’s also being used to corrupt decision-making about climate that endangers every human being on the planet.