They’re still bacteria…and fish…and apes…and…

Ray Comfort has been doing a great job of stirring up his minions on twitter, who, without exception, seem to be as ignorant as he is. I already mentioned one, Republican Mom, who combines dismal stupidity with chipper smugness, but there are others. And they seem to be going after everyone with a reputation for defending evolution. I’m not feeling besieged, though: it’s more like a swarm of fluff.

They’re also going after Carl Zimmer (and a bunch of the names he mentions are familiar — there aren’t that many of them, but they’re all really noisy and each one is peppering lots of people with the stupid). He’s now written a very nice post explaining their error.

Here’s what creationists like Comfort always do to deny evolution: they demand an example of a new feature evolution, of evolution in action. Then we give them one (we have many) in some species of bacterium or fish or whatever. They ignore it (seriously, they promptly wave it away and pretend that what we’ve told them isn’t what they asked for), and immediately turn to all the other traits of the organism that are still unchanged, and announce, “Well, it’s still a bacterium.”

It’s infuriating. Here’s a single-celled organism that evolved two tails; “it’s still a single-celled organism.” Here’s a fish that evolved armor plating; “it’s still a fish.” Here’s a fruit fly that evolved a whole new mating signal; “it’s still a fruit fly.” Notice what’s common in every case: the conscious denial of what you just told them. It’s not just ignorance, it’s willful ignorance.

There’s no way around this game. They demand something that evolution does not predict, and claim its absence falsifies evolution. If I had an experiment in which a population of single-celled bacteria evolved into a multi-cellular mouse while recorded by a video camera (which would falsify all of our evolutionary theories, by the way), they’d ignore the miracle and say, “Well, they’re still both made of cells, aren’t they? It’s still cells.”

Once upon a time, a population of apes evolved an upright, bipedal stance — but they still had hairy ape bodies and binocular vision and grasping hands — they were still apes, but they were on the long road to us. And we are still apes with a host of shared attributes with chimps and gorillas and orangutans. When you see Ray Comfort and he denies that he is an ape, point out that by his “they’re still just X” argument, he has scapulae and hair follicles and a liver and jaws and an autonomic nervous system just like a chimp, and if he’s going to deny the evolved differences, he’s still just a chimpanzee. He’s still got a spine, just like a fish, so he’s still just a fish. And he’s bilaterally symmetric, just like a worm, so he’s still just a worm.

Forest for the trees…

Something that really, really annoys me is reading a paper discussing a rich and complex data set in which the authors squink their eyes tightly and use statistics to zoom in and stare fixedly at one parameter. It happens all the time. It’s as if some scientists think it’s a triumph to reduce a phenomenon to one single simple cause, rather than appreciating the diversity of inputs.

The latest example is a study pegging yet another medical procedure as the cause for autism, in this case, early induction of labor and augmented delivery. Autism is probably a perfect target for these kinds of silly approaches; it almost certainly has a wide range of contributory causes, and it’s always a mystery to the parents of affected children, who look for answers. It’s the vaccines, they say. No, it’s the drugs we took during pregnancy. No, it’s the doctors who did funny business in the delivery room.

Fortunately, we’ve got Emily Willingham to actually look at the forest.

When she looks at the data, she finds that the authors are right, that there’s a correlation: if a mother gets both induction and augmentation, there’s a 27% increase in the chance that the child will later be identified as autistic.

What they don’t tell you is that the same data set shows that having a college-educated mother increases the odds of autism by 30-33%. And that smoking during pregnancy decreases the chance of an autism diagnosis by 14%.

Wait, stop! If you’re pregnant, don’t take these numbers as an indication that you need to start watching more Glenn Beck to make yourself stupider, and that you need to take up a tobacco habit. You’re looking at the tree again and ignoring the forest. What these correlations suggest is that we should be looking into some property of the population that unites them — that each one in itself is not necessarily causal, but that they are common symptoms of the true link. We need to see the big picture to puzzle out the answer.

And sometimes interpreting the phenomenology of a single parameter analysis would lead to a bad result: I can pretty much guarantee you that being a heavy smoker during pregnancy is much worse for the fetus than non-smoking.

Willingham does see the bigger picture.

This study didn’t show that induction or augmentation during childbirth substantially increases the risk for autism, although it hints at a greater influence of socioeconomic status and by implication, healthcare access. If anything, based on earlier literature, it adds a slight if only mathematical confirmation of the perception that births involving autistic children can be associated with more complications, such as the presence of meconium, gestational diabetes, and fetal distress, than births involving non-autistic children. And that points to induction and augmentation as useful in these situations, not as problematic, and certainly does not affirm them as a risk.

Oh, look, it’s practically a jungle!

They may have changed, but they’re still just numbers

I’m sure no one would be concerned by this at all: certain Xerox machines in certain scanning modes make a marvelously specific compression error. A number 6 might become an 8, or a 1 is turned into a 2. Photocopy a page with a column of numbers, and who knows what you might end up with.


This could not possibly be a problem for anyone, could it? At least it doesn’t convert 4,540,000,000 into 6,000. That would be worse.

(via Making Light)

All SF should be oceanic

Because that’s what we are and where we come from — and every cell contains a little ocean…a hot little ocean rich with complex contaminants and lovely energetic cascades. So I’ll share two wonderfully appropriate examples today.



Tonight at 8pm ET Jennifer Ouellette talks with JPL planetary scientist Kevin Hand about the new film Europa Report and astrobiology. You’ve all seen it, right? It’s a new independent movie that mostly gets the science right, with a scientific crew sent off on a long voyage to Europa to find out what’s going on in the gigantic deep ocean beneath the icy crust. Then it turns into a bit of a horror movie when they do find out. There were a few things that made me go “huh?” — why is the first major manned mission after decades of neglect going all the way to Jupiter? They seem to have an awfully easy time punching through an ice crust that has to be at least several kilometers thick. And shouldn’t the surface of Europa be as inimical to its deep-sea life as the surface of the moon would be to ours? — but I managed to suspend disbelief for most of it, which is a good sign for me, arch-nitpicky-nerd that I am.

You should listen in, it could be interesting. Or watch the movie, it is on iTunes.

The other thing is that while idling in Minneapolis yesterday I read Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross. It had a wonderfully intricate plot about interstellar banking (!) but there were a couple of sciencey bits that tickled me.

One is that the characters are all “robots” — humanity is extinct, we purely biological organisms are called “Fragiles”, and our cultural descendants are all engineered. They defy our usual conventions about robots, though. They’re made of cells called mechanocytes, larger and more elaborate than our cells, but with similar properties of managing thermodynamic flows and forming structural elements. I approve. I think life is always going to be a compromise between rigid durability and flexible plasticity, and modular subunits is always going to be the best way to go for allowing repair and remodeling. So despite being machines, these beings have all the properties of human beings and so can be relatable protagonists.

It also makes them far more malleable. Brain functions are entirely modular and stored discretely in a way that allows them to be maintained independently of the body, so one way to do interstellar travel is to transmit your software at the speed of light to a distant star, where a new body of mechanocytes can be assembled. This requires building an infrastructure at the other end, of course, which can only be done by sending machines at some small fraction of the speed of light to the target first, which is why the story is all about interstellar banking — it turns out that you need a stable way to maintain debt over centuries, and interesting protocols to transfer capital between multiple star systems most of whose inhabitants will never physically meet.

Anyway, the oceanic part: a lot of the action takes place on a water world called Shin-Tethys (Stross on world building). People adapted by engineering new bodies, so many of the near-surface inhabitants are mer-people. Meh. Who wants to have a compromise physiology? But the cool thing is that the robot-people who live very, very deeply and mine dissolved radioactive minerals are…squid-people. Yes, my utopia has a fictional existence. Furthermore, these are altruistic collectivist squid people. Squid people with a plan.

“…we plan to establish a world completely free of money, a world populated by a new teuthidian humanity, with a society based on consensus, not debt, and respect for collective autonomy, not competitive commerce. A world where the word ‘free’ will not be needed because nothing will cost anything and everything will be attainable!” Her skin shone with the pearly luster of her enthusiasm for the radiant future of the communist squid-nation: “I’m going to bring about the Jubilee! For the squid-folk, anyway.”

Wow. I thought I was the only one who had those dreams.

Recommended. Read a book, watch a movie, or listen to an interview tonight, your choice.

Correcting the imbalance

This is a great short film that discusses the history of women in chemistry in Scotland, but it’s applicable to all of the sciences everywhere.

A telling quote: one chemist talks about how women were doing well but not getting promoted internally, so the well-meaning senior administrators tried to improve the situation by offering the women a course in how to get promoted.

To this day I still don’t understand how they didn’t realize it was them that needed the course.

(via Janet Stemwedel, who has a transcript.)

But what about the baaaaabies?

Nicotine is a teratogen — it’s known to have all kinds of interesting effects on the developing fetus. It’s very strongly associated with low birth weight, increases the likelihood of premature placental detachment, and it also causes deficiencies in lung development. You shouldn’t smoke during pregnancy (or use nicotine patches or any of the other alternatives for nicotine delivery), and if you really, really care about babies, you shouldn’t encourage other people to use nicotine during pregnancy.

Isn’t Jenny McCarthy supposed to be really passionate about protecting children? I recall her getting rather shrill about those wicked vaccines with their traces of propylene glycol used as a preservative.

Forget that, though, when money is on the line. Jenny McCarthy is now shilling for e-cigarettes…which use propylene glycol as part of a delivery system for nicotine.

So…in Jenny McCarthy’s mind, vaccines, which have been proven safe and even better, prevent serious diseases, are evil; e-cigarettes which give you a jolt of a known teratogen and toxin are sexy and fun.

As a reward for her hypocrisy and child-killing opinions, she gets a cushy job on broadcast television.