What have my students been thinking about lately?

I gave them an exam, that’s what. That and long boring lecturings at 8am on pattern formation in the nervous system. But otherwise, I’ve had them blogging, so we can take a peek into the brain of a typical college student and see what actually engages them.

I understand these are all the things all college students everywhere are contemplating.

(Also on Sb)

Watts wrote a check he couldn’t cash

That wacky climate change denier and radio weather broadcaster Anthony Watts took a brave step a while back, and I commend him for it. He was enthused about an independent research project, the Berkeley Earth Project, that would measure the planet’s temperature over the last centuries and compare it to the work of NOAA and NASA on earth’s temperature — he apparently expected that it would show that NASA and NOAA had been inflating the data. He was so confident that he went on the record saying:

I’m prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong.

Excellent! That’s a good scientific attitude.

So the results have been published, and they look like this:

Results from the Berkeley Earth project data fits existing NASA and NOAA temperature records like a glove

You can probably see the NASA/NOAA data wiggling beneath the dark bold line of new data from the Berkeley Earth Project. They’re rather…close. Intimate, even.

What do you think Anthony Watts’ response was?

I consider the paper fatally flawed as it now stands, and thus I recommend it be removed from publication consideration by JGR until such time that it can be reworked.

Yep. Didn’t give the results he wanted. Therefore, the experiment is bad.

(Also on Sb)

How to examine the evolution of proteins

In my previous post, I described the misguided approach Gauger and Axe have taken to criticizing evolution, and one of the peculiarities of their criticism is that they cited another paper by a paper by Carroll, Ortlund, and Thornton which traced (successfully) the evolutionary history of a class of proteins. Big mistake. As I pointed out, one of the failings of the Gauger/Axe approach is that they’re asking how one protein evolved into a cousin protein, without considering the ancestral history …they make the error of trying to argue that an extant protein couldn’t have directly evolved into another extant protein, when no one argues that they did.

The tactical error is that right there in the very first paragraph of their paper, Carroll, Ortlund, and Thornton point out the fallacy of what the creationists were doing.

Direct comparisons among present-day proteins can sometime yield insights into the sequence and structural mechanisms that underlie functional differences. Such “horizontal” comparisons, however, cannot determine which protein features are ancestral and which are derived, so they are not suited to reconstructing the events that produced functional diversity.

They don’t mention Gauger and Axe, of course — this paper was written before the creationists wrote theirs — but a methodological flaw is still spelled out plainly, the creationists reference it so I presume they read it, and they still charged ahead and did their flawed study, and then had the gall to claim their work was superior.

[Read more…]

Ritualized child abuse: circumcision

Want to spend an hour cringing and twitching? This is the abridged version of “Cut: Slicing Through the Myths of Circumcision“, and you will suffer if you watch it. It is a wasteful, terrible thing to do to a child.

One rabbi interviewed is at least honest about circumcision: “It’s painful, it’s abusive, it’s traumatic, and if anybody does it who isn’t in a covenant ought to be put in prison…I do abusive things because I’m in covenant with god.” What nonsense. What a wretched excuse for abusing children.

(Warning: lots of shots of babies getting chopped, as well as closeups of adult penises.)

The arguments for circumcision are pathetic and awful.

  • “You either believe [in the covenant of circumcision] or else nothing is true”. I’ve heard that before: it’s the argument creationists use to defend the absolute literal truth of the book of Genesis, because if that’s not true, the story of Jesus falls apart, and therefore the whole of Christianity is false. Yeah, so? Then it’s false.

  • “The mystery of circumcision is profound”. Ignorance should not inspire the kind of awe that motivates one to mutilate another person’s body.

  • The health benefits. Total bullshit. As one of the speakers in the movie explains, there have been progressive excuses: from it prevents masturbation to it prevents cancer to it prevents AIDS. The benefits all vanish with further studies and are all promoted by pro-circumcision organizations. It doesn’t even make sense: let’s not pretend people have been hacking at penises for millennia because there was a clinical study. Hey, let’s chop off our pinkie toes and then go looking for medical correlations!

  • It’s tradition. Grandpa and great-grandpa and great-great-grandpa did it, so I’ll perpetuate the cycle of abuse to my children. I have to reject that: it reduces a decision to do irreparable damage to a child to repetitive, superstitious, mindless behavior.

There is no reason, other than certain rare and specific medical conditions, for maiming anyone’s genitalia. Don’t do it to your children.

(Also on Sb)

Why even bother consulting the scientists at all?

A group of scientists have done the right thing: they authored an environmental report, and are now publicizing the changes the Texas state administration tried to impose on it. This is going to backfire on the politicians: rather than hiding away the science that conflicts with their ideology, the censorship is highlighting the corruption and denialism.

Officials in Rick Perry’s home state of Texas have set off a scientists’ revolt after purging mentions of climate change and sea-level rise from what was supposed to be a landmark environmental report. The scientists said they were disowning the report on the state of Galveston Bay because of political interference and censorship from Perry appointees at the state’s environmental agency.

By academic standards, the protest amounts to the beginnings of a rebellion: every single scientist associated with the 200-page report has demanded their names be struck from the document. “None of us can be party to scientific censorship so we would all have our names removed,” said Jim Lester, a co-author of the report and vice-president of the Houston Advanced Research Centre.

Mother Jones has gone through the report line by line. Rick Perry’s mindless zombies didn’t just prune out contentious interpretations of the evidence — they cut out statements of confirmed, measurable fact, like measaurements of sea level rise in Galveston Bay. When reality conflicts with your delusions, what do you do? Rethink your delusions, or try to edit the facts?

We know what choice Perry would make.

(Also on Sb)