A specular conundrum

Every year in my intro biology course, I try to do one discussion of bioethics. One lecture is not much, but this is a course where we try to introduce students to the history and philosophy of science, and I think it’s an important issue, so I try to squeeze in a little bit. So we spend one day talking about eugenics and the Tuskegee syphilis study, and I have them read Gould’s Carrie Buck’s Daughter, and I try to provoke them into arguing with me, or at least questioning a few default assumptions.

This semester, though, I’m going to have them read something with some subtler concerns. I’m going to ask them to read about the invention of the modern speculum. It was surprisingly problematic.

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When did insects evolve?

Just consult the chart.

Dated phylogenetic tree of insect relationships. The tree was inferred through a maximum-likelihood analysis of 413,459 amino acid sites divided into 479 metapartitions. Branch lengths were optimized and node ages estimated from 1,050,000 trees sampled from trees separately generated for 105 partitions that included all taxa. All nodes up to orders are labeled with numbers (gray circles). Colored circles indicate bootstrap support (left key). The time line at the bottom of the tree relates the geological origin of insect clades to major geological and biological events. CONDYLO, Condylognatha; PAL, Palaeoptera.

Dated phylogenetic tree of insect relationships. The tree was inferred through a maximum-likelihood analysis of 413,459 amino acid sites divided into 479 metapartitions. Branch lengths were optimized and node ages estimated from 1,050,000 trees sampled from trees separately generated for 105 partitions that included all taxa. All nodes up to orders are labeled with numbers (gray circles). Colored circles indicate bootstrap support (left key). The time line at the bottom of the tree relates the geological origin of insect clades to major geological and biological events. CONDYLO, Condylognatha; PAL, Palaeoptera.

Be sure to click on the image to see it at a better resolution!

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You really want me to suffer through an anti-vax conference? How sweet.

Boy, a lot of people have offered to pay the admission fee for me to attend that anti-vax conference at UMTC (you people must really, really hate me), and I actually checked my calendar to see if I’m available that day…and sad to say, I’m not. That’s the same weekend as FtBCon, which means my first alternative, to send a proxy from FtB there, is also out.

If you’re still interested in supporting sending a skeptical delegate to this meeting, though, let me know in the comments. I might be able to dig up a knowledgeable, critically-minded individual in the Twin Cities area who’d go and write up the story.

Another thought: the Twin Cities is a seething hotbed of Skepchicks — maybe we should pass this mission on to them?

Quackery in my back yard!

Oh, great. Orac just has to tell me that the University of Minnesota is going to host an anti-vaccine conference on 24 January.

First, let me say this, though: they get to do that. Presumably they’ve rented out (or possibly obtained student or faculty sponsorship) Cowles Auditorium at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and just about anyone can do that. They may be fraggin’ morons, but they’re part of the public, and it’s a public university.

Still, this is painfully stupid and a disservice to the public trust. It’s a conference in which a train of pseudo-experts will lie, lie, lie in order to sell books — in fact, I suspect it’s a bit of a con to peddle their books, since the $99 admission fee includes dumping a pile of crap, the garbage these guys have written, in your lap. That $99 is also one reason I won’t be attending, much as I’d like to document the dishonesty; of course, another reason I won’t be going is that I doubt this gang of propagandists will be entertaining, much less informative.

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Is #OzsInBox getting full yet?

Check it out: America’s Quack, Dr Oz, opened the door to questions from the nation by inviting everyone to ask him stuff on the hashtag “#OzsInBox”.

I think we can safely say that his ‘favorites’ will be an incredibly tiny proportion of the whole, and that he won’t be promoting this hashtag on his show.

It’s so nice of the space robots to fit themselves to my schedule

It’s Wednesday. That means from 9-11 I’ll be in my office, doing some light grading and prepping for today’s lecture, and 11-12 are my official office hours, in which students will stop by and tell me things. And at about 10:30 my time, the Rosetta spacecraft will be bolting itself to Comet 67P, which we’ll know about once electromagnetic waves have taken their own sweet time to cross the solar system about a half hour later. That works for me. I’ll pencil “Rosetta” in for 11ish. I’ll make tea.

I’ll pull up the ESA live webcast and have that running while I’m taking care of other business. This is certainly a civilized way to go about exploring the universe!


I just noticed that Philae is now on the comet, securely anchored to the surface. I’ve also discovered that, my God, watching engineers is the most boring activity on the planet. The entire live feed consisted of bored-looking people staring at consoles, trying to look intelligent while doing pretty much nothing at all, and then everyone erupts into cheers when they get the right beep.

Sticking to biology now. I’ll look forward to learning about the data, but otherwise…yeesh.

What they should have done is turned the camera away from the tedious engineers (and especially the one in the tastelessly tacky and grossly offensive shirt), and focused on the images coming in from the device.

I always thought free will was philosophical micturition anyhow

David Dobbs mentioned the curious topic of the philosophy of the pee-pee dance, and since that’s one of my current obsessions, I had to read about it. I’m currently suffering with prostatitis, which means I’m somewhat, um, clogged. And worse, when I have to go, I have to go…so about every three hours, night and day, I’m standing in front of the porcelain receptacle of pain, weeping as I dribble what feels like gravel through my urethra. This has obviously wreaked havoc on my sleep schedule and my state of mind — and also, supposedly, my philosophical interpretations of theories of free will. I’m supposed to believe less in free will now.

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