Gawker asks: “Was today’s earthquake another Boobquake?”

Jen responds: No.

I know I said that I didn’t want to talk about Boobquake anymore, but I can’t help myself when data crunching is involved. Well, it’s also hard to ignore when dozens and dozens of people are tweeting at me asking if I’m wearing anything revealing. For the rest of my life I’m going to know when every major earthquake occurs via a very strange alert system.

But when a huge blog like Gawker decides to comment, I feel compelled to reply. Especially when they throw out all knowledge of statistics for the sake of giggling at boobs:

Remember when an Iranian cleric said earthquakes were God’s punishment for scantily-clad women, and then a bunch of scantily-clad women organized a naked protest to disprove the cleric, but then an earthquake actually occurred at the moment they bared their breasts? Well, there is a chance that today’s East Coast earthquake was a boobquake, too, because it’s National Go Topless Day, and there are all kinds of naked boobs in Central Park right now.

I already established that the earthquakes on Boobquake were not statistically significant – that is, they occurred at the same frequency and magnitude that you would expect at random chance. But one of the main criticisms of my “study” was that there was only one data point. I never realized I had National Go Topless Day to add to my data!

So, does bearing some boobage actually cause earthquakes?

Being the giant nerd I am, I’ve spent the last couple of hours looking up earthquake data at USGS, writing simple Python scripts, and plotting things in R. I’m pretty sure this isn’t how my graduate program envisioned me using the skills I’ve learned, but oh well.

I found the dates for the 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011 National Go Topless Day. Today actually wasn’t National Go Topless Day – that was the 21st. New York was doing their own thing today, so I counted both the 21st and 23rd of days of decreased modesty. I downloaded the worldwide earthquake data for those 5 days plus boobquake, for a total of 6 samples. Now, we want to compare those especially lascivious days to “regular” days to see if earthquakes actually increase. For controls, I got the data for the three days before and the three days after any event. I picked neighboring days to control for any temporal changes that have nothing to do with boobs, but may reflect overall trends.

(As an aside, apparently National Go Topless Day is run by the Raelian cult. WTF? Allah may not support boobs, but aliens apparently do.)

Do boobs increase the number of earthquakes?

Nope (t test, p value = 0.65)

Do boobs increase the magnitude of earthquakes?

Nope (t test, p value = 0.26)

Sorry to disappoint all of you, but yet again, we have shown that boobs do not have the ability to manipulate plate tectonics. Alas, it seems this is another example confirmation bias – remembering the “hits” and ignoring the “misses.”

But if you’re still skeptical, I wasn’t bearing any cleavage when the earthquakes hit Colorado and Virginia today. Hmmm, though I was pantless. My butt isn’t anything to write home about, so many that’s why both of these earthquakes weren’t exactly devastating.

Scientists confirm that bisexuals exist

Oh science. You amuse me sometimes. File this one away in “We kind of already knew that, but thanks for getting actual data to make sure.”

Well, I already knew that, at least. But from all of the straight people who have told me bisexuals are just slutty or want attention, and all of the gay people who have told me bisexuals are just closet cases, maybe we did need a scientific study.

That’s not skepticism – that’s bubbleheaded post modern BS

EDIT: A couple readers have pointed out that I’m wrong about skepticism not being the claim that we can know nothing. Apparently the definition of “skepticism” that I am familiar with – and honestly, the only definition I’ve heard after years in the skeptical movement – is really methodological skepticism. The author at Feministe is likely talking about philosophical skepticism. I believe my misconception came from the fact that the former is the more commonly accepted, modern definition of “skepticism” alone, and that post modernism also claims that there is a problem with objective truth. But I’m a good scientist, so I’ll admit where I’m wrong. She’s using the term fine, though I still think her views are utter hogwash.

It pains me whenever anti-science claptrap surfaces in feminist blogs I typically enjoy. It’s more evidence that feminism isn’t some monolithic entity or hive mind that constantly agrees. It’s also more evidence that we need to keep talking about how skepticism can aid feminism, because some feminists are writing rubbish like this:

As you may know from the numerous threads in which I’ve gone about it ad nauseum, I’m a skeptic (an fallibilist, existentialist …sort of). Without boring you to death, here’s the short version. I don’t think you can know things. I mean know them, know them. Not feel them, not experience them…but KNOW them. We (humans) cannot (probably) be absolutely certain of anything.

Skepticism is not some ideology where one cannot know anything. And before someone runs in screaming “No true Scottman!” – you could claim skepticism means you enjoy picking your nose while riding elephants, but that wouldn’t make it so. Skepticism is, at the very core, the application of the scientific method. To relabel it as some bizarro philosophy in where there is no such thing as knowledge is ridiculous. I can’t help but think of Tim Minchin’s wonderful Storm:

Conversation is initially bright and light-hearted

But it’s not long before Storm gets started:

“You can’t know anything,

Knowledge is merely opinion”

She opines, over her Cabernet Sauvignon


Some unhippily

Empirical comment made by me

Hint: You don’t want to be making the same arguments as Storm.

There are a lot of reasons that Certainty, or at least certainty of the world outside ourselves, doesn’t work. There are the limits of human cognition. The limits of human perception. The unbridled arrogance of dogmatism. The centrality of certitude in the oppression of many, many people. But the one I want to talk about today is that dogma means that you stop learning, you stop listening to other people. In that sense I see certitude as antithetical to social justice.

Ok, I’m with you so far. Dogma = bad. Our brain messes up sometimes. That’s why we have science, right? To get around the limits of human cognition and perception. She then goes on to talk about how this sort of dogma that’s accepted as the most popular belief often gives privilege to those groups and oppresses others. Sure, I can see that. But then the argument goes back into lala land:

In my view, we can tear down all of the institutions, create perfect equality of resources or equality of opportunity, reshape the external world to our liking, but unless we reshape ourselves, address the underlying flaw in our understanding of the world and each other we will simply recreate the same power dynamics over and over again. One group will see their collective perspective as truth, as more valid than the perspectives of others, then they will once again attempt for force that reality on to others.

Which brings me back to skepticism. If we accept that we (probably) can’t know what is real, that as much as we consider, think, feel, explore we will (likely) never grasp the totality of truth, we are free to accept or learn from other people’s perspectives. We are free to accept contradictory perspectives, holding each as true for that person in that moment. We dismantle not just the current dominant narrative but also the very concept of a dominant narrative.

That to me is the goal of social justice.

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

The idea that we can’t definitively know what’s 100% true, therefore we must accept all people’s views of reality as equally valid is fucking ridiculous. You can’t simultaneously accept that there is no god and that the Christian God is sitting up in the sky hating on gays, just like you can’t simultaneously accept that gravity exists and doesn’t exist. Reality is independent of whatever delusional ideas our brains come up with.

But her views (not valid) make a lot more sense when you see what she says in the comments:

“Science to me contains the same claims to certainty (in many instances) as the most fundamentalist religion.”

Hooooooooo boy.

Science is the antithesis of dogma. We don’t base our views of truth and reality on whatever idea pops into our poorly evolved ape brains. We collect evidence, perform experiments, and repeatedly try to correct our view of the world so it’s close and closer to reality.

The fact that you’re making the same arguments as in-character Stephen Colbert should be a giant red flag:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Michael Shermer
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive

Shermer: The only way to tell, really, the difference between these true patterns and false patterns is science.
Colbert: Really? You think science is the answer? But isn’t that just your belief? You are a skeptic. You are inclined to believe that skepticism is – the scientific method – the right idea, so you look for evidence out in the world that evidence is a good thing to luck for. But isn’t science just another belief system?
Shermer: It is another belief system, but it’s sets apart from another belief systems because it has built into it self correcting machinery, that says if you don’t look for your disconfirming evidence that debunks your own beliefs, someone else will, usually with great glee in a published form.

To claim that that science is bunk, or worse, just another religion, is to obviously not understand how skepticism, science, or the universe works. You may label yourself as a skeptic, but you’re the complete opposite.

The University of Arizona Med School adds Integrative Medicine

From UA’s website (emphasis mine):

The track will focus on integrative medicine – healing-oriented medicine that takes into account the whole person (mind, body and spirit), including all aspects of lifestyle. IM emphasizes the therapeutic relationship and makes use of appropriate therapies, both complementary and alternative, seamlessly blending conventional medical training with other modalities for disease prevention and to better trigger the body’s innate healing response.

“Preventive medicine is a crucial part of a medical professionals’ training and is often minimalized in conventional medical training,” said Dr. Andrew Weil, center founder and director. “Receiving this additional training early in their career will give UA College of Medicine students an advantage in their residency and practice and a more comprehensive set of skills for treating and communicating with their patients.”

Enrollment in the IM Distinction Track will be open to first- and second-year medical students at the UA College of Medicine-Tucson beginning with the fall 2011 semester.

It will require participation in the center’s month-long integrative medicine elective rotation, attendance at grand rounds presentations and patient conferences, monthly special-topics lectures, facilitation of a “healer’s art” course, completion of more than 30 hours of online courses, a capstone paper suitable for publication and an oral exam.

I have nothing to add other than what David Gorski of Science Based Medicine said at TAM9: “Integrative medicine integrates quackery with real medicine.”

This is post 36 of 49 of Blogathon. Pledge a donation to the Secular Student Alliance here.

Should we make science girl friendly?

A recent study in the British Journal of Educational Psychology found that using stereotypically feminine examples gets girls more interest in science:

After examining a wide array of science textbooks, University of Luxembourg educational researcherSylvie Kerger concluded that most present real-world examples are “embedded in masculine contexts.” But wrapping scientific subjects — at least initially — around female-friendly topics could kindle interest in scientific fields under-populated by women, Kerger says. Studies have shown that interest counts more than ability toward choosing a major or a career.

[…]Kerger gave 294 eighth- and ninth-grade boys and girls questionnaires asking them whether they would like to study biology, physics, information technology or statistics the following year. Instead of naming these subjects, the questionnaire presented each science through topics found in previous studies to be either male- or female-friendly. “How does a laser read a CD?” was a masculine way to ask about physics, while “how is a laser used in cosmetic surgery?” addressed stereotypical girls’ concerns.

The youngsters rated their interest on a scale from one (not interesting at all) to five (very interesting). Presenting these sciences in a feminine way increased girls’ interest in physics about a half-point, in information technology more than 0.75 of a point and in statistics more than a full point.

But the male-versus-female presentations didn’t affect girls’ interest in biology. (“Watch blood coagulate from a small wound,” appealed to them as much as “reflect on how skin tanning comes about in the summer.”)

“Girls are already very interested” in that science, even when presented in a male-friendly way, says Kerger.

Increasing the girl-friendly content had a predictable effect on boys’ interest. When researchers couched information technology as learning “how to order clothes over the Internet” rather than figuring out “how the inside of the computer is structured,” boys’ interest dampened in that science.

Faced with this zero-sum result, Kerger and her colleagues don’t argue for single-sex classes. This is a cross section, so while some girls aren’t interested in stereotypically feminine topics, they point out, some boys are. The reverse also holds true. So they recommend teachers offer a choice among several modules dealing with the same scientific concepts wrapped around various male- and female-friendly topics.

tl;dr making stereotypically girly science examples increased interest from girls, but decreased interest in boys

I have a couple of concerns before we automatically insert hyperfeminine examples into science textbooks. For one thing, how did they determine that some of these standard examples are “masculine?” What’s masculine about reading CDs or blot clotting? Am I just one of those outliers for finding these things way more interesting?

It seems the real problem is that boys and girls are told from an early age what they’re allowed to be interested in because of their gender. That’s what we should be fighting. We need to destroy the notion that girls can only like science if it’s about makeup and that boys can only like science if it’s about blowing things up. Pandering to these stereotypes only perpetuates the problem.

But on the flip side, that doesn’t mean we have to avoid feminine examples in text books. We shouldn’t leave out the science of skin tanning because it seems too girly – it’s still a relevant and interesting biological question. There’s nothing inherently wrong with femininity, so it shouldn’t be excluded.

I can understand the practical desire to get more girls interested in science, but overall this just rubs me the wrong way. Instead of trying to get them with girly things when they’re almost in high school, why not cultivate a gender neutral interest when they’re even younger? If we fight stereotypes when they’re little, it helps both science and equality.

This is post 13 of 49 of Blogathon. Pledge a donation to the Secular Student Alliance here.

Why did we evolve to die?

Second donor question (might as well get them out of the way when I’m still awake!):

“I would like you to tackle the question of why there is death in terms of evolution.”

What a good question! I should preface this by saying this isn’t my particular field of research, so I don’t know any relevant studies to cite off the top of my head – but I’ll try to explain death in general evolutionary terms.

So, why do things die? At first glance, it seems counter intuitive. The whole driving force behind evolution is “survival of the fittest” – fittest being those who produce the most viable offspring. Wouldn’t it benefit an organism to live as long as possible, continuously producing more and more offspring?

The roadblock is that organisms are constrained by the laws of physics. When you boil it down to the basics, living things are just really complex molecular structures and chemical reactions. And it takes a lot of energy to keep the entropy or “disorder” of a system from increasing (which is a vast oversimplification of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, I know – forgive me). That energy comes from things like the sun (woooo photosynthesis!) or metabolizing food (woooo citric acid cycle!).

Aging is basically the general decay of processes. As you build up more and more errors, things just don’t work as well. And there becomes a point where you make a trade off. Do you expend lots of energy to keep the old structure alive so you can inefficiently reproduce, or do you scrap it and focus on the newly made organisms?

Now, that’s a painfully anthropomorphic view of evolution, but it’s basically how it works. Keeping a decaying organism alive doesn’t significantly increase its fitness. In fact, it can even decrease its fitness! If you’re in an environment where resources are scarce (aka, pretty much every environment), you’re competing with your children for those resources. So resources you use to keep yourself alive could alternatively be going into making grandchildren for you. Sometimes it’s in your best evolutionary interest to die!

I think this can sometimes be an odd concept for humans to grasp, since we’ve recently been able to avoid nature’s typical limitations. Back in our savanna days, we’d usually get eaten or die of disease before aging took place. There was no evolutionary benefit to have mechanisms in place to stave off aging even longer when we’d usually die before getting to that point. Evolution doesn’t care if your joints start hurting or you don’t reproduce as well, because you wouldn’t have been around anyway!

And that’s what differentiates scientists from the rest of people. I find this absolutely fascinating, while I probably just depressed a lot of you by calling you decaying bags of molecules that nature doesn’t care about. Ah well.

This is post 7 of 49 of Blogathon. Pledge a donation to the Secular Student Alliance here.

Neanderthals and the beauty of science

A common creationist debating tactic is to sneer at science, saying something like “It changes all of the time! Scientists can never make up their mind, and often times they’re wrong! Why would you want to trust something that admits it could be wrong?”
And my response is usually to laugh, because that’s precisely what makes science so wonderful. We don’t stick with some dogmatic book even when faced with mountains of contrary evidence. We’re constantly trying to figure out where we’re wrong, so we inch closer and closer to an understanding of reality that’s based on…well, reality. Finding out we were wrong and correcting that mistake is the beauty of science.

I bring this up because a recent news story illustrates this perfectly to me. You may have seen the story circulating that non-African humans are part Neanderthal. Yes, some Neanderthals and Homo sapiens interbred back in the day!

At first I was a little confused, because I thought we had established this in May of 2010 when the Neanderthal genome paper by Svante Paabo’s group came out. But this new paper serves as a confirmation of that work, since it avoids one of the main criticisms of the study – that the human and Neanderthal DNA were cross contaminating each other. This new research only looked at human DNA, and compared it to the Neanderthal sequence. What they found was that about 9% of the X chromosome has a Neanderthal origin in non-African humans.

But if I go back to just April of 2010, everything was different. I was taking my 500 level Evolution class at Purdue, about to graduate. Our final project included downloading mitochondrial DNA sequences of humans, Neanderthals, and other apes to determine if humans and Neanderthals had interbred. From that data alone, the conclusion was an obvious “no.” And that’s what all prior knowledge had said up until that point.

I remember one of the last questions on the project being to explain how new information could potentially change this viewpoint. We needed the whole genome before we could definitively say Neanderthals and humans didn’t interbreed! Mitochondrial DNA is only a tiny part of the whole genome. We need more information because we’re so closely related. And what if only Neanderthal males were the ones mating with humans? Then no Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA would be passed on at all!

One year later, and my professor has to totally redo his lesson plans.

And that’s what makes science awesome.

This is post 3 of 49 of Blogathon. Pledge a donation to the Secular Student Alliance here.

Why biologists shouldn’t be poets

Three Ninjas: what is it that proteins do?
Three Ninjas: they react w/ enzymes or something?
Three Ninjas: and proteins need to folded in a very specific way to interact with the right enzyme?
Three Ninjas: or…am i all mixed up?
Me: enzymes are proteins
Three Ninjas: oh
Me: Proteins do…everything
Three Ninjas: but if two people are an amazingly good fit for one another you could say they are like
Three Ninjas: proteins
Three Ninjas: folded just the right way
Three Ninjas: to
Three Ninjas: do something
Three Ninjas: ???
Me: there are enzymes that react with things, or structural things that hold the cell together, or things that act as signals, or things that regulate how other proteins are made or how much of them are made
Me: Well
Me: An enzyme binds a substrate
Me: Which is usually not a protein, but can be
Me: if you want to get really tecnical, an enzyme and a substrate that are an amazingly good fit would actually be really bad
Me: That’s what toxins are
Me: They bind to enzymes better than the right substrate
Me: So much better that they never unbind
Three Ninjas: i think that may not be the metaphor i’m looking for.
Me: So the enzyme is put out of commission
Me: Enzymes work in that they bind briefly, do something to the substrate, and then release it
Me: :P
Me: #overanalyzation
Three Ninjas: but proteins have to be folded into a very complex and specific shape to do their job though right?
Me: Yes
Jason J Brunet: GOOD ENOUGH
Me: rofl
Me: Goddamn musicians
Three Ninjas: :-)

And of course I think scientists can be equally good at creative pursuits (heck, I’m an artist too!). We just make very nerdy, scientifically accurate metaphors. Here, have a haiku:

Our love’s like poison

inhibiting an enzyme

I only want you.

…You should see the ode to fruit fly breeding I wrote for my creative writing class.

How big are the health benefits of circumcision?

When Dan had me on as a guest of the Savage Lovecast, one of the questions I fielded was on circumcision. I knew that circumcision had been shown to reduce HIV infection rates in at least one study, but I also knew the reduction wasn’t that huge. And frankly, that’s all I knew about the research, so I didn’t want to assert any more. I hadn’t read the paper, so for all I knew, it could have it’s flaws.

Turns out it does. PZ explains:

Now Salon has followed up with an article that suggests that circumcision may actually have some health benefits. I am not impressed. They cite a couple of incomplete epidemiological studies in African populations for HIV infection, and they come up with some astounding figures: a 50-60% reduction in infection rates. Wow, with that kind of advantage…sign me up.

However, these are deeply flawed studies. None of them were completed: they all abandoned the protocol and stopped the research as soon as preliminary results gave them positive values. This is like shooting craps and announcing that all your dice throws were practice…until you get a good roll, and then, yeah, that was the real deal. That one counts.

They all overstate their results. That 50-60% reduction was in relative rate, in comparison across the two groups. The actual calculated protection in absolute terms conferred by circumcision was a 2% reduction in the likelihood of infection. That doesn’t dazzle me, either, and given that the studies were terminated when they got their best results, I’m not persuaded.

And finally, give me a plausible mechanism for how circumcision would achieve these remarkable gains. Tell me how it is supposed to work. If it’s something to do with hygiene, it seems to me that better sex and health education should have the same or better effect than lopping off bits of skin.

Again, the jury is still out. So don’t be using this questionable study in the name of “science” to justify chopping off foreskin. And frankly, it would take a lot more than a 2% benefit to outweigh the concerns of autonomy in my mind. That’s not even touching on the fact that most people do it thanks to religion (which is bollocks ) or “tradition” (which is also bollocks).

And while I’m against circumcision, I’m also with PZ on his final paragraph:

I also say as I always have that I oppose circumcision, think it is a pointless and petty bit of suffering to put children through and ought to be discouraged, but I also don’t think it’s as hideously damaging as the obsessive nuts want to claim. Also, in the context of the original post, I consider it a prime example of selfish privilege to invade discussions of female genital mutilation, which does cause serious sexual and medical problems, with demands that we pay more attention to the lesser concerns of males getting lightly scarred penises.

What he said.