Sometimes, it really is hard to tell faith from a mental illness

This is really hard to watch: it’s a young woman giving the benediction at the graduation ceremony at Midwestern State University, in Texas, and she’s so sucked up into her religious fervor that she starts shaking, I catch a hint of speaking in tongues, and finally ends up fainting on the stage.

If it were anything other than religion she was trying to push up there, we’d be getting that poor woman in for psychiatric help.

Mississippi Misery

There are good people living in Mississippi, I just don’t know how they can bear it.

At least this first story can’t be blamed on Mississippi. Fred Phelps is planning to picket Constance McMillen’s graduation. This will be very interesting … how will the town and her fellow students respond? Will they be cheering the Phelpsians on, or will they finally get a good look in the mirror?

Residents of the state can be blamed for this one: another lesbian student, Ceara Sturgis, had her photo expunged from her high school yearbook. Her crime was dressing up in a formal tuxedo while being female.

These are just the travails of the lesbian women of Mississippi. Somehow, I expect the life of a heterosexual woman probably isn’t much better.

Must-see TV? Frontline takes on anti-vaxers

This is an excellent review of a program that will be on tonight:

Tonight on Frontline, “The Vaccine War” presents both sides of the controversy over whether young children should be vaccinated for diseases such as measles and polio, and in a rare display of TV-news common sense and independence, one side is shown to be — sorry — wrong. Frontline’s documentary will, I hope, leave any sensible viewer feeling that you’d have be deluded or selfish not to have your kids vaccinated.

Now I’m going to have to tune in just for the unbelievable spectacle of a television show taking a skeptical, science-based view of the issue. It’s broadcast at 8pm Central time on PBS — apparently, it will also be available online as well.

It wasn’t bad — a little dry, not quite as blunt as I’d have liked it to be, but I think it made a good case. They’d show the anti-vaxers making some claim, then they’d show how they were simply wrong. Too much time was given to the doofuses, but I think that had to be done in order to shoot them down.

The most effective bit, though, was the showing of the effects of diseases like whooping cough, which can be easily immunized against. If I were a young parent trying to make a decision about whether to immunize (because I was an ignorant git unaware of the science behind vaccines), a bunch of statistics from an epidemiological study might not be that persuasive…but a video of a baby girl gasping for air and near death because of a disease that I could prevent her from getting, I’d give her the shot. No argument.

If Fox News and Wing Nut Daily say it’s true, it must be so

Ho hum. I’m getting lots of mail about this ridiculous story on WND and Fox claiming that Noah’s Ark has been discovered atop Mt Ararat. No, it hasn’t. This is yet another mob of incompetent evangelicals hiking all over a big hill in Turkey and credulously interpreting every rock formation and every chunk of wood as proof that they’ve found a big boat. It’s the same BS Ron Wyatt was peddling for years. It’s always the same stuff: distant photos of a rock formation that is vaguely boat-shaped, but nothing close-up to suggest that it is anything but a rock formation. Or sometimes it’s a photo of a glacial ridge, with the claim that the Ark is buried under that.

Then there are the occasional close-ups of somethingthis latest account has lots of those — that look more like recent construction: a cabin, a mine shaft, the reinforced walls of a well. Again, nothing competently photographed to show context or extent or overall structure, nothing that even looks like a boat. In particular, though, it looks nothing like a 5,000 year old boat left exposed on a mountaintop or churned up by a glacier.

They do have one other novel claim this time around.

The group claims that carbon dating proves the relics are 4,800 years old, meaning they date to around the same time the ark was said to be afloat. Mt. Ararat has long been suspected as the final resting place of the craft by evangelicals and literalists hoping to validate biblical stories.

Oh, yeah. Now the creationists are willing to say carbon-dating is valid.

You’re doing it wrong

In the Department of Unfortunate Analogies, here’s a Christian minister giving advice on one’s marital obligations:

As I said, sometimes sex is just sex; it’s what you do when you are married. Just like cleaning the toilet is what you do to keep your house clean…and I bet you don’t have this great desire or huge emotional connection to scrubbing the porcelain! You do it because it needs to be done and that’s the way it is with married sex… it does need to be done! It’s the glue that God gave us to bond us to one another. The bible is very clear that it is your responsibility as a spouse.

Au contraire…if ever you’re at the point where sex is a chore like scrubbing a toilet, I think maybe it’s time to back off and think and talk and figure out what you’re doing wrong.

Unless, of course, rubber gloves, disinfectants, and getting down with a great big bristly scrubbing brush is your kink.

Hawking’s aliens

It looks like there is a theme going around the science blogosphere, triggered by a few remarks from Stephen Hawking.

Stephen Hawking says we should avoid any aliens—they’ll destroy us.

Sean Carroll agrees, but think it’s highly unlikely.

Phil Plait disagrees that aliens will destroy us, also thinks it is unlikely anyway, but also thinks it more likely we’d be demolished by von Neumann replicators without seeing the aliens at all.

Ethan Siegel is optimistic and wants to run out waving his arms for attention. He scares me the most.

As the token biologist, I’ll differ from all of them. If I were in charge of humanity’s expansion into the universe, and if light-speed is the absolute limit it seems to be, I’d be sending out robot probes all right…all loaded with the biological seeds to impose human-compatible biospheres on any remotely human-compatible geospheres it encountered. It would bombard atmospheres with bacteria, sow the planet with algae, fungi, and lichens, and work its way up to grasses and trees and rodents and birds. And then it would start unspooling the stored genetic information of millions of humans into infants that would be raised onboard, educated by machines, and eventually transported onto the now hospitable planet surface to build a new technological civilization. Communication between planets would be limited and slow, and all the planning would be long-term — thousands to tens of thousands of years — so this wouldn’t be so much the growth of a human empire, but an organic expansion.

I’d expect that any intelligent aliens aspiring to expand would be doing the same thing. There would be variants: maybe Phil Plait is right, and advanced alien civilization will discard biology and advance in machine mode; it may also turn out that it is easier to modify biology than planets, so my bioprobes will produce radically gene-engineered humans who don’t look much like us anymore in order to more rapidly take over new worlds.

Anyway, my bet would be on interplanetary biowarfare, the slow infiltration of engineered organisms to change environments for alien compatibility. The only way we’d be able to survive is to fight them on the same ground. Don’t expect alien tripods with lasers, watch out for alien viruses and bacteria turning the soil and atmosphere poisonous or unsupportive. I’d also side with the people who are arguing we ought to worry about aliens, if they exist — if they’re so advanced over us that they can travel here, they aren’t going to be as interested in our primitive conversations as they are in our real estate.

I also think the possibility of that happening to us is unlikely. Intelligent life with grand schemes of interstellar expansion don’t seem to be evident out there, or maybe there are interesting obstacles that thwart such growth that we haven’t quite discovered yet.

By the way, I also caught an episode of Hawking’s Into the Universe on the Discovery Channel, the one on alien biology. I have to say I thought it was just awful, with no useful content and was merely a contrived excuse for the Discovery Channel to trot out more cgi of imagined weird animals. Biology is definitely not Hawking’s strength. Maybe his other episodes on time travel and cosmology will be more thoughtful and interesting.

Boobquake bombed


The results are in, and I’m sorry to say that women dressing provocatively caused no significant statistical difference in the frequency or magnitude of earthquakes. Geology is simply unimpressed by small localized fat concentrations on the short-lived bodies of mammals.

I’m afraid, though, that the experiment didn’t test the alternative hypothesis: that there is a lecherous god using reverse psychology on us. That’s the problem with the whole god idea — it’s a shifting target.

Everything old is new again

If you’ve ever invited me out to give a science talk, you know that what I generally talk about is this concept of deep homology: the discovery that features that we often consider the hallmarks of complex metazoan life often have at their core a network of genetic circuitry that was first pioneered in bacteria. What life has done is taken useful functional elements that were worked out in the teeming, diverse gene pools of the dominant single-celled forms of life on earth and repurposed it in novel ways. The really interesting big bang of life occurred long before the Cambrian, as organisms evolved useful tools for signaling, adhesion, regulation, and so forth — all stuff that was incredibly useful for a single cell negotiating through space and time in a complex external environment, and which could be coopted for building multicellular organisms.

But if you don’t feel like flying me out to tell you all about it, Carl Zimmer has an excellent article on deep homology in the NYT, and he uses a new example I’ll have to steal: a genetic module that we use to regulate blood vessel growth that can also be found in yeast cells, where it is used to maintain cell walls.