Speaking of crackpots…

Here’s another one: Lynn Margulis. HIV denial, weird ideas about spirochaetes making sperm tails, dismissing the whole field of population genetics, failing to understand evolution in general…it’s embarrassingly bad. Dr Margulis had a weird idea once about endosymbiosis, and she was right — and now she’s always off gallivanting towards the latest, weirdest, most untenable idea she can find. It’s such a waste.

I think someone should arrange a conversation between Margulis and Wickramasinghe. Their egos will either synergize and produce a spectacular explosion of time-cube level kookiness, or they’ll mutually annihilate each other. It’s a risk I’m willing to take, for the lulz.

They’re coming to get you, Chandra!

The crackpot wing of the astrobiology community (and I do know, there are rational and scientific members of that group!) has now flowered into full-blown paranoia. N. Chandra Wickramasinghe has published a remarkable paper on arXiv titled Extraterrestrial Life and Censorship, which isn’t as much a review of the evidence as a personal recounting of the global conspiracy to silence people who claim to have evidence of extraterrestrial life. It’s a bizarre piece of work that has the keywords “Dark
Astrobiology”, when it’s not really about any of those things; the keywords should have been “MenInBlack; They’reComingToTakeMeAway; Fools!I’llTeachThem”.

It’s strange to see Wickramasinghe constantly refer to his critics as “frightened” and characterize them as “scared out of their wits”. I have no idea what he thinks they are afraid of; he even begins the paper noting that there is nothing scary about astrobiology.

The ingress of alien microbial life onto our planet, whether dead or alive should not by any rational argument be perceived as a cause for concern. This is particularly so if, as appears likely, a similar process of microbial injection has continued throughout geological time. Unlike the prospect of discovering alien intelligence which might be justifiably viewed with apprehension, the humblest of microbial life-forms occurring extraterrestrially would not constitute a threat. Neither would the discovery of alien microbes impinge on any issues of national sovereignty or defence, nor challenge our cherished position as the dominant life- form in our corner of the Universe.

And then, with a complete lack of awareness of what he has just written, he goes on to assert that every one of his critics is terrified. Of what, I wonder? He almost gets the answer.

After 1982, when evidence for cosmic life and panspermia acquired a status close to irrefutable, publication avenues that were hitherto readily available became suddenly closed. With the unexpected discovery that comets had an organic composition, with comet dust possessing infrared spectra consistent with biomaterial attitudes hardened to a point that panspermia and related issues were decreed taboo by all respectable journals and institutions.

The peer review system that was operated served not only to exclude poor quality research but also to deliberately filter publication of any work that challenged the standard theory of life’s origins.

I’ve highlighted the important phrase there. One of the functions of peer review is to set certain standards and make a preliminary sorting of the wheat from the chaff. When you’ve got two explanations, one being that the work is excluded for its poor quality and the other being that there is active censorship of work the editors fear, and you’ve opened your paper by explaining that there is nothing to fear from astrobiology, doesn’t that imply that the first explanation is better?

As another indicator that Wickramasinghe is trying to publish garbage, I notice that throughout his paper he is remarkably incapable of noticing that “organic” and “biological” are two different words. Finding organic compounds is not evidence of biological activity.

How’s that astrobiology gig working out for you, Dr Wickramasinghe?

Ooops. Hot off the dramatic fizzle of the bacteria in meteorites story comes word that Chandra Wickramasinghe is losing his job and the University of Cardiff is closing their astrobiology center. Not because they oppose his work, of course, but simply because the weird science isn’t cost-effective.

It turns out it was a pretty rinky-tink operation to begin with. All it was was Wickramasinghe, getting paid a part-time salary of $24,000/year, with a little unpaid assistance from other people working at the university. In other words, the Astrobiology Center of the University of Cardiff was Chandra Wickramasinghe sitting at a desk for a few hours a week, writing effusive editorials and essays about the wonderful things astrobiology was discovering. No loss.

Twelve million dollars!

Martin Nowak has written a peculiar paper, recently published in Nature, in which he basically dismisses the entire concept of inclusive fitness and instead promotes a kind of group selectionist model. It’s an “analysis” paper, and so it’s rather weak on the evidence, but it also seems mostly committed to trashing the idea that inclusive fitness models are the whole of selection theory, which is a bit weird since no one argues that. Jerry Coyne and others will be publishing a critique next week, which should be fun.

I would like to draw your attention to a different kind of critique, though. Nowak is also a fellow of the Templeton Foundation, and he’s been using his work on the biology of cooperation to promote Jesus, because as we all know, Christianity over the past two millennia has been a paragon of altruism and gentle loving persuasion — just ask the Arians and the Albigensians! Oh, you can’t. They’re all dead. OK, so just ask the Jews!

Anyway, it turns out that being cozy with the Templeton Foundation reaps great rewards. Nowak has both served on Templeton advisory boards and been the recipient of large awards. How large?

  • A grant from Templeton to Nowak on “The Evolution and Theology of Cooperation: The Emergence of Altruistic Behavior, Forgiveness and Unselfish Love in the Context of Biological, Ethical and Theological Implications.” Amount: $2 million (work conducted at Harvard University).

  • A grant from Templeton on “Foundational questions in Evolutionary Biology”, which runs from 2009-2013. Nowak is the leader of this project at Harvard, and the amount is $10,500,000 (!)

The second one is to a group, and superficially doesn’t sound anywhere near as silly as the first, but still, $10 million dollars…wow. That’s a nice bucket of money. Of course, if you look at Templeton’s promo for that grant, you can see what appeals to them: part of the research is into “teleology and ultimate purpose in the context of evolutionary biology” (really?), and is touted as “directly relevant to a wide range of philosophical and theological discussions and debates.” Nowak himself uses “the language of god” rhetoric in a video at the Templeton, and talks about an “unchanging reality” beneath the changing patterns of evolution.

But that first grant only looks small in comparison to the second. Two million dollars to study the “theology of cooperation”, whatever that is, is an astonishing sum of money for what looks like a humanities project. Maybe I should mention to my colleagues on the other side of campus that they, as individuals, could get a grant that would put the entire science division at my small university to shame, if only they suck up to Jesus enough.

Don’t try to tell me that Templeton influence doesn’t have the potential to greatly distort and poison academic research. When they’re throwing millions at fluff, it’s going to twist attention to more fluff.

Much fuss about nothing at all

Jesse Bering disappointed me recently. He started off another evolutionary psychology story with this warning.

Consider this a warning: the theory I’m about to describe is likely to boil untold liters of blood and prompt mountains of angry fists to clench in revolt. It’s the best–the kindest–of you out there likely to get the most upset, too. I’d like to think of myself as being in that category, at least, and these are the types of visceral, illogical reactions I admittedly experienced in my initial reading of this theory. But that’s just the non-scientist in me flaring up, which, on occasion, it embarrassingly does. Otherwise, I must say upfront, the theory makes a considerable deal of sense to me.

Oh, boy. I love the throb of adrenaline coursing through my bloodstream. So I read further, expecting fierce data and challenging ideas.

They weren’t there. The hypothesis is rather bold — it’s the idea that homophobia is actually adaptive — but there’s no substance there. It turns out the data is all dueling surveys of people’s views about gay people. “Meh,” I said, and unclenched my fists and dabbed at the blood that was going to squirt out my eyes and damped down the fires that had just begun to flare up from the sparks crackling from my fingertips. That isn’t even interesting. They know nothing about heritability, they’ve shown nothing about differential survival or fecundity, they haven’t even tried to sort out cultural biases from biology. Is this to be the fate of evolutionary psychology, that it shrivels away into irrelevancy as its proponents overhype feeble, pathetic data sets?

I couldn’t even muster the enthusiasm to spit contemptuously, but fortunately, Jeremy Yoder has taken on the subject and nicely dismantled the exaggerations and fallacies. Go read that.

Adding breasts doesn’t make it more plausible

I don’t believe one word of this study that claims staring at breasts improves longevity. It doesn’t make sense, the evidence can’t support it, and the methodology is dubious.

A rather bizarre study carried out by German researchers suggests that staring at women’s breasts is good for men’s health and increases their life expectancy.

According to Dr. Karen Weatherby, a gerontologist and author of the study, gawking at women’s breasts is a healthy practice, almost at par with an intense exercise regime, that prolongs the lifespan of a man by five years.

She added, “Just 10 minutes of staring at the charms of a well-endowed female, is roughly equivalent to a 30-minute aerobics work-out.”

Unbelievable. Simply unbelievable. I try to put in a half-hour or more on our exercise bicycle every day, and I’m sure I spend even more time than that observing my lovely wife, and physiologically, the two are not at all comparable (and I know which one I enjoy more), and it’s malpractice for a doctor to be claiming they are.

And how did they determine this amazing medical fact?

Researchers at three hospitals in Frankfurt, Germany did an in-depth analysis of 200 healthy males over a period of five years. Half the volunteers were instructed to ogle at the breasts of women daily, while the rest were told to refrain from doing so.

Yeah, right. They found 100 men who didn’t look at breasts for five years. What were they doing, comparing the general population to a prison population?

This study is even more unbelievable than the recent nonsense about bacteria in meteorites.