Monday, March 31, 2008

Science briefs – when Stonehenge and why our blind eyes but not baseball managers?

When was Stonehenge built and why?

The latest research team that plans to tackle details of the when believe it has an answer on the why: a health spa.
“This was a place of healing, for the soul and the body,” said Tim Darvill, (archaeology professor at Bournemouth University). “The Presili Hills is a magical place. The stones from there are regarded as having healing properties.”

I’m a bit leery of how Darvill uses the word “magical”; it halfway sounds like he believes in it and is ready to consecrate the beliefs of neo-Druids, other neo-pagans and various other, undifferentiated, New Agers.

Miss three changes in the “six changes” puzzle?

Maybe you’re not alone, whether it’s something like that, or more commonly, not a quiz, but an altered photo where you’re not told of any specific type or number of changes. Our brainpower may just not have the resources to keep up with modern demands on our eyes. Beyond that, such “top-down” viewings aren’t qualia, percepts or whatever other philosophical terms you prefer — they’ve been extensively massaged en route through the brain until the point “we” view “them,” whoever “we” and “they” are.

Can you measure a baseball manager?

Going beyond Billy Beane’s “Moneyball,” Sabermetrics or anything else, mathematician Steve Wang says you can, by doing an analysis of human faces. But Washington Nationals manager Manny Acta has a caveat:
Managers’ tendencies were often a reflection more of the players on the roster than of the manager’s personal inclinations. While the Mets speedster José Reyes cannot decide to hit 50 home runs and the Red Sox slugger David Ortiz cannot will himself to 50 stolen bases, managers can and will shape their decisions around the tools at their disposal.

Good point. As a St. Louis Cardinals’ fan, I expect to see a different Tony La Russa face this year, at least until Mark Mulder and Chris Carpenter are back on the roster.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Ten items to change the world? I think not

The new issue of Time touts what it claims as 10 items to change the world’s future.

Color me skeptical.

First, the list in general sounds like kinder, gentler American exceptionalism in some ways.

Second, some, like the “new austerity,” have been heralded, prophesized or dreaded in print for 20 years or more, as Time itself knows. Thank St. Alan of Greenspan for “bubbling” off that new austerity to the next generation, and expect Americans to keep trying that for as long as they can.

Third, most people will NOT be doing handstands over the elimination of customer service, item No. 2 on the list. Self-serve grocery checkouts offer an example. We didn’t get a discount when stores went to this; instead, Kroger, et al, just pocketed more money. At the same time, the kiosks don’t always work perfectly.

As far as phone-based customer service, what, are we going to work entirely with computer voice-activated programs over the telephone, or keystrokes online?

And, some are just over-hyped, such as “Re-Judaizing Jesus,” which isn’t a “future” thing at all, but simply the latest evolution of a hermeneutic that is more than 30 years old.

As far as this one actually changing anything, fuhgeddaboudit. Christian Righters still cozy up to Israel just because they believe in a literal millennium, Jews have not suddenly cozied up to Jesus, and Muslim fundamentalism has been on the rise.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Nice guys win while clueless guys remain clueless

Two interesting, but not exactly earthshaking, studies on human psychology out there, one about “guys” as humans in general, and how being nice does “win” in the game of life, while the other quantifies what most women have long said, that guys are clueless about “reading” them.

First, the “nice guys” story. Researchers found that, after a while, the negative reinforcement of punishment loses its psychological reinforcement. The research involved multiple rounds of the prisoners’ dilemma game, with a higher-than-normal punishment level.

The reason I say this one isn’t totally earthshaking is the some part of the principle behind this has long been exemplified in the “good cop, bad cop” scheme. However, this goes beyond “good cop, bad cop” in cooperation vs. punishment between equals.

Perhaps semi-equals who run free-world situations, like tyrannical bosses, will sit up and take notice.

The second study?

Researchers found that men misread women’s friendliness as sexual signals.

Well, that’s the “no duh” insight of the year, right?

But, it also found that men misread women’s sexual signals as not being about sex but just friendship.

In other words, men misreading women isn’t related to male libido and sex focus, just to men not being so observant.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Pharyngula gets creationist movie boot and lies

Sic simper creationist openmindedness to science, eh?

P.Z. Myers, the well-known Pharyngula of evolutionary biology blogging fame, was barred from attending a creationist film in Minneapolis with even better-known evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins got in, and Myers didn’t, and things got fun after that:
The movie the two scientists wanted to see was “Expelled,” whose online trailer asserts that people in academia who see evidence of supernatural intelligence in biological processes — an idea called “intelligent design” — have unfairly lost their jobs, been denied tenure or suffered other penalties as part of a scientific conspiracy to keep God out of the nation’s laboratories and classrooms.

Dr. Myers asserts that he was unfairly barred from the film, in which both he and Dr. Dawkins appear, and that Dr. Dawkins would have been, too, if people running the screening had realized who he was — a world leader in the field of evolutionary biology.

Given that Myers teaches at the University of Minnesota-Morris, and is a well-known gadfly to Minnesota creationists, I’m going to believe him and NOT the “Expelled” spokesperson.

But, please, first, a tip of the hat to the irony of creationists making a movie called “Expelled,” then giving Myers the boot. Now, the creationist spin on the moment:
Mark Mathis, a producer of the film who attended the screening, said that “of course” he had recognized Dr. Dawkins, but allowed him to attend because “he has handled himself fairly honorably, he is a guest in our country and I had to presume he had flown a long way to see the film.”

Actually, Dr. Myers and Dr. Dawkins said in interviews that they had long planned to be in Minneapolis this week to attend a convention of atheists. Dr. Dawkins, a vocal critic of religion, is on the convention program.

So, no, Dawkins didn’t fly all the way from Britain just for this film. Lie No. 1.

Second, anybody who has read “The God Delusion” knows that, while Dawkins didn’t write a Christopher Hitchens diatribe, he pulled no punches. So, the “handled himself fairly honorably” is a dig at Myers, a pretense of not having read Dawkins, and Lie No. 2.
And both (scientists) had earlier complained that they originally agreed to appear in the movie — then called “Crossroads” — because producers told them it would be an examination of religion and science, not a defense of intelligent design, an ideological cousin of creationism. People who have seen the movie say it also suggests that there is a link between the theory of evolution and ideas like Nazism, something Dr. Dawkins called “a major outrage.”

In an interview, Dr. Myers said he registered himself and “guests” on a Web site for the film’s screening. A security guard pulled him out of the line but admitted his wife, daughter and guests — including Dr. Dawkins, who, Dr. Myers said, no one seemed to recognize. Dr. Dawkins, who like everyone was asked to present identification, said he offered his British passport, which lists him as Clinton Richard Dawkins.

Lie No. 1 gets further confirmation; Dawkins wasn’t recognized because of the “Clinton” as his actual first name.

But wait, Lie No. 3 is just around the corner:
Mr. Mathis said in an interview that he had confronted Dr. Dawkins in the question and answer period after the screening and that Dr. Dawkins withered. “These people who own the academic establishment and who have great friends in the media — they are not accustomed to having a level, open playing field,” Mr. Mathis said. “I watched a man who has been a large figure, an imposing figure, I watched this man shrink in front of my eyes.”

Needless to say, Dawkins and Myers have an entirely different recollection.

Texas follows bad California law creates public health risks

Child Protective Services is needed instead of this stupid law

Nine of 12 California children who recently got measles did so because their parents refused to vaccinate them, and had the right to do so under a California law that lets parents opt school-age children out of vaccinations.

And, Texas joins California among 20 states that allow personal exemptions, beyond religious-grounds objections:
“I refuse to sacrifice my children for the greater good,” said Sybil Carlson, whose 6-year-old son goes to school with several of the children hit by the measles outbreak here. The boy is immunized against some diseases but not measles, Ms. Carlson said, while his 3-year-old brother has had just one shot, protecting him against meningitis.

And, she does so willingly:
Carlson said she understood what was at stake. “I cannot deny that my child can put someone else at risk,” she said.

Worst of all, she illustrates the dark side of the Internet — too often, it’s about what could at best be called “knowledge” or “information,” but certainly not wisdom, and “information” that fuels preconceptions:
“When I began to read about vaccines and how they work,” she said, “I saw medical studies, not given to use by the mainstream media, connecting them with neurological disorders, asthma and immunology.”

In other words, “they,” whomever “they” are, are blocking us average citizens from knowing the medical truth.
Sybil Carlson isn’t the most nutbar parent in the deck, though:
Some parents of unvaccinated children go to great lengths to expose their children to childhood diseases to help them build natural immunities.

In the wake of last month’s outbreak, Linda Palmer considered sending her son to a measles party to contract the virus. Several years ago, the boy, now 12, contracted chicken pox when Palmer had him attend a gathering of children with that virus.

“It is a very common thing in the natural-health oriented world,” Ms. Palmer said of the parties.

Where is Child Protective Services, or the California equivalent, when you need them? Seriously. I’m not hyperbolizing.

Shroud of Turin believers grasp at straws again

Yes, naïve or, more often, self-delusional Shroud sympaticos are once again making the claims that 1988 radiocarbon tests were inaccurate. Please. We’ve heard this before.

The Today Show piece is one-sided in not quoting a single Shroud skeptic to refute those claims, the claims about “ancient Mediterranean pollen grains,” that too much handling of the Shroud threw off radiocarbon calculations, that there actually is blood on the Shroud (there isn’t, at least none that’s been identified) and more.

Of course, that’s nothing new either. American TV trots out gullibility-driven twaddle like this around Christian religious holidays, as do major newsmagazines.

See Skeptic’s Dictionary for the truth about all these claims.
The suggestions that modern biological contaminants were sufficient to modernize the date are also ridiculous. A weight of 20th century carbon equaling nearly two times the weight of the Shroud carbon itself would be required to change a 1st century date to the 14th century. Besides this, the linen cloth samples were very carefully cleaned before analysis at each of the C-dating laboratories.

But, Shroud sympaticos will continue to bring up new red herrings, as Bob Carroll notes at Skeptic’s Dictionary.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Science news roundup – more ‘little people,’ Alpha Centauri, moths

More “little people” found in Melanesia

A new set of small-stature human skeletons, similar to the “Flores people,” have been found in Palau. Researchers say they have a variety of cranial and facial features, some similar to Homo sapiens and others to Homo floresiensis, which is sure to stir the debate pot as to just what has been discovered both on Indonesia’s Flores Islands and at Palau. Biggest difference is that “Palau man” doesn’t have the small brain of the Flores folk, which could add credence to the idea that those people suffered from severe iodine deficiency.

Is extra-solar life that close

Some astronomers think it is – as close as Alpha Centauri B. Statistical calculations say planets should have formed around the star. Now, I don’t know how being part of a triple-star system would affect the development of life there, if there is a planet that is habitable. That said, I’ll stick by my extremely conservative estimate on the Drake number for our galaxy.

Moths remember caterpillar life?

Simple Pavlovian avoidant conditioning says yes.

Jesus was black, eh, Rev. Wright?

Rev. Jeremiah Wright, I’m sure that finding is earthshaking news to legions of New Testament scholars from around the world.

Beyond the other racial stuff from Barack Obama’s pastor, what I most loathe is the pseudoscientific “black Jesus” crap from Wright. And that’s what it is.

And, Republicans who want to drive a wedge between Obama and Jewish voters have new ammunition to fire.

Jesus was not Caucasian, contrary to 19th-century paintings and what is likely still a fair-sized swath of white Christian belief today, and he likely was pretty swarthy, but he wasn’t from sub-Saharan Africa, either, Rev. Wright.

Pseudoscience, conspiracy theories and the like are a sure political turn-off for me.

Native Americans arrival dated earlier

“Clovis-only” theory of Indians gets death blow

A new review in Science strongly confirms that the first “Native Americans” got to the New World at least 16,000 years ago. It would seem that nobody but old-school crabbed anthropologists could still defend the Clovis theory
A new review published in the research journal Science contends that that the first Americans had their roots in southern Siberia, ventured across the Bering land bridge probably around 22,000 years ago, and migrated down into the Americas as early as 16,000 years ago.

In the paper, Ted Goebel of Texas A&M University and colleagues argue that the latter date is when an ice-free corridor in Canada opened and enabled the migration.

The new account is bolstered by genetic evidence and the discovery of new archaeological sites and more accurate dates for old sites, according to the researchers.

Genetic evidence, they wrote, points to a founding population of less than 5,000 people at the beginning of the second migration in Canada.

Moreover, they added, archaeological evidence suggests the Clovis culture may have been relative latecomers to the Americas or descendants of earlier Paleo-Indian populations represented at archaeological sites such as Monte Verde in Chile. That site is thought to have been occupied 14,600 years ago.

This squares with my belief that a multiple-migrations theory of population of the Americas is more likely than a one-movement theory, with the likely exception of Inuit/Aleut, and perhaps Na-Dene. Along with that, this would seem to favor “splitters” rather than “lumpers” among linguists.

Anybody who has looked carefully at the phenotypic variety among Native Americans, trying to focus on those with little admixture from Caucasian or African backgrounds, and the phenotypic variety among east Asians, probably has an instinctual leaning toward multiple migrations, too, IMO.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Chris Hedges calls strawman ‘New Atheists’

First, he apparently think Chris Hitchens’ political beliefs apply to all New Atheists, assuming that Salon is correct when it says he says they are:
Conspicuously allied with the neocons on the subject of America's role in world politics.

To be honest, Hitchens is the only New Atheist I’ve heard express ANY political opinion beyond worrying about the Bush Administration’s, or some states’, folding, spindling and mutilating of the First Amendment through faith-based programs getting government money, school boards and state boards of education trying to teach intelligent design, etc. Hedges says Harris, in his first book, talks about a nuclear first strike on the Arab world, but you don’t have to be a neocon to believe in that – which I don’t, anyway.

Dawkins, and Dan Dennett, who apparently doesn’t even draw Hedges’ eye, are about as apolitical, otherwise, as you can get.

As for claims that New Atheists are secular utopians, some may be, others certainly aren’t.

That said, I will agree that Harris is intellectually shallow, and Hitchens is a performer.

Again, though, “New Atheists” are a lot more than these two.

It’s hard to believe that “I Don’t Believe in Atheists,” with its shallow diatribes, was written by the author of “War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.”

But, Chris Hedges, that’s OK. We don’t believe in you as a serious writer anymore, either. Maybe you’re dying for a war addiction fix or something.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

‘Pavarotti’ is pronounced with a short ‘o’

Scott Cantrell, classical music critic at The Dallas Morning News, bitched about pronunciation issue among announcers at WRR-101 a couple of years ago, in an in-depth profile. Unfortunately, Karen Moyer wasn’t yet at the station to get her hand slapped.

For some reason, she seems to believe that “Pavarotti” is pronounced with a long “o.” And, she makes things even worse by mispronouncing his name with an attempt at an Italian accent.

What makes it worse is that she not only knows classical music, she’s actually sung opera.

Pinkers – like brother like sister in quasi-junk science

It appears Susan Pinker is just as much a died-in-the-wool “naturist” on evolutionary psychology issues as is her better-known brother, Steven.

Specifically, in a new book, it’s the difference between boys and girls at school, followed by men and women at work, that gets her research psychologist’s explanation of being all about hormonal-generated differences in male and female brains.

The facts of difference are unarguable today. In school, boys are truant more, cause more disciplinary problems, perform lower on standardized tests, etc. But, they’re still the leaders in the business world. And, glass ceilings aside, women in the business world generally indicate higher degrees of job satisfaction, Emily Bazelon notes.

Pinker rejects the idea that much of this is due to the “glass ceiling” effect in the business world. She does admit there is some sexual bias, but says its effect is minuscule:
To support this, Pinker quotes a female Ivy League law professor: “I am very skeptical of the notion that society discourages talented women from becoming scientists,” the professor writes. “My experience, at least from the educational phase of my life, is that the very opposite is true.” If women aren’t racing to the upper echelons of science, government and the corporate world despite decades of efforts to woo them, Pinker argues, then it must be because they are wired to resist the demands at the top of those fields.

Now, Clarence Thomas would claim that society doesn’t hold black men down, either, and would cite his own academic experience, without talking 5 seconds about how much he benefited from affirmative action. So, without knowing who this professor is and how she got to where she is, I can’t even begin to dissect her statement.

Beyond that, Bazelon does her own takedown on Pinker and that pesky “glass ceiling”:
Pinker also skips past an answer to the book’s central question that may have more explanatory power than her other arguments, even if it’s more prosaic and familiar to many a parent. Boys lag dramatically behind girls in terms of psychological development and physical resilience and then start to catch up as teenagers, as a long-running and well-known study Pinker cites documented. Maybe after a few years as girls’ developmental equals, boys are ready to compete in the work force — and then zoom ahead as cultural norms and discrimination push women back. After all, why would girls’ hard-wired predilection against competition stay on ice while they blithely sweep all the academic honors and then kick in only at work?

I don’t reject sexual dimorphism in the human brain, at all. But, as Matt Ridley put it in his excellent book by that title, I affirm the reality of “nature via nurture” and it is obvious neither Pinker sibling does.

Fortunately, the pendulum of scientific study, even in molecular biology and genetics, as we learn more about how much “junk DNA” is actually regulatory sequences which control the expression of codons, regulatory sequences affected by cellular environment.

Let me take this opportunity to remind readers of the difference between evolutionary psychology and Evolutionary Psychology, too.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Science roundup: old Grand Canyon, ringed Saturn moon, hereditary happiness

Grand Canyon 3x older than thought

The western section, at least, of the Grand Canyon has been redated to an age of 17 million years, or three times older than the previous 6my estimate. Scientists from the University of New Mexico used uranium-lead radioactive dating to get new ages for sediments on Grand Canyon cave walls.

Ring around Rhea

Evidence from the Cassini spacecraft appears to show a ring around Saturn’s second-largest moon, which lies within the planet’s magnetic field.

Happiness propensity strongly hereditary

In what is somewhat of a “no-duh” report, given the amount of research on the heritability of depression and other mental health issues, British and Australian researchers claim about half of a tendency toward happiness is heritable.

That said, the story needs a couple of caveats.

First, note that I said “tendency toward happiness,” and “happiness propensity” in the subhead.. The actual story, showing that even AP or big newspaper writers who cover science stories oversimplify human biology pieces into “nature vs. nurture” rather than “nature via nurture” for the true pattern of how genes and environment interact.

Also, on personality traits, we know that maternal stresses can affect the prenatal womb environment enough to cause a propensity toward anxiety, among other things. And, no personality assessment today is able to factor out this environmental influence in order to not falsely ascribe its effect to genetics. Of course, identical twins are in the same womb; a fair amount even share at least the same placenta and some even share the same amniotic sac, depending on how late after fertilization the original zygote divided. So, at least part of that claimed “50 percent genetic” isn’t so; 40-45 percent is more likely the reality, which is still big.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Science journalists get depression wrong by dissing SSRIs

A set of psychology researchers say that media use of “chemical imbalance” to describe depression is scientifically inaccurate.
However, the researchers then have to follow up on the overhyped recent Public Library of Science report and claim, as does the author of the World Science story, that modern anti-depressants really don’t work:
The drugs, known as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors or SSRIs, recently turned out to be largely ineffective.

Boy, that’s wrong in several ways. First, the PLoS story only claimed that antidepressants were relatively ineffective in mild or moderate depression, not all depressions.

Second, the PLoS authors overstated their case. From the study:
On average, the SSRIs improved the HRSD score of patients by 1.8 points more than the placebo, whereas NICE has defined a significant clinical benefit for antidepressants as a drug–placebo difference in the improvement of the HRSD score of 3 points.

That may not be great effectiveness, but it’s nowhere near “largely ineffective.” And, since milder depressions are usually likely to ring up lower diagnostic scores, the numeric steps of improvement, by HRSD scores, that provide relief, will be lesser anyway.

So, perhaps science journalists aren’t so great about writing about depression, either.

Journalists get depression wrong with ‘chemical imbalance’ meme

No, I still don’t believe memes exist, at least not in a strong sense, but the word is a handy catch-all. Anyway, that’s besides the point.

A set of psychology researchers say that media use of “chemical imbalance” to describe depression is scientifically inaccurate. Rightly, they note that the idea comes from classical Greece’s concept of the four “humors” in the body.

Reverse evolution DOES happen

Or so it would appear. Turkish scientist Uner Tan, who first announced this idea two years ago, has now been vindicated in his pronouncement that such a genetic retrogression was possible.

And, in apparently being proven right, he has overcome the shameful cultural imperialism of a renowned British scientist that I described when Tan first announced his startling findings.

To go back, in 2006, Tan announced he had found an apparent case of “reverse evolution” in a few Anatolian peasant families walking on all fours. While ideas of retrograde evolution had already been in the air, it had never been considered a realistic thing to happen among Homo sapiens, let alone the idea of proving it genetically.

Well, the new news is that, as linked above, Tan has found just such a genetic cause. He had, back in 2006, said that with colleagues, he mapped the defect to a region of the genome called chromosome 17p, a site of some of the biggest genetic differences between humans and chimpanzees. As World-Science noted, researchers have also recently linked bipedalism to 17p.

Here is where the cultural imperialism I referenced before comes in. Tan made this claim about what happened after he announced his discovery:
He claims that after he invited (British scientists) to study the syndrome with him in Turkey, they “stole” his credit for discovering it, sold the story for an upcoming BBC documentary and — worst — paid the victims’ family to stop cooperating with him and other researchers.

Chief offender? Internationally renowned psychologist and cognitive scientist Nicholas Humphrey. Humphrey then, essentially, threw Tan under the bus, calling his theories “bizarre” after basically bribing the families not to cooperate with Tan any more. This was instead of supporting the research of Tan, which might be more difficult in a primarily Muslim country, albeit a secular state.

Well, now, Tan has the last laugh, or the last research triumph, over Humphrey. Tan and colleagues have identified a gene linked to the condition, which they call Unertan syndrome. And, they’re being published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which World Science says is one of the three most prestigious scientific journals, according to Thompson Scientific. In other words, it ranks right behind Science and Nature. Take THAT, Nick Humphrey:
The new paper, co-authored with six of Tan’s colleagues including his wife, Meliha, reports that a responsible mutation has been found in two of four families that by now have turned up affected by “Unertan syndrome.”

“Human molecular genetics in Turkey is ‘on the map’ with this elegant analysis,” said Mary-Claire King, a geneticist at the University of Washington and an editor of the Proceedings.

Some scientists claim that the move to bipedalism involved many genes, therefore reverse evolution in walking wasn’t likely. Tan says, on the contrary, he thinks multiple genes may be involved with at least some of the afflicted people he has studied.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Is Frank Drake right about an intelligent galaxy?

Write your own Drake equations and make your guess on intelligent life in other solar systems!

Those of you familiar with the SETI project will love this. MSNBC lets you fill in your own guesstimates on the parameters of the Drake equations.

I tried it more than once. The first time, I got a Drake number of “1,” meaning I believe we’re all alone in this galaxy. The second time, being much less conservative, my calculations returned an estimate of 7,650 planets, still below Drake’s current guesstimate of 10,000.

While my “1” may be low, I think it’s a lot closer to the truth than 7,650, let alone 10,000; a third calculation gave me a Drake number of 988. I think Drake and some other people like him are somewhat of what I’ll call “secular salvationists,” wanting science to provide a quasi-metaphysical jolt to life on mundane Tellus Mater. In any case, I think they are WAY too optimistic.

The main bottleneck I see is on Drake point 3, how many planets in a solar system are habitable by virtue of having liquid water. I think that number is less than one per average solar system, something like 0.7 or so. I see lesser bottlenecks in the likelihood of life to develop, point 4, and that life to develop to our level of intelligence or more, point 5.