Biochemical Soul Musings on Nature, Science, Evolution, Biology, and Education

2Jul/09Off

Grandpa’s Pet Therapod

nope - not a fake at all...

nope - not a fake at all...

I hang out online sometimes with a bunch of like-minded fossil-enthusiasts (The Fossil Forum).

Tonight somebody posted this:

Just watched the new this evening and they were talking about a dig going on right now outside of Glen Rose, on the McFall ranch. The news showed the footprints of the therapod and the human prints together. It was interesting. For report go to cbs11tv.com

So I mosied over to the Dallas, TX CBS news site and found the article "Local City Known As Dinosaur Capital Of Texas, by Arezow Doost."

Sounds innocuous enough for a title, right?  Then I read the first three sentences:

"Did you ever think that there were dinosaurs in North Texas?

As it turns out, this is one of the most prolific areas for dinosaur tracks in the state. One group of scientists have even found tracks dating back millions of years."

Read that last sentence again:

"One group of scientists have even found tracks dating back millions of years."

Cause, you know, all those other groups found tracks that weren't millions of years old...
(for those of you who missed out on elementary school, dinosaurs went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous sixty-five million years ago.)

Absolutely hilarious...and mind-numbingly maddening.

After reading a bit more, then you learn what it is really about:

"Scientists believe that one of the most unique findings is human prints dating back to the same period as the dinosaur prints. "We are looking for the truth," said Baugh. "We don't want anything else but the truth.""

I rolled my eyes. Obviously, I had a feeling what I would find out with a little search, but I decided to check out the scientist quoted in the piece, because I thought it was a bit odd that he said "We are looking for the truth. We don't want anything else but the truth."

You see, that is a very non-scientist thing to say in a media piece, and it instantly threw up a red flag to me. I say this because when one is actually in the practice of being a good scientist, a statement like that is like a commercial fisherman saying "no really, we're just out here to catch fish." What else would a fisherman be fishing in the ocean for? If you're a scientist, a statement like that is less than unnecessary.

Yeah this guy, Carl Baugh, is a young earth creationist discredited in the scientific community and with a questionable education. He is obviously seeking to prove his own wrong beliefs - not actually do what good scientists do, which is let the data speak for themselves. Check this out for some rather hilarious reading on Baugh: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Baugh

Sigh...it is Texas after all (I was born and raised in east Texas, FYI)

As an added moronic bonus, if you look at the url of the story you'll see that it's filed under "pets."
(http://cbs11tv.com/pets/Texas.Dinosaur.Capital.2.1069336.html).

What kind of of idiots are running that station?

One thing about the fossil record - it's insanely consistent across both time and continental space, if fragmentary. And it has consistently shown us that human and therapod existence is quite a few tens of millions of years apart.

Hell, mammals were barely existent back then, compared to today. But primates? LOL - no.

***

Side note: I'm going fossil hunting in Aurora, NC tomorrow and at Greens Mill Run in Greenville, NC on Saturday!!  Shark teeth here I come. Please just let me find a megalodon.

17Sep/08Off

Tangled Bank #114 is Live

The latest edition of the blog carnival, the Tangled Bank #114 is now up over at Science Made Cool. Go check out the latest in science blogging from the past fortnight.

They have included my own recent post on using the new Vaccine/Autism study, which further confirms the LACK of any connection whatsoever between the two, to teach science students about the "post hoc ergo propter hoc" fallacy" in pseudoscience.

"post hoc ergo propter hoc" means "after this, therefore because of it", and refers to the phenomenon where something will happen to someone, then something else will happen, and the person will erroneously conclude that the first caused the second.

An example: a child gets a vaccination, then a child develops autism, then the parent says "vaccines caused my child's autism."  This is false logic. The causation could be true, but studies would have to prove it. In the case of autism/vaccinations, this has been repeatedly falsified.

9Sep/08Off

J.J. Abrams New TV Show “Fringe” is a Hunk of Crap (and Bad for Science)

sucks

Okay, so let me first state upfront that I am a scientist throughout every level of my psyche. I do not believe in Gods, the paranormal, homeopathic remedies, astrology, magic, UFOs, immortal souls, the chupacabra or any other such nonsense.

That being said, from an entertainment standpoint, I am a huge fan of nearly all science fiction, fantasy, and literary and cinematic portrayals of pseudoscientific and paranormal ideas (at least the good shows/stories).

In fact, I'm not embarrassed to admit that one of my favorite TV shows is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Cool demons, magic, and truly amazing character development, mixed with brilliant examinations of our shared cultural and human experiences...it's got it all. Also, I should mention that I was a fan of both "Alias" and "Lost".

That being said, I just watched the pilot episode of J.J. Abrams new TV show "Fringe" and I must say that it is a steaming load of shite on multiple different levels. And on top of all the things that make it horrible entertainment, I think it's bad for science as well.

I'd like to first tackle the reasons I think it's bad for science.

Reason 1: The main "scientist" character is a clinically insane old guy in a white lab coat that gets yanked from the loony bin to do his scientific deeds.  He's the stereotypical "mad scientist". And he's not the only one. Another mad scientist who used to be buddies with the other mad scientist turned himself into Bill Gates and now runs an evil science corporation (at least they strongly imply the corp is gonna be evil).

Reason 2: Just as an example of how science is portrayed in this show - one of the characters in the corporation says (paraphrased) "Science and technology have grown at such an exponential rate for so long, it’s now beyond the control of regulation." This seems like it will be a major theme of the show - giving a run-down of every possible way imaginable that science can go wrong. FEAR science! It's out of control!

Reason 3: This is basically the same as #2, but it comes not from the show but from J.J. Abrams himself as quoted in this interview (no longer available):

The show is coming out at a time when every week we read or see some kind of potentially horrifying scientific breakthrough … We are at a time where science is out of control,” Abrams told reporters during a conference call [emphasis mine]. He pointed out that recently scientists talked of having some success in attempting to develop an invisibility cloak device after creating two types of materials that can bend light the wrong way.

“The stuff you would never in a million years think is actually possible, is happening every day. It is pushing what we all thought was that comfortable quaint version of what sci-fi is, to a very different place, and that is where ‘Fringe’ lives,” Abrams said.

Obviously, Abrams knows exactly jack shit about actual science. The cloaking device is cool, but still a far cry from the science fiction incarnations that have been dreamed of for decades. If anything, I would argue that science is far behind most science fiction visions of our technological possibilities, and it certainly isn't producing "the stuff you would never in a million years think is actually possible". Despite this reality, Abrams now gives watchers more fears to ruminate on.

Reason 4: Despite the fact that Abrams himself has said that much of the show will at least revolve around real modern science, most of what I've seen in the pilot is nothing but moronic caricatures of real science. One quick example: When mad scientist guy is given back his ancient underground laboratory at Harvard from many years ago, he asks for a bunch of lab equipment, including "a microorganism detector".  What the hell is that? A microscope? Maybe a PCR machine for sequencing DNA (which he's never heard of because he's been in the mental clink for years). I've been in many many labs, but somehow I missed out on being trained to use the microorganism detector.

Which brings up the main reason I hate this show - The plot setup is so retarded that I simply cannot suspend my disbelief.

You see, good shows dealing with the paranormal or pseudoscientific do one key thing that makes all the wierd stuff perfectly alright - they give you a good reason to suspend your disbelief. Buffy, for instance, simply tells you "magic is real, demons are real, and she's the chosen one to kill evil".

Alright, I can accept that - now bring on Spike...

As another example, Heroes, X-Men and The 4400 simply said "There are people with superhuman or paranormal gifts. It's tied to biology or genetics. That's all you need to know." Alright, I accept your scene - on with the cool acts of derring-do.

"Fringe", on the other hand, makes its own setup utterly unbelievable and stupid almost from the very beginning. Fifteen minutes into it, we're told that there's some crazy disease melting people or turning their skin clear, and only one man can save the now-infected FBI agent. The savior is non other than the mad scientist who's been in the Nut Hatch for years.

So they pull him out, muttering, stuttering, and acting generally crazy, and they give him his lab. He immediately begins prepping a few electrodes and a massive tank full of saline or something, into which he puts the girl of the show. He hooks her up to the FBI dude so they can "share consciousness".

Never mind the fact that science and technology has in fact progressed far enough that the ten-year-old scientific knowledge of an insane man would be almost completely obsolete.

The problem is that the show doesn't set itself in the future or couch the strange happenings in a simple way that allows you to disregard the unlikelihood of its events. No - instead it takes itself MUCH too seriously and tries to make you believe that our technology, as we know it and understand it right now in 2008, already contains such things as transmogrification, teleportation, and connecting minds (through the rhythm of "brain waves" no less, ignoring anything about real neuroscience or brain structure or neurons). Not only that, but the crazy scientist many years out of practice is light years ahead of the real scientists.

In summary, don't waste your time with "Fringe". From the pilot, I saw no redeeming interesting plot elements or particularly intriguing character development. Perhaps it will get better, though I doubt it.

9Sep/08Off

The 95th Skeptics’ Circle – Skeptimedia

Taking the form of Nostradamus' The Very Lost Prophecies, the 95th edition of the Skeptics' Circle is now live over at the Skeptic's Dictionary, hosted by Skeptimedia.

Go now - revel in the prescience of those long lost quatrains - find that hidden meaning you've sought - discover the course of the future - and please, oh please - take it with a grain of salt.

My own post on using current (and old) news to teach the difference between science and pseudoscience and the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.

Excerpt from the 95th Skeptics' Circle:

The next verse wasn't quite so simple.

I've walked and I've crawled on six crooked highways
I've stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I've been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I've been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard.

His eyes sparkling with delight, Biochemicalsoul announced that this had to do with using the news to teach the post hoc fallacy. This verse, which seemed impenetrable only moments earlier, suddenly became obvious once the true meaning was revealed.

7Sep/08Off

Current Headline News Useful for Freshman College Science Courses

As I've mentioned before, I am currently teaching an intro level biology course for freshman non-majors. At the moment we're still talking about the nature of science, specifically focusing on junk science and common misconceptions and misrepresentations of science in the media and in public opinion.

One of the things I'm using is a clip of an old John Stossell report called "Junk Science: What you know that may not be so". Two examples are presented in this clip. In the first, it presents the old "breast plants caused my connective tissue disease" explosion that occurred in the last decade. Basically, a bunch of people got sick after getting breast implants and they attributed it to the implants themselves. In reality, after many many studies, we learned that the incidence of disease in people with breast plants is identical to those without them.

In a second clip, a similar thing happened with dioxin exposure. Essentially, we now know that these exposures had no effects on humans.

Both of these examples present clear cases of the phenomenon of fallacious logic referred to as "post hoc ergo propter hoc", which means "after this, therefore because of it". People got sick after the events (implants or dioxin) and attributed the incidents as the cause, mistaking a (coincidental) correlation with causation.

Both clips also show quite well how media, lawyers, fear, ignorance, and politics all have their own hands in the promotion of junk science.

In an excellent piece of news from this Friday's reports on LiveScience.com, written by Benjamin Radford, yet another study, this one considered large and definitive, has shown that there is no link between childhood MMR vaccines and autism. Most of the science community has known this for years, but as with many other examples, fear trumps sound logic and many still cling to this fear.

Excerpt:

Many parents came to believe that vaccines caused their children's autism because the symptoms of autism appeared after the child received a vaccination. On a psychological level, that assumption and connection makes sense; but on a logical level, it is a clear and common fallacy with a fancy Latin name: post hoc ergo propter hoc ("after this, therefore because of it").

Because the human mind seeks connections, people often misattribute causes, thinking that, "B happened after A did, so A must have caused B." The child was fine until he was vaccinated, and soon he showed signs of autism. It makes sense--except that it's not necessarily true. It's like saying "roosters crow before the sun rises, so the roosters must have made the sun rise."

The article presents the mistake of using individual correlations to attribute vaccinations to autism in an easily understandable way, and would make an excellent VERY short reading for any intro level science course. I like to send a steady stream of easily digestible current biological news bits to my students, especially for non-science majors. It's so much easier to keep their attention and to make them see why they should care when you can weave currently reported debates into the lesson. So if any of you are teaching such a course, I highly recommend this article for both its relevance to our lives and to understanding how misuse of "evidence" can lead to unnecessary fears and "pseudoscience".