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

25Oct/08Off

XKCD: Beliefs

This comic is a bit old, but it's just so (agelessly) pertinent right now.

XKCD: The best comic artist on the internets

XKCD (Randall Monroe): The best nerdy comic artist on the internets

24Oct/08Off

Sarah Palin knows nothing of science

Fruit Fly Brain

Fruit Fly Brain (credit Pamela Mitchell)

In one of the single most maddening, ignorant, unfathomably idiotic statements (out of many) I have heard spew through Sarah Palin’s lips, the candidate for the second highest position in the free world uttered a single phrase today that could utterly destroy the progress of medicine and scientific understanding.

In her very first policy speech, Palin talked about autism and disabilities (video below). She urged that

“For many parents of children with disabilities, the most valuable thing of all is information. Early identification of a cognitive or other disorder, especially autism, can make a life-changing difference.”

This is very true. And where does this information and the ability for early identification come from? Scientific research. Unfortunately, she went on to say

“You’ve heard about some of these pet projects they really don’t make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.”

When I heard this issue forth from my T.V. I literally could not believe what I had just heard. I had to rewind my TiVo just to make sure. I write now filled with more anger at the the current state of this union than I have felt in some time (albeit, anger cut with a good dose of hope).

Why the anger, you say? What’s wrong with her statement, you ask?

This statement of “public policy” exhibits an almost unbelievable level of the ignorance of Palin and those that support her – and on multiple levels.

Drosophila melanogaster

Drosophila melanogaster

#1. The fruit fly (Drosophila) has probably been the single most important organism for the study of genetics for over a century now. Almost everything we know about genetics, development, cell biology, neuroscience, and every other field of biology has strong roots in previous and current work on Drosophila. The fruit fly is one of a small handful of “standard model organisms” used by thousands of scientists across the world to learn how our bodies, organs, genes, and proteins work. Most of what we know about how a single fertilized cell becomes the amazingly complex beings we are comes from studies initially done in Drosophila. Vast amounts of our understanding of the brain (and brain disorders, diseases, and defects) also come from initial studies in fruit flies.

In fact, recent research from my own graduate alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, on fruit fly brains has had an impact on the understanding of autism and has boosted autism research:

“[S]cientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine have shown that a protein called neurexin is required for..nerve cell connections to form and function correctly. The discovery, made in Drosophila fruit flies may lead to advances in understanding autism spectrum disorders, as recently, human neurexins have been identified as a genetic risk factor for autism.”

To decry research in [condescending and amazed tone] “the fruit fly” is a testament to the true idiocy of this woman and to the failure of our public education system. In fact, her own father, Chuck Heath, was a biology teacher – obviously a complete failure of a biology teacher.

#2. The fact that she threw in “in Paris, France” represents yet another tactic to pander to the “patriotic,” French-hating (remember Freedom Fries?) Right. It also represents another misunderstanding of the nature of science in the modern world. You see, science knows no borders. It doesn’t matter where the research happens. The results all end up in the same place – in our collective database of scientific knowledge.

In my own research, both current and past, my work on heart and brain development has been based on, and done in collaboration with, other scientists all over the world. Some of my current research is based on results from a group in Korea. Other projects were based on studies from a consortium of scientists from Canada to China to Australia.

Regardless of where the research is done, it all contributes to the “public good” and it all feeds into the knowledge of our biological existence, into the state of our medical technology, and into our mental and body health.

I’ve been fuming ever since hearing her comments tonight. I am now happy to say that both Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow are currently covering this story quite well on MSNBC. To quote Richard Wolffe on Olbermann's Countdown, this is one of her most “mindless, ignorant, uninformed, comments” yet.  I hope I don't need to spell out for you why having someone like this in the number 2 (or God forbid, number 1) position in the country will harm science and scientific undertanding in this country.

I imagine the science blogosphere will be alight with posts about this, hopefully from some actual Drosophila scientists, and I will update this post with their links as they come along (let me know if you want your blog post listed).

(Note: Please Digg this below, or use whatever bookmark sharing site you prefer - we need as many people to see this issue as possible).

Update: Welcome visitors from AmericaBlog! You may also enjoy this image.

Update 2: For those of you who understand that the details of the earmark (which I don't think Palin even had a clue about) actually deals with a different species of fruit fly (Olive Fruit Fly), see the comments section. Yes I am very well aware of this, but it has no bearing on her comment, apparent ignorance, and flippant dismissal of research because it deals with silly-sounding fruit flies. More: PZ Myers at Pharyngula blasts the claim that she "wasn't disparaging all research into fruit flies, but only one specific earmark for studying agricultural pests."

Other coverage of Palin's scientific ignorance:

Excellent post at Reasoning the Reasons: Does She Not Know? Or Does She Not Care to Know?

Think Progress: Memo To Palin: Fruit Fly Research Has Led To Advances In Understanding Autism

Daily Kos: Sarah Does Science

Blue Herald: Olbermann and Wolffe Discuss Palin's Mindlessness

The great PZ at Pharyngula: Sarah Palin: Ignorant and Anti-Science, Losing the Sense of the Argument

My Point Exactly: Science, schmience, part 2

Google Blog List of Articles on this issue

8Oct/08Off

Slow down…slow down…arghh…too late.

Premature ejaculation

Do you suffer from premature ejaculation (or more accurately does your wife, girlfriend, boyfriend, hookup, or porn film director suffer from your problem)?

If so, you can probably blame your parents, or their parents, or their parents... you get the picture - it seems to be genetic.

For an entertaining rundown of this current bit of fascinating and self-esteem-boosting research, go read Christie Lynn's summary over at Observations of a Nerd.

8Oct/08Off

John Derbyshire Claims Barack Obama Will Kill Science

Trust me - there is a good scientific reason for being racist

"Trust me - there is a good scientific reason for being racist"

In an incoherent leap of bad logic, John Derbyshire over at the National Review (I know – why did I even bother reading it?) has come to the conclusion that an Obama Administration will kill science (his article title: “Will Obama Kill Science?”).

However, upon reading his incredibly ridiculous argument, it becomes clear that he only thinks Obama will kill one aspect of science: the science that he believes will eventually, inevitably prove that some races are better and smarter than others.

Why does he think this? It’s not clear. His only real argument is that Obama once wrote a piece for NPR in which he criticized someone for wanting to package racism in science.

Basically, his argument is: “Barack Obama is black. So Obama is anti-racist. Therefore, any science dealing with the nature of human variation will be outlawed by an Obama administration.”

He also does some rambling on Barack’s “cultural Marxist” upbringings, and some anecdotes about researchers not being funded when they want to study differences between races. One of the funny aspects of the article is that the initial paragraphs only hint at the actual subject of the article. He hints at future biological discoveries with

“metaphysical implications more disturbing than were those of quantum mechanics... “The conceptual revolution among human-sciences researchers has in fact already taken place. This is not widely understood because (a) news outlets are very reluctant to report it, (b) powerful political forces have an interest in suppressing it, and (c) researchers prefer getting on quietly with their work to having their windows broken by mobs of angry protestors.”

One can only think, “Wait. What is he talking about?” He certainly dares not explicitly state what his entire article is about. Then he says,

“Most people still think of human-science controversies in terms of nature/nurture. As a matter of real scientific dispute, that is all long gone…The dust of battle has pretty much settled now, in science departments if not in the popular press, and nature is the clear victor. Name any universal characteristic of human nature, including cognitive and personality characteristics. Of all the observed variation in that characteristic, about half is caused by genetic differences. You may say that is only a half victory; but it is a complete shattering of the nurturist absolutism that ruled in the human sciences 40 years ago, and that is still the approved dogma in polite society, including polite political society, today.”

Oh, I see. I think he’s hinting that race is real and determined by genetics and that genetic differences in race will show that some are “better” than others.”

“That dam now has more cracks than the surface of Europa and water is spraying out all over. The only thing that could stop a complete collapse would be the power of government …”

In other words, “Oh, we’re so close…our racism is almost supported by science! Only the government can stop it now!” I particularly like his use of the phrase "human-science enthusiasts" which seems to be a euphemism for "people with a vested interest in proving physical and mental inequalities between races." He rambles some more and then ends with,

“We are about to find out whether our traditional devotion to free speech and free enquiry can survive real, incontrovertible results from the human sciences; and in particular, in the event of an Obama victory, whether that devotion can survive under a left-liberal administration headed by a cultural Marxist — an administration much more interested in shoring up the soft totalitarianism of “diversity” and “multiculturalism” than in permitting the discovery of true facts about human nature.”

He finishes still without ever having acknowledged the actual subject the entire article alludes to. However, he clearly means to state that the “human-sciences” will soon show real differences in race at the genetic level and he strongly hints that this will show differences in actual equality and intelligence.

What a douchebag! It is also quite clear that he knows next to nothing about molecular biology, population genetics, or genomics.

Read it for a laugh.

Update (10/8, 2PM): Welcome Pharyngulites (or whatever the correct term for Pharyngula lovers is). PZ Myers over at Pharyngula has now linked to my post and he has his own, much more eloquent take on this piece, and a good batch of comments following it.

Update 2 (10/8, 6PM): Michael White at Adaptive Complexity has picked up on this issue and has some very good comments as well, linking the issue back to James Watson's infamous remarks on race and intelligence. Go check it out.

1Oct/08Off

Go One, Go All, to the Third Edition of the Carnival of Evolution

Now THAT is a hot Neadnerthal!

Now THAT is a hot NILF!

It's here!

The next edition of the Carnival of Evolution is now live over at the eminent ScienceBlog, Greg Laden's Blog. Dig in and enjoy.

Within this digital mini-tome is my own recent post Are Human-Caused Ecological Invasions Good for Evolution and Diversity?

CoE#4 will be up in a fortnight, hosted by Mike (Tangled up in Blue Guy) over at Clashing Culture.

To submit your own evolution-related posts, you can use this form at BlogCarnivals.com.