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Pediatrician Claims to Have “Final Answer” to Question of Life

trust-me-im-the-doctor-royal-bros

A little over a week ago, The Philippine Daily Inquirer published a letter written by the American College of Pediatricians (ACPeds), claiming that science had presented a final answer to when life begins. To quote the relevant section of the ACPeds letter:

As stated in our website, “Scientific and medical discoveries over the past three decades have only verified and solidified this age-old truth. At the completion of the process of fertilization, the human creature emerges as a whole, genetically distinct, individuated zygotic living human organism, a member of the species Homo sapiens, needing only the proper environment in order to grow and develop. The difference between the individual in its adult stage and in its zygotic stage is not one of personhood but of development.” (http://www.acpeds.org/the-college-speaks/position-statements/life-issues/when-human-life-begins)

This is the final answer to this issue, as Professor Kischer puts it. In an article titled “When does human life begin? The final answer,” which was published in the Linacre Quarterly, he categorically states: “Virtually every human embryologist and every major textbook of human embryology states that fertilization marks the beginning of the life of the new individual human being.”

There are numerous problems with ACPeds’ assertions.

The first is their statement that “virtually every human embryologist and every major textbook” agrees with their stance that life begins after fertilization. A cursory search turns up several notable embryologists and researchers in relevant fields who wouldn’t hesitate to call out at ACPeds’ claim.

For instance, there is Professor Scott Gilbert of Swarthmore College, who has stated in one of his more notable lectures (available here) that there is no consensus among embryologists on when life begins. Here is a basic rundown of Professor Gilbert refuting common misconceptions about fertilization, as summarized by Rationalwiki:

  • Instructions for Development and Heredity are all in the Fertilised egg. The view that we are genetically determined by the combination of parental DNA has been shown to fall far short of the complete story. How the DNA is interpreted can vary greatly affected by things such as the maternal diet. Similarly some development requires certain bacteria to be present. Thirdly, and most surprisingly, the level of maternal care can determine which areas of DNA are ‘methylated’ which radically alters how they are interpreted. As such the view that we are ‘complete but unformed’ at conception is far from accurate.
  • The Embryo is Safe Within the Womb. Modern research shows that 30% or fewer fertilised eggs will go on to become foetuses. Many of these early miscarriages are because of abnormal numbers of chromosomes. The view that every fertilised egg is a potential human being is wrong in around 70% of cases.
  • There is a Moment of Fertilisation when the passive egg receives the active sperm. Again recent research has shown that the previous commonly held view that the fastest sperm races towards the egg and, bingo, we’re up and running is wrong on many levels. Fertilisation is a process taking up to four days. As such there is no magic moment, rather there is a process.
  • There is consensus amongst scientists that life begins at conception. There isn’t even consensus amongst scientists as to whether there’s consensus. However, Scott Gilbert’s paper lists embryologists who support each of the major view points belying the common and oft repeated assertion that there is consensus amongst embryologists, let alone scientists.

Lewis Wolpert, a well-known developmental biologist, also made similar points in his lectures regarding when personhood begins:

“What I’m concerned with is how you develop”, he says. “I know that you all think about it perpetually that you come from one single cell of a fertilized egg. I don’t want to get involved in religion but that is not a human being. I’ve spoken to these eggs many times and they make it quite clear … they are not a human being. The cells divide and the question I’m going to deal with a little bit here…how do the cells know what to do. So, how do they end up looking like … you? It is amazing that you come from one single cell. I’m sorry to give you a lesson in embryology but you should know how you develop.”

And then there’s professor Paul Zachary Myers (of crackergate fame) if you like your rebuttals served with a side of snark and heat.

I’m hoping you get my point – that there is no such consensus among the scientific community that life begins at fertilization, and that several scientists have in fact spoken at length on why they disagree. This leads to another problem with the ACPeds letter. By using language like the title “Science’s final answer to when human life begins”, ACPEds implies that they speak on behalf of the rest of the scientific community. This is not the case, and it reeks of arrogance on their part to assume they do.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time that ACPeds has been caught making questionable claims.

The American College of Pediatrics is actually a breakaway faction from the American Academy of Pediatrics, and was formed by a small group of healthcare providers who did not agree with the latter’s support for adoption by gay parents.

Since its establishment in 2002, ACPeds has been caught intentionally spreading numerous disproven claims about homosexuality, and trying to pass it off as science. The group has the distinct (dis)honor of being personally called out by the director of the National Institutes of Health for misrepresenting his work. Dr. Collins was not the only researcher who was upset by ACPeds, as seen here and here.

If there is anything we can learn from ACPeds actions, both in the Inquirer letter and in their previous activities, it is that they’re more about pushing an ideology and a political agenda than about promoting truthful and fact-based science.

If you’d like to read more about the matter of when life begins, we’ve also got a couple of articles here and here, written by fellow freethinker  Garrick Bercero

Posted in Advocacy, RH Bill, Science0 Comments

FF Podcast 016: Ethics of Spoilers and Comment Trolls

Ep 16

This week, we talk about spoilers and whether it’s appropriate to spoil stories and then we talk about trolls and PopularScience.com’s decision to close their comments section.

You may also download the episode file here.

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast feed

Filipino Freethinkers podcast on iTunes

Filipino Freethinkers podcast on iTunes

Posted in Entertainment, Media, Podcast, Science, Society, Video0 Comments

FF Podcast (Audio) 013: Is Gender Equality Against Freedom of Religion? Plus—Soylent!

FF Podcast (Audio) 013: Is Gender Equality Against Freedom of Religion? Plus—Soylent!

Screen Shot 2013-09-07 at 8.52.06 AM

This week, we talk about the claim by Couples for Christ that gender equality in the RH Law goes against their religious freedom. Then, we discuss Soylent, the food replacement drink.

You may also download the podcast file here.




Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) feed

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) on iTunes

Filipino Freethinkers Podcast (Audio) on iTunes

Posted in Audio, audio podcast, Media, Politics, Religion, Science, Secularism, Society0 Comments

Hiwaga and Humbug on Philippine TV

In recent posts on Facebook and Twitter, the social media accounts of the ABS-CBN show Hiwaga asked the following question: “Ayon sa teorya ni Charles Darwin, nagmula ang mga tao sa unggoy… kaya maari bang bumalik uli tayo dito? (According to the theory of Charles Darwin, humans came from monkeys… so is it possible that we will go back to being monkeys?)”

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This leading question, even if not representative of the entire content of the episode, is still reprehensible for its sensationalism of the theory of evolution, a sensationalism that can contribute to worsening the public’s misapprehension of Darwin’s theory. However, given the new show’s track record so far, it is likely that the people in charge of the show, including host Atom Araullo, will make monkeys out of themselves in their treatment of the monkeys-to-men question.

In this article, I will start by fleshing out my criticism of the post on Darwin’s theory, then I will go on to criticize the very spirit of shows like Hiwaga. I will extend this criticism to cover all forms of superstition, pseudoscience, and sloppy science in Philippine TV. Finally I will appeal to the show’s host Atom Araullo, who is an alumnus of Philippine Science High School and the University of the Philippines, an applied physics graduate, and an activist, to find it in his conscience to leave the program and criticize it publicly.

 

Of Monkeys and Men

So what about monkeys and men? According to the theory of evolution, apes, including humans, share a recent common ancestor with modern monkeys. Careful comparison of bones and body structure, as well as analyses of genes and biomolecules, helped establish the phylogenetic tree (a sort of family tree of species) of apes and monkeys. The tree below showing the relatedness of apes (like chimps, gorillas, and humans) and monkeys (like the Philippine macaque) explain why they have many similarities and important differences.

A tree showing the relatedness of monkeys and apes (including humans). [Image credit: www.swcs.us]

 

Does this say we come from monkeys? Sinasabi ba nito na nanggaling tayo sa unggoy? No and yes. What this says is that apes and monkeys share a fairly recent common ancestor. The last ancestor shared by the Old World monkeys and apes lived a bit more than 20 million years ago (mya). This ancestor probably looked more like modern monkeys than like apes, and if it were still alive today we would probably call it a monkey. In other words, we humans descended from monkey-like ancestors that lived more than 20 mya. But we did not come from modern monkeys or chimpanzees; the fellow shown in the picture below is a relative of ours, not an ancestor nor a “primitive” form of human.

The Philippine macaque, a local species of monkey. [Photo credit: en.wikipedia.org]

 

Why is this issue of the exact relationship between monkey and man so important as to lead me to criticize the post on Hiwaga’s social media accounts? Here’s why the theory of evolution is important.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, independently discovered by Alfred Russel Wallace, explains the origin of diversity in the living world. It tells us that all living organisms on Earth are related, but by different degrees. The modern version of the theory of evolution can also explain many aspects of living things, such as why many plants have colorful flowers, why certain bacteria produce very potent toxins, and why animals behave in certain ways.

The theory of evolution is important because we and the flora and fauna we depend on are products of evolution; to understand ourselves and the organisms around us, a correct understanding of evolution is necessary. To provide a concrete example, the rice we eat is a product of artificial selection, a process very similar to natural selection, and some genetic engineering. The recent attacks on ‘golden rice’ research in the Philippines is partly due to a serious lack of understanding about how artificial and natural selection work.

Then you should’ve listened closely in biology class. But don’t worry, it’s not too late. You can always demand more informative shows from our TV and radio stations.

Evolution also affects us not just in geological time but also in real time. The critters that plague our farms and the viruses and bacteria that make us sick undergo evolution within our lifetimes. Failure to grasp the effects of evolution on the scale of a few years can lead to unscientific and dangerous positions such as being against vaccines.

In addition to the direct importance of understanding evolution, sensational simplifications contribute greatly to the spread of misunderstandings such as that embodied by statements like “So why are there still monkeys around if we came from monkeys?”  Science sensationalism also gives fodder to anti-scientific movements like creationism.

These are but a few reasons why the theory of evolution is important, and why its sensationalism by Hiwaga and other media outlets deserves criticism. I understand that the journalistic intention behind the post is to catch people’s attentions using a language familiar to them, thereby increasing the probability that they will watch the show. That is no excuse for sensationalism. I just hope that the people behind the show, especially its host Atom Araullo, will redeem themselves during the episode itself. And this show needs a lot of redeeming, as we will soon see.

 

Superstition and Sloppy Science

Several studies have shown that the science and math aptitudes of most Filipino students are dismal. It does not help that the few science-related shows on TV exhibit sloppy thinking in their explanation of scientific concepts. Kim Atienza’s Matanglawin is a good example of this, but since using it as an example is too easy, let me use another. This clip from the GMA show iBilib demonstrates the fact that water and oil do not mix. Host Chris Tiu shows the viewers how the hydrophobic properties of oil can be use to make a “dagat in a bottle”. The show’s aim of making science accessible to Filipino kids is admirable. Unfortunately, the show, at least to me, lacks the philosophical dimension necessary to make students interested in science and not just in the tinkering of household stuff. Spectacular and cute phenomena are a great way to pique kids’ interest, but the focus should not be on the spectacle. The wow factor must simply be a means to get kids to be curious, skeptical, and scientific. If Bill Nye can make a science program just with these specifications, then I believe iBilib must do it too.

Bill Nye the Science Guy, proof that you don’t have to be sloppy to be interesting.

My beef with iBilib and similarly sloppy science programs like Kim Atienza’s Matanglawin, however, is with its frequent use of sloppy or even erroneous scientific explanations of the phenomena. The clip showing the sea-in-a-bottle demonstration is just one of the many instances where Tiu throws a sloppy or erroneous explanation at the curious people who watch his show. In the clip, the host is wrong in saying that oil and water do not mix because of their different densities. Water and alcohol mix even if their densities are different. Fresh water and saltwater also mix even though the latter is slightly denser than the former. If a science show claims things that can be contradicted by kids’ experiences, what will that tell the young viewers about science’s role in describing nature?

To Chris Tiu: Density is the reason why the oil layer is above the water layer, but it does not explain why water and oil do not mix. The actual explanation of non-mixing is more subtle and marvelous. Next time, double check and triple check your script before you say it in front of an entire nation of admiring young viewers. This is not the only instance in which you relayed wrong information to those kids. You owe them an apology and you need to make amends.

Chris Tiu, I bet your chem teacher is mad at you right now. You should’ve listened to her more. [Photo credit: teachengineering.org]

 

And now back to Atom Auraullo and Hiwaga. If Chris Tiu in iBilib frequently exhibits haphazard thinking, Atom in Hiwaga is mostly just peddling superstition and pseudoscience on Philippine TV. The woo starts from the very title of the program. I’m already worried about the title of iBilib, because it seems to imply that science is a matter of belief.  So you can imagine my reaction when I heard that there was another show entitled Hiwaga, a Filipino word that means “mystery”. When I saw promotional videos of the TV program, my worries about it were confirmed. In this episode of the show, for example, Atom interviews an “expert” on Feng Shui. In another episode, Araullo discusses so-called out of body experiences and “astral projections”. Still another episode entertains the possibility of premonitions.

Hiwaga is unfortunately just the latest incarnation in a long series of shows and segments on Philippine TV clearly capitalizing on Filipino supernatural and unscientific beliefs. Shows like Rated K hosted by Korina Sanchez and Kapuso Mo Jessica Soho are just a few of the other programs that ride the sensational wave of superstition and pseudoscience. The use of “umano” and “daw” in the reporting of supernatural claims rarely help, as these program hosts regularly fail to amply discuss the lack of scientific merits of the claims they report. In the end, these shows’ ‘di umanos just remind us of Pontius Pilate. What these umanos and daws effectively do is to allow the TV programs to throw mountains of claptrap into the viewing public while absolving the show runners of the guilt of misinformation. Well, I’m sorry Korina and Jessica, what you and many other journalists are doing is still misinformation. Why? Because the discussions on the value of skepticism in your shows are frequently inadequate, sometimes even watered down by closing messages that go along the along the lines of “let’s be open minded about these things” or “science does not know everything and life is full of mysteries woooo…” Your umanos and daws do not absolve you.

“There, I said ‘umano’. Now it’s time to report about ghosts hauntings, demonic possessions, and faith healing.”

To the writers, researchers, producers, and hosts of TV programs that promote superstition among Filipinos, I ask you to rethink your values. I believe I don’t need to preach the importance of science and the dangers of superstition and pseudoscience to the lot of you, you should know it by now. Hence, let me just remind you that your aim is to inform the Filipino people, not befuddle them. You should never sacrifice the truth in the name of higher ratings. I understand that most Filipinos are ignorant and superstitious, and that a show about superstition will appeal to them more than a show about skepticism. But you should give them programs that they need, not programs they want.

 

A Request to Atom Araullo

As promised in the start of this article, I will end my piece by making an appeal to Atom Araullo’s better judgment.

Dear Atom,

As a good-looking Pisay and UP alumnus working in media, you have great powers. Your responsibilities are therefore equally great, and chief among these is your responsibility of informing the public on correct ways of thinking about the world. As a science graduate, an activist, and a reporter, your duty to seek, fight for, and relay the truth demands that you rethink your role in the show. Try educating the writers and executives of the program on the proper ways of reporting supernatural claims. The local superstitions and ghost stories you tackle in the show are excellent entry points into critical thinking, skepticism, and scientific reasoning, and you should use them as such. Intriguing questions that the Filipino public can relate to are excellent in catching their attention, but since your subject matter is very sensitive, the writers should be very careful with the wording of your script. You should not forget to stress the value of skeptical inquiry and the importance of demanding extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims.

Finally, if those writers, researchers, and executives cannot be convinced, I appeal to your better judgment as a person to please leave that show and criticize it publicly.

Thank you.

Yours,

Pecier C. Decierdo

Science Advocacy Director

Filipino Freethinkers

Posted in Science, Society10 Comments

A Quick Guide to Detecting Quantum Quackery

The world of quantum mechanics is strange, that much is true. Quantum theory paints a world where tiny particles can get entangled over cosmic distances, where teleportation is possible, where uncertainty is not simply a product of experimental imperfections but is fundamental in nature, and where vacuum is a seething broth of virtual particles popping in and out of existence from nothingness. 

Unfortunately, the strangeness of the quantum world has been grossly abused either by those who do not understand quantum mechanics, or those who wish to benefit from this lack of understanding. Merchants who sell crystals claimed to have “healing quantum vibrations”, writers like Deepak Chopra who preach about the mind’s power in influencing events via “quantum consciousness”, and proponents of farming methods based on “quantum agriculture” are just a few examples in the long list of people who peddle quantum quackery. In fact, most of these charlatans altogether forgo trying to understand what quantum theory is about. For them, the word ‘quantum’ is a shroud of mystery, a veil of ignorance behind which lie phenomena forever beyond the reach of scientific scrutiny. These people not only spread bad science, they spread a value that is antithetical to learning. In other words, they promote a mindset that is anti-scientific. This is why we cannot cut these guys any slack.

Deepak Mechanics

How do we distinguish quantum quackery from genuine studies in quantum theory? In an interview with NBC News science editor Alan Boyle, physicist Lawrence Krauss gave a few tips in detecting quantum quackery. What follows are some additional quick guides to quantum baloney detection.

 

Rule of thumb #1: Quantum quacks rarely, if at all, refer to the basic principles of quantum physics.

Quantum theory involves a lot of laws, equations, and principles, although some of these are so basic and fundamental to the field that they are referred to in almost all discussions. A good example would be the concept of the wave function. The wave function is a mathematical entity that contains everything we know about the particle, like its energy or the probability of finding it somewhere in space. When something uses the word “quantum” but does not depend on the concept of a wave function or a similarly fundamental quantum concept, it probably has nothing to do with quantum theory.

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Rule of thumb #2: Quantum quacks misapply the weirdness of quantum phenomena at the wrong scale.

Soccer balls, unlike electrons, don’t diffract if you make them pass through slits. And unlike a small particle, you cannot walk through a solid wall by continuously bumping against it. There is no real-world Platform 9 ¾.

Quantum mechanics, being our best theory of matter and forces to date, governs the behaviors of electrons and soccer balls alike. However, even though the laws of physics don’t change across different scales, their manifestations do. This is true even in classical physics, and is the reason why you can’t have ants as big as elephants, or why the physics of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids is all wrong (because, you know,  square-cube law). The predictions of quantum theory agree with classical mechanics in the scale of the everyday, a scale that includes soccer balls, fruits, and vegetables. You cannot treat a tomato as both particle and wave, and you cannot treat crops as if they are “entangled” with the the stars.

Um, that’s not what quantum entanglement means guys.

 

Rule of thumb #3: Quantum quacks love making vague statements that, upon close inspection, actually mean nothing.

The Random Deepak Chopra Quote Generator drives this point humorously.

Random Deepak Wisdom

In infinite potentiality Deepak Chopra breeds the light for a new chaotic harmony.

Science, as opposed to pseudoscience, is distinguished by the precision of its language. We want scientific statements to be precise because we want to know how we can prove them wrong. In other words, we want to know if they can be falsified, and how, which brings us to the next rule of thumb.

 

Rule of thumb #4: Quantum quackery does not make falsifiable claims, which is an indication that it is in fact pseudoscience.

Quantum physics, being a science, makes claims that can be proven wrong by experimentation. That is something you cannot say about “quantum consciousness”. More importantly, the claims of quantum physics can be compared against measurements obtained through experimentation. This brings us to the next red flag of quantum quackery.

 

Rule of thumb #5:Quantum quacks don’t make quantitative predictions.

Quantum mechanics, like most of modern physics, is heavily mathematical. The point of all this math is to be able to make predictions that come in the form of measurable quantities. This is important because a quantitative prediction is the best form of falsifiable claim.

Shit happens. Bullshit, too. Magic doesn’t.

 

Rule of thumb #6: Like most peddlers of woo-woo, quantum quacks confuse criticism with persecution, and thus hate being criticized.

But science thrives because of skepticism and criticism. Like all scientific paradigms, quantum theory has passed the scrutiny and very high standards of the scientific community (and it has done so with flying colors). Also, like all scientific principles, you can convince yourself that it is true by performing your own experiments and calculations. And you can do this without fooling yourself or others. You cannot say the same about fields like, say, quantum agriculture.

QA

“Plants have feelings too!” Ooookay.

tl;dr: People who use quantum jargon to make their woo-woo sound legitimate fail to understand that the quantum world, though weird by the standards of classical physics, is lawful. Quantum phenomena may be baffling, but they’re not magical. So when anything involves magical thinking, it’s probably pseudoscience.

 

Posted in Science3 Comments

GMOs and Science Denialists: A GMO Primer

Liberals often have a smug sense of superiority over conservatives when it comes to science literacy. True enough, a lot of conservatism is coupled with antagonism to science, which we have seen throughout the RH debate, locally, and evolution and climate change denial, globally. But this smugness is unwarranted, as progressives have their fair share of science denialists.

An anti-GMO group that calls itself “Sikwal-GMO” destroyed GM crops in Camarines Sur, last Thursday, August 8, 2013. The plants were Golden Rice varieties being studied by the International Rice Research Institute.

While the use of terror and violence to derail scientific research is not unknown in the history of science, it is exactly this sort of thing that belies any rational motive from the anti-GMO. If indeed there is all evidence pointing toward the harmfulness of GMOs, why not counter research with that evidence? Well, it’s because there is none, so violence and terrible argumentation is exactly what we should expect from them.

There is broad scientific consensus that currently existing genetically modified foods pose no greater risk to humans than regular old food. This is backed up by global science bodies such as the World Health Organization and the International Council for Science, whose members include 111 national academies of science all over the world. It is important to note that this consensus refers to currently existing GMOs, because that is how GM foods are assessed—as individual products.

Genetically modified organisms are used by anti-science luddites as a catch-all for “scary Frankenfood” but, in reality, genetic modification methods vary and gene targets vary. Therefore, the products vary in features, as well. There are many variables that affect how confident we can be in assessing the safety of a GM variety. But, the bottom line is, these products go through years of evaluation, when the latest fad diets and small-scale locally grown crops and breeds can go through none.

There is a lot of misunderstanding about what GMOs are. It is critical that we remove all of these misconceptions, not to blindly support genetic modification, but to cut out all the terrible and nonsensical reasons we have against GMOs. While anti-GMO beliefs are not exclusively a progressive issue, it is a strangely popular one among the left, which is traditionally more scientifically literate.

The genetic modification of food has been critical in the history of human beings. None of the food we regularly eat today existed before humans and they would never exist outside of “unnatural” human intervention. Our foods today were selectively bred to produce traits that we found ideal—traits such as size, taste, resistance to pests, and ability to grow during more times during the year.

What were selected and bred here were genes, since genes dictate traits. Problem is, with this rudimentary form of genetic manipulation, we don’t exactly know what other genes we are bringing along. We see a trait we like; we breed them to multiply their numbers.

 

The genetic history of the potato

The potato that we eat is the root part of the plant. It is a swollen mass where the plant collects the sugar it produces as starch. It didn’t always look like the large Idaho potatoes we now consume. They grew in South America and used to look like thin finger-like growths. They were very bitter and not at all tasty. Through selective breeding methods, our ancestors picked the fattest and tastiest spuds. After generations of breeding, we now have the modern potato.

image_blogimage

This is basically blind genetic engineering. We have a vague idea of what we like (we want a large tasty potato) and we plant the potatoes that reflect these traits. Our ancestors didn’t have the technology to isolate the genes that produced these traits, so the breeding process also magnified some unwanted genes. For the potato (as well as its cousin, the tomato), the breeding also came along with glycoalkaloids, a naturally-occurring pest tolerance compound. It is a steroid that is harmful to humans, which can be produced post-harvest by potatoes in lethal doses due to simple stresses such as sun exposure and insect presence. Regulatory bodies and large-scale producers of potatoes have to test whether the strains they produce create a toxic level of glycoalkaloids. These regulatory bodies and large-scale producers are often painted as corrupt or misguided by proponents of small-scale and unregulated “natural” produce.

Glycoalkaloids make potatoes more likely to survive, regardless of whether they kill people, which is why the heartiest potato varieties create the toxin. After all, the only concern of potatoes is to survive long enough to make more potatoes. This makes opposition to another GM crop, the Bt corn, particularly ironic.

 

Bt corn and “toxins” in GMOs

Corn had a history much like the potato. Our modern strains of corn descended from the American teosinte, a grain no bigger than a pinky finger. Selective breeding gave us the plant with several rows of large golden kernels.

Maize-teosinte

The European Corn Borer is an invasive species that has been wiping out corn crops for decades. It is an insect, which used to feast on European millet, but has since migrated to the Americas due to human activity. It has destroyed the livelihoods of many corn farmers because the insect, being an invader, has no natural predators in America.

To combat the corn borer larva, which eats through corn plants, scientists have employed another foreign organism. The bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis produces a protein-based toxin that selectively targets a subset of insects, such as flies, beetles, and moths, including the corn borer. Scientists used the bacterium’s gene coding for this toxin and inserted it into a variety of corn, creating Bt corn.

Unlike glycoalkaloids and broad-spectrum pesticides, the GM Bt toxin has no harmful effect on humans. Though the bacterium itself produces toxins that are toxic to humans, the specific insect toxin gene inserted into corn genetic material makes sure that only the insect-specific toxin is produced by the GM corn. This is a result that is impossible for conventional breeding, not only for being cross-species. It is impossible because modern genetic engineering, as opposed to conventional breeding, only introduces genes we want to introduce.

Scientists in the Philippines are also studying Bt eggplants.

 

What is Golden Rice?

Golden Rice, which is being researched here in the Philippines, is even far less problematic as it provides a nutrient, rather than insect resistance. And yet, it is the target of many anti-GMO groups such as Greenpeace. When New York University Dean for Science Michael Purugganan asked the lead Golden Rice researcher about their methods, they said that they introduced beta-carotene enzyme genes into the rice—a gene carrots have. This beta-carotene is metabolized by humans to produce Vitamin A, a nutrient that is sorely lacking in the diets of many poor children. Beta-carotene also gives the rice (and carrots) its characteristic orange color. Vitamin A deficiency can lead to blindness, a weakened immune system, and even maternal mortality.

800px-Golden_Rice

Arguments inevitably crop up that suggest that poor children have other sources of Vitamin A, such as fish and vegetables. Of course, such suggestions betray embarrassing privilege, since, no matter how cheap vegetables may be, the poor often can only afford rice as a daily meal. Such arguments are so reminiscent of conservatives pointing out the cheapness of contraceptives that it is shocking when these anti-GMO justifications come from pro-RH liberals. The International Rice Research Institute expects Golden Rice to cost the same as regular rice, once it has undergone proper regulatory tests.

 

Conspiracies and corporations

Sikwal-GMO defends their destruction of scientific research by branding Golden Rice as “nothing but a ploy of agrochemical transnational corporations like Syngenta to satisfy their monopoly on seeds and rake more profits.” While Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas justified their actions as “legitimate resistance by farmers against Golden Rice.”

Some more thoughtful critics of GM technology often concede, as they should, that the science shows that regulations have kept GMO foods safe. They instead criticize oppressive practices by large biotech firms such as Monsanto, particularly regarding patenting genes. I share much sympathy for these criticisms as I believe patenting genes is a rather odious practice. I see it as having little difference from pharmaceutical profiteers that inflate costs for life-saving treatments. Not to mention, many patented genes were simply found in already-existing organisms, without significant modification.

However, it is not a rare occurrence that opponents of big corporations use the science denialists as shields to “legitimize” their opposition, by failing to criticize them and even coddling them. This is similar to religious extremists who hide behind moderates when their religion is criticized. What instead happens is a false image of large public outcry against GM, as a science, rather than biotech firms, as profit-motivated entities. In the case of the Golden Rice research, which had its samples so totally destroyed that it must restart the trials, the technology was given away royalty-free for not-for-profit use. This would have made Golden Rice a particularly potent tool for NGOs fighting against malnutrition. Sadly, the violent action by “protesters” has set back this goal for a while.

In researching this piece, the vast majority of search engine hits I got for GMO-related queries turned out anti-GMO sites. This is sad, but typical for most anti-science movements such as those against evolution, climate change, and vaccination. Thus there is often a misplaced confidence among science opponents from all sides of the political spectrum, since they are a very vocal pocket of the Internet. Inevitably, in any “controversial” science discussion, strange websites of questionable repute crop up to purportedly show evidence against scientific consensus. Nevertheless, in the matters mentioned, scientists who actually work in these fields, who actually solve these problems and review these claims, are the ones to refer to. Criticism and doubt are always necessary in science, but conspiracy theories and unverified claims have no place in a scientific discussion.

Image Credits: International Potato Center, John Doebly, International Rice Research Institute

Posted in Science, Society9 Comments

When Does Life Begin? Revisited

It seems that every “debate” (a term I use very loosely) on the Reproductive Health Law will always devolve into dogmatists bellyaching about one question: When does life begin?

This happened during the debates in Congress and it is happening again in the debate in the Supreme Court. In both cases, government officials have voiced out that it was not for politicians and non-scientists to decide on the matter. And yet, we can fully expect that this question will be raised over and over even after the Supreme Court decides on the constitutionality of the Reproductive Health Law.

I had written a piece on when life begins three years ago outlining a scientific attempt at answering the anti-choice challenge. In the following, I will revisit and clarify the obscurantism of conservatives on the question. There is a lot of ambiguous language that conservatives employ to muddy the real issue and their intention in asking the question in the first place. Most confusing of all is how they conflate “life” with “personhood.”

 

Who cares about life?

Life is an ill-defined concept even in the science that studies life, biology. There are many attempts at defining it, but mostly we have the pornography standard. That is, we know life when we see life. Some attempts at defining life include the following criteria: having structural organization, being able to produce energy by decomposing organic matter, being able to respond to stimuli, being able to reproduce. These are not to everyone’s satisfaction, so the debate goes on.

But, just because something is alive, does not mean it is worthy of protection. We eat living things. Even vegans and vegetarians eat living things. We kill living things, such as bacteria, parasites, and pests. Clearly life has begun for these organisms, but we shed no tears at their demise.

Perhaps there is something unique, then, to human life? Consider that even the Catholic Church allows human beings with functioning bodies but incapable of conscious experience, what we would call “brain dead,” to have their organs extracted for the benefit of other humans. John Paul II called these brain dead humans as having lost the “integrative capacity” to have a unitary “personal self.” From this, we know that the specialness of humans can’t possibly be from just having the DNA or the body of a human being.

 

Who are the people?

The critical concept of “personhood” is at the core of the whole disagreement. Life is not equivalent to personhood. We do not treat life in general as important as we treat persons. Judging by the Church’s acceptance of harvesting organs from the brain dead, permanently terminating the organism’s metabolism, it is okay to end the metabolic life of a human being… as long as that human being is brain dead. We can see that the Church does not see the brain dead as persons worthy of equal protection.

So, it is persons that are important. We shouldn’t be asking when life begins. We don’t really care about life. We care about persons. But what makes a person? Clearly a brain dead human is no longer a person, even by Catholic standards. Where’s the difference between brain death and brain life? Well… the brain.

We consider brains as critical in calling a person, a person. A person is capable of suffering, of having aspirations, of planning for their future. But, can only humans be persons? Well, no. Non-human animals can have highly advanced capacities for conscious experience. Dolphins and whales are known to have deep self-awareness, so much so that they are considered “non-human persons.” And yet, you won’t see the Catholic Church hunting down whaling vessels even though they say they defend personhood.

Licensed under Creative Commons, Vince Smith

The trouble is, sperms, eggs, and embryos have no brains. They are incapable of conscious experience. Fetuses, with their just developing neural systems, are certainly less capable of conscious experience than even the pigs and cows we casually slaughter. So, if sufficiently complex brains make a person, then sperms, eggs and embryos are not persons! Easy, huh? Well, not so fast, says the Church.

There is a whole debate on the potential of future personhood that the Church employs to argue that since embryos can become persons then they must. This line of argumentation does not interest me, so I will not waste too much time on it. But I will at least explain why it is uninteresting. The argument from potentiality is a slippery slope that terminates on absurdity. If you take it to its logical conclusion, every proton in the universe has the potential to become part of a person. Every carbon atom in your body came from some other thing. As technology progresses, we will be capable of not just producing humans from embryos, but from any cell. We are doing this now with induced pluripotent stem cells—turning one kind of cell into another. Then every cell has the potential to become a person. You won’t be able to pick your nose and scrape skin cells without committing a mortal sin. So, when does the Church choose to terminate this slippery slope? At embryos—exactly where they wanted it to. How convenient. So embryos are worthy of protection because they have the potential to become persons. Although other things can become persons, embryos are special because we say they’re special. Talk about assuming your conclusion.

 

Confused? The soul is the key!

This all can be confusing, but bear with me, dear reader. There is a key to this puzzle that will make everything fall into place. The key is—the soul.

There is a lot of dubious mental gymnastics used to justify the complicated and inconsistent position of the Church on life and personhood, but they are all clear when you consider the doctrine of the soul. The Church believes on faith that the soul, crafted by God and unique to every human being, enters the embryo during fertilization. Dolphins are not persons, even though they are quite intelligent and have self-awareness, because they don’t have souls. Only humans have souls. And the soul leaves the body once it has ceased to have a functioning brain. This is what John Paul II meant by having lost the “integrative capacity”—the soul and the body are no longer unified. The soul will now float out into the spirit world with all the angels and trumpets and baby saints.

This all leads to questions that seem to yield no answer. If embryos gain their souls during fertilization, then do identical twins share one soul? Would it be okay to kill one twin since the same soul still resides in the other body? If two embryos fuse and form a chimeric embryo, do two souls share one body? Then is marrying a chimeric person actually bigamy?

Yes, this all seems silly, but this is what the Catholic Church actually believes. This is the basis for all the silly reasons they give out in court. If we are to have an intellectually honest discussion about the RH Law, it is about time to end the “When does life begin?” facade. All this talk about life is actually just conservatives beating around the bush. What they really mean is, “When does the soul enter the embryo?” But they can’t admit this, because it is not a medical, or even legal, question. It is wholly a theological one—a question that the government has no business answering.

Image Credit: Vince Smith, licensed under Creative Commons

Posted in Philosophy, Religion, RH Bill, Science1 Comment

A Leap Of Science

A Leap Of Science

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Photo from Sabrina's Stash

Photo from Sabrina’s Stash

I believe in miracles, and it is spelled S-C-I-E-N-C-E.

I have spent the last few hours reading articles and watching videos about the latest scientific breakthroughs. I have focused on research and technology that alleviates human suffering, compensates for human disabilities, and prolongs and grants a better quality of life.

One such miracle that is very evident and available for online readers is called HyperText Markup Language (HTML), the “language” of the internet which allows you to simply click on the links I give and be instantly whisked away to other websites I have used as source material.

To those of you reading this on paper and ink, you too can access this miracle by going online, not by prayer. Unless, of course, you pray for a laptop (or tablet) to drop down from heaven and onto your lap, automatically turn on, hijack your neighbor’s wifi signal, fire up its web browser and go to my article.

The Deaf Shall Hear

In the meantime, let me tell you about 3-year old Grayson Clamp, who heard his dad’s voice for the very first time. That may not sound so spectacular at first, until you learn that baby Grayson was born without a cochlear nerve which transmits signals from the ears to the brain. In other words, there is no connection between his brain and his ear.

To get around the problem, doctors performed a cochlear implant, putting a chip in Grayson’s brain which allows him to receive and process those signals. The look on his face as he hears his father’s voice is priceless.

26-year old Amy Barber went through a similar operation and she was able to hear her six-year old son for the first time. Her aunt took a video and posted it on Youtube,  where it went viral.

The Blind Shall See

Diane Ashworth, a 54-year old woman from Australia, is the first recipient of a bionic eye transplant. The result isn’t perfect yet as the technology is still in the prototype stage but Diane can see flashes of light and shapes, which proves that her brain is now receiving some sort of signal from the device. Researchers in Israel are also working on such a device and in the near future, we may very well have functional bionic eyes that can enable even those born blind to see in full color.

The Lame Shall Walk (and tie shoelaces as well)

Prosthetics are nothing new and have been around for decades. Still, they are minor miracles in bringing back some sense of normalcy to an amputee’s life. What caught my attention was the degree of advancement in prosthetic development which blends with robotics. A company called Ekso Bionics has developed a robotic exoskeleton that allows those paralyzed from the waist down to walk. This was a boon to Jason Geiser who had a motorcycle accident and was told that he wouldn’t be able to walk again.

Hand prosthetics are a bit more complicated because of the fine-motor tuning involved. In the past, it was nearly impossible to create a bionic hand that could alternate between strongly gripping an object and holding it delicately (like holding an egg without breaking, or holding a pen and writing). However, 53-year old Nigel Ackland has shown off an advanced hand prosthesis that allows him to deal cards and tie his shoelaces, as well as make an omelet and open a beer bottle.

The Dead Shall Rise Again

39-year old Colin Fiedler was dead for at least 40 minutes being brought back to life with a cardiac support pump called the AutoPulse, which keeps the patient’s blood running through the brain and other vital organs as doctors administer medicine or shock treatment. The procedure has revived two other patients under similar conditions as well.

I have no doubt in my mind that science will continue creating, refining and delivering life-changing technology such as these in the years to come — and that they will become available to more and more people. Machines and electronics have become so prevalent and familiar to us that we fail to see the wonder in them any more.

Miracles are all around us, if you would care to open your eyes and see. They are brought about not by a leap of faith, but of science. And unlike other so-called miracles, they can be depended on to work again, and again, and again.

 

Andy Uyboco is a businessman, trainer and speaker. If you actually had a laptop or tablet drop on your lap from heaven, send me an email at [email protected]. Previous articles can be found at www.freethinking.me.

Posted in Religion, Science1 Comment

Lab Letters Issue 16: The Spinning Face Illusion, The Dawn Bird, and Real-life Automail

Lab Letters Issue 16: The Spinning Face Illusion, The Dawn Bird, and Real-life Automail

Hello there! For this week’s Lab Letters, I’ll tell you all about illusions, a dino-chicken, and a really cool hand.

Let’s get this science micro-post rolling!

 

The illusion that can’t fool schizophrenics

 

Before watching the video, let me first tell you that the gently rotating face is a convex one – when it turns over, you get to see the other (concave) side. And yet, even if you’re aware of this, your brain still succumbs to the illusion that makes it appear as if the face is convex too – and is spinning the other way. This is because of how human brains work – we have bottom-up processing, which deals with sensory input (i.e. what we see); and top-down processing, which involves previously gathered information (i.e. what we expect to see).

However, it seems that for schizophrenics, a conflict between their bottom-up and top-down processes causes them to be immune to the illusion – they don’t get fooled like the rest of us. Scanning the brains of normal and schizophrenic people revealed differences in how their brain regions interact: the visual areas (bottom-up) and the top-down areas of schizophrenic brains aren’t as well-connected as those same areas in healthy brains. Without the top-down process prodding them to see the face as convex, they end up seeing the image for what it really is.

 

Top-down processing allows the brain to render the ambiguous H/A letters correctly so that even though the letters look the same, they still makes sense in context. (source: wikimedia.org)

 While it’s tempting to conclude that schizophrenics are good at “keeping it real” because their brains aren’t fooled by spinning faces, it is important to keep in mind that symptoms of schizophrenia include hallucinations and the inability to distinguish reality. The lack of cooperation between brain regions is just a part of a complicated story.

 

Move over, Archaeopteryx

 

The specimen is 50 cm long from beak to tail. (source:  T. Hubin/IRSNB)

A newly discovered fossil in northeast China has been found to be 160 million years old, predating the famed Archaeopteryx, widely known as the first bird, by 10 million years. Named Aurornis xui (aurora = dawn, Latin; ornis = bird, Greek; xui = Xu Xing, Chinese paleontologist), the fossil was bought from a local dealer and was later verified in Belgium.

Dawn bird, artist rendering. (source: Emiliano Troco)

Archaeopteryx may have been unseated as the oldest bird specimen, but much of what defines a bird is still based on its features. An older specimen doesn’t exactly mean an overhaul, but it affords a larger view on how prehistoric birds have evolved. Nature abstract found here.

And finally…

Meet Nigel Ackland.

 

(source: bebionic.com)

In 2006, he was working as a precious metals smelter when he got into an accident involving a blending machine. His right forearm was crushed, and it had to be amputated. He tried out a couple different prosthetics (hooks, claws) before getting fitted for the bebionic3, the “world’s most advanced cybernetic limb”. He recently went to the Global Future 2045 Congress, a conference for futurists and engineers and the like, where he showed off his arm to a swarm of attendees.

 

Here he is showing the different settings and preset grips for his hand, and then pouring himself a cold one.

 

Here he is tying his shoelaces and responding to viewer questions (yes, he can flip you off. Cybernetically!). AND, his wrist spins 360 degrees. How about that, normal puny-handed humans?

Ackland is loving all the attention, and he says having a bionic hand makes him feel human again.

 

Well! I’ll see you again next time for another FF LL. Good night everybody!

Posted in Science0 Comments

“Who’s Got Game?” Steven Pinker vs The Pickup Artist

In 2010, I wrote an article called, “In Defense of Sedouchers.” The initial assumption made in my last article was, “if you’re being yourself and it hasn’t been working, you should either change yourself or, at least, tone down qualities that scare people off.” “Insanity,” after all, as Einstein said, “is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

However, after I encountered Steven Pinker’s notion that romantic credibility is a necessary component in long-term commitments. I had to re-evaluate my position.

Transformation, or at least education is the rational course of action when one finds difficulty establishing romantic relations. Seeking out information that would allow an individual to develop and convey personal qualities that are universally accepted as attractive, or implement a method that would result in attraction, is a rational response.

A study done in Oxford called “The Dating Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Emerging Science of Human Courtship,” examined two texts written by the most prominent representatives of the practice of “game” and argued that many of these claims are in fact grounded in solid empirical findings from social, physiological and evolutionary psychology.

However, the idea of subscribing to a rational method, a scientific one even, in order to improve one’s chances of finding a suitable mate is frowned upon as being “manipulative,” the premise being that romance and love, in order to be authentic, has to come from an irrational place.

Cognitive Scientist Steven Pinker, in a conference in 1998 called Der Digitale Planet, implies that, “There’s actually a rational component to romantic attraction, basically, smart shopping. As anyone who’s been in the single scene recently will attest: Love is a kind of market place, where all of us, at some point in our lives has been in search of the richest, best-looking, nicest, smartest person who will settle for us.”

Now, if romantic attraction is actually a rational decision, wouldn’t a rational method of creating romantic attraction be a rational course of action? This is where Steven Pinker and the Pickup Artists would disagree. Pinker’s idea of romance applies the Theory of Paradoxical Tactics, a principle that suggests, “A sacrifice of freedom and rationality can paradoxically give and agent an advantage in promises, threats and bargains.”

He believes that, “it is almost always irrational to make a lasting commitment to another person (because based on the law of averages, you’ll eventually meet someone better), the sensation of love must be dramatically irrational in order for people to pair up at all.” And, in fact, it is the display of irrational behavior and decision-making that would legitimize the promises made when people commit.

Why Commitment is Problematic

Pinker suggests that romance is a kind of promise to spend eternity with someone, and sacrifice the opportunity to be “with someone else.” What will stop a rational person from breaking the romantic promise when he or she finds a better “option?” Therein lies the problem.

Pinker says:

“In the case of romance, since you have to set-up house with the best person you found up to a given time, by the law of averages, someone better is bound to show up in the future. The only question is, “when?”… At that point, a perfectly rational person would ‘drop you like a hot potato.’ On the other hand, since you are also a rational agent in this hypothetical scenario, you can anticipate that and you would never have agreed to the promise to begin with anticipating that it would be in the interest of the other party to break it sooner or later.”

However, if every person would approach a relationship from such a perspective, there wouldn’t be any commitment at all. So, what compels completely rational individuals to actually commit to each other? Here’s Pinker’s paradox:

“The solution is that if you don’t decide to fall in love for rational reasons, perhaps you’re less likely to decide to fall out of love for rational reasons. And the very involuntariness of romantic love serves as an implicit guarantor of the promise. It’s one of many examples in which a lack of freedom or rationality is paradoxically an advantage in situations of negotiation between two intelligent parties.”

The Problem of Romantic Authenticity

This is where PUA material, from my POV, should inspire suspicion. There is never, in the PUA, any desire to lose one’s freedom or rationality for the sake of making an implicit guarantee. In fact, one of the most counter-intuitive pieces of advice it regularly gives: “Do not pursue the girl you are in love with.”

It’s a concept called “Oneitis.”

Oneitis is considered “a ‘disease’ (hence the ‘itis) where a man is stuck on one girl and feels that she is ‘the one,’ usually to the detriment of having any romantic relationship with her.” Here’s a link for more information on oneitis. Also, If you have oneitis, here’s how to cure it.

A person with oneitis is not thinking rationally and currently has a distorted concept of who the object of attraction is. The assumption is that if a person yields to his current perception, the oneitis will fall short of his ideal.

However, if the intention was to reach a certain level of irrationality that would compel people to “pair up,” isn’t the oneitis exactly the person one should go after?

But the PUA has a more rational approach than what Pinker suggests:

The rational agent recognizes that the implicit romantic promise is an irrational impulse that causes irrational behavior. So, it is in the best interest of a rational agent to provoke the irrational impulse in his partner while maintaining rationality in himself, or to provoke “romance” without yielding to it himself. That sounds highly manipulative, but isn’t the point of reason, control?

If the rational agent was given this option, this power, to provoke irrational devotion, would it not be the best choice? Irrational people, after all, have little concern for guarantees. Irrational people are also willing to accept lopsided arrangements. The person who can maintain his rationality (the person who isn’t in love) can decide the parameters of the interaction.

And that is exactly why PUA material advocates for avoiding the oneitis.

That’s also why I think there are some things wrong with PUA culture. Many of these methods emphasize control, and do not approach the romantic interaction in good faith.

The Problem of the Modern Romantic Medium

Another concern Pinker raised was, “why the emotions tie up the body as well as the brain.”

He says:

“When we’re in the throes of passion, romantic or otherwise, we show it. We blush, we blanch, we tremble, we sweat, our voice croaks, we get expressions on our face and this has long been a puzzle in physiology. I think one explanation is that we are giving a credible signal that our current course of action is not under the control of the voluntary circuits of the cerebral cortex…”

In other words, when we are passionate, our body communicates our passion to add credibility to the romantic gesture.

However, the current mediums of communication, those in popular use today, social media & texting, are mediums where physical signs of romantic credibility are absent. To make matters worse, “the unique idiosyncratic properties of the individual,” in the age of blogging, is highly inauthentic and mostly synthetic.

Heather Sundell, in her article, “You’re Someone’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl, And You Have No Idea” shares her experience on being a creep magnet:

“I tweet, post status updates, and maintain a blog on a daily basis. It makes perfect sense that strangers could genuinely feel like they know me personally, but it’s still weird that these boys projected their manic pixie dream girl fantasies on me based on my social media persona.”

The problem of the current romantic medium is that romantic credibility and authenticity is not possible online or in text because the romantic medium of communication is both physical and irrational. However, the cultural habit of constructing an online identity actually accelerates the romantic process.

Heather Sundell writes:

“Broken down, it’s totally easy to see why guys would look at my silly photos, read my twenty-something blog posts, see my witty 140 character quips, and project that I am their quirky dream girl fantasy. They see this fun girl full of endearing imperfections, who isn’t particularly serious about life, because that’s who I’ve told them I am. I couldn’t have constructed a better character in an indie romantic screenwriting class.”

So, it’s not uncommon to have a person fall in love with an inauthentic identity, pursue her through a flawed medium, and sound completely inauthentic and creepy. The availability of alternative forms of communication (text, chat) might also contribute to people’s apprehension for face to face meetings, making romantic credibility almost an irrelevant aspect of seduction.

On the Necessity of a Rational Foundation & the Psychology of Courtship (Or why one should, in PUA terms, “Play it cool”)

The premise of the paradoxical advantage is that one could increase one’s influence over a person by displaying an irrational surrender to the romantic impulse. Pinker’s own words:

“If you were to whisper in your lover’s ear, ‘You’re the nicest, smartest, best-looking, richest person, I’ve been able to find so far.’ It would probably kill the romantic mood. The way to a person’s heart is to declare the exact opposite. To say that the emotions elicited by the unique idiosyncratic properties of the individual, ‘I can’t help falling in love with you’ and to emphasize how involuntary and irrational it is. ‘I want you so bad and it’s driving me mad, etcetera, etcetera.’”

However, I think this conclusion is flawed. If one were to approach an interaction with irrationality, one will be, as I was by a recent acquaintance, viewed as completely insane and scary (I’m so sorry I freaked you out!).

Pinker’s theory appealed to me because after not being in “the game” for a long, long time, the entire prospect of having to remember “the rules” and follow them seemed like a very tedious process. In other words, I wondered what would happen if I actually expressed what I felt for a girl without any concern for “the game,” or for reason.

In a sense, I also wanted to prove that the romantic pursuit is not dead, & that it’s okay to go “love at first sight” in 2013. I wanted to see if the theory of paradoxical tactics, which I like to refer to as “the anti-PUA,” worked in the real world. I decided to try and ignore the social and cultural conventions of the romantic pursuit.

The premise was simple. If I felt strongly for a particular person, I’d go for it. No fear. No method. No game. Just go.

However, I discovered the hard way that my irrational expression of interest inspired nothing but loathing and repulsion from the desired person. My irrational behavior also alienated some of my friends, primarily because my behavior was viewed as “crazy shit.”

I was, in Bon Jovian terms, “Shot down in a blaze of glory.”

The hypothesis I developed from this experience is that one must first establish a strong propensity for rationality (play it cool) before one demonstrates a compulsive surrender to an irrational romantic impulse. The transition from being cool & rational to being “romantic,” when exhibited by a rational agent (Keyword: Rational), is the very thing that yields a paradoxical advantage in that it would imply a romantic promise.

Conclusion

Irrationality, as Pinker implied, has a place in modern romantic interactions. But it is not something I would advise, especially at the beginning of an interaction.

I also doubt if the credibility implied by one’s compulsion for irrational romantic behavior is as valuable as the bargaining position achieved when one withholds romantic interest until the other reveals it first.

My conclusion: “If you have to be something, be rational.”

 

 

Follow me on Twitter: @dustincelestino

Posted in Personal, Philosophy, Science2 Comments

Lab Letters Issue #15: Dead Man Walking, Space Jewelry, and a Glowing Cockroach

Lab Letters Issue #15: Dead Man Walking, Space Jewelry, and a Glowing Cockroach

Hello and welcome once again to Lab Letters, FF’s weekly science micro-post! This week we’ll be checking out the walking dead, an ancient bead, and new animals discovered in 2012.

Let’s go!

Interview with a dead man

Graham is suffering from Cotard’ delusion, a rare neurological condition that makes people believe that they have died or have lost their organs, and thus no longer need to eat and take care of themselves. The illness first manifests as depression and hypochondria, proceeding to delusions of negation (“my brain doesn’t exist anymore”) and severe depression.

 

Sorrowing Old Man (‘At Eternity’s Gate’), van Gogh, 1890.

Patients are severely depressed and cannot be reasoned with: even when doctors pointed it out to Graham that he was having a conversation with them, he still thought his brain was fried or didn’t exist, and that it was pointless to seek treatment. (image source: wikimedia.org)

 A peek inside the activity in Graham’s brain revealed very low brain activity – similar to someone asleep or under anesthesia. And yet, he was wide awake and getting annoyed at his doctors who keep on insisting that he’s not dead. Neurologists think that understanding the illnesses of those specific brain regions – the frontal and parietal ones – would give them a better understanding of how consciousness arises in the mind.

 

 

The iron bead was found in Gerzeh cemetery and dated to be from 3350 to 3600 BCE. (image source: Open University/University of Manchester)

This bead is 5000 years old and made out of a meteorite

The tubular iron bead was discovered, among other artifacts, in 1911. It was found to have an unusually high nickel content, initially thought to be a smelting accident. Now it looks like it came from outer space. UK meteorite scientists used an electron microscope and an x-ray CT scanner to settle things, and yes – extraterrestrial origin confirmed! In addition to the high nickel content, the bead also showed Widmanstätten patterns, characteristics of a metal that cooled very slowly (several million years-type of slow)… much like a meteorite inside their parent asteroid.

Researchers said that they are keen on testing other Egyptian artifacts as well. Although, this isn’t the first time a relic was found to come from outer space. Folks, meet Iron Man.

 

 

And finally…

Here are the top 10 new species of 2012, as compiled by the International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University. Taxonomy, the science for classifying living things, developed when Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus devised a two-name system of identification in his 1735 book Systema Naturae. The list was released to coincide with Carolus Linnaeus’s birthday on 23 May, 1707.

Featuring…

 

A glow in the dark cockroach! Pro: you’ll be able to see it in the dark. Con: you’ll be able to see it in the dark. (image source: Photograph: Peter Vrsansky & Dusan Chorvat/ASU)

 

and

 

A fabulous lyre sponge! Looks like a centerpiece, but is actually carnivorous. (image source: MBARI/ASU)

 

and

 

The social media lacewing! First posted to Flickr before it caught the eye of entomologists. #BugsOfInstagram anyone?

 

Full image gallery here.

And that is it! I will see you next week for another FF LL!

 

Posted in Science1 Comment

Lab Letters Issue #14: Le Grand K, Grey Hair, and a Space Oddity

Lab Letters Issue #14: Le Grand K, Grey Hair, and a Space Oddity


Hey there! Now that the election dust has settled, more or less, let’s get back to Lab Letters, FF’s weekly science micro-post! Let’s see what we have for this week.

 

The International Prototype Kilogram, also known as Le Grand K, sits under three nested bell jars and is cleaned every 40 years. (credit: greg.org)

A Better Kilo

Ever wonder how we worked out how heavy a kilogram should be? It sounds like a recurring loop (“well, it should be just as heavy as a… uh… kilogram!”), and that is exactly right. There exists the kilogram, a standard that is sitting in a vault in France. The kilogram unit was named by the French in 1795 and defined as the mass of one liter of water at 4C, and a more practical ‘reference weight’ made of platinum and iridium was then made in 1879. Forty replicas of this standard weight are found all over the world. Recently, however, these kilogram standards have begun to vary in weight because of accumulating dust from the atmosphere. The kilogram is also the only remaining SI unit that is still based on a physical weight. So the folks at Swiss Federal Office of Metrology put out a call for better ways to measure and define a kilogram, and it seems that Mettler Toledo (known for making precision measuring instruments) has found one: the watt balance is a scale that measures the amount of voltage required to lift the kilogram standard in an electromagnetic field. Other teams from the world over are also in the game. Check out Team Avogadro and Team Planck.

 

Michael Jackson had had vitiligo since the 1980s, which eventually caused all his skin to lighten in color. (source: rhythmofthetide.com)

 Goodbye, Gray Hair & Vitiligo

A grey hair develops hydrogen peroxide accumulates in the hair follicle and bleaches it out completely. Now, researchers from the UK and Germany have discovered a cure: stop the accumulation, and you can reverse the bleaching. And it works on people with vitiligo, too, because it targets the same mechanism. The “topical, UVB-activated pseudocatalase” is an antioxidant that prevents the buildup of, well, oxidants, including hydrogen peroxide. I guess people won’t be needing that spray-on hair in the future.

 


And finally…

 

This is a snapshot taken by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield on his last day as Commander of the International Space Station. Along with two astronauts, Hadfield returned to Earth via the Soyuz spacecraft that landed in Kazakhstan on 13 May 2013.

Hadfield has been lauded for his efforts to make space exploration cool again by actively engaging people on social media. He has a Youtube channel, where he shows Earthlings what it’s like living in orbit (exercise is important! food comes in sachets! tears just pool on your face!), and a Twitter account (@Cmdr_Hadfield) that he uses to post spectacular pictures taken from space and interact with Canada’s other famous space captain.

He recently turned over command of the ISS to Russian Pavel Vinogradovin, but not before posting his cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, which is also the first music video made in space. Sit down for a minute and let that wash over you. Now go watch the video here.

 

I’ll be seeing you folks next week! Same time, same place.

 

 

Posted in Science0 Comments

Lab Letters Issue #13: Longer Lives, Sexy Voices, and the Rose

Lab Letters Issue #13: Longer Lives, Sexy Voices, and the Rose

Hey there! Come join me for this week’s Lab Letters. It’s FF’s weekly science micro-post!

 

Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Yeast can ferment sugar, turning it into alcohols and carbon dioxide. It is used to brew beer and make dough rise. (source: yeast genomics.ca)

 

800 Year Lifespans Now Possible? Not Quite.

Definitely an eye-catcher and an interest-pique-er. But one must be wary whenever reports come in of scientists curing cancer or prolonging lifespans. When the title sounds a little too science-fictiony, it probably is. In this case, it turns out that the experiment was done on baker’s yeast – a type of unicellular fungus that is a well-studied model organism for geneticists. Using a combination of a calorie restricted diet and gene deletions, researchers at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles have demonstrated a tenfold increase in the yeast’s lifespan. So, assuming that the average lifespan is ~80 years old, you kinda get how the fantastic headline came to be. While yeast shares a lot of genes and cellular pathways with humans (there’s a reason it’s a model organism, after all), it is important to note that cellular signaling is a very complex phenomenon and that the exact mechanisms of aging are still being worked out (both in humans and yeasts). So for those of you who are thinking of saying hello to their great great great great grandkids in the future, I’d recommend reading past science news titles and actually reading the contents. This PhD comic explains it all:

 

 

 

I owe you a yo-yo, Mr. Sheffield! You totally read that in her voice. (source: babyboomerflashback.blogspot.com)

These Voices Will Get You Pregnant

Oops. See what I mean with the titles? Anyway, it has been shown that women prefer deeper voices while men go for voices with a higher pitch. But why? Researchers at the University College London decided to investigate. According to previous research, different voice pitches (and other vocal characteristics) can indicate different body sizes. The hypothesis is that men prefer a high-pitched female voice because it indicates a small bodied-female. Women, on the other hand, prefer a deeper voice because that suggests a large guy. Not only that, but “breathiness” also helps: perhaps it makes the voice seem happier and less aggressive.

To be able to control every vocal characteristic and ensure uniformity, the researchers used a speech synthesizer. They made it say “I owe you a yoyo,” and let their test subjects decide which voice is sexiest.

Here are the most attractive voices:

Most attractive female voice by Jmstrom

Most attractive male voice by Jmstrom

 

And the least:

Least attractive female voice by Jmstrom

Least attractive male voice by Jmstrom

 

My only criticisms of the study are the small sample size and the surprising absence of Don Draper’s smooth dulcet ad pitch.

 

And finally…

 

(source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

The Rose is what NASA calls Saturn’s north polar storm, measuring 2000 km across, whirling at 530 kilometers per hour, and following a hexagon-shaped weather pattern. This is a false-color image; the green areas indicate high clouds while the red areas indicate low clouds. In contrast, this is what it would look like without the color enhancement:

(source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

The Cassini spacecraft took these snapshots from 419,000 km away. It has travelled 3.54 billion kilometers to get to Saturn and has been hanging out in the Saturnian system since 2004.

 

Wasn’t that neat? That’s all for today though. I’ll see you next week right here on FF LL!

 

 

 

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Lab Letters Issue #12: Soft Robots, Super Rice, and a Wet Towel in Space

Lab Letters Issue #12: Soft Robots, Super Rice, and a Wet Towel in Space

It’s that time again – the time for your weekly science updates. This is Lab Letters. Let’s go!

 

Hello doggie! An example of an evolved soft robot, showing natural-looking body structure and gait. The red and green blocks represent muscle-like materials. (Not shown: dark blue blocks represent bone, light blue blocks represent soft support/tissue) (source: Cheney, MacCurdy, Clune, & Lipson, Cornell/University of Wyoming)

Robot Evolution

Studying the evolution of a species can get tricky. There’s a lot of observing, measuring, cataloguing, sample collecting, testing, and waiting – especially for organisms that take a long time to mature. So a team of engineers at Cornell University in New York presumably just said, “Y’know what, evolutionary biology? We’ll just build our own organisms! With cubes and stuff!” That’s exactly what they did. Using a compositional pattern-producing network (CPPN), they built up block shaped robots consisting of 4 types of materials: bone, tissue, and two types of muscles. Then they laid down one rule: faster robots have more offspring. Then they let the simulation run. Here’s what happened:

So far, I’ve been able to make out a galloping sofa and a drunk goat. What do you see?

 

 

It’s alive! (1) Orysza sativa variety IR56 grown on normal soil (2) IR56 grown on salty soil (3) Oryza coarctata grown on salty soil (4) IR56 and O. coarctata’s first and second generation offspring, grown on salty soil. IRRI scientists hope to make this supercrop available to farmers in 4 to 5 years. (source: Jena/irri.org)

IRRI breeds super crop

Don’t you just hate it when the Assyrian army marches into your city, burns your houses, kills your babies, enslaves you and your buddies, and then, just to make sure you’re completely screwed over, salts your land so that nothing can ever grow again? Well! Those Assyrians shouldn’t be so smug! The International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños has announced the successful production of a rice strain that can tolerate high amounts of salt in the soil. This new strain capable of tolerating twice as much salt as its predecessor was made by crossing two very genetically different rice species. The exotic wild rice O. coarctata can tolerate salt levels comparable to seawater, but isn’t edible. Meanwhile, O. sativa variety IR56 is a cultivated and edible species. Sounds easy? Out of 34,000 crosses, only three embryos were rescued, and only one embryo actually started growing.

 

The most massively useful thing an astronaut can have

Commander Chris Hadfield of the International Space Station has been busy showing us Earth-bound humans how astronauts live (eat, exercise, sleep, cry, pee) in space. In this video, he performs a simple experiment: what happens when you wring a wet towel in space?

Magic happens.

The experiment was actually conceptualized by two grade 10 students in Nova Scotia, Canada, using items that are readily available in the ship.

 

And finally…

Happy Earth Day! Here’s a picture showing the Earth, as seen from outer space. That there is the reusable Dragon spacecraft docked to the International Space Station.

 

Tweeted by SpaceX

 

That’s it for today, see you next time here on FF Lab Letters!

 

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