August 2013 Archives

Fecal transplants no joke


Before writing this article, I confess I went to the Web and Googled “fecal transplant joke” but, alas, all I could find were sentences like, “Fecal transplants are no joke.” No, they are not, but could we not expect at least a modicum of childish humor?

An article, The promise of poop, in Friday’s Science magazine discusses the medical possibilities of fecal transplants. As far as I know, these were first considered as a last-ditch treatment for Clostridium difficile infections, which are very severe intestinal infections and come about when antibiotics kill the great majority of the other floras in the large intestine. A hospitalist in a long-term care facility told me a couple of years ago that he thought fecal transplants would become the treatment of choice for “C-diff.”

Casey’s still beavering away


Jeremy Mohn, a high school biology teacher in Kansas and for years a stalwart in the defense of honest science education in that state, points us to another Casey Luskin masterpiece. Jeremy’s post is titled The Dispersal of Doubt: Biogeography, Convenient Omission, and Selective Quotation.

I recently encountered an article that is a classic demonstration of the array of deceptive tactics employed by a well-known critic of evolutionary theory. In a relatively brief essay about biogeography, the critic raises as many doubts as possible through the use of selective quotations from actual experts on the topic. All the while, he conveniently omits important details from the quoted texts that actually reduce the purported severity of the highlighted “conundrums.”

It’s well worth reading.

It’s all about the science, right?


John (catshark) Pieret analyzes profiles of attendees at the Disco ‘Tute’s summer “institute” on intelligent design. While the program is explicitly aimed at students so as to “…prepare students to make research contributions advancing the growing science of intelligent design (ID)”), at least some of the attendees are already active teachers in public schools. I remember Bill Dembski arguing for the recruitment of high school students 12 years ago on ARN somewhere; see here for a quotation from a now-dead link. The full profiles are here, in a religious publication. The comments there are fascinating. It’s all about the science, right?

The March Remembered



Fifty years ago, on the evening of August 27, 1963, I boarded a chartered bus in Rochester, New York, to travel overnight to the March on Washington. I was in Rochester for the summer as a student programmer. The press was worried about the March – maybe there would be clashes between the marchers and white racists. The New York Times begged the organizers to call off the March. President Kennedy also tried to get it canceled, and only reluctantly endorsed it when the organizers refused to cancel.

We ground through the night on the two-lane roads south from Rochester and down along the Susquehanna River through central Pennsylvania – no freeways on that route then. There was little talking, most of us were desperately, and unsuccessfully, trying to get some sleep. Little talking, but I imagine a lot us were worrying. Was this event going to bring out only a few people? Would there be clashes with police or racist opponents?

Egretta garzetta

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Photograph by Marilyn Susek.

Photography contest, Honorable Mention.


Egretta garzetta – little egret, Isle of Anglesey, North Wales, December, 2011.

Giant panda gives birth


Professor Steve Steve reports that his distant relative Mei Xiang gave birth to a cub at the National Zoo yesterday. NPR reports that the zoo did not know that the panda was pregnant until recently, when, according to Professor Steve Steve, she told her keepers that she “might be just a little bit pregnant.” Reuters reports that scientists will shortly perform a paternity test. You may see a webcam shot of the giant panda here.

Part 1: Y and mtDNA are not Adam and Eve.
Part 2: What it means to be the Most Recent Common Ancestor (MRCA)

On to part 3. Except, what’s this? Someone has beat me to it? Gasp!

Okay, go read Dienekes’ Anthropology blog post about the two recent Y papers. I agree with all of the critiques and summaries of both the Poznik et al. (2013) and the Francalacci et al. (2013) papers. Perhaps the best part of this summary:

“And, indeed, the fact that the two are of different ages is not particularly troubling or in need of remedy, since for most reasonable models of human origins we do not expect them to be of the same age.”

But, let’s see if I can provide a little more background (you did go read Dienekes’ post, right?). Good. But, just in case you didn’t, a brief summary of some of the findings of Poznik et al. (2013):

Tim White video on Science Friday


Tim White, discoverer of Ardipethicus ramidus, among other significant hominin fossils, is featured in this short video (7 minutes) from NPR’s Science Friday. Well worth a watch.

Via John Hawks.

Stephen Meyer: workin’ in the quote mines


Stephen Meyer’s new book, “Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design,” has received highly critical reviews from several working scientists. Don Prothero panned the book for (among other things) its misrepresentations of paleontology, and Nick Matzke showed Meyer’s ignorance of (among other things) phylogenetic methods (see also here). Now John Farrell has critically reviewed the book in National Review (behind a $0.25 paywall). Farrell’s review criticizes Meyer’s book on several grounds, but the part of immediate interest here is Meyer’s quote mining of a genuine scientist. I’ll quote from the review at some length below the fold.

NCSE launches “Science League of America” blog


Via Facebook, we learn that the National Center for Science Education has launched a new blog called Science League of America. From Josh Rosenau’s intro post:

In August of 1924, Maynard Shipley–a science communicator and formerly a shoe salesman, music teacher, and criminologist–feared a creationist onslaught. A year before the Scopes monkey trial, Shipley saw that antievolutionists like William Jennings Bryan “have started their campaign against the theory of evolution with the avowed intent of putting in the place of science the Book of Genesis.”* He sent forth a call to friends and compatriots who shared his concern, urging them to join him in establishing “The Science League of America.”

The new NCSE blog is intended to honor Shipley’s goals while updating content. The blog will feature “…NCSE staff and our friends and allies from the field …”. Give it a look; the initial posts–five of them–are up.

Egretta thula


Photograph by Vincent Connors.

Photography contest, Honorable Mention.

Connors.Egretta thula.jpg

Egretta thula – snowy egret, Bennett’s Point, South Carolina, May, 2010.

Scientists discover new mammal


Photograph by Mark Gurney, Smithsonian Institution.

Well, discover in the same sense that Columbus discovered America. The “new” mammal, the olinguito, was formerly mistaken for its closest relative, the olingo. Both inhabit the cloud forests of the Andes. The discoverer, Kristofer Helgen, described the animal as a “cross between a teddy bear and a house cat,” to which editorialized, “(awwww).” The olinguito is related to the raccoon.

Magnesium burning


Photograph by Andrey Pavlov.

Photography contest, Semi-Finalist.


Magnesium burning with copper. Mr. Pavlov writes, “My setup involved a hunk of pure magnesium (harvested from a campfire starter) set on top of a log in a fireplace. Under the Mg hunk were some matches, and on top were either copper shavings or brass tacks. I then lit the matches on fire and used a plastic tube connected to an E cylinder of pure oxygen running at ~15 liters per minute to direct the oxygen stream at the base of the Mg hunk. This ignited the matches with enough energy to start the Mg on fire, which subsequently melted and burned with the Cu or brass to produce colored flames. …

“In between shots, the Mg oxidized very rapidly and formed a crust over the glowing molten core of metal. When I took the O2 and blew a stream over the base of the crusted-over metal amalgam, it cracked and began burning very rapidly and very (VERY!) brightly.

“In the Cu image you can see a layer of Mg metal being blasted off the surface and “floating” on top of the plasma being generated. In the background is the green of the Cu burning, and in the center is crusted amalgam.”

That is the headline of a press release printed unedited in the Sacramento Bee. The movie, by Ray Comfort of banana fame, is an excruciating 35 minutes of quote-mined sound bites, mostly from undergraduate science majors, but also from PZ Myers and a handful of other scientists (Gail Kennedy, Craig Stanford, and Peter Nonacs).

Freshwater: Advising Springboro creationists?


The Springboro, Ohio, board of education has been flirting with adding creationism to its curriculum in the guise of a “controversial issues” policy. (See here for a representative news story, and see the Sensuous Curmudgeon for more opinionated coverage).

Now it’s been reported that John Freshwater, who is awaiting a decision by the Ohio Supreme Court on his termination as a science teacher in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, has been giving advice to that board. According to an Ohio political blog that I’ve never heard of before, Plunderbund, Freshwater communicated with Springboro board member Jim Rigano, one of the proponents of the “controversial issues” proposal, recommending his Rutherford Institute lawyer to the Springboro board. That attorney, Rita Dunaway, argued Freshwater’s case before the Ohio Supreme Court, and did a good job of it. (See here for the video, and here for my remarks on it.)

Plunderbund even claims to have the email request Springboro board member Rigano made to Dunaway. In the end, apparently Dunaway declined Rigano’s request–perhaps the Springboro board’s overt creationism was too much for the Rutherford Institute. So Rigano and his fellow board members sought different representation, which, according to Plunderbund, is Liberty Institute, with the board reportedly meeting last night (Aug 8) to vote on retaining Liberty Institute as counsel. The purported letter of agreement is here on Liberty letterhead. A Google News search yields no hits about the meeting last night. Anyone hear anything about that meeting?

According to its web site,

Liberty Institute is the largest legal organization focused solely on protecting and restoring religious liberty in the United States. We offer legal assistance pro bono to help defend the religious freedoms of individuals, churches and other organizations all across the nation.

From what I can tell scanning around the web, Liberty Institute makes the John Birch Society look pinko.

Freshwater’s advice was sound: Dunaway was a good representative for him. She was smooth and poised, and was able to unabashedly distort and misrepresent the record in a way favorable to Freshwater’s case. We’re still awaiting the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision.

The Chapman Law Review is now posting online articles from its past issues, and I noticed today that they posted Francis Beckwith’s 2008 letter to the editor responding to my article Reason And Common Ground, 11 Chap. L. Rev. 129 (2007). Since this might leave only one side of that story out there, it may be time to reveal just what went on.

Part 1 is here.

There were more than two.
One of the misleading aspects of the “Adam and Eve” analogy, is the implication that there were only two humans alive at that time. In the video below I explain what the mtDNA is, how it can be used to trace back to find a common mtDNA ancestor, and why this genetic female was not alone. The same logic applies to the Y chromosome ancestor. Scientists estimate there were approximately 5,000 genetic females and 5,000 genetic males in the ancestral population of anatomically modern humans.


Talking with people and making this video brought up a couple other important points that are difficult to summarize in a sentence, so I’ll expand upon later:

Photography Contest V, Winner


Our congratulations to Alexander Bartolot, the winner of the latest Panda’s Thumb photography contest with his fascinating photograph “Methane ice bubbles in clear lake ice.” Mr. Bartolot’s photograph garnered 21 out of 44 votes. “Mt. Saint Helens crater,” by James Kocher, was second with 7 votes. We will award Mr. Bartolot a copy of Mark Perakh’s book Unintelligent Design.

Upcoming Public Skeptalk!


I just got forwarded an announcement for my upcoming public lecture/discussion!!

What: Sex, Male Bias, and Degeneration

When: Wednesday, August 14, 2013 07:30 PM - 09:30 PM

Where: La Pe�a Cultural Center Lounge 3105 Shattuck Avenue Berkeley, CA


Cost: FREE

Why: Because we’re curious creatures

I am so excited to have been invited to give an upcoming Skeptalk! You are all welcome come and join in the discussion. The more the merrier!

Below is the announcement that was sent out (modified/shortened from a version I sent a month ago). But, given the recent interest in the TMRCAs of the Y and mtDNA, I’m considering editing the lecture to include some discussion of this new content as well.

This is going to be the first of a several part (at least two, maybe more, however many it takes) series of posts discussing both the science and the science communicating regarding a recent paper:

Science. 2013 Aug 2;341(6145):562-5. doi: 10.1126/science.1237619.

Sequencing Y chromosomes resolves discrepancy in time to common ancestor of males versus females.

First, you should go read it. It is short and sweet, and, yay science!

What I’m going to talk about first is how this paper relates to communicating science. Future posts will expand and elaborate on the research. I’ll also note that I am not picking on this paper alone, because several other scientific papers have done the exact same thing. This one is just the most recent incident, and, more personally,  I was actively involved in trying (and failing) to prevent the miscommunication. As such, I feel the need to provide more explanation.

Gekko gecko


Photograph by Tony Gamble.

Photography contest, Semi-Finalist.


Gekko gecko – tokay gecko.

Jo Ann Gora, the president of Ball State University, issued a strong statement in support of science and said flatly that intelligent-design creationism is a religious belief, according to an article in Inside Higher Ed. Ball State is the university that recently hired Guillermo Gonzalez, an astronomer who was denied tenure at Iowa State University and subsequently taught at a small sectarian college. Ball State University has also come under fire because one of its professors, Eric Hedin, has allegedly introduced religious material into his science classes.

Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck, would have been 269 today (August 1), were it not for his untimely death at 85. But he did accomplish a few things – he was one of the greatest pioneers of invertebrate biology (and he coined the words “invertebrate” and “biology”). And he put forward one of the very earliest theories of evolution, one that had proposed mechanisms. A major mechanism he proposed, to explain adaptation in place of natural selection, was that effects of use and disuse of organs would be passed on to the next generation by inheritance of acquired characters. Although that inheritance has come to be called “Lamarckian inheritance”, he did not invent it – it was commonly known to be true in those days.


He was wrong about inheritance, but he got another important fact right …

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