Thursday, April 26, 2012

Multi-level selection

I've been watching with great anticipation as one of the oldest battles in evolutionary biology is being born anew this year thanks to E.O. Wilson and his mathematical comrades Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita. The trio lead by the old sage - Wilson - has in essence capsized the boat when it comes to the debate between group-selection and kin-selection.

As a bright-eyed college freshman I was made to read the selfish gene by Richard Dawkins. In this book Dawkins lays out a strong case for kin-selection and the rugged individual as embodied by "the gene." This world-view provides the logical starting point when building an argument for "kin-selection." E.O. Wilson was in the kin-selection camp for decades, indeed he was there close to the birth of the concept. But now looking back at his long career he has made an epic flip-flop (which consequentially I think is a high virtue in science despite being maligned by politicos the country over).

Wilson's flip-flop is away from kin-selection and towards group selection. I learned more about his opinions regarding this philosophy in this rough-cut interview with Carl Zimmer. A core concept Wilson acknowledges is not well developed is multi-level selection. Mult-level selection is a more nuanced approach to understanding group-selection. Wilson suggests multi-level selection ought to be fleshed out in order to replace what he considers the erroneous inclusive-fitness theory.

I had not grasped what "multi-level" selection meant until I got to 9:00 in the following TED talk by Jonathan Hiadt. Here he explains in basic terms what multi-level selection theory looks like using a crew-team to illustrate his point. I immediately thought of the novel All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Remarque. One of the continuous themes is the hatred the main character and all of his fellow soldiers feel toward their commanding officer. One of the most gruesome scenes in the book is an ambush of the officer his own men orchestrate. They beat him to within an inch of his life to let him know he does not control them. This internal conflict is more nuanced than the conflict with the enemy and also illustrates one layer in multi-level evolution theory. Please watch the video and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Animals feel. Common sense. Right?

An interview with Bernard E. Rollin University distinguished professor of Philosophy at Colorado State University and University Bioethicist in residence.

Retaining a thick Brooklyn accent Bernie (as he is known by his students) is a force to be reckoned with.  A proud weightlifter and connoisseur of Harley Davidson motorcycles, you might not peg him as a Columbia-educated University distinguished professor.  My first encounter with this giant of animal welfare came as he guest-lectured a bioethics class I was taking in the fall of 2006.  His plea for students to embrace logic, critical thinking, and practice “weight-lifting with your mind” was imprinted on us with his use of punctuating profanity as he lectured.  He is what you would consider a “Rock Star” professor on par with Temple Grandin in reputation among students.

The Superior Human?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Obama and Yellowstone

Underneath the Waterfall

Matteo is with us. The magic of reality is pouring through this video. I hope his energy rubs off on you on this fine spring day here on our pale blue dot!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Christopher Hitchens - a giant of a man

Here is an absolutely exquisite tribute to the late Christopher Hitchens. This was presented last weekend at the 2012 Global Atheist Convention. Thank you Margaret Morgan for pointing this out as a highlight of the convention.

DANGER! Church in State!

John Shimkus a US congressman who currently sits on the Committee on Energy and Commerce is (in my opinion) INSANE!!! 

He has gone on record on the floor of congress completely ignoring scientific evidence and replacing it with trust in mysticism and dogma. He has continuously painted scientists as conspirators in a global movement to take away money and jobs from the US economy. His votes affect us. How did "we the people" elect such a man? A man so completely in breech of the wall of separation Thomas Jefferson so bravely erected between church and state. 

He is openly spitting on reason and reality and I will not be silent about it! 

Essentially Rep. Skirmus has publicly said - we don’t have to worry about climate change, global warming, and CO2. Why? Because, in the bible, God said we don’t have to worry about a flood anymore, he promised it wouldn’t happen. And besides, god is also going to end the world soon, so it’s out of our hands.

 If this kind of reckless political leadership does not scare you please email me at because we need to have a serious conversation as fellow Americans. 

James Randi on Carl Sagan

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Drano for your heart?

There is a growing number of people around the world who believe they have found an alternative treatment for clogged arteries. The idea is to use a kind of molecular Drano and slowly remove the plaques that line the artery walls. It is called chelation therapy.

Is there any evidence that shows this treatment is good or bad?


The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has completed data collection on a large-scale double-blind clinical trial to assess the efficacy of chelation therapy to treat coronary artery disease (CAD). This study is called the Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy or TACT. Though the trial itself has had its own trials and tribulations the study is now complete and the results are being mulled-over by the primary researchers at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine with the intention of publishing results within this calendar year - 2012.

UPDATE: Publication of results now postponed until February 2013!

Why am I interested in this? Doesn't this study pang of "alternative medicine" aka - quackery? 

I await the results with extreme anticipation because of my father. 

My decision to go into science and complete a PhD in biochemistry was made in direct response to my father and his seemingly unreasonable evangelism of chelation therapy as treatment for clogged coronary arteries. My father is a firm believer that chelation therapy saved his life. I think he perhaps got lucky somewhere amid the myriad "alternative" treatments he underwent with no scientific way to assess whether the chelation therapy helped or harmed him. The reality is that until this point there has not been a sufficient study to make a scientifically sound assessment of this treatment.   

While I was in high school in the late 1990s my father (now 80 years old) had heart problems - namely congestive heart failure and arrhythmia. He was a lawyer-turned-vitamin salesman and had it in his head that he did not want to end up dead like many of his contemporaries. I watched as many of his life-long buddies had open-heart surgery only to die weeks or months later from pneumonia, MRSA or other illnesses brought on by their chest cavities having been cracked open. 

After having a spiral CAT-scan of his heart at age 65 my father was told he had up to 80% blockage in some of his coronary arteries. His cardiologist suggested bypass surgery but my father did not want his chest opened up. He had heard through friends in Erie, PA that he could try an alternative treatment with no surgery. He signed up and against the advice of his cardiologist began to receive weekly doses of intravenous EDTA and tetracycline in order to remove the plaque from his arteries. He repeated this every week for many months. After the initial intravenous treatment he switched to a maintenance program of monthly EDTA suppository that he has been on ever since. 

The idea that EDTA or ethylene diamine tetraacidic acid injected in a person's blood could wrestle away calcium deposits (aka apatite) from the walls of hardened arteries seemed to-good-to-be true to me. This was until I went to the dentist's office in graduate school.  I had and still have a orthodontic retainer behind my lower front teeth (I am now 29 years old).  Every 6 months I have to have the accumulated plaque removed from the back of my lower front teeth which builds up due to higher concentration of dead and dying bacteria there due to the retainer.  While I was in graduate school visiting the school dentist the dental hygienist told me that keeping plaque cleared from a person's gums helps fight heart disease by keeping plaque in their coronary arteries low. I was flabbergasted. Here I had a direct link between  bacterial plaque and coronary artery disease.  I could understand that calcium deposits on the tooth enamel were similar to calcium deposits in hardened arteries.  I saw that injecting high concentrations of EDTA would impose Le Chatelier's principle on the calcium ions present in a clogged coronary arteries and thus reduce the size of the atherosclerotic deposits. Despite this theoretical comprehension I was and still am highly skeptical of EDTA chelation therapy. I see my father's success with the treatment as anecdotal. Perhaps he was not as likely to have a heart attack as his vital statistics would have him believe.  My skepticism remains.

Beyond the chelation therapy, my father has for as long as I can remember advocated "preventive medicine" like vitamins and various concoctions sold by his former company - Rexall Showcase International (Now called Unicity).  My father  had unfortunately fell into a pyramid scheme run by a bunch of crooks in the early 90s. I could see right through this bullshit when I was 12 years old! A company named "Sundown" acquired the brand-name "Rexall" in 1985 and used it to lure in "sales associates." Think AMWAY for vitamins. Rexall Drugstores had a shining reputation with old-timers like my father who remembered the good-old-days when Rexall Drugstores were synonymous with root-beer floats and grandpa's heart-burn remedies. Sundown bought the company and used the brand-name (with no connection to the remaining chain of Rexall drugstores) to sell vitamins and weight loss products in big package deals to "sales associates" who could then sell the product to whomever they could convince. I recall the most touted of the panacea powders my father peddled was called BiosLife 2. A disgusting chalky version of what we know as "Emergen-C." But, as Rexall Showcase International's stock tanked, my father's enthusiasm for the brand waned.

In addition to Rexall my father has also evangelized the writing of Julian Whitaker MD. Dr Whitaker as Dad so fondly calls him, writes a weekly newsletter lauding the new advances in "alternative medicine" and telling all subscribers exactly where they can purchase all the new supplements - FROM HIM. 

As much as all this bothered me as an adolescent what really bothered me was that I could not have a rational conversation with my father - a very reasonable man. I love my father and I could not understand how he was so sucked in to to all this crap. I have a hypothesis that he so desperately wanted to be healthy and live a long time so he could be with us into old-age, that he would believe anything. I can't say that he was wrong as he has survived several bouts of congestive heart failure and a mini-stroke. But the fact that he was so manipulated by executives at Sundown/Rexall Showcase International fills me with an uncontrollable animosity towards these snake-oil salesmen. 

I am admittedly skeptical of most of my father's self-prescribed therapies. But as for TACT I have my mind open as "THERE WILL BE DATA!" The pricipal investegator in this study is Gervasio A Lamas, M.D. of Mount Sinai School of Medicine. I have heard that the results will be published and made publicly available around June 2012. Please join me in the assessment of said data! Finally I can have a rational discussion with my father grounded in data on a subject quite literally near and dear to his heart. 

Lamas, G., Goertz, C., Boineau, R., Mark, D., Rozema, T., Nahin, R., Drisko, J., & Lee, K. (2012). Design of the Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy (TACT) American Heart Journal, 163 (1), 7-12 DOI: 10.1016/j.ahj.2011.10.002

Ernst, E. (2000). Chelation therapy for coronary heart disease: An overview of all clinical investigations American Heart Journal, 140 (1), 139-141 DOI: 10.1067/mhj.2000.107548

Saturday, April 14, 2012

On the Origin of Beauty

Philosopher Denis Dutton provides a Darwinian explanation of human aesthetics. As I watched I felt the chills of prehistory run up my spine. This forces a question that (in my mind) has a hard-to-swallow answer - Do we have the freedom in to decide what is beautiful?

Hot Debate: Dawkins and Pell

This debate is well worth and hour of your time. Cardinal George Pell of Australia debates Professor Richard Dawkins on God, evolution, intelligent design and climate change.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Rebecca Skloot on science journalism

During a 2010 visit to her alma mater - Colorado State University - Rebecca Skloot gave a series of seminars on communicating science to the public. I asked her what she thought about the role of science journalism in a world where more and more scientists are communicated directly to the public. Here is her answer.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Creating Freedom

Creating Freedom
  EPISODE ONE: the lottery of birth
                    a film by Raoul Martinez

Creating Freedom - Part 1: The Lottery of Birth (Trailer) from Creating Freedom on Vimeo.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Dan Dennett: Philosophy's Santa Claus

Here Dan Dennett discusses his concept of consciousness and presents critiques of various concepts buried in the words "free will." Before encountering Dennett's take on this I had seen the English words "free will" and "consciousness" as Trojan horses for faith-based learners and other such metaphysical proponents. Dan Dennett, on the other hand says those words need to be taken for what they are - placeholders for a more complex amalgam of naturally occurring phenomenon that science is on the march toward understanding.

Evolution on Manhattan

Here is the first video I've seen from a new branch of the TED talks called TED-Ed. The idea of these videos is to animate lessons making them widely available to any curious person with an internet connection. I applaud the advocacy of creativity and transparency.

The contemporary illustration of accidental evolution at the hand of human development is particularly poignant.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Inside the Climate-Change-Denial Playbook

Last week I posted a video of Senator James Inhofe interviewed by Rachel Maddow. In this interview Inhofe makes assertions that made my jaw drop. Namely, that environmental lobbying groups out-spent oil-and-gas lobbyists by over a billion dollars in 2009.  He even sites Nature Magazine as the source for this "fact." A "fact" that he clearly got wrong by grossly misrepresenting and confusing the numbers.

The opinion piece in question can be viewed here. The numbers reported by the editors are as follows; $272 million spent by oil-and-gas lobbyists opposing cap-and-trade in 2009 while $229 million spent by environmental groups lobbying for cap-and-trade legislation. By claiming that environmental lobbyists spent nearly a billion dollars more than oil-and-gas lobbyists while the article clearly states that environmental groups spent 43 million dollars less, Inhofe is guilty of an egregious falsehood. 

Incidentally, Inhofe also describes Nature as a "very liberal publication." This struck my as particularly hilarious as the vast majority of the material written about in Nature is derived from primary research conducted in laboratories all over the world.  It has the highest impact factor of any academic journal and publishing in said journal is the most competitive endeavor a scientist can undertake.  In all my life I have not seen a single member of the US congress argue about the scientific reporting in Nature Magazine unless it threatened their bottom-line. You don't see Inhofe arguing over the liberal or conservative way in which the crystal structure of Malaria parasite proteins are described. Imagine hearing a senator argue - Yes, the cysteine-rich Duffy-binding-like domains of the parasite's erythrocyte binding protein actually only bind to right-leaning cell surface receptors - COME ON!

I want to emphasize that the article Inhofe refers to is a brief OPINION piece, not a full-on research article. It is an opinion written by the editors encouraging their audience to read a report made by a professor at American University in Washington, DC named Matthew C. Nisbet. The title of professor Nisbet's article is - Climate Shift: Clear Vision for the Next Decade of Public Debate.  

While reading professor Nisbet's response to Inhofe's misuse of his report I came across a very interesting paragraph describing the playbook of the climate-change-deniers.  The following paragraph makes clear that there is an orchestrated effort among some conservatives in Washington to frame climate-change consistently in a severely anti-science manner.  
"During the 1990s, based on focus groups and polling, Republican consultant Frank Luntz helped shape the climate skeptic playbook, recommending in a strategy memo to lobbyists and Republican members of Congress that the issue be framed as scientifically uncertain, using opinions of contrarian scientists as evidence. He also wrote that the “emotional home run” would be an emphasis on the dire economic consequences of action, impacts that would result in an “unfair burden” on Americans if other countries such as China and India did not participate in international agreements."
Using anti-science tactics is intolerable to me and I feel sad for the people of this county who are fooled by charlatans like James Inhofe.  They are making a mockery of this republic and it makes me want to scream!

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Reason Rally Highlights

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Scared Science: belief and bias

~Tom Paine's Ghost is happy to present a guest post by Mieka Jensen.

Scared Science: belief and bias

One version of a famous story goes, Darwin recanted on his deathbed. Refuting his own theory of evolution and asking God for a pardon. For many this comes as a slap in the face, like telling Harvard you’re going to get your masters degree online instead. While that account is hotly debated, denied by his own children, if anyone were going to recant it probably would have been Darwin. Just for the irony. He was surrounded by a scientific community, his father and grandfather were doctors, and was raised as a Unitarian, which is what cause many to think Elizabeht Ried (aka Lady Hope) made the whole thing up.  

Should he have recanted on his deathbed, it was almost as if he knew that someday his name would be a flashpoint for the divide between secularism and Christianity and he wanted to complicate the issue. Needless to say, even a whisper of a rumor that it happened was enough for scientists who followed him to follow his supposed suit.

The trend continues even among scientists today. Professor and scientist Antony Flew, a lifelong proponent of atheism, announced he had switched to deism in 2004, six short years before his death. Other examples tell similar stories. Apparently old age brings its own doubts – or faiths – to the forefront, even within the scientific community.

Science has long been the bastion of factual evidence and practical atheism, at least in the minds of nonprofessionals. Actually, scientists lean slightly more toward deism than atheism, with studies showing that as many as 66 percent of scientists admit in believing in some sort of god. Doctors and other higher education professionals follow suit.

Similar studies have shown that, far from stepping away from their faith as long supposed, college students tend to stick with their religious affiliations in greater numbers than their unschooled peers. This may be the result of the confirmation theory, which suggests that the knowledge education gives deists also provides them with more tools to ignore evidence against god or create an even greater number of excuses for god and the afterlife.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, larger numbers of natural scientists working in biology, chemistry, and physics, tend to stick to their atheist guns, while social scientists tend to favor a master-design theory in greater numbers. This leads to several disturbing questions for the scientific community. If so many scientists are believers in a god, how does this influence their work? Are they tempted to fudge details or slant findings to support their own worldview? What avenues of study may be ignored?

Peer pressure also plays a role. Naturally opened-minded, perhaps scientists are swayed into agreeing with beliefs their colleagues hold while reserving private doubts themselves, making it difficult to count on the accuracy of any study. Politics and government laws may also encourage one point of view over another, especially when it comes to handing out grants.

In a worst-case scenario this leads to an arms race, where two divergent groups of scientists run toward evidence (or theories) that support their own worldview rather than favoring the truth. But in the best cases, scientists put their personal beliefs on hold when it comes to examining the evidence and considering alternative theories. After all, for every Darwin and Flew, there is a Stephen Hawking who states, "Science makes God unnecessary."

Meika Jensen is a west coast freelance writer who is currently beleaguered by the prospect of applying to Berkeley graduate school in the next few years to study the development of communications. With a diverse array of interests and an insatiable appetite for magazines, she is always happy to write a post or just talk one over. Follow her on Twitter: @MeikaJensen."

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Tim DeChristopher

A hero of mine named Timothy DeChristopher was transferred from solitary confinement back to minimum security prison after people called their respective congress people to complain. Here's a guy doing jail-time for blocking oil and gas drilling in one of the most beautiful places on earth while not a single banker is in jail for preying on American home-buyers. I continue to be outraged by this especially considering that the group of oil and gas leases DeChristopher blocked were deemed inappropriate to begin with by the Obama administration. If you can help him out at