Saturday, June 30, 2012
New Atheism's most polarizing figure?
Rebecca Watson has been at the center of a lot of heated debates lately over at Pharyngula as well as the recent subject of a famous you-tuber named Thunderf00t. This dust-up stems from her suggestion that something ought be done about sexual harassment at various free-thinking conferences like The Amazing Meeting (TAM) and so on. All this controversy coupled to me finally listening to the skeptics guide to the universe podcast on a regular basis, brought me to Rebecca Watson's Blog - Skepchick. On the sidebar I found this wonderful video (above). Though it is old by web standards (posted 8 months ago) I want to share it today to give anyone with even a passive interest in the whole current controversy a view of Rebecca Watson unfettered by the kerfuffle. I stand in solidarity with her as I think she is a force to be reckoned with in the world skeptical thinkers. I have dealt with a constant barrage of alternative medicine hocus pocus thrown at me my entire life. Read about my experience with this here. From my perspective I appreciate her concise description of of the shortcomings of homeopathy and also the suggestions of how to participate in raising awareness about this perennial scam.
Thursday, June 28, 2012
In the first video Jack explains the mechanism of his invention. In the second video you see his acceptance of the first place award. It is epic and has gone viral. I hope I help it spread.
Wednesday, June 27, 2012
Tuesday, June 26, 2012
In the last several weeks I have watched various online companies scramble to get in on a new game changing technology - live On Air web video conferencing. The winner by a mile is Google.
Well because if a person does not comprehend geologic time then I can safely assume they do not trust the scientific method in general and they are not going to pay attention or care about any climate change data I might present to them. So this brings me to the following video. In order to begin a global conversation about climate change we need a more wide-spread acceptance of the scientific method. The history of the evolution vs intelligent design debate is a great model for this campaign of public awareness. It is my opinion that it ought to be used as a template for beginning the climate change conversation.
Sunday, June 24, 2012
In an article published at The Edge Steven Pinker addresses the recent dust-up in the debate between "new group selectionists" and "gene-selectionists." The former being spearheaded by biologists and social scientists like E.O. Wilson and Jonathan Hiadt, the later group lead by evolutionary biologists like Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne.
I have covered this emerging debate here at Tom Paine's Ghost and at the World Science Festival blog.
You can read Steven Pinker's essay here.
I think this debate comes down to conceptual semantics. The observations of science really should not be limited by language. Whether thinkers decide to call a gene "selfish" or "altruistic" the author is still assigning a false personality to a physical thing. A gene alone does not have "will" in either case. This is hard to accept but after reading Sam Harris' Free Will I can accept that free will is an illusion more readily. Darwin himself struggled with false anthropomorphism when he decided to use the word "selection" - as in natural selection. He went to great pains to point out that the natural process does not have any will to select.
This debate will not be settled with words. It ought be settled on an agreement on which equations describe genetic fitness most realistically. After reading the infamous Wilson, Tartinia, Nowak Nature paper (including the 45-page-long prose-heavy supplemental) I am not convinced of Nowak and his fancy equations. It appears to me he is intentionally complicating the math to the point of obscurity. Carefully reading the new equations he proposes to describe an individual's fitness I am left confused. This is unnecessary confusion inside a supplemental text (usually overlooked) behind a paywall. It pangs of academic secrecy and I can not stand it. I hope the debate continues and these equations are scrutinized in public view! Bully to Steven Pinker for jumping in the ring.
Friday, June 22, 2012
Thursday, June 21, 2012
Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Monday, June 18, 2012
An assertion was made by E.O. Wilson as I listened to his On the Shoulders of Giants address at the 2012 World Science Festival. He said that science would inevitably "colonize philosophy, the humanities, and the arts." I can see this happening as a great unifying event (an ongoing series of events is a better way to describe it) where artists and scientists communicate constantly, to a point where either could switch position any time.
Saturday, June 16, 2012
Friday, June 15, 2012
Friday, June 8, 2012
Thursday, June 7, 2012
The trait I admire most in a fellow thinker is the ability to entertain an idea without necessarily swallowing it whole. With that in mind, I eagerly listened to E.O. Wilson's On the Shoulders of Giants address at the World Science Festival in New York City last week.
I recently wrote about Wilson and his controversial rethink of altruism. Long story short, Wilson has created a ruckus by abandoning his long-held belief that cooperative and altruistic behavior among organisms can be simply explained as a veiled selfishness. When an organism appears to behave altruistically by sacrificing themselves or putting themselves in danger it is actually just the individual genes jockeying to survive by keeping identical copies of themselves alive in their relatives. This theory is known as inclusive fitness.
In place of inclusive fitness E.O. Wilson now seems to embrace the controversial concept of “group selection.” This is the idea that genes for altruism persist by benefiting the entire group. The altruistic trait persists by helping groups themselves multiply; grow into larger and larger networks with more and more biomass. In group selection theory this all happens despite the fact that the altruistic trait is detrimental to the individual. Altruistic genes that band together and cooperate out compete groups of genes that act selfishly.
To me, both models seem like they could apply to different genes.
After the address, I had the rare opportunity to ask Wilson directly about his recent change of heart. I asked,
"If the gene is the basic unit of selection—the physical thing that makes it though the sieve of natural selection—then why do we need a 'group selection' model? And if a gene is not the basic unit of selection, then what is?"
The question struck a chord. Wilson replied that he had been anticipating it, in fact, and quickly acknowledged that that his recent move away from the theory of inclusive fitness had rankled many people, including the famed evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins who has popularized the selfish-gene view of evolution and has been a vocal critic of group selection. But Wilson stuck to his guns, saying,
"Yes, the gene is the basic unit of selection, but the phenotype is the target. It is as simple as that."
Wilson flashed a smile, and for a moment I was starstruck, caught up in the glow of Wilson's legendary charm. The spell broke when I began to really chew on his answer. I was still extremely confused about how the concept of "phenotype as target" was supposed to justify group-selection theory. As I rode the elevator downstairs, I felt a pang of guilt for not pressing harder. I imagined a tiny Richard Dawkins sitting on my shoulder, eyebrows in a scowl, chiding me, "Kristopher, don't you remember how beautifully I explained all this to you in my book, The Selfish Gene?? How could you turn on me? Hamilton had it right, the gene is the one ring to rule them all everything else is myth!"
On the other shoulder (the "giant shoulder," one might say), I pictured a miniature E.O. Wilson, still charming in his diminutive tweed blazer, reassuring me, "Kristopher, everything is going to be alright as long as we work together in this big happy peer-reviewing group of ours."
I was, and still am, torn. As I stepped out of the elevator, I serendipitously met Nobel Laureate Harold Varmus, former head of the NIH, and I took the opportunity to ask him what he thought E.O. Wilson meant when he said "phenotype is the target of selection." Dr. Varmus clarified—somewhat. Phenotype, he explained, is the vehicle genes ride inside the physical manifestation of the genes. Selective environmental pressure, like changing atmospheric oxygen levels, or changing local climates are not capable of acting directly on any single isolated gene.
After I directed Dr. Varmus and his wife to the Christopher Street subway station, I continued to replay his answer in my head. If natural selection happens at the level of the physical manifestation of the genes – the phenotype, and there is no organism in existence with only one gene inside, then all genes must be collaborative in a sense.
And this is where I am in my thought process. If you have any corrections or criticisms I welcome them. They will only add to my understanding.
Wednesday, June 6, 2012
Hi, my name is Kristopher Hite and I am a science educator. Every time I learn something new about the natural world I want to climb the tallest structure I can find and shout it at the top of my lungs!
I did precisely that last week as I live-blogged the World Science Festival. After filling my brain to the brim with new and exciting ideas at the festival, I just kep going! I walked into another deluge of inspiration at the American Museum of Natural History. Inside I witnessed the best special museum exhibit I had ever seen. It was called "creatures of light" and it had as many examples as it could pack into one space of all the plants, mushrooms, and animals that glow in nature.
Several light bulbs went off in my head and in front of my eyes that day.
The most exciting idea I had came when I stood staring at a glowing plastic model of the species Pyrodinium bahamense whirling fire creature of the Bahamas. Mesmerized by the pulsating glow of the floating orb in front of me I could not stop thinking how I wanted this as a Christmas ornament for my mother.
Exiting the exhibit through the gift shop I saw a paucity of gifts available that really captured the excitement of the exhibit, no whirling fire creature ornaments, no glowing oyster mushroom figurines. After thinking about it overnight I had an a-Ha moment this morning.
What if I built a living-room sized model of the phylogenetic tree of life, and then put pulsating, glowing LED lights at each branch where we see a species has evolved bioluminescence? What if I went further and put model mycelium strands between the branches to highlight the possibility of horizontal gene transfer in nature? And what if this item then showed up in households around the world in December? I have chills just thinking about it. A way to turn householdss into science classrooms, turning a cherished holiday into a "teachable moment" in evolutionary biology. This is brilliant! Quite literally.
How can I make this reality? How can I accomplish this? I need tools, materials and a work space but most of all I need you.
I am asking you to be Part of this, own a part of this twist on tradition. Come with me as I decorate the tree of life with lights! Donors can send their photographs to me and I will weave these still images to make you tube videos promoting the phylogenetic Christmas tree. Please visit the kickstarter page for this project and help me launch the Phylogenetic Christmas tree (I'll have it up tonight.
Carl Sagan envisioned science as a "candle in the dark" a candle lighting the shadows in a demon haunted world. My wish is that the phylogenetic Christmas tree becomes a torch for science in homes around the world. Please Kick-Start me.
Link to kickstarter page will appear here tonight after I record the promo using a prop I picked up at the Natural History Museum. Stay tuned.
Monday, June 4, 2012
~Vinton Cerf - one of the fathers of the Internet
Quote from his appearance at the 2012 World Science Festival in New York City.
Speaks directly to the Origin Story of Tom Paine's Ghost!