Science by comedy

I used to watch these videos mostly for their comedic value, but the truth is that they actually have a lot of basic science to offer:

The value of repetition

One of the most important things I heard while in college came from one of my favorite biology professors. It happened in an early intro class half-filled with bio majors, half-filled with people looking for a course with a lab. He was covering the basics of science itself, speaking to the value of repetition:

Science is all about reproducibility. If you can’t reproduce your data, it’s all a load of horseshit.

That isn’t to say a person can automatically discredit some new piece of research simply because it’s new and has therefore not yet been reproduced. What it means is that when scientists do attempt to reproduce previously found results, they need to be successful in order for the results to be accepted. An unfortunate side effect of human nature means that we don’t see negative results published as often as we should – unless, of course, they disprove what someone else has already published – but these results do still happen every single day. That’s just science.

This all brings me to a recent piece of news:

Scientists have managed to repeat one of the biggest medical breakthroughs of the last few years.

Almost exactly one year ago, Johns Hopkins researchers made national headlines when they announced that they’ve vanquished the AIDS-causing virus from a child born to an HIV-positive mother in Mississippi. They began antiretroival treatment before the baby was 30 hours old. She’s now 3.5 years old and still virus-free, even without treatment in the last two years. Researchers have puzzled over how it happened, and many remain skeptical. The child was only the second person ever to be “cured” of HIV; the first was an adult through a stem-cell transplant. Since it’s difficult to prove that the body has been completely cleared of HIV, Nature explains, being “functionally cured” means the virus is effectively controlled and the immune system stays healthy without treatment.

Just yesterday, doctors announced that they have cleared the virus from a second baby infected with HIV. This girl was born in Los Angeles last April to a mother with advanced AIDS who had not been taking her medication. With aggressive treatment beginning just four hours after her birth, the virus was undetectable within 11 days, the New York Times reports.

A sample size of 2 does not scientific fact make (though there are upwards of 8 other unconfirmed cases around the world), but it cannot be understated how much this bolsters the legitimacy of attacking HIV in infants this way. It could turn out that the virus is still living somewhere in the bodies of these children – adults who have been functionally cured have had the virus return shortly after certain surgeries such as bone marrow transplants – so this remains a game of wait-and-see. However, if this proves to be an effect method for curing HIV, then not only will there be immediate benefits to HIV-positive newborns, but some insight may be spread into how we can better detect the hidden HIV in adults patients who are functionally cured.

If you don’t like women’s sports, you therefore also hate women.

At least that was the implication being made by Ashley Miller when she posted this article from The Onion:

SOCHI, RUSSIA—With a dominant 6-1 win over Sweden in Monday’s semifinal, Team USA advanced to the gold medal game of women’s ice—whoa, where the fuck do you think you’re going?

Hold on a minute, you sexist prick. Come back and read this.

After surging ahead thanks to first-period goals from Amanda Kessel, Kacey Bellamy, and—what, did seeing the names Amanda and Kacey already make you want to navigate away from this page? Because sources saw your dismissive, misogynistic bullshit coming a mile away before posting this report about a women’s sporting event, even though it involves a team representing the United States of America at the goddamn Olympics.

According to reports, the U.S. will be favorites against longtime rivals Canada in Thursday’s final, and why don’t you just park your ass right where it is for 10 more seconds, because reading 300 words about a talented team of female athletes on the verge of Olympic gold isn’t going to kill you.

C’mon, you honestly think sources can’t see right through you, you chauvinistic fuck?

Speaking to reporters following her impressive one-goal, two-assist performance against Sweden, U.S. forward Brianna Decker said—well, do you really want to know what she said? Or are you just going to ignore it like you do every story related to the LPGA, the WNBA, women’s tennis, and the U.S. women’s soccer team? Sources also apologize that this page doesn’t contain images of female hockey players wearing bikinis, because Lord knows that sort of crap would keep your attention.

Reports went on to confirm that this shit you’re pulling right here is exactly why women struggle to make a living as professional athletes.

At press time, you certainly didn’t make it this far into the story, so just forget it. You fucking pig.

Presumably, The Onion’s point here is to say that people who don’t like women’s sports are like that for misogynistic reasons, but I could see a few other interpretations, albeit less likely ones. In the case of Miller, though, when she posted this on her Facebook page last week, she was clearly cheering it on as not only a feminist, but as a fan of women’s (and men’s, for that matter) soccer.

Of course, the article is entirely incoherent and clearly not written by a sports fan that thinks much about sports in the first place. Here’s what I wrote about women and sports over 3 years ago:

I just wish we could all be a little honest. Men, on the whole, are better at sports than women, on the whole. We have these systems that rely on the ability to perform to a certain level – most runs, most points, most goals. And the best male athletes are going to be able to reach these levels better than the best female athletes. This is a big reason why women’s sports flounder. Is this so wrong? I really have no desire to watch a basketball league where it is big news that one of its players managed to actually dunk. (This really was big news for the WNBA a year or two ago.) So we can’t just give a blanket blame to society and culture and biases and discrimination, even if all those things might play a role. Sports are about top performance. If a woman can compete with the best men, great. But she’s the exception, not the rule.

As a sports fan, I almost always want to watch the best of the best. (My one exception is college hockey during the Frozen Four, provided Maine is one of those four, but even then I’ll choose to watch something else from time to time.) The fact is, women’s sports do not feature the best players out there. That’s why there is a separate league in the first place. Indeed, I think there’s a good chance any final 16 NCAA men’s basketball team could beat any WNBA team. Not that I’m a fan of NCAA basketball (nor even the NBA), but the point is a valid one: in general, men are better at sports than women. Even two of the top female tennis players – the Williams sisters – were only willing to claim they could beat any men outside the top 200 in world rankings. (They played a guy ranked around 203 or 204, each losing to him in an exhibition match when they were teenagers.) But perhaps my point would be better made with video. First up is a video of uncontested warm-up dunks prior to a WNBA All-Star game:

Notice that some of the women were barely able to reach the rim. Now here is LeBron James from last week’s All-Star game (which may as well be uncontested):

I don’t think it’s so crazy (or sexist) to say which one of those was far more exciting. And just imagine if we could extend these highlights to other sports. Who would you rather see hit a baseball, David Ortiz or a female player who would struggle to reach the Mendoza line in the MLB? The answer is clear to any rational sports fan, but Ashley Miller is not a rational sports fan. (It shouldn’t surprise anyone that she’s on FreeThought Blogs.) As a result of me posting similar videos on her post praising The Onion’s article, she blocked me. This was probably in part cumulative since I had recently criticized her Internet investigating of Woody Allen where she effectively said guilty until proven innocent should be the default stance concerning anyone accused of any sort of sexual misconduct. (I wonder how many of Miller’s supporters would believe me if I said she had asked me for “coffee” in an elevator. Methinks ‘innocence until proven guilty’ would make a rapid comeback.) None-the-less, this sort of echo-chamber blocking is pretty characteristic of the people associated with FreeThought Blogs and atheism+. Quite the movement they have there.

(One last point on Miller: She quoted and blogged about a Facebook response of mine to something she posted. She did not message me or tag me in anything on Facebook. She didn’t even bother to link to my blog from her blog. I happened to see her post on my feed. Then on that post when someone responded to me in a way she liked, she made it a point to politely ask if she could quote that person in one place or another. Go ahead and quote me, fine, but have the decency to let me know. This is about par for FreeThought Blog ethics. We’ve seen a similar mindset with ringleader PZ Myers who refuses to help a person with whom he disagrees, even if the point of help matters to him. Nope, too bad, he disagrees with you on other things, so principles don’t matter. Yet when he makes third-party accusations about Michael Shermer and the great Ken White offers to help Myers find counsel, Myers has no problem accepting the assistance. Why, who cares that Ken White thinks I’m an attention whore who treats complex situations like they’re cartoons?! Principles! How convenient.)

But I digress. It’s utterly ridiculous to claim that the reason women’s sports do so poorly is because everyone just hates women. No. Professional female athletes just aren’t the best of the best. It’s entirely possible for a women’s hockey game to be entertaining, and I don’t fault anyone who happens to like watching that type of competitiveness, but that’s not what most sports fans want. What we want is a high class of athletics. If there comes a day that a female baseball player can hit .300 in the majors, then every baseball fan will love watching her hit. But until then, let me see Big Papi hit an opposite-field shot over the Green Monster.

Thought of the day

Science is rarely on the side of the religious, and it is no different with the abortion debate. We hear that life begins at conception because the combination of gametes is the first step in a line to a distinct person. Of course, this is arbitrary. The production of the egg or the sperm could just as easily be called the first step. Or even the consumption of a burger that was later used for a person to be able to produce sperm or eggs in the first place could just as easily be called the first step. Again, it’s arbitrary. Yet, we still get arguments about fertilization being so distinct that it is the true difference maker. Alright, fine, let’s go with that. Then what about twinning? Twinning is known to happen upwards of 4 days after the initial gametes combine. Was fertilization still the first step towards each twin? If so, how?

Of course, my questions are rhetorical. Once we begin defining arbitrary things in arbitrary ways, the rabbit hole becomes very deep.

Judge rules homeless people have rights, people lose their minds

A federal judge recently made this excellent ruling:

A Portland, Maine, city ordinance banning people from panhandling in the median strips of roads violates the U.S. Constitution, a federal judge ruled on Wednesday.

The ordinance, which passed in August, prohibited people from loitering in roadways unless they were placing political campaign signs, a distinction that U.S. District Judge George Singal said violated the First Amendment right to free speech.

City officials had argued that increasing numbers of panhandlers in 2012 and 2013 had become a traffic hazard along the city’s roadways. They said the ban was necessary to ensure public safety.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine challenged the ban on behalf of two anti-war activists and a panhandler who told the court she collected between $20 and $25 per day from passing motorists.

“The First Amendment protects all of us, no matter what views we hold or how much money we make,” said Zachary Heiden, legal director for the ACLU of Maine, in a statement.

Heiden said that the economic downturn had increased the visibility of panhandlers in Maine and elsewhere.

“These bans haven’t come about because of an increase in accidents,” he said. “What we’re seeing is more people coming to the streets to ask for assistance.”

No one denies that Portland created this ordinance as a direct response to panhandlers. The city certainly made up the increased traffic accidents excuse, but it was surprisingly open with its disdain for the homeless. And that was its downfall: the government cannot restrict one type of speech while allowing another. In this case, the city banned panhandlers from standing on a median but it allowed political activists to use the median to plant signs. Let’s examine that for even a second.

If it’s true that people in medians are a safety hazard, then it follows that it doesn’t really matter whether they’re standing, pacing, or only there briefly. If the median is dangerous, it’s dangerous, and so no one should have access to it outside a crosswalk zone. Given that the city believes it’s perfectly safe for people to be there, even if only briefly, we have a good piece of evidence that the medians aren’t all that dangerous.

One counter to this point is that the sign planters are only temporary. That actually doesn’t address the issue since people are still in the median while cars are going by them, but let’s pretend it does. Even if the brevity of a person’s median visit changes things, we have to ask why the city has road signs in the median. After all, a road sign that says U-turns are illegal or that there’s no right turn on red is just as dangerous as a standing person. Both are obstructions in the median. Both are there to get the attention of drivers. Of course, there have been zero cries to reduce median signage. Funny that, huh?

Given that traffic accidents have not increased significantly in the area – and given the more important fact that traffic accidents haven’t been caused by people standing in medians, anyway – it is utterly clear the city ordinance was just a way to stop people from begging. Since begging is a clear type of speech, the city ordinance was designed to shut up people who express unpopular speech.

To me this is a really clear cut First Amendment issue. People beg, a city doesn’t like it, an ordinance is passed to curb begging and exceptions are made for desired speech like campaign signs. No brainer. Yet when I saw this link posted on Facebook by the local news outlets, nearly every comment was outrage. Part of that is likely selection bias since people tend to comment more frequently on things that make them mad, but it was still pretty overwhelming. Why, all these grifters are living the high life. Homelessness is a glamorous lifestyle for scammers and drunks! And the number of people who don’t know that begging is a form of speech is astounding. The government doesn’t get to tell me what I’m allowed to ask from people. If I want help pushing my car out of the snow or if I’m raising money for a charity or if I just want a piece of gum, no government should be able to stop me. The same goes for people who are asking for money, food, and other items.

The only semi-legit response to this ruling has been people who complain of the homeless people in Portland that walk between the cars when traffic is stopped. Sometimes they get aggressive, they get in the way, and they often leave trash from the things they’re given. None of that, of course, justifies the government denying them their right to beg in the first place. Violating the First Amendment was never an acceptable solution. What the government should have done was 1) ban all access to the medians, 2) enforce jaywalking and other laws, or 3) redesigned their roads to get rid of medians/make them impossible to stand on. I’m sure there are some other options, but only the options along these lines are legal.

Bravo to the judge, I say. Not only did he make the correct ruling, but he barely even bothered to address the fundamental issue of whether or not begging is protected speech. This is great because there was no reason to address it. It was long ago established that begging was a form of speech, just like flag burning or blogging; the issue is fundamental to the First Amendment, not the specifics of this case. The only issue to be addressed here was whether or not Portland violated the speech that is begging. This correct ruling is a victory for everyone.

Thought of the day

If you’ve ever wondered if feminism is for you, ask yourself one simple question: Can a woman ever be sexist towards a man? If your answer is yes, then feminism is not for you.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics

To the right is one picture out of a series that was taken after the Bill Nye-Ken Ham debate the other night. Creationist question Creationists were asked to write questions that they would like to ask of Nye. (I’d link the whole series, but it came from BuzzFeed. I already feel dirty enough having clicked the link myself.)

To answer the man’s question, the second law of thermodynamics does not disprove evolution. The second law states that the entropy of an isolated system never decreases. That is, things because less orderly and more chaotic over time without an input of energy from an outside source. Since the Universe is an isolated system as near as we can tell, all the organization we see will eventually dissipate – no more stars or planets or black holes or anything else that uses energy. Eventually even all atoms will cease to move.

Creationists believe this fact of the Universe applies to evolution because they view evolution as greater and greater organization over time, and that requires an input of energy. They’re right so far. Where they fail is in their belief that greater and greater organization is not possible over time. As best as any rational person can tell, creationists appear to believe Earth is a closed system and that with enough time it should all fall away. Except it isn’t closed. That big yellow ball in the sky has a tendency to provide us with more energy than we know what to do with. (Not that we’ve been the best at harnessing it.)

Of course, we don’t need to even go as far as the Sun – at least so long as we aren’t talking about plants or photosynthesizing bacteria. We take in energy all the time. It ultimately comes from the Sun and, to an extent, Earth’s core and magnetic field, but on a day-to-day level, we don’t exist in a closed system at all. A dinosaur that killed another dinosaur had a source of energy to take in: the dead dino. An early hunter-gatherer would find energy by hunting and gathering. And right now I’m about to go find some energy in a hot chai tea.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 199 other followers