Simply lovely

While I love to see the bare geological history of a mountain in the summer, Shawnee Peak will be quite lovely tomorrow, especially since there’s a convenient chair to bring me to the top.

wcsh_event1

Credit to WCSH6.com for the image.

Dumb parents

Quebec has a program of study which entails learning about different religions. It does not say “This is right. That is wrong.” It makes no endorsement of religion. It is simply a well-tailored course which educates students about what others believe, the culture surrounding those beliefs, and the diversity that is entailed in the world, with an obvious focus on Quebec’s diversity.

Of course, it comes as no surpise that some dogmatic mooks do not recognize the point of the class.

The course “is forcing children to learn the content of other religions,” Jean Morse-Chevrier, president of the Quebec Association of Catholic Parents, said yesterday. “Therefore it is the state deciding what religious content will be learned, at what age, and that is totally overriding the parents’ authority and role.”

The new course is the final step in a secularization of Quebec schooling that began with a 1997 constitutional amendment replacing the province’s denominational school boards with linguistic ones.

The notion that parents should have the authority to shelter their children from knowledge is obscene. The course is about learning how other people think and why. It offers insight, not harm. What these parents want to do is have the right to abuse their children by keeping them locked in an intellectual cage of uniformity and dogma.

A 2005 law changed Quebec’s Education Act and its Charter of Rights to eliminate parents’ right to choose a course in Catholic, Protestant or moral instruction, and the changes came into effect last June.

Am I reading this right? Students had to attend some form of “moral instruction”? Even with the options offered, this is inane. Looking beyond the oxymoron of Christian morality, at what point did Canada think it a good idea to indoctrinate children with particular notions of right and wrong beyond perhaps some basics (i.e., no fighting)? I thought you were better than that, O Canada.

Of course, such an article would not be complete without an example of the topic.

For Diane Gagne and her 16-year-old son Jonathan, evangelical Christians in Granby, the course teaches values that run counter to their religion.

Jonathan has been sitting out the course this fall, which is taught for about two hours a week. Last Friday he was told by J-H-Leclerc secondary school that he had been suspended for the day.

If he continues to skip the class, school rules could eventually lead to expulsion.

Ms. Gagne said her son remains determined despite the suspension. “He told me, ‘Mom, I am still standing, and I’m going to keep standing and fight this to the end.’ We’re prepared to go right to expulsion.”

Dear Ms. Gagne,

    Your son is a moron.

    Best wishes.

Puh-lease. This is just sad. This kid is so indoctrinated in his mother’s particular brand of inanity that he is unwilling to so much as listen to what someone else believes. Such action is not the mark of an intelligent individual.

Obama: Science to be at top of agenda

The beauty that is science has suffered horribly in the past 8 years thanks to the idiocy of the Republicans. It’s such a relief to know that Jesus H. Obama is going to bring the United States up to code with the rest of the sane world and, again, put science at the top.

CHICAGO – Seeking to draw a distinction with President George W. Bush, Barack Obama named his top science and technology advisers Saturday and pledged to “once again put science at the top of our agenda.”

And what a distinction it is. From denying global warming for so many years, to having the gall to suggest that intelligent design is somehow related to science in any way, Bush’s level of interest in science and truth is about equal to Bobby Jindal’s.

Obama said history has shown that the greatest scientific discoveries – from landing on the moon to inventing the Internet – didn’t happen without support from the government and its leaders.

We love our toilet paper, but we don’t want to learn about the path that led to it. (I have to be fair here. It wasn’t simply science – necessity played its fair role.)

Taking a veiled jab at Bush, Obama said the scientific process is about evidence and facts that “are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology.”

“It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient – especially when it’s inconvenient,” Obama said. “Because the highest purpose of science is the search for knowledge, truth and a greater understanding of the world around us. That will be my goal as president of the United States – and I could not have a better team to guide me in this work.”

He announced Dr. John Holdren, a Harvard University professor, as assistant to the president for science and technology and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Jane Lubchenco, an environmental scientist and marine ecologist at Oregon State University, is Obama’s choice for administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Obama also named co-chairs of the Council of Advisers on Science and Technology: Harold Varmus, a Nobel Prize winner, and Eric Lander, founding director of the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard.

It’s so nice to see a president who is making his appointments based upon the candidates actually being, I don’t know, qualified. No former International Arabian Horse Association commissioner for this administration.

Aversion to education (rant)

I find myself wondering why the aversion to education from so many. It has become a popular thing to say “Well, such-and-such told me this about Subject X, so I’m not really interested in learning about it.” Well, that isn’t a good reason, is it? It’s no more than an Appeal to Authority. Basically, a person who is held in some modicum of respect declares this or that to be true and so others take it to be true and worthwhile.

I specifically want to take this down the road of science (of course). There is a massive aversion to this subject, almost to the point where it’s popular to play up one’s ignorance of this powerful, powerful tool. It’s a shame. A big, fucking shame. What’s tragically ironic is that many of these same people fully embrace their Internet, cars, toilet paper, inexpensive food, iPods, mass-produced (and inexpensive) clothing, and so many other things which are the result of science and technology. Science is within nearly every moment of our lives, yet few realize this because it is applied science, not research or theoretical science. Instead, we embrace the pseudosciences of acupuncture, intelligent design, and astrology.

To bring this to my favorite subject, it is of course important to wonder aloud why so many people have been taught that it is okay to be told by a pastor, priest, minister or other authority figure that evolution is untrue and that that person’s opinion on such a topic is worth its weight in salt. It isn’t. In fact, most Appeals to Authority are useless. It seems to me that if one is actually, genuinely interested in a topic that there would be a certain level of necessary inquiry that would be taken. That is, so many people reject evolution on the flimsy basis that because it contradicts their pre-held beliefs, it must be wrong. In other words, they recognize that if evolution is true, at best they can become theistic evolutionists, but even then they must recognize that such a god is superfluous. That means whether evolution is true or not is wholly central to the belief system of anyone that realizes the importance of the issue. If we can agree that this is the case, then shouldn’t we also agree that an aversion to education about evolution comes across as rather silly?

A theory in crisis!

A theory in crisis.

A team of Canadian and French scientists has shed new light on what’s being called the Earth’s “last universal common ancestor,” the 3.8-billion-year-old microscopic organism from which all living things – bacteria and humans and sunflowers alike – evolved.

The researchers, including Universite de Montreal evolutionary geneticist Nicolas Lartillot and colleagues from the Universite de Lyon, say they’ve discovered that “LUCA” was not the heat-craving entity scientists have traditionally believed it to be. Instead, the team argues in the journal Nature, the primitive speck of life that became mother and father to all plants and animals preferred relatively cool temperatures of less than 50 C – not the 90 C habitat generally assumed to be its ideal simmering temperature in life’s primordial soup.

“It is generally believed that LUCA was a heat-loving or ‘hyperthermophilic’ organism – a bit like one of those weird organisms living in the hot vents along the continental ridges deep in the oceans today,” said Nicolas Lartillot, a bio-informatics professor at the U de M. “However, our data suggests that LUCA was actually sensitive to warmer temperatures and lived in a climate below 50 degrees.”

The study states that the initial offspring lineages of the common ancestral life form must have adapted later to higher temperatures, “possibly in response to a climate change of the early Earth.”

The study provides a new look at the planet’s biological beginnings – even before the rudimentary chemical ingredients of life had assembled into DNA strands that would become fundamental to evolution.

“The group’s findings are an important step toward reconciling conflicting ideas about LUCA,” a research summary states. “In particular, they are much more compatible with the theory of an early RNA world, where early life on Earth was composed of ribonucleic acid (RNA), rather than deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).”

The researchers note that heat-sensitive RNA was “unlikely to be stable in the hot temperatures of the early Earth” but that LUCA must have found “a cooler micro-climate” in which to develop.

“It is only in a subsequent step that LUCA’s descendants discovered the more thermostable DNA molecule, which they independently acquired (presumably from viruses), and used to replace the old and fragile RNA vehicle,” Lartillot said in the statement. “This invention allowed them to move away from the small, cool micro-climate, evolve and diversify into a variety of sophisticated organisms that could tolerate heat.”

Oh, hang on. It looks like scientists are just debating how evolution occurred, not whether it occurred. Business as usual.

More Michael Heath mumbo

He’s full of mumbo. Jumbo, too.

A lot of teenagers are unable to speak with their parents about sex. Either it’s awkward or they’re made to feel bad about their desires because of the irrationality of religion or some other shallow thought. But, of course, Michael Heath of the Maine Family Policy Council embraces shallow thought. He favors changing the current law in Maine concerning parental consent for birth control and other sexual reproductive health issues.

Maine law has allowed minors contraception without parental consent for more than 30 years, but the issue was brought back to the forefront last fall when the Portland School Committee voted to allow contraceptives to be given to girls at the school as part of the services offered at a city-run health center in the school.

Mike Heath, executive director of the Maine Family Policy Council which supported Smith’s attempts to limit the confidentiality law last session, believes Family Planning is working to hard to protect the current law because it fails to align with public sentiment.

“The public knows the Maine Family Planning Association is wrong,” Heath said this week. “The MFPA is holding the public forums because they are selling something the public has no interest in buying. The public knows that good laws honor the nobility of sex inside of marriage and the danger of fornication.”

(The MFPA is sponsoring public forums on the issue.)

Oh, Mikey. The state has no business “honoring” sexual practices within the purely legal, purely secular contract of marriage. As such, it does not do this. What’s more interesting here, however, is how childish Heath’s views on sex really are. By denying minors the right to their reproductive health, “the danger of fornification” is actually increased. What’s more, Maine law allows for a person as young as 14 to consent to sex as long as the other person is within 5 years of age. At the age of 16, a person may consent to sex with a person of any age, from 14 to 140, it’s legal. So if Heath is right (his track record says he isn’t) and minors need to get parental consent for their reproductive health issues, then that undermines Maine law. That is, Maine law states a person is responsible enough, in the eyes of the state, to engage in sexual activity at that aforementioned age levels. Forcing consent would imply that, no, these people are not responsible enough. Essentially, the freedom to engage in sex within the prescribed laws would disappear because the sexual activity of a 17 year old would become the responsibility of his or her parents.

Properly leading science articles

Not long ago I wrote about misleading science articles, where it was claimed something in science was proved by a group of authors, one of which responded to the post (thank you, Christian Hoelbling). Now here’s a better article which is properly leading.

WASHINGTON – Mysterious dark energy, which likely causes the universe to keep expanding, seems to have another effect: It prevents the biggest clusters of galaxies from getting too fat. Astronomers used X-rays to study the formation of galactic clusters billions of years ago. Their research supports the hard-to-fathom concept of dark energy as a potent force that governs the growth of the universe.

It also means Albert Einstein’s century-old theory of general relativity passes another crucial, but not conclusive, real-world test.

Emphasis added.

Science is about disproving, not proving. By relativity “pass[ing] another crucial…test” it is meant that it was not falsified; it does not mean that anything was proven. The continued inability to falsify general relativity simply reinforces the theory.

Incidentally,

“[Dark energy] much more important and abundant in the evolution of the universe than the atoms that make us up,” said Princeton theoretical astrophysicist David Spergal.

Nothing makes sense except in the 'light' of creationism

At least not in Louisiana.

Not far back, I warned that we need to watch out for Bobby Jindal. He’s the anti-science mook of a governor from Louisiana that recently signed into a law a bill which targets the facts of evolution and global warming.

Remembering Jindal as a good student in his genetics class, Landy hoped that the governor would recall the scientific importance of evolution to biology and medicine. Joining Landy in his opposition to the bill were the American Institute of Biological Sciences, which warned that “Louisiana will undoubtedly be thrust into the national spotlight as a state that pursues politics over science and education,” and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which told Jindal that the law would “unleash an assault against scientific integrity.” Earlier, the National Association of Biology Teachers had urged the legislature to defeat the bill, pleading “that the state of Louisiana not allow its science curriculum to be weakened by encouraging the utilization of supplemental materials produced for the sole purpose of confusing students about the nature of science.”

But all these protests were of no avail. On June 26, 2008, the governor’s office announced that Jindal had signed the Louisiana Science Education Act into law. Why all the fuss? On its face, the law looks innocuous: it directs the state board of education to “allow and assist teachers, principals, and other school administrators to create and foster an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied,” which includes providing “support and guidance for teachers regarding effective ways to help students understand, analyze, critique, and objectively review scientific theories being studied.” What’s not to like? Aren’t critical thinking, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion exactly what science education aims to promote.

s always in the contentious history of evolution education in the U.S., the devil is in the details. The law explicitly targets evolution, which is unsurprising—for lurking in the background of the law is creationism, the rejection of a scientific explanation of the history of life in favor of a supernatural account involving a personal creator. Indeed, to mutate Dobzhansky’s dictum, nothing about the Louisiana law makes sense except in the light of creationism.

It’s fascinating that the group of people who claim to be the most moral of all mankind are the ones who are constantly seen lying about their intentions. Rather than to continue saying “We are creationists. We believe absurd things which have no basis in science. We want these things taught in the secular school system. Oh, and by the way, we need to talk about the whole “secular” thing”, they instead say “Academic freedom is being quashed because our ideas are not being accepted.” Of course, academic freedom has nothing to do with accepting every bad idea that comes around. If it did, not only would the Bible be an acceptable alternative discussion to the fact of evolution, but so would the Koran, Greek myths, and whatever the hell it is Tom Cruise believes. We would see Christian Science being regarded as an acceptable alternative to actual medicine and medical practices. We would see astronomy professors attempting to inform students of stellar evolution while in the next class an astrologer would tell the students why it’s a lucky week for capricorns.

Creationism and its twin in a cheap tuxedo, Paley’s Watchma…I mean, intelligent design…are not rejected on the basis that evolution cannot stand up to criticism. They are rejected because evolution already has stood up to criticism. That is why it’s a scientific theory. It stands with equal validity to cell theory, atomic theory, and the theory of gravity. It is established beyond all doubt. Proposing a necessarily complex (not to mention invisible) creator only raises more questions – namely, if the question is “How do we explain complexity?” then we are raising that very question with such a proposition. That is, saying life is so complex it needs a creator raises the question of the existence of the complexity of that creator.

Nothing makes sense except in the ‘light’ of creationism

At least not in Louisiana.

Not far back, I warned that we need to watch out for Bobby Jindal. He’s the anti-science mook of a governor from Louisiana that recently signed into a law a bill which targets the facts of evolution and global warming.

Remembering Jindal as a good student in his genetics class, Landy hoped that the governor would recall the scientific importance of evolution to biology and medicine. Joining Landy in his opposition to the bill were the American Institute of Biological Sciences, which warned that “Louisiana will undoubtedly be thrust into the national spotlight as a state that pursues politics over science and education,” and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which told Jindal that the law would “unleash an assault against scientific integrity.” Earlier, the National Association of Biology Teachers had urged the legislature to defeat the bill, pleading “that the state of Louisiana not allow its science curriculum to be weakened by encouraging the utilization of supplemental materials produced for the sole purpose of confusing students about the nature of science.”

But all these protests were of no avail. On June 26, 2008, the governor’s office announced that Jindal had signed the Louisiana Science Education Act into law. Why all the fuss? On its face, the law looks innocuous: it directs the state board of education to “allow and assist teachers, principals, and other school administrators to create and foster an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied,” which includes providing “support and guidance for teachers regarding effective ways to help students understand, analyze, critique, and objectively review scientific theories being studied.” What’s not to like? Aren’t critical thinking, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion exactly what science education aims to promote.

s always in the contentious history of evolution education in the U.S., the devil is in the details. The law explicitly targets evolution, which is unsurprising—for lurking in the background of the law is creationism, the rejection of a scientific explanation of the history of life in favor of a supernatural account involving a personal creator. Indeed, to mutate Dobzhansky’s dictum, nothing about the Louisiana law makes sense except in the light of creationism.

It’s fascinating that the group of people who claim to be the most moral of all mankind are the ones who are constantly seen lying about their intentions. Rather than to continue saying “We are creationists. We believe absurd things which have no basis in science. We want these things taught in the secular school system. Oh, and by the way, we need to talk about the whole “secular” thing”, they instead say “Academic freedom is being quashed because our ideas are not being accepted.” Of course, academic freedom has nothing to do with accepting every bad idea that comes around. If it did, not only would the Bible be an acceptable alternative discussion to the fact of evolution, but so would the Koran, Greek myths, and whatever the hell it is Tom Cruise believes. We would see Christian Science being regarded as an acceptable alternative to actual medicine and medical practices. We would see astronomy professors attempting to inform students of stellar evolution while in the next class an astrologer would tell the students why it’s a lucky week for capricorns.

Creationism and its twin in a cheap tuxedo, Paley’s Watchma…I mean, intelligent design…are not rejected on the basis that evolution cannot stand up to criticism. They are rejected because evolution already has stood up to criticism. That is why it’s a scientific theory. It stands with equal validity to cell theory, atomic theory, and the theory of gravity. It is established beyond all doubt. Proposing a necessarily complex (not to mention invisible) creator only raises more questions – namely, if the question is “How do we explain complexity?” then we are raising that very question with such a proposition. That is, saying life is so complex it needs a creator raises the question of the existence of the complexity of that creator.

HIV Evolution

Scientists have recently shown that the rate of evolution for HIV is not constant.

HIV is so deadly largely because it evolves so rapidly. With a single virus as the origin of an infection, most patients will quickly come to harbor thousands of different versions of HIV, all a little bit different and all competing with one another to most efficiently infect that person’s cells. Its rapid and unique evolution in every patient is what allows HIV to evade the body’s defenses and gives the virus great skill at developing resistance to a pantheon of antiviral drugs.

“A huge amount of HIV diversity accumulates in the body of a patient with HIV, and it’s a big reason why HIV is such a powerful virus,” said Ha Youn Lee, Ph.D., assistant professor of Biostatistics and Computational Biology at the University of Rochester and corresponding author of the study.

Lee and colleagues have settled a longstanding question about just how HIV morphs in the body. In a paper published Dec. 12 in PLoS Computational Biology , scientists show that HIV evolution in the body does not occur at a constant rate. Rather, the virus’s rate of change suddenly slows when the level of crucial immune cells known as CD4+ T-cells falls in a patient.

The team suggests several possible reasons for why HIV slows its evolution later in the disease process. One is that there are simply fewer immune cells left for the virus to infect. Another possibility is that since the immune system is no longer as effective targeting the virus, the virus no longer feels the “selective pressure” of the immune system, and the virus slows its evolution in response.

It’s no secret that HIV is a daunting virus. The fact that it has been shown now to have such a tremendous amount of variation should put no one at ease. There are literally thousands of different types of HIV in an infected individual’s body soon after the disease is contracted. Thousands.

Picture a criminal on the lam. When the police are out in force, the criminal must change his disguise more and more to survive, but when fewer police are present, the criminal can change his disguise less often. In the case of HIV, the virus actually eliminates the “police officers” – CD4+ T-cells patrolling the body. As time goes on and fewer immune cells are present to flag HIV, the virus no longer has the need to evolve as rapidly as it did when the cells were out in force.

This is a pretty apt analogy, if a bit 19th century/Sherlock Holmes-esq. As a secondary point, it’s nice to see such a blatant attempt at popularization within a science article.

As the virus mutates, giving birth to viral offspring called quasispecies, it presents an ever-changing face to the immune system, which is continually adapting itself to keep up with the onslaught. The immune system does a remarkable job fending off the assault, killing most of the viral particles every day. Even so, some of the virus is able to elude the body’s defenses and ultimately devastates the immune system in most patients.

Alas, not all evidence for evolution is pleasant. It’s roughly about as indifferent and pitiless as one might expect such a natural process to be.

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