Tuesday, October 15, 2013

More than a mere science discussion

The American citizen thus lives in a world where fantasy is more real than reality, where the image has more dignity than the original.
(Daniel Boorstin, American historian)

Blissfully ignorant

Watching the United States commit its self-inflicted unraveling (budget and debt ceiling nonsense being merely two of many reasons), ought not to give any real comfort to those outside the U.S. Waiting in the wings to “take over” is nothing to make one gleefully optimistic.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently issued its 2-year study, which included 23 countries and thousands of adults. The study tested for skills in literacy, basic math and technology. We Americans—along with the British--didn't do so well, especially in technology and math. See blow for the actual results.

One of the many things the study concluded is that poor educational opportunities in school as children continues on through adulthood. Inequality of access to good education is “harmful” to adults, and the increasing inequality in America is only making things, overall, much worse. While a lot of information that is in the study may appear to be obvious and the correlations striking, it clearly has not translated into any wide scale public policy changes. If anything, we're going in the opposite direction in the United States.

The DNA thing

Shortly after the OECD study came out an interesting article appeared in the NYT entitled, Are OurPolitical Beliefs Encoded in Our DNA? The article was about the new field of genopolitics, which this blog has written about previously. Did my genes make me do it or was it all my mother's fault? I will be surprised if we don't see more articles about this subject, outside of scientific journals.

The science however, as the article points out, is only in the earliest stages and disagreements abound. To say the least, it's complicated. Political scientists have now joined the field along with evolutionary biologists and molecular geneticists. Will we have to understand human biology in a “sociopolitical context.” Did the human brain develop to solve social problems—which are political? But as Thomas Edsall, the author of this article points out, “If genopolitical analysis holds up under continued scrutiny, its explanatory potential is enormous.”

Edsall is right. A better understanding of all sorts of conflicts in the U.S. and across the globe is absolutely essential if we humans have any real chance of succeeding as a species. The “chickens” are coming probably sooner than we think.

Additional Reading:

Monday, September 30, 2013

Humans are probably not failed chimps

You can sequence genes on a computer, email them to a lab and a week later, for $100, receive a vial of DNA.
(Ellen Jorgensen, molecular biologist)

The approaching brick wall

Paleogenomics is a relatively new field, whereby small bits of DNA can be extracted from small fragments of bones, providing additional data about the history of human evolution. The Neanderthal genome was generated from 3 small bones and later a toe bone. But, to digress for a moment.

Three stories appeared recently about the “human condition,” that reminded me that the last divergent branch of the evolutionary “bush” was likely Neanderthal. While evolution itself is slow, what is different today is that for the first time in human history evolutionary change has the potential to move much faster because of the extraordinary discoveries in genetics.

This of course is hardly a reason to be uncritically optimistic about the future of our species. These stories, however, also raise the question about nature and nurture and the role that both environment and genes play in “who we are.”

The first story is about a National Rifle Association (NRA) lobbyist  and the killing of an elephant in Botswana. What this particular individual did was not illegal—but will be in 2014. In fact, as the human population increases and we more and more encroach on animal habitats, it is the animal that invariably loses. Authorized “hunts” serve to reduce animal populations and provide funding (hunting fees) to support wildlife reserves, at least this is part of the rationale offered for the killings.

This particular story generated a fair amount of criticism directed at the hunter. In response, this N.R.A. lobbyist called his critics “animal Nazis” and claimed that he was a “hunter” and hunters kill animals. No, he's not a hunter, just someone with a high-powered rifle with too much time on his hands. See the video below and read NRA lobbyist shoots elephantin the face and then celebrates with champagne.

The second story is entitled, Teamof contract killers led by ex-soldier 'Rambo' busted, prosecutorssay. Finally, the last story was produced by documentary film-maker Mariah Wilson. This is a clip from Revealing Hate.

These stories could be replicated across the globe, yet they offer some examples, it seems to me, of a particular sub-species of humankind, an anachronism perhaps, a “throwback” to our past that began over a million years ago. How in fact do we go about increasing such qualities as generosity, trust and empathy in our species. How do we go about “repairing” a poorly functioning cingulate cortex, that part of our brain essential for self-awareness?

The story of the gun lobbyist killing the elephant is largely a story about that minority of privileged human across the globe with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement and obtuseness ... yet, what environmental factors, if any, create the mentality of these primitive death eaters? The other two stories speak for themselves.

Our Neanderthal connection

What is significant about sequencing the Neanderthal genome is that the Neanderthal died out only some 25,000 years ago; we're not trying to find comparisons that go back millions of years. Approximately 2.5 percent of our DNA, outside of Africa, came from Neanderthal. Our two species most probably met between 65,000 and 95,000 years ago. After that there was no more interbreeding.

Scientist do not know for certain what caused the extinction of Neanderthal but a “popular” hypothesis is that humans out-competed them because of more advanced language skills. We know that the FOXP2 gene, the instinct for speech and grammar, is identical in Neanderthal, but genes in cognitive development are different in humans and Neanderthal,quite possibly to have solved different sets of problems, anticipating prey for example.

Will a certain percentage of humans go extinct or will we manage to destroy our species completely, ideally without bringing misery to all life on the planet?

Additional Reading:

On Extinction

How Your Brain Works

Humans and Lions Sharing Space

Friday, September 20, 2013

My Amygdala Made Me Do It

The conditions that sustain humanity are not natural and never have been.
(Erle C. Ellis, associate professor of geography and environmental systems, University of Maryland)

An Anthropocentric world

Professor Ellis, quoted above, appears to be an outspoken optimist regarding humanity's future. Earth's environment is going to be pretty much what Homo sapiens decide to do with it. Ellis' point is that from the very beginnings of human existence, we have “used,” various technologies and engineered ecosystems to sustain ourselves well beyond what the “natural” world could have done.

According to Professor Ellis, Earth's carrying capacity, at best, is probably no more than a few billion people living at a subsistence level. Today of course we're on our way to reach some 9 billion by 2050. Stewart Brand, editor of the Whole Earth Catalog and founder of several environmental related organization, said some forty years ago that, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” Hm-m. So is this what being a god is like? See Ellis' article in the NYT entitled Overpopulation Is Notthe Problem.

The limbic brain and Genopolitics

Professor Ellis at the end of his article in the New York Times states that only our imaginations and our social systems will prevent us from reaching that “proud” future. Imaginations and social systems, however, might be large caveats.

Possibly some of the most fascinating work in science today is being done in biology, specifically in neuroscience, epigenetics (how genes are both agents of nature and nurture) and synthetic biology, which utilizes engineering principles to life science. In simple terms it means breaking down nature into spare parts so we can rebuild it however we please. We will likely have to make some very serious choices in the not too distant future, choices that will impact our “imaginations and social systems.”

Neuroscience has come up with five classes of personality traits: (1) openness, (2) conscientiousness, (3) extroversion, (4) agreeableness and (5) neuroticism. About 50 percent of these traits are genetic and about fifty percent, on average, are environmental. Interestingly, when we're young, environment tends to have a greater impact on how we behave, but as we get older and more independent our genes play a larger role.

The response to threats is a structure in our limbic brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is what causes those all too familiar feelings of unease most of us get at one time or another. The amygdala is connected to the cingulate cortex, an area absolutely critical to self-awareness. While, for example, the amygdala may be perceiving something as a threat, the cingulate cortex analyzes the amygdala's response and decides if it's a real threat or not.

Needless to say it begins to get complicated when we start talking about neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine being two, and the connection to the cingulate cortex, but suffice it to say that the release of hormones like oxytocin, cortisol or testosterone—and their levels—affect behavior and how we react to a great many thing. This has led to a relatively new field called Genopolitics.

Neurobiologists have discovered that the amygdala acts in different ways in liberals and conservatives. Yes, it appears that political views have a genetic component. Research has shown that people with larger emotional responses to threats are more likely to have more conservative opinions. Brain scans have shown that when stressed the cortex and the amygdala light up differently and depending on a number of factors, the connection between these two areas may be strong or weak. For example, oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone,” which is released in sex and organism, is thought to be the hormone smothering the amygdala, thus increasing generosity, trust, etc. Conversely, when the amygdala response is lowered, a threat from real danger may not be perceived.

The brave new world

Yes, it is possible we may be able to imagine a totally new future along with the development of improved social systems. On the other hand we humans could discover we are as “godlike” as the rock at our feet.

Geo-engineering might be able to reverse the negative effects of climate change. The assumption here of course is that the majority of the inhabitants on the planet will have a basic understanding what climate change is. It's also possible that synthetic biology will eliminate human shortsightedness and predation. Possibly the growing middle class in China will come to realize that bringing the elephant to extinction because they must have the “bling” of ivory is not the action of a “higher” species.

Some demographers believe that the planet could maintain a population of 13 billion humans. Of course, significant changes would have to be made. Who's willing to never eat meat again? How high could we build our vertical structures?

A short while ago I saw a photograph of four hunters from somewhere in the southern United States. They were standing proudly beside a dead crocodile suspended in the air by chains, said to be one of the largest ever killed. The picture elicited in me revulsion and disgust … directed at the four humans. For what reason was this animal killed? For the briefest of moments I imagined myself standing beside four hunters suspended on meat hooks. I must raise my serotonin levels in order to meet the future with optimism.

Additional Reading:

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

We crossed the red line and no one noticed

We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.
(Martin Luther King, April 4, 1967)

The Earth will end when God declares it to be over.
(John Shimkus, Republican congressman, Illinois, chairman of the Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy))

For the sake of our planet, we need to start eating lower down on the food chain and we need to do it fairly soon.
(David George Gordon, science writer)

A story in need of an ending

In case you haven't heard and most likely many haven't, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere of planet Earth has now risen to 400 parts per million. It's been something like 3 million years since so much carbon dioxide has been hanging over the planet.

The “little-bit” of good news is that 400 ppm is part of a scientific model, a very complex model with a lot of complex parts and poorly understood by most people, which is comforting news to many politicians across the globe. Models of course can be changed, modified or discarded. Unlike the politicians, the scientists could be wrong about a lot or a little and, as some people know, science tries hard to be proven wrong.

The actual “good” news is that we have some idea how to mitigate many of the effects of climate change. For example, in terms of things like deforestation, feed production and animal waste, the
livestock industry produces between 18-51 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The industry as well uses a lot of fossil fuels and water.

Could you imagine eating a little less meat? What if you could be persuaded that the future of future generations would quite probably be bleak, unless significant changes were made starting right now? For that matter, the present is feeling a little less certain; we may not need vivid imaginations. For more on this subject see “Additional Reading.”

Genes made me do it—or not

Genetics has come a long way since Gregor Mendel, in the 19th century, showed how the inheritance of certain traits in pea plants followed particular patterns. Today, with the mapping of the human genome and the ever increasing power of supercomputers, we have arrived at a new scientific Frontier-land. What we do with it is a story searching for a good ending.

I once worked with someone a number of years ago that believed humankind was “d-evolving,” as though the expanding universe showed signs of slowing down and reversing itself. Interestingly, Gerald Crabtree, Professor of Pathology and Developmental Biology at Stamford University, has a fairly controversial view on human intelligence. It's declining, according to Crabtree.

He has said that, “A hunter-gatherer who did not correctly conceive a solution to providing food and shelter probably died, along with his or her progeny, whereas a modern Wall Street executive that made a similar conceptual mistake would receive a substantial bonus and be a more attractive mate.”

Crabtree has suggested that the approximately 5,000 genes, which he believes are the basis for human intelligence, have mutated over the years and modern man is not as intelligent as his ancestors. The professor thinks we may have peaked about 7,000 years ago! At the same time, Crabtree has said that science and technology have allowed us to rise above the “dumbing down.”

Regardless of Professor's Crabtree's thought-provoking ideas, what we know about genes at the present time is quite remarkable. It's not an either or—genetics or environment—it's more like a blending, a mixing and sometimes one is more influential than the other. The answer is frequently that … it depends.

When we're young, environment has a tendency to be more important but when we get older and more independent, genes seem to play a larger role. Certain behaviors, such as criminality, are heritable but only as side effects of genes that affect personality traits. You don't for example have genes for addiction, but you do have genes for impetuosity and risk taking which, under the right environmental circumstances, might lead to addiction.

Neurobiologists have found out that there is a structure in our limbic brain called the amygdala, which causes the feeling of unease. Research has shown that people with larger emotional responses to threats are more likely to have right-wing opinions. There is now a field called Genopolitics, which accepts that political views most likely have a genetic component.

Finally, a little bit of good news to consider. Yes, sex and organisms are healthy, because they release oxytocin, sometimes called the “cuddle hormone.” This particular hormone has the ability to lower amygdala response, which can then increase such traits as generosity and trust. David Buss, a professor of psychology, conducted a “sexual preference study a number of years ago.” He learned that the top two qualities in a mate for both men and women were kindness and intelligence, outweighing things such as money and physical appearance.

Thinking good thought

In summary, how we think, make decisions and frame discussions needs to be understood a lot better. We know now that there is both a genetic and environmental component in decision making, and our survival as a species probably depends on how effectively we can increase the size of who we think belongs in our group. The “clan” is bigger than we think.

Additional Reading:

what to consider

worth reading

political hack with a degree in biology

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Remembering uncle Sah

In the beginning

My uncle was different from the others although I was never able to put my finger on it exactly. Sure, he was smarter than most and in some ways he didn't look like everyone else I suppose. Now his eyes, the way he looked at you, as though he knew something you didn't. It was a little spooky at times, but I knew my uncle liked me a lot.

Memories however grow dim, especially after some 7 million years. My uncle's full name is Sahelanthropus (sa-ha-lan-throw-pus) Tchadensis (cha-den-sis), but I've always called him Sah. Scientists, at least for the present, believe he's the best candidate for our last common ancestor with the chimpanzee.

Sah lived in Chad, Africa. Seven million years ago, give or take, was when we diverged from the chimp. We went our separate ways. This is difficult for a lot of humans to accept, how we're all related to Uncle Sah that is.

The big family

“Family is everything,” many of us like to glibly proclaim but it seems more like lip service than anything else, at least a lot of the time. We know now that all life shares a common ancestor, where our DNA ultimately came from. Our family literally includes the humpback whale, the bald eagle and the fruit fly. It's loud, boisterous, sometime bizarre and certainly diverse. Yes, family is everything.

The Human Genome Project was completed in 2003. We identified the approximately 20,000-25,000 genes in human DNA, the instruction manual for making a human. We also determined the sequence of the 3 billion chemical base pairs that make up human DNA. We have enough data now to study and analyze for the next 100 years. DNA in living cells, to the best of our knowledge, is universal and combined with the theory of evolution is a model of how life is, came to be and its origins.

Knowing what we know

Geneticists speak about “pseudo genes,” genes that once functioned in our ancestors but are no longer functioning. But of course, we haven't always been human. It appears in fact that we have not evolved that much because our evolution has been more about loss of gene function.

This is where environment has a great deal to do with who we are today. A million years ago one of our ancestors “discovered” fire and some 10,000 years ago began the Neolithic Age and the development of agriculture. Diets changed, food was cooked, cooperation and communication on a large scale became necessary and we consumed more starches.

Over a relatively long period of time we found we no longer needed such strong jaw muscles, which required a bony head that limited brain development. Our heads gradually became round, which helped increase brain size.

Both chimps and humans have the amylase gene for digesting starch but chimpanzees have two of these genes and humans have six. As farming culture developed this particular gene became more important. Interestingly, human populations that do not farm, such as the Australian aborigines, have fewer amylase genes.

Some 75 percent of our identified disease causing genes, such as Huntington, Parkinson and some types of cancers have been identified in fruit flies. As well, what is called the pax6 gene regulates eye development in flies, mice and ourselves. The fruit fly has turned out to be extremely important in analyzing certain conditions found in humans. Fruit flies respond like humans to alcohol consumption, from hyperactivity to passing out. They're used in studying insomnia and severe aggression, and altered serotonin levels in flies have resulted in a male-male sexual orientation in the mutants.

The Neanderthal, who died out some 25,000 years ago, is probably the last divergent branch of our evolutionary tree. Approximately 2.5 percent of our DNA outside of Africa comes from the Neanderthal. We likely met up somewhere in the Middle East for a brief encounter.

The FOXP2 gene, which is called the language gene, is identical in both humans and Neanderthal. It appears however that certain genes in cognitive development are different between humans and Neanderthal, possibly because Neanderthals and humans had to solve different types of problems, like anticipating prey for example or simply “life styles.”

The short and long of it

All life on this planet is intimately related. It goes way beyond “loving thy neighbor.” The “them” is us. Homo sapians, collectively, are not an especially lovable species and one could argue that the planet would be better served if we simply went away.

On the other hand, an evolutionary breakthrough could occur, a gene switched on or off and our behavior changed or modified. The extraordinary achievement of mapping the human genome (as well as other species) has the potential for amazing possibilities, both good … and bad. A good first step is understanding how large our real family is and our responsibility in protecting it. That may be the best hope for our survival.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

For Americans in particular and global enlightenment in general

If human beings are basically tradition-bound, irrational creatures, how did science ever develop in the first place? The short answer is, “With difficulty.”
(Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science, by Alan Cromer)

A state of bliss

Buffoonery has become a pervasive condition in America, as observed on an almost daily basis, especially among the political class. The latest example is a relatively obscure Republican congressman from Texas, Representative Lamar Smith. Mr. Smith, with no scientific expertise and apparently no understanding of the basic scientific process, happens to be the Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

Representative Smith has drafted a bill that, while directed at The National Science Foundation, one of the premier scientific institutions in the world, wants to set in motion a process for all federal science agencies. His goal is to replace peer review and reduce the importance of scientific replication with some kind of “criteria” chosen by Congress, a criteria that seems to have less to do with science than it does with politics and what Mr. Lamar and some of his colleagues like or dislike.

The chairman of the committee wants to be certain that any grant given out by the NSF has “intellectual merit.” He claims to want to halt “frivolous” and “wasteful” research being funded and insure that any research that is funded be extremely important to “society at large.”

Now how could anyone be against good governance and saving taxpayer money? ( The proposed 2014 science budget is approximately 0.2 percent of the $3.77 trillion federal budget.) After all, U.S. Senator James Inhoff has made a career promoting climate change as a hoax. It's about greedy scientists wanting research grants, as Inhoff will tell anyone who will listen. For details on this dismal and ideally short-lived episode see “Additional Reading.”

The expanding universe

What we refer to as modern science began more than 300 years ago and it has met with resistance of one kind or another the same length of time. Yes, there have been some eureka moments but mostly knowledge was built on what went before. Scientists always owe a debt to those who came before them.

Over the same period of time the scientific method was developed and improved upon. It didn't matter if you didn't like the outcome of the experiment or that your familiar world view turned out to be wrong. The Earth really does go around the sun and it can be demonstrated by a lot of people. Our planet is more than 4 billion years old, and best of all it's not a closely held secret known to only a chosen few.

Scientific research, both public and private, must be robust and intellectually honest. It can be hypothesis driven (to answer a specific question) or discovery based (no specific hypothesis in mind). Above all, none of us--anywhere--can be complacent whenever the usual suspects attempt to turn science into something it's not. It is time to once again confront the usual buffoonery. Make it loud and persistent. It's in the self-interest of all of us.

Additional Reading:

National Science FoundationMerit Review (The NSF process for reviewing a grant application)

The Scientific Method: AnOverview (An explanation of the scientific method for high school and junior high school students)

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Follow up: "When consequences are bad"

Chapter 2

The Reinhart-Rogoff analysis has set off a firestorm, at least among “insiders,” and that's a problem in and of itself. The real question for most of us who are not economists, statisticians or think tank specialists is will there be some positive outcome as a result of this uproar?

The only truthful response is that it's hard to say at this point in time. In America at least, most of us, rich and poor, have been uncomfortable talking about “class war.” It has however been the monster in the closet or the crazy aunt in the attic for most of our history, especially after the Civil War ended in 1865.

Paul Krugman in a recent NYT article (The 1 Percent's Solution) said that, “What, after all, do people want from economic policy? The answer, it turns out, is that it depends on which people you ask.”

There have been a flurry of articles about Reinhart-Rogoff. Jared Bernstein, a well known economist currently at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in a recent article in Salon (How to prevent future Reinhart-Rogoff melt downs) said—without actually saying it—that economics is not real science. No it's not and never has been. For those interested in learning more about the Reinhart-Rogoff analysis and what it means from the arcane to the general see 'Additional Reading.'

What have we learned

This story, like so many others, is really about that we all have some responsibility for what happened. Of course we ought to develop a keener skepticism about what “experts” claim (far different from cynicism), demand better informed journalists and commentators, demand a more rigorous intellectual process in the field of economics, demand that public officials have a degree of integrity and knowledge and ultimately demand a citizenry (at least a significant portion) that is not so uninformed and disinterested as to be mere impediments to change. This story will continue (globally) for some time to come.

Additional Reading:

the numbers

in general

Monday, April 22, 2013

When consequences are bad

Knowledge is a public good and increases in value as the number of people possessing it increases.
(John Wilbanks, vice president of science at Creative Commons)

The issue

Let's call it the Reinhart-Rogoff brouhaha, which virtually no one knows about, well, almost no one knows about it, except some economists, public policy types and maybe some literate politicians. It turns out to be important however because it impacts probably the majority of Americans as well as a lot of non-Americans throughout the world.

Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff are two well known Harvard economist that have exerted considerable influence on the economic policy of the U.S. and likely in Europe as well. Their influence has been on the side of economic austerity rather than economic stimulation, beloved by not just conservatives and assorted ideologues.

The Reinhart-Rogoff “law” (it's not) states that once a country's gross debt to GDP ratio crosses the threshold of 90 percent, economic growth slows. Debt therefore becomes terrifying, a monster to be avoided, a nightmarish scenario that will destroy civilization. Uh-huh.

(For a clear explanation of the Reinhart-Rogoff controversy see Paul Krugman's article in the NYT, 4/18/13, entitled The Excel Depression).

The science thing and the problem with Reinhart-Rogoff

What we call the modern scientific process had its beginning in the 17th century. It gradually began to systematize knowledge about the natural or physical world and constructed the elements of the scientific process. It has generally worked remarkable well, in part because it's transparent and concerned with HOW things work.

If you take the spectrum of science today you might go from physics to chemistry to biology to medicine to the social sciences, no one area more or less valid than the other—in terms at getting at the “Truth”--but the degree of quantitative validation and specific proof is more demanding in physics, for example, than probably any other area, at least for the moment.

What seems to stand out as you learn the basics of the Reinhart-Rogoff study, which was first published in 2010, is how sloppy the original analysis actually was, in many ways making it easier for those individuals who wanted to to jump on the austerity bandwagon.

It turns out that data was missing, questionable statistical procedures were used and an important coding error was made. Correlations were suggested in the study but those are not the same thing as “cause.”Hypotheses were seemingly offered as facts, but the long and short of the study is that there was never a “90 percent threshold.”

No, economics by any stretch of the imagination can not be called “hard” science at the present time, but the subject could use a far more rigorous process in determining the validity of many of its key concepts, especially in light of its central role in public policy and the impact on individuals. Alan Greenspan, former head of the Federal Reserve Bank, said back in 2008 that, “We were wrong quite a good deal of the time.” Greenspan was a master of understatement.

In fairness, as Paul Krugman has pointed out, there were economists that were skeptical of the original study but it took a 28 year old graduate student from the University of Massachusetts more than two years later to drive a stake through the mystical dogma of the Reinhart-Rogoff study. Reinhart and Rogoff finally allowed researchers to look at their original spreadsheet and—the results couldn't be replicated, replication of course happens to be a basic early step in the scientific process.

Searching for a conclusion

The Reinhart-Rogoff study appears to be a fairly deceptive piece of work, which most likely has led to some unsound economic policies for the United States and some unwanted consequences overseas. Yet, it probably raises some larger questions as well.

If, as we Americans proclaim, at least officially, a democratic society of some kind requires a reasonably informed and engaged citizenry … well, which way are we going?

Second, beware of the “temple priests,” be they from the public or private domain, setting themselves up as the guardians and protectors of our knowledge. We can find them almost everywhere today, classifying documents of one kind or another, claiming patent protection for virtually everything and stifling open inquiry whenever possible—in the name of the public good of course. What will we ultimately decide to do? It requires some effort.

Additional Reading:

Does High Public DebtConsistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart andRogoff (Hendon, Ash, Pollin analysis of the Reinhart-Rogoff study, Univ. of Massachusetts, 2013)

The Conscience of a Liberal: Paul Krugman's blog   

Monday, April 15, 2013

A new perpetual motion machine

Laura Snyder, a science historian and professor of philosophy, has stated that the word “scientist” was used for the first time 180 years ago at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, on June 24, 1833. Has it been only 180 years?

Prior to this time those who pursued “scientific” endeavors, mostly gifted amateurs, called themselves natural philosophers. All this gradually changed as deductive reasoning ( testing hypotheses and theories) became a key component of science, along with the creation of new scientific institutions, external funding for scientific projects and a growing belief that science ought to be for the public good.

Patenting of nature

Fast forward 180 years and we currently have a case before the U.S. Supreme Court that deals with the very structure of life itself. It's unlikely that the majority of Americans and most people on the planet for that matter have the slightest idea what is being debated and the potential outcome, regardless of the Court's ultimate decision.

In simple terms, the case before the Supreme Court is whether or not a company can patent human genes. This is a case that could effect everyone—because it involves DNA, the blueprint for life.

What constitutes a new gene? Will research be stifled and the flow of information impeded? How does a company recoup its investment, sometimes millions of dollars? Who will have access to affordable new tests and procedures as a result of any genetic breakthroughs? These are only a few of the questions that will have to be debated--publicly--and which go way beyond the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Joe Barton's rule

Joe Barton, a conservative Republican congressman from Texas and strong supporter of the fossil fuel industry, once apologized to BP (the company that caused the worst oil spill in U.S. history) because the White House demanded that the company pay millions of dollars for the clean up of the Gulf.

While the congressman claims that climate change does exist, he has consistently denied that there is any human connection to climate change. He cites the great flood in the Old Testament, before humankind burned hydrocarbons, as proof that the climate certainly changes, but humans have nothing to do with it.

Congressman Barton clearly has every right to his beliefs and he can certainly cite the Old Testament as “proof,” but it has nothing to do with modern science, and that is a big problem and not just for Americans.

Magical thinking

If you were to Goggle “perpetual motion machines” you would uncover a colorful history going back to at least the Middle Ages. Hope springs eternal. The pmm is a machine that continues to do work forever without acquiring energy from an external source. The problem is that it violates all the laws of known physics, like conservation of energy, thermodynamics and Newton's laws of motion. But people keep trying. It's the Joe Barton rule and that is a big problem.

The ecological economist Herman Daly has said that it's “politically impossible to stop growth,” while at the same time it's “biophysically impossible to continue it ad infinitum.” We may need another 180 years.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Planet of the mice

“Humans are here by the luck of the draw,” remarked the late paleontologist and evolutionary biologist, Stephen Jay Gould.

The escape

It only requires some imagination: In 2012 twenty so-called "super mice" escaped from an animal research lab in upstate New York. Eight of the youngest adults had human glial cells grafted into their brains as newborn mice. Scientists believe these cells play an important role for humans in both intellectual and cognitive processing capabilities.

Researchers demonstrated that the mice had "improved" cognitive capabilities, which included memory, learning and adaptive conditioning. The remaining twelve mice included 6 that had had their mysostatin gene shut down, resulting in increased muscle mass and strength. The other six had undergone therapy resulting in changes in slow-twitch (fatigue-resistant) and fast-twitch (bursts of power) muscles.

These mice could run about an hour longer than the 90 minutes a normal mouse can run before fatigue sets in. A house mouse is able to run approximately 900 meters or slightly more than half-a-mile, while these enhanced mice proved to be capable of running some 1,800 m, more than a mile. Along with their endurance, these particular mice were also resistant to weight gain because of an increase in fat-burning muscle. Is all of this science or pseudoscience?

The 20 escaped mice is fiction, but the particular experiments have in fact been done in research laboratories and reproduced, replicated and undergone peer review, all part of the scientific process.

The best of all possible worlds

Mid Missouri Public Radio recently had a piece on Kevin Wells, a scientist at the University of Missouri—Columbia. Wells has been studying genetics in animals for more than twenty years and he is well aware of the scientific possibilities, such as making animals resistant to swine flu, along with the potential concerns, such as the human health impact, animal welfare and yes, animals escaping.

It's quite likely we'll have a genetically engineered Atlantic salmon on the U.S. market fairly soon, breakthroughs for better treatment of human brain disorders not far off and possibly even “enhanced” Homo sapiens sooner than we think.

Some sort of genetic future has already arrived. What are we willing to do in terms of genetic engineering and what kind of public policy debate shall we engage in? If we have a scientifically illiterate society and a disengaged citizenry, are we capable of making rational choices and understand those that we've made?

But back to our 20 missing mice. The year is 2100, 87 years from now. A certain percentage of our super mice from 2012 survived and produced off springs. Might they have evolved faster than humans? Will they look far different from the average house mouse of today and how big could they get? Could technology out pace our ability as humans to understand what we have set in motion?

The Theory of Evolution does not say that life moves inexorably toward a higher level of complexity and maybe our mice will not, but it is about the “luck of the draw.”