05/11/14

Confused Science


Confused In his book, The World in Six Songs, Daniel Levitin posutlates the ability to make or participate in music may have conferred an evolutionary advantage to early humans. It’s a reasonable hypothesis based on both archeological and anthropological evidence. And some paleontological finds, too.

We know from remains of bone flutes and other instruments, that humans made music at least 40,000 years ago. What that music was like, what role it played in primitive culture and society, what ceremonial or bonding purposes it had, will always be speculation (although we do know they likely used the pentatonic scale). We can only infer music’s roles from its uses in historic – i.e. since the invention of writing – civilizations, but we can never be sure what happened – and why – before the historical record.

When humans started singing, drumming, or making instruments to accompany themselves is simply something we will never know. Anything to suggest when is mere speculation. And even suggesting why is, too. We’re using post hoc analysis to infer purpose and reason.

We do know that group singing and dancing involves the release of certain neurochemicals like oxytocin, that can have powerful social-bonding effects on individuals, but we don’t know whether the particular chemistry is recent, ancient or even had the same effect on earlier cultures. However, given the relatively common and similar effects observed today, it’s another reasonable speculation that they occurred earlier within our evolution and helped humans bond, cooperate and accomplish group tasks.

And we do know that non-literate or non-technological societies – what few remain, such as those rare Amazonian tribes – use music and singing in social and cultural activities and rituals. Music and singing are as powerful in their cultures, in their daily lives, as sex and magic.*

(The co-development of music and civilization is fascinating, but apparently fragile. Music was mostly a communal activity, much more participatory, before the post-WWI development of communication technology. Today, thanks to the internet, digitalization and newer technologies, music is less a shared, bonding activity than it is a passive experience. Musicians – the people who create the experience – still create and shape public opinion and taste, but like alchemists and shamans, they are on the fringe of society.

There is a glimmer of hope that music may be returning to its communal, social roots with the recent growth in popularity of the ukulele and the resurgence of communal ukulele groups…)

Levitin – as brilliant as he is about neuroscience and music – seems confused about evolution and natural selection. And a few other sciences, as I’ll explain below.

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05/9/14

Sometimes Our Opinions Just Don’t Matter


Crazy notionsThe headline for this piece comes from a recent article in Time Magazine: “Dear CNN: Sometimes Our Opinions Just Don’t Matter.” The article isn’t – as you might have thought – about local bloggers. It’s about critical thinking. Or rather, the lack of it, on CNN’s part.The lack of it on the part of local bloggers I’ll save for another day.

CNN has been running almost non-stop coverage of the plane’s disappearance, repeating in endless loops the same, paltry information they have, then trying to spin that into yet another story. It’s obsessed with the disappearance, to the point where CNN has been mocked by other media for its coverage.

CNN ran a poll about the missing Malaysian airliner. Most of which, as the Time article points out, is moot. And one of the questions was whether or not aliens or time travellers hijacked the plane.

So CNN issued the results of a poll today about the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Should the search continue? Are the searchers looking in the right area? Oh, and could the plane’s vanishing have been caused by “space aliens, time travelers or beings from another dimension“? (At least “somewhat likely,” said 9%.)

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04/28/14

Seeing evolution in action


Peter and Rosemary GrantThe pop-science notion is that evolution takes a long time. Millennia, many millennia; even millions of years. But is that always true? Can one actually see and measure evolution in action? Can it happen in such a short time as to be recorded?

Peter and Rosemary Grant say they have. And it’s the subject of a new book they co-authored based on their research.

Their story was reported in the April 23 issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly. It’s a terrific read if for nothing more than their 40-year tale of dedication, science and adventure on the isolated Daphne Major Island, one of the smaller islands of the Galapagos chain.

Forty years studying finches together, away from human company, away from the comforts of civilization. The small birds that first gave Charles Darwin insight into the mechanics of natural selection were their focus. And the Grants report they have seen that mechanism in action on the island.

Scientists previously had reported seeing the processes of natural selection among bacteria, honeycreepers, cichlid fish, and fruit flies. As Peter Grant puts it, “Until we began, it was well understood that agricultural pests and bacteria could evolve rapidly, but I doubt that many people thought that about big, vertebrate animals.”

The Grants believe that hybridization is an important force in the rise of new species, and think this applies, too, to human evolution. For a long time, for example, paleontologists believed that Neanderthals and “modern homo sapiens” did not interbreed when they came into contact in prehistoric times, but recent research indicates that about 20 percent of Neanderthal genes have been preserved in our species. “It’s almost been a hobbyhorse of ours,” Peter says. “We were saying, ‘I bet there has been gene exchange between the lineages of homo sapiens throughout their evolution.’”

The Grants’ new book is targeted at both lay readers and scientists familiar with their work, and broadly discusses their findings about natural selection, hybridization, population variation (why do some populations of birds vary more dramatically in beak size?), the potential vanishing of a species through interbreeding, and, of course, the potential origin of a new species — the Big Bird lineage. They also touch on global warming and its possible effect on Darwin’s finches. Most of all, the book is an affirmation of the importance of long-term fieldwork as a way of capturing the true dynamism of evolution.

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04/26/14

Pseudo-patriotic madness


FluffernutterThis is news, right from the CBC, not April Fool or The Onion:

The Massachusetts House of Representatives has finally granted initial approval to a Bill naming the Fluffernutter the official state sandwich. The bill was filed in 2006 by then Representative Kathi-Anne Reinstein, in response to a motion by State Senator Jarrett Barrios limiting school Fluff servings to once a week. She thought that motion was, ‘nuts’.
The Fluffernutter is a peanut butter and Marshmallow Fluff combination and has been a staple in Massachusetts diets for generations.

Okay, for anyone with any shred of common sense left, that isn’t news. It’s insanity. Sheer, unbridled, unrepentant nuttiness. It’s crazier than a bagful of bloggers. And why is the media even giving this “serious” coverage instead of railing on about the uselessness of these addle-brained state politicians?

An official “state sandwich?” One that, by the way, has its own song

Oh you need fluff, fluff, fluff
To make a fluffernutter
Marshmallow fluff
And lots of peanut butter…

What next? An official state salad dressing? State muffin? State flatbread? State sushi roll? Does a state need an official everything? Apparently so. That simply takes patriotism into the realm of insanity. I can hardly wait for the debate of the official state vacuum cleaner bag…

Not to mention the incredibly stupid mixture of junk food a fluffernutter represents – plus a name that just begs to be lampooned.

Fluffernutter? Sounds like a porn-movie extra. You can expect the jokes to make the social media rounds any time now. And the angry rants about politicians blind to issues of obesity and health.

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04/8/14

The dangerous idiocy of the anti-vax movement


Measles outbreakMeasles is on the rise in Canada. There have already been many cases in 2014: in PEI, London, Ottawa, southern Alberta, Regina, Qu’Apelle, Calgary, Fraser Valley (320 cases), Hamilton, Halton, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Waterloo, Nanaimo and other locations. Eleven cases in Ontario this year alone. Nine in Alberta.

That ancient, deadly foe we recently believed we had conquered, is coming back. And it’s going to kill children again, this time with the complicity of their parents.

Fifty years ago, science found the cure and made a vaccine for it. In 2000, the United States optimistically declared ongoing measles transmission had been eliminated. But it’s come back.

So have mumps and whooping cough – both easily and safely prevent by vaccinations. Both are deadly threats to children again.

Who’s to blame? And why is this happening? Why are people putting children at such risk?

It’s because of the anti-vaccination movement, a cult of pseudoscience, anti-medicine sentiments, gullibility, fear, superstition and mostly quackery promoted by witless and devious celebrities and greedy marketers, then spread on the internet to people who jump on every passing bandwagon. Parents who get their medical advice from unreliable online sources – mostly lies, rumour, gossip and unfounded allegation, like all conspiracy theories – or from quacks, not doctors.*

Health Link Alberta tells us how easily measles can spread:

Close contact with an infected person is not necessary to catch measles.
It is an extremely contagious airborne disease that can spread by coughing and sneezing, and through air currents.
Although there is no specific treatment or cure for measles, it can be prevented through immunization.
The measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine is part of the routine childhood immunization program in Alberta.
Children should receive their first MMR dose at 12 months and the second between the ages of four and six years. Both doses are required to be fully protected.

The anti-vaxxers are creating a public health disaster. Rather ironically, North American parents have that in common with the Taliban:

In Pakistan, polio remains an epidemic because the Taliban has banned aid workers from vaccinating children. They say they fear that vaccination efforts are simply a ruse meant to disguise espionage. Health workers attempting to distribute vaccines there have been attacked and killed. A total of 101 polio cases have been reported in the country as of mid-November, and another 240,000 children have not been vaccinated.

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03/26/14

The ethics of politics via Aristotle


Aristotle PoliticsPolitics, Aristotle wrote in the Nicomachean Ethics, is the “master science of the good.” The good of which he wrote is the greater good, the “highest good” that benefits the state, not the personal.

For even if the good is the same for the individual and the state, the good of the state clearly is the greater and more perfect thing to attain and safeguard. the attainment of the good for one man alone is, to be sure, a source of satisfaction; yet to secure it for a nation and for states is nobler and more divine.

But good is hard to define, Aristotle wrote, and full of “irregularity” because, he added, “in many cases good things bring harmful results.”

For Aristotle and his fellow philosophers, politics was the science of figuring out what is conducive to life in a polis or city (which in the Greece of his day were city states); it determined how people can live together in communities and cities. It still is, which is why his 2,000-plus year-old work, Politics, is still taught in poli-sci courses.

Politics also has the practical side: the legislative component. And ethics underlies both parts.

Ethics and virtue are interconnected in Aristotle, but it’s not entirely the same virtue of which Machiavelli writes (and Aristotle described many more virtues than Plato’s four: courage, wisdom, temperance and justice). Aristotle’s virtue is a mean between excess and deficiency. It isn’t being super good, or unbendingly upright, or sticking to a dogma or theological script.

It’s almost like situational ethics (see Nicomachean Ethics, Book I.7). The BBC notes:

Situation ethics teaches that ethical decisions should follow flexible guidelines rather than absolute rules, and be taken on a case by case basis.

As this site notes:

Aristotle says that it is a mean between extremes, but not a mechanically determinable mean: “to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way”

For example, the mean between obsequiousness and cantankerousness is friendliness (see here). Angry, vituperative blogs full of accusation and wild allegation would not fit Aristotle’s definition of virtuous because they have a deficiency of social conduct, according to the chart.

As this site explains:

The good for human beings, then, must essentially involve the entire proper function of human life as a whole, and this must be an activity of the soul that expresses genuine virtue or excellence.

It also notes:

True happiness can therefore be attained only through the cultivation of the virtues that make a human life complete.

Cultivation: it means virtues have to be consciously worked at, and practiced. They are not innate or hereditary.

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