Anti-Intellectualism: The New Elitism

Anti-intellectualismThere’s a growing – and disturbing – trend in modern culture: anti-intellectual elitism. The dismissal of art, science, culture, philosophy, of rhetoric and debate, of literature and poetry, and their replacement by entertainment, spectacle, self-righteous self ignorance, and deliberate gullibility. These are usually followed by vituperative ridicule and angry caterwauling when anyone challenges the populist ideals or ideologies.

As if having a brain, as if having any aspirations to culture, to art, to learning – or worse, to science – was an evil, malicious thing that must be stomped upon. As if the literati were plotting world domination by quoting Shakespeare or Chaucer. Or Carl Sagan, Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins.

“The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, oration to the Phi Beta Kappa Society Cambridge, August 31, 1837.

Anti-intellectualism isn’t new – Richard Hofstadter wrote about it in 1963 – but it has become highly visible on the internet where pseudoscience and conspiracy theories have developed unchallenged into popular anti-science and anti-rationalist countercultures, many followed and accepted by millions.

Hofstadter wrote,

Anti-intellectualism is a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it, and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.

He warned in his book that intellectualism was “on the run” in America. It still is.*

Just look at the superstitious Jenny-McCarthyites who fear vaccinations with the same religious fervour medieval peasants feared black cats crossing their paths. Or the muddle-headed practitioners and followers of homeopathy. The chemtrail conspiracists. The anti-wind turbine and the anti-fluoride crowd. Any Scientologist. Or any religious fundamentalist. The list of true believers in the anti-intellectual crowd is huge.

Online technology didn’t create these mythologies, or the gullibility of their followers, but the internet is the great equalizer and the great popularizer. It’s not making us smarter; in fact, it may be dumbing down a lot of folks. That’s because anyone, anywhere, can have his or her say and there’s no way to easily discern the intellectual wheat from the. abundant chaff without doing some hard thinking and analysis.

Technology has created the sense of entitlement that every comment, every opinion is of equal value, regardless of the context and the person making that comment. It’s the ultimate democratizer. But it’s a democracy where communication is reduced to the lowest level: the instant, the brief and the angry retort.

Facebook and Twitter don’t have categories that identify posters as more relevant or more important than others. If the prime minister posts on Facebook, he doesn’t get a gold box around his post that says he’s in charge of the country. If Stephen Hawking weighs into a Facebook debate about the nature of the space-time continuum, he doesn’t get a special icon that lets people know he owns this conversation.***

All messages we post have the same weight, the same gravity. There’s nothing to identify any post as more informed, as factually correct or even relevant. So it becomes easy to derail a discussion by spurious claims and allegations, but innuendo, lies or simply confrontational language.

We’re all equally important on the internet. One person’s belief in magic, superstition or conspiracies gets the same opportunity to be heard and seen as those about science and empirical fact. In the online land of the blind, the one-eyed man has no special significance.

Facebook image

We’re creating a world of dummies. Angry dummies who feel they have the right, the authority and the need not only to comment on everything, but to make sure their voice is heard above the rest, and to drag down any opposing views through personal attacks, loud repetition and confrontation.

When they can’t respond with an intellectual counterargument – as is often the case – the anti-intellectuals respond with the ideology of their peer group (see the religious content of the message in the image taken from Facebook on the left) or ad hominem attacks. Name calling. Belittling and demeaning the opponent.

Bill Keller, writing in the New York Times, said,

The Web culture is simultaneously elitist and anti-authoritarian…

But it’s not an elitism of wisdom, education, experience or knowledge. The new elite are the angry posters, those who can shout loudest and more often, a clique of bullies and malcontents baying together like dogs cornering a fox. Too often it’s a combined elite of the anti-intellectuals and the conspiracy followers – not those who can voice the most cogent, most coherent response.

Together they ferment a rabid culture of anti-rationalism where every fact is suspect; every shadow holds a secret conspiracy. Rational thought is the enemy. Critical thinking is the devil’s tool.

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Survival of the Fittest

Herbert SpencerCharles Darwin has long been associated with the phrase, “survival of the fittest.” For a century and a half people have used it to refer to their understanding of his explanation of how species evolved.

But it wasn’t his. And it has obscured the understanding of Darwin’s own theory.

It came from a contemporary, Herbert Spencer. Spencer was a contemporary of Darwin – an English polymath:  philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist, economist liberal political theorist, utilitarian – and, by some accounts, an early libertarian. His ideas came from people like Malthus and Adam Smith (read more about his philosophy here). Wikipedia tells us:

For many, the name of Herbert Spencer would be virtually synonymous with Social Darwinism, a social theory that applies the law of the survival of the fittest to society; humanitarian impulses had to be resisted as nothing should be allowed to interfere with nature’s laws, including the social struggle for existence. Spencer desired the elimination of the unfit through their failure to reproduce, rather than coercion or state intervention to initiate their physical annihilation.

He wrote his interpretation of Darwin’s ideas in an 1864 textbook of biology:

“This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called ‘natural selection’, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.”

Spencer was really trying to apply Darwin’s ideas to his own ideas about economics, class struggle, competition and politics. He also believed in Lamarckism – the inheritance of attributes gained in one generation by the next – which has long since been discredited. But whether you agree with Spencer’s views, his reduction of Darwin’s theory to a convenient axiom did the theory an injustice.

In the public mind, Darwin’s ideas about natural selection were confusing and challenging. They became conflated with Spencer’s ideas and somehow the phrase stuck – the Victoria era equivalent of a bumper sticker phrase. It became wildly popular, and was soon applied to social and political phenomena, not simply biological.

It was so popular as a catch phrase that in the 1869  fifth edition of his book, On the Origin of Species, Darwin – unfortunately – added this line:

“But the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer, of the Survival of the Fittest, is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient.”

The problem is really in how the word “fittest” is defined. Like its sister term, theory, it has both a common and a scientific meaning.*

Survival of the FittestFittest, in Darwin’s sense, doesn’t mean the biggest, best, toughest, strongest or even the most competitive. It’s not the macho concept of superiority. It isn’t about power, control or brute force.

It means the “best suited for the immediate environment.” It has also been described as a “property of the relationship between the organism and the environment.” That might be a different colour, smaller size, less active. Whatever offers the best opportunity to survive and breed. Having offspring is key.

It’s a far more subtle notion than commonly used. As Wikipedia says:

Modern evolutionary theory defines fitness not by how long an organism lives, but by how successful it is at reproducing. If an organism lives half as long as others of its species, but has twice as many offspring surviving to adulthood, its genes will become more common in the adult population of the next generation.

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Infestations, Microbes & Parasites

Micrococcus (Actinobacteria)Staphylococci, Corynebacteria, Actinobacteria, Clostridiales, and Bacilli. They’re the most common, but they’re not the only ones. Bacteria. Microbes. Yes, even parasites.  Living in your belly button. And on your skin. Your hair. But the belly button flora and fauna fascinate me the most.*

We’ve known ever since the microscope was invented that we had a population of hitchhikers living on our skin, scalp – and even inside us. The great Antony van Leeuwenhoek is known as the “father of microbiology” for his explorations through his fledgling, primitive microscope in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. But we are still learning about the biodiversity we all have.**

There was a recent story in the Atlantic that researchers had found, of 2,368 species of bacteria living in our navels recorded so far, 1,458 new species.

New as in previously unknown until some scientist stuck a Q-tip into his or her belly button and examined the results. Which is what they are still doing, exploring this brave new frontier in microbiology. It must have been one of those eureka moments.

Gawd, dontcha love science? To bold go where no Q-tip has gone before…

The Atlantic story opens:

Instead of taking your fingerprint, maybe police should swab our belly buttons with Q-tips. No, that’s ridiculous, actually. But the idea illustrates a point made by a group of North Carolina-based researchers in their new Belly Button Biodiversity (BBB) project. Last month, the group published results of their first of many experiments, in which they swabbed 60 belly buttons and identified a total of 2,368 species of bacteria. People’s individual profiles were snowflake-ily, bacterially unique.

Most of the microbes that live on our skin are harmless, and many are actually beneficial: they protect us from more virulent invaders. What’s remarkable is the sheer number and variety of them.***

The scientists at Your Wildlife wrote that among all those species, there are some common forms found in most navels:

Turns out, belly buttons are a jungle of microbial biodiversity: we detected over 2300 species! And get this, only eight of those 2300 species– we call them oligarchs – were quite frequent and abundant, present in more than 70% of the individuals we sampled.

Oligarchs. Make me think of the Politburo. Or Putin’s new Russian clique. What role do these bacterial oligarchs play in their micro-environment?

We’re an entire ecosystem, Scientific American tells us:

Over the past 10 years or so, however, researchers have demonstrated that the human body is not such a neatly self-sufficient island after all. It is more like a complex ecosystem—a social network—containing trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms that inhabit our skin, genital areas, mouth and especially intestines. In fact, most of the cells in the human body are not human at all. Bacterial cells in the human body outnumber human cells 10 to one. Moreover, this mixed community of microbial cells and the genes they contain, collectively known as the microbiome, does not threaten us but offers vital help with basic physiological processes—from digestion to growth to self-defense.

By the way, you can contribute to this ongoing research; check the notes at yourwildlife.org about how to help. The belly button experiment is over, as researchers assess their samples, but they are moving on to armpits, a whole new territory.

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From 7 to 29. Should I be worried? Or just keep monitoring?

Peaksaver PlusSeven cents per hour. That’s what the energy monitor was showing me a moment before I plugged in the kettle. Then it jumped to 29 cents. Wow! And this is mid-peak time, too, my new energy monitor warns. Should I be worried?

Better cut back on the tea if I want to conserve energy.

It did the same last night when we turned on the microwave at dinner time, but that was off-peak. Still, that’s pretty high, compared to seven cents. Those two devices seem to be the biggest energy hogs we have.

I need to do some calculating, however, to figure out real costs. What does five minutes’ worth of microwave heating translate to in terms of KWH used, and costs? I need a new app…

Energy monitorI’m reading the real-time display on my new energy monitoring toy tool and it’s telling me a lot about how I use electricity. It gives me that geeky satisfaction of watching data flow, just having it in front of me.

I got it when I signed up for the Peaksaver Plus program through Collus/Powerstream. Collingwood residents would have received a notice about the program in their last utility bill. If not, you can read about it here.*

The program (for homes with central air only, it seems), offers a free digital, touch-screen thermostat (Peaksaver Plus) and the wireless In-Home Energy Display. Free. For both. As in no charge, no additional billing, no hidden costs.

The stick behind this magnanimous carrot is simple: to reduce energy usage. The thermostat is connected wirelessly to the utility’s computers. If the power demand on the grid looks like it’s going to exceed capacity and cause a brownout, the utility can raise the temperature of your air conditioning by two degrees for 15 minutes to lighten the load. Does it all by itself.

Seems like a pretty good idea to me. After all, we don’t use the A/C a lot, and even when we do, the effect is a small change for a short time.

It won’t affect the winter heat (which is gas), so why not? Everyone has to do their part for our environment.

We’ve been using programmable digital thermostats for a couple of decades now. They really make a difference to your gas bill. Not least of all because, since it’s programmed, you never forget to turn the thermostat down when you leave the house. Or when you go to bed at night. Plus they are more accurate than the old manual, analog system. You get 68 degrees when you ask for it, not 70 or 72.Besides, the digital thermosat is cool, very programmable, and touch-screen. Not quite an iPad, but nonetheless, it’s pretty neat. And it runs off power from the furnace – not on batteries like the previous one (which always seemed to go dead on the coldest nights of the year…).

Our gas bill dropped significantly when we installed one.

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We are Stardust… and Viral Genes

SupernovaIn her classic song, Woodstock, Joni Mitchell ended with the chorus:

We are stardust
Billion-year-old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devil’s bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Which most people assume is merely poetic licence. Well, Joni wasn’t wrong: we – and every living thing on our planet – are made of stardust. As we learn at Physics Central:

If we know how many hydrogen atoms are in our body, then we can say that the rest is stardust. Our body is composed of roughly 7×1027 atoms. That is a lot of atoms! Try writing that number out on a piece of paper: 7 with 27 zeros behind it. We say roughly because if you pluck a hair or pick your nose there might be slightly less. Now it turns out that of those billion billion billion atoms, 4.2×1027 of them are hydrogen. Remember that hydrogen is bigbang dust and not stardust. This leaves 2.8×1027 atoms of stardust. Thus the amount of stardust atoms in our body is 40%.

Since stardust atoms are the heavier elements, the percentage of star mass in our body is much more impressive. Most of the hydrogen in our body floats around in the form of water. The human body is about 60% water and hydrogen only accounts for 11% of that water mass. Even though water consists of two hydrogen atoms for every oxygen, hydrogen has much less mass. We can conclude that 93% of the mass in our body is stardust. Just think, long ago someone may have wished upon a star that you are made of.

Mitchell’s theme was picked up by the late cosmologist, Carl Sagan, in his hit TV show, Cosmos. Live Science tells us:

In the early 1980s, astronomer Carl Sagan hosted and narrated a 13-part television series called “Cosmos” that aired on PBS. On the show, Sagan thoroughly explained many science-related topics, including Earth’s history, evolution, the origin of life and the solar system.

Since stardust atoms are the heavier elements, the percentage of star mass in our body is much more impressive. Most of the hydrogen in our body floats around in the form of water. The human body is about 60% water and hydrogen only accounts for 11% of that water mass. Even though water consists of two hydrogen atoms for every oxygen, hydrogen has much less mass. We can conclude that 93% of the mass in our body is stardust. Just think, long ago someone may have wished upon a star that you are made of.

“We are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff,” Sagan famously stated in one episode.

His statement sums up the fact that the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen atoms in our bodies, as well as atoms of all other heavy elements, were created in previous generations of stars over 4.5 billion years ago. Because humans and every other animal as well as most of the matter on Earth contain these elements, we are literally made of star stuff, said Chris Impey, professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona.

“All organic matter containing carbon was produced originally in stars,” Impey told Life’s Little Mysteries. “The universe was originally hydrogen and helium, the carbon was made subsequently, over billions of years.”

So how did all this stardust get into out bodies? Supernovae, spewing heavy material into the vastness of space, scattering atoms and molecules at near lightspeed. Our “Garden of Eden” was the nuclear furnace of an exploding star.

We are made of the material created 13-plus billion years ago, We are, as Mitchell sang, stardust. Recycled and reused, but the stuff of the cosmos nonetheless. *

And we’re also built of viral genes, a product of the evolution of life, of the co-evolution of life and that strange creature, the virus. Viruses have helped shape us, and our adaptations to the environment. That’s the premise of Frank Ryan’s latest book, Virolution.**

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Why Creationists Don’t Win the Nobel Prize

Looking at the list of Nobel prizes awarded in 2013 for science, we see three prestigious entries:

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2013
François Englert and Peter W. Higgs

“For the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.”

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2013
Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel

“For the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems.”

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2013
James E. Rothman, Randy W. Schekman and Thomas C. Südhof

“For their discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells”

Impressive stuff. If you want more detail on why these three were chosen, read this National Geographic article.

Dinosaur flood jokeHmm. No ‘creation science”  in that list. In fact, not a single “creation scientist” was even nominated.

Not that the Nobel Prize hasn’t been without its controversies, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a list that showed a single creationist nominated for the award. Something along the line of “For proving dinosaurs and humans shared the planet before an angry, vengeful deity wiped out everything living including humans which it created only a few years earlier, except a pair each of  those creatures that could comfortably fit in a large boat, but on which dinosaurs and all but a single family of humans were not invited to board.”*

Probably because creationism isn’t science, not even when you try to gussy it up by labelling it “creation science.” It’s a political viewpoint based on a literalist take on Biblical mythology.”Creation science” is an oxymoron.**

You’d think if they had God (their particular god, not everyone’s god, mind you, and not every Christian’s god…) on their side, that God would belly up to the award committee bar and make sure at least one creationist won the damn prize. Not some folks doing experiments with particles no one can even see and that 99.9% of us don’t really understand.

But nope, creationists get shut out again.

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Hijack the Starship

Space station conceptNineteen seventy. A great year for music, and a sad year, too. The death of Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin.* Many of the great acts were kicked off their record labels and would struggle to find new publishers.**

The great psychedelic band, Jefferson Airplane was breaking up, but before it did, Paul Kantner and Grace Slick put together a new band, named Paul Kantner and the Jefferson Starship (which would change its lineup before finalizing as the Jefferson Starship a few years later). They released a science fiction-counterculture concept album called Blows Against the Empire in 1970. It would go on to be nominated for a Hugo Award in 1971.

It was the voice of our dreams. Wikipedia tells us of the album:

Side Two is an integrated suite of songs which opens with “Sunrise”, Grace Slick’s allegory describing the breaking dawn the couple was awaiting, while also symbolizing the dawn of an Utopian civilization, freed from conservative mores and violent influences. “Sunrise” leads directly into “Hijack,” in which the revolutionaries storm the transport to the orbiting starship and head off into space, boarding the ship by the end of “Hijack” and leaving orbit in “Home.” As the story progresses with “Have You Seen the Stars Tonite,” hopes and misgivings are revealed. After the ship’s engines and systems are readied in “X-M,” “Starship” relates a mutiny fought for control of the ship, to determine whether to surrender and return or to continue. Eventually the idealists win control and the ship is flung by gravity sling-shot around the sun and out of the solar system.
By Kantner’s admission, the underlying premise of the narrative was derived in part from the works of science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, particularly the novel Methuselah’s Children. Kantner went so far as to write to Heinlein to obtain permission to use his ideas. Heinlein wrote back that over the years, many people had used his ideas but Paul was the first one to ask for permission, which he granted. Blows was the first rock album to ever be nominated for a Hugo Award, in 1971 in the category of Best Dramatic Presentation. In voting, the album garnered the second most votes for the award, losing to “No Award”, which received the most votes.

[youtube=www.youtube.com/watch?v=hUT1xvdrlDA]
The lyrics of Hijack the Starship start with:

You know – a starship circlin’ in the sky –
It ought to be ready by 1990
They’ll be buildin’ it up in the air, ever since 1980
People with a clever plan can assume the role of the mighty
and HIJACK THE STARSHIP
Carry 7,000 people past the sun
And our babes’ll wander naked thru
the cities of the universe.

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The Smallest Helper

Yeast - Saccharomyces cerevisiaeWhile I was pondering the nature of flour in my cogitations about bread machines (I’m still debating which model, by the way – suggestions welcome, but local stores have few options), I turned my grey matter to the business of yeast. Yeast is, of course, important in bread making because it makes bread rise.

Why? You ask. Well, dear reader, the answer is simple but not pretty: farts.

Yep. Yeast flatulence makes bread rise. Yeast out-gases carbon dioxide after it eats. The gas gets trapped in the gooey dough and, since it can’t escape, the dough expands. Food writer Linda Stradley puts it more genteelly:

The main purpose of yeast is to serve as a catalyst in the process of fermentation, which is essential in the making of bread. The purpose of any leavener is to produce the gas that makes bread rise. Yeast does this by feeding on the sugars in flour, and expelling carbon dioxide in the process.  As the yeast feeds on the sugar, it produces carbon dioxide. With no place to go but up, this gas slowly fills the balloon. A very similar process happens as bread rises. Carbon dioxide from yeast fills thousands of balloon-like bubbles in the dough. Once the bread has baked, this is what gives the loaf its airy texture.

You’d think something as simple as a single-celled plant would be pretty easy, but it’s a rich topic with a lot of considerations, opinions and options.

Not all yeasts are the same, although all have characteristics in common. Yeast is one of many species of a mono-cellular plant – a eukaryote – which Wikipedia somewhat stuffily describes as:

Yeasts are eukaryotic microorganisms classified in the kingdom Fungi, with 1,500 species currently described (estimated to be 1% of all fungal species).  Yeasts are unicellular, although some species with yeast forms may become multicellular through the formation of strings of connected budding cells known as pseudohyphae, or false hyphae, as seen in most molds.
Yeast size can vary greatly depending on the species, typically measuring 3–4 µm in diameter, although some yeasts can reach over 40 µm. Most yeasts reproduce asexually by mitosis, and many do so by an asymmetric division process called budding.
By fermentation, the yeast species Saccharomyces cerevisiae converts carbohydrates to carbon dioxide and alcohols – for thousands of years the carbon dioxide has been used in baking and the alcohol in alcoholic beverages. It is also a centrally important model organism in modern cell biology research, and is one of the most thoroughly researched eukaryotic microorganisms. Researchers have used it to gather information about the biology of the eukaryotic cell and ultimately human biology.
Other species of yeasts, such as Candida albicans, are opportunistic pathogens and can cause infections in humans. Yeasts have recently been used to generate electricity in microbial fuel cells, and produce ethanol for the biofuel industry.
Yeasts do not form a single taxonomic or phylogenetic grouping. The term “yeast” is often taken as a synonym for Saccharomyces cerevisiae, but the phylogenetic diversity of yeasts is shown by their placement in two separate phyla: the Ascomycota and the Basidiomycota. The budding yeasts (“true yeasts”) are classified in the order Saccharomycetales.

Got that? Good yeasts, bad yeasts and not all are helpful. In fact, many are downright harmful. Right now, you’re covered in yeast. It’s on your skin, growing merrily in your navel and every crevice and fold. It’s in the air you breathe. On your pets and children. Much of it is benign, but some is troublesome and can cause food to spoil. Hint: wash your hands before handling foods.

Airborne yeast is what makes sourdough breads work (the wild yeast settles on the starter and colonizes it, reproducing merrily). Sourdoughs are always regional, even local breads because they depend on the yeasts in the air in the room where the starter is laid out. You can buy sourdough starters with embedded yeasts, but  first try making your own. Instructions are on many sites.

PoolishAnd then there’s the poolish – a pre-fermented mix (I used to prepare something like this when I made my own bread, 20+ years ago):

A pre-ferment is a fermentation starter used in bread making, and is referred to as an indirect[1][2] method. It may also be called mother dough.
A pre-ferment and a longer fermentation in the bread-making process have several benefits: there is more time for yeast, enzyme and, if sourdough, bacterial actions on the starch and proteins in the dough; this in turn improves the keeping time of the baked bread, and it creates greater complexities of flavor. Though pre-ferments have declined in popularity as direct additions of yeast in bread recipes have streamlined the process on a commercial level, pre-ferments of various forms are widely used in artisanal bread recipes and formulas.

For us the main type of yeast we want to discuss here is the minuscule powerhouse, Saccharomyces cerevisiae. It’s the mainstay of both baking and brewing. But in each it has a different role to play. You might note the Latin connection through the Spanish word for beer – cerveza.

What’s really remarkable is that humans have put these little plants to work for our benefit. Without domesticating yeast, we would have no bread, no beer, no wine, no tequila. Unthinkable! yet they toil at our pleasure for not cost, just the food they eat.

Yeast is our oldest domesticated organism, going back at least 8,000 years in our service. And more recently it has served us well in the lab when trying to work through human genetic issues:

…yeast and humans share about 40 % of highly conserved gene products. Human genes (cDNA), once transferred into yeast, can fully replace the functions of their counterparts.

Several facts underline the importance of yeast research: (i) within the last fifty years, seven Nobel Prize winners (at minimum) have worked with this system; (ii) the yeast genome harbors hundreds of genes that are highly related to ‘disease genes’ in humans: in many cases, the human genes were detected only by comparisons with the yeast genome; and (iii) yeast is successfully used in the research of neurodegenerative diseases, even though yeast has no nervous system whatsoever.

Modern, commercially available yeasts are like laboratory rats: created to serve a purpose and not natural:

Few people realize that the yeast in grocery stores is not a naturally-occurring substance. Laboratory created in 1984, the yeast sold today is so foreign to our digestive systems that some people develop allergies to the yeast itself. This quick-rising yeast appears increasingly connected to the nutritional and digestive disorders that plague so many today, including Celiac’s disease, gluten-intolerance, acid-reflux disease, wheat allergies and even diabetes. Both modern science and traditional wisdom tell us that natural yeast has health benefits that simply cannot be matched by modern yeast.

Without some technical, scientific research to back that up, it’s hard to digest those claims. And I have yet to find authentication of the 1984 date. It’s a complex history:

It appears that bread making dates back at least 6000 years, but use of leavening, which required the development of suitable cereal grains with easily removable hulls, gluten, and the introduction of yeast cells, did not appear until around 500 BC. With the development of agriculture, it was probably found that addition of some of the fermenting wine to dough resulted in a lighter, more pleasant bread. Alternatively, insects may have landed on the dough and inoculated it with yeast.

Yeast has a really fascinating history in human company. Science Daily reports it was a stowaway on European ships travelling to North America 500 years ago:

In the 15th century, when Europeans first began moving people and goods across the Atlantic, a microscopic stowaway somehow made its way to the caves and monasteries of Bavaria.
The stowaway, a yeast that may have been transported from a distant shore on a piece of wood or in the stomach of a fruit fly, was destined for great things. In the dank caves and monastery cellars where 15th century brewmeisters stored their product, the newly arrived yeast fused with a distant relative, the domesticated yeast used for millennia to make leavened bread and ferment wine and ale. The resulting hybrid — representing a marriage of species as evolutionarily separated as humans and chickens — would give us lager, the clear, cold-fermented beer first brewed by 15th century Bavarians and that today is among the most popular — if not the most popular — alcoholic beverage in the world.

And while scientists and brewers have long known that the yeast that gives beer the capacity to ferment at cold temperatures was a hybrid, only one player was known: Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the yeast used to make leavened bread and ferment wine and ale. Its partner, which conferred on beer the ability to ferment in the cold, remained a puzzle, as scientists were unable to find it among the 1,000 or so species of yeast known to science.
Now, an international team of researchers believes it has identified the wild yeast that, in the age of sail, apparently traveled more than 7,000 miles to those Bavarian caves to make a fortuitous microbial match that today underpins the $250 billion a year lager beer industry.

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Why do so few Canadians get a flu shot?

VaccinationThat’s the headline for a recent Toronto Star story. It suggests that as few as one third of Canadians get a flu vaccine, and in some place the number may be as low as 20 percent.

This despite Ontario having the world’s first universal free flu shot program, introduced in 2000. The 2013-14 vaccine is on its way to doctors’ offices now. It’s also available at pharmacists’ offices. It’s free, easily accessible, it prevents and helps stop the spread of many kinds of influenza, it can save the life of anyone at risk – so why don’t people get one?

Superstition and pseudoscience. Gullible people turn to untrained, celebrity wingnuts in the anti-vaccine movement – like Jenny McCarthy – for medical advice rather than to doctors, health care professionals and pharmacists. They turn to dangerous cranks and pseudo-science wingnuts like homeopaths, “faith healers,” astrologers and psychics instead of doctors.*

Many of these people deliberately and purposefully distort or misrepresent the facts about vaccines, disease, scientific research and health. Others are simply ignorant of the facts and accept what others say, without bothering to verify it through independent sources or published research.**

I know, you’re probably thinking like I was when I read this story, “are people this crazy?” And the answer, it seems, is yes.

McCarthy’s anti-vaccine preaching was called “belligerent ignorance” by the Toronto Star earlier this year, noting,

From McCarthy’s point of view, it’s a major victory in her battle to get her message out: vaccines are bad and autism can be cured, if you just ignore the scientists and sawbones who insist on pesky factual data.
It’s David vs. Goliath, Warrior Mom vs. Stuffed Shirt Medical Establishment, New Age Rebel vs. The Man.
Ah, but there’s another side: those who value facts over opinions and view McCarthy as a fear mongering dimwit whose sanctimonious crusade, however well-intentioned, threatens to turn the clock back on medical science.
Given that measles and whooping cough have already staged a comeback as parents panic and vaccination rates drop, it’s also potentially dangerous.
To be clear, there is no medical evidence to support her assertion — based on a discredited study — that vaccines cause autism, no evidence that the alternative treatments she promotes will have any positive effect on this ballooning developmental disorder and no evidence that her own son was, as she insists, “cured” of autism (the diagnosis has been disputed by experts).

The LA Times concluded the same about McCarthy:

She also peddles the discredited, poisonous claims that the way we vaccinate our children against the diseases that were once regular killers of children places our young ones at greater risk of developing autism — the kind of conspiracy theorizing that will draw only more eyeballs.

And the New Yorker wrote of McCarthy:

McCarthy has spent much of the past ten years campaigning against vaccines—which, it must be said, are the most effective instruments of public health in human history, aside from clean water. That does not mean that vaccines carry no risk: nothing is entirely without risk, and there is a small but measurable possibility that any vaccine can cause a serious adverse reaction. Still, the benefits for society so powerfully outweigh the risks that suggesting otherwise is irresponsible at best. It spreads fear and incites the type of ignorance that makes people sick. That is exactly what McCarthy has been doing. By preaching her message of scientific illiteracy from one end of this country to the other, she has helped make it possible for people to turn away from rational thought. And that is deadly.

And The Nation wrote,

Oprah Winfrey’s decision to let McCarthy act as an expert, to dismiss science with alchemy, without asking any tough questions, was unconscionable. The same could be said of the producers of Larry King Live and Good Morning America, both of which hosted McCarthy soon after. Even though they at least asked questions about her views, Larry King had her debate a doctor, as though her disproven ideas should be given the same equivalence as those of a medical expert.

In fact, McCarthy’s beliefs—that vaccines and mercury cause autism, that a good diet cures autism and that “diagnosticians and pediatricians have made a career out of telling parents autism is a hopeless condition”—have been roundly dismissed and discredited by doctors and scientists, who insist that her claims are based on no scientific data or research. McCarthy wasn’t deterred. “The University of Google,” she said to Oprah, “is where I got my degree from.”

Let’s be clear: there is no connection between vaccines and autism.

Continue reading “Why do so few Canadians get a flu shot?”

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Internet Surveys: Bad Data, Bad Science and Big Bias

Falacious reasoningBack in 2012, I wrote a blog piece about internet polls and surveys, asking whether internet polls and surveys could be – or should be – considered valid or scientific. I concluded, after researching the question, that, since the vast majority lack any scientific basis and are created by amateurs – often with a goal to direct rather than measure public opinion – that,

Most internet polls are merely for entertainment purposes. They harmlessly allow us to believe we are being engaged and are participating in the process, and they make pollsters happy to receive the attention. They are, however, not appropriate tools for making political or social decisions unless they are backed by rigid, scientific and statistical constraints.*

Earlier that year, an editorial in a local newspaper wisely drew similar conclusions (emphasis added):

It’s said that there’s lies, damn lies, and statistics. You could also throw Internet polls into that mix. …

But anyone who takes the results to heart, or attributes any level of credibility to them, is horribly mistaken. We post those polls to gauge how the community feels about one issue or another, but otherwise there is little to no scientific basis to them.

And unlike a poll that’s usually conducted by the likes of Ipsos, Leger and Gallup – who use scientific principles to conduct many of their public-opinion polls – the results of an Internet poll can easily be ‘plumped’ by one side or the other enlisting family, friends and associates to vote, regardless of their level of understanding of an issue.

I wanted to follow up my earlier piece with some more information from the professionals in the polling and statistical analysis fields, as well as some journalistic comments. The reasons internet polls are unscientific and lack credibility has been addressed by many universities, professional polling companies and associations.

The National Council on Public Polls weighed in on this question, stating (emphasis added):

While different members of NCPP have different opinions about the potential validity and value of online surveys, there is a consensus that many web-based surveys are completely unreliable. Indeed, to describe them as “polls” is to misuse that term.

The NCPP then suggests a list of ten questions for journalists to ask to help clarify the results and the scientific methods used to create and assess the poll:

  1. Is the internet-based survey designed to be representative, and if so, of what population? If not, it is not worthy of being reported.
  2.  What evidence is there that the sample is representative of the population it claims to represent? Unless the internet-based survey can provide clear evidence that the sample is representative by demographic and/or other relevant information it is not worthy of being reported.
  3. How was the sample drawn? Many internet-based surveys are just “call-in” polls or are asked only of people who happen to visit a particular web site. These surveys usually do not represent or make any pretense to represent any other population, and are not worthy of being reported.
  4. What steps does the organization take to prevent people from voting more than once? Any poll which allows people to vote twice, or more often, is not worthy of being reported.
  5. How were the data weighted? Survey data may contain biases from a variety of causes. The magnitude of these biases and random errors are usually unknown to the researcher. Even so, weighting may minimize these biases and errors when there is a strong relationship between the weighting variable and data in the survey. If there is not a strong relationship weighting may make the survey results worse. Demographic weighting of internet-based surveys is essential but is not sufficient. Some firms, in addition to demographic weighting, are weighting on other variables in an attempt to reduce the biases of online data.
  6. What is the evidence that the methodology works and produces accurate data? Unless the organization can provide the results of their other internet-based surveys which are consistent with other data, whether from the Census or other surveys, the survey results are not worthy of being reported.
  7. What is the organization’s experience and track record using internet-based polls? Unless the organization can demonstrate a track record of obtaining reliable data with other online surveys, their online surveys should be treated with great caution.
  8. What is the organization’s experience and track record as a survey researcher using traditional survey methods? If the organization does not have a track record in designing and conducting surveys using the telephone or in-person surveys, it is unlikely that they have the expertise to design and conduct online surveys.
  9. Does the organization follow the codes of conduct of AAPOR, CASRO, and NCPP (whether or not they are members)? If they follow none of these, they are probably not a qualified survey research organization. The more of these Codes they follow, the more likely their data are to be reliable and be trusted.
  10. Is the organization willing to disclose these questions and the methods used (as required by the codes of conduct referred to in #9 above)? If the organization is unwilling to disclose, or unable to provide, the relevant information the survey is probably not worthy of being reported.

The NCPP also has a list of 20 questions journalists should ask about all poll results. They state in the introduction (emphasis added):

The only polls that should be reported are “scientific” polls. A number of the questions here will help you decide whether or not a poll is a “scientific” one worthy of coverage – or an unscientific survey without value. Unscientific pseudo-polls are widespread and sometimes entertaining, but they never provide the kind of information that belongs in a serious report. Examples include 900-number call-in polls, man-on-the-street surveys, many Internet polls, shopping mall polls, and even the classic toilet tissue poll featuring pictures of the candidates on each roll.

One major distinguishing difference between scientific and unscientific polls is who picks the respondents for the survey. In a scientific poll, the pollster identifies and seeks out the people to be interviewed. In an unscientific poll, the respondents usually “volunteer” their opinions, selecting themselves for the poll.

The results of the well-conducted scientific poll provide a reliable guide to the opinions of many people in addition to those interviewed – even the opinions of all Americans. The results of an unscientific poll tell you nothing beyond simply what those respondents say.

Continue reading “Internet Surveys: Bad Data, Bad Science and Big Bias”

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Chemtrails redux: the attack of the tin-foil hat brigade

Normal clouds mis-identified by wingnutsMy earlier post on the nonsensical chemtrail conspiracy has generated quite a lot of activity recently (more than 1,000 views in a few days – thanks!). So much so that I decided to look online again to see why – had this silliness abated? Were people waking up and laughing at their former craziness? Or was it spreading more among the hard-of-thinking and the anti-science crowd?

Sadly, it seems the latter is the case. And after a bit of research, I became deeply distressed that it seems to be spreading rapidly.

Or maybe the overall number of gullibles is simply growing larger. They band together into cult-like groups that reject outsiders; refuse to allow debate or questions; that turn inwardly and reinforce their own beliefs among one another. Dissonance reduction in numbers.

I found a Facebook group page with more than 11,000 chemtrail-believing members (that’s scary enough right there). Imagine 11,000 people dedicated to this silliest and most risible of all the recent conspiracy theories. But they’re hardly alone.

The conspiracy works like this: every world government, every airline, air force, every pilot, every airline and air force ground and cabin crew, millions of government employees worldwide, engineering firms, chemical manufacturers, scientists, NGOs, meteorologists, NASA, reptilians, and the darkly secretive (and entirely imaginary) “New World Order,” the Illuminati (or the Zionists, Bill Gates or President Obama, since they are implicated – not a little racism runs through these posts) have conspired and are conspiring to secretly spray toxins (or drugs or biochemicals or alien lifeforms) into the atmosphere from stratospheric heights in order to pacify/poison/control (your choice, it seems) the population and/or the weather/crops.

But no matter how you laugh at the gullibility of these folks, no matter how their photographs and wild imagining are easily debunked by science, meteorology, rational thought and common sense, they seem to persist. And grow. (I blame TV, but that’s a digression.)*

More normal sky and cloudsThe conspiracists’ approach to science, natural phenomena, logic and fact is stunningly medieval. Of course, back in the Medieval days the motivating agents were demons, ghosts, imps, sprites and other invisible figments of their imagination. Today, it’s no less superstitious; just the imagined instigators have been given a modern facelift: big government, big pharma and secret societies. They’re still the scary things that go bump in the night, though.

Superstition is still superstition even when wrapped up in technology. The Skeptics’ Dictionary describes superstition as:

…a false belief based on ignorance (e.g., if we don’t beat the drums during an eclipse, the evil demon won’t return the sun to the sky), fear of the unknown (e.g., if we don’t chop up this chicken in just the right way and burn it according to tradition while uttering just the right incantations then the rain won’t come and our crops won’t grow and we’ll starve), trust in magic (e.g., if I put spit or dirt on my beautiful child who has been praised, the effects of the evil eye will be averted), trust in chance (if I open this book randomly and let my finger fall to any word that word will guide my future actions), or some other false conception of causation (e.g.,  homeopathy, therapeutic touch, vitalism, creationism, or that I’ll have good luck if I carry a rabbit’s foot or bad luck if a black cat crosses my path).

The conspiracist view of  government and politics goes beyond superstition, beyond the bizarre and into the pathological.

Some less-than-civil folks online call the chemtrail believers “chemtards.” Others ascribe malicious intent to them:

The Chemtrail looks like a normal contrail in reality. However, there is a conspiracy on the internet that has been passed on for some time and gaining in strength about the Chemtrail. But the truth is that the chemtrails are a hoax and rumour on the internet by people who are looking to create some kind of chaos or just trying to make an impact on others by giving false importance to the chemtrails.

Certainly some chemtrail promotes have engaged in deliberate hoaxes as this news story tells:

The Penticton RCMP is investigating a fraudulent letter that began circulating in the city on Monday.
According to Sgt. Rick Dellebuur, bogus alert notices regarding hazardous chemtrails were put on vehicles at Shoppers Drug Mart.
The letter has city letterhead, but was not issued by the city.
“There is no environmental department in the city and Penticton did not issue this,” he said.
The letter signed by someone named Susan Smith, environmental department manager, states “we are suspecting that unidentified planes are deliberately spraying chemicals over the city of Penticton.”
It further covers how to identify hazardous chemtrails and who to contact if you see them.
Dellebuur said they are investigating to see who is behind this.
“We are following up on leads,” he said. “It’s just one of those things out there in this day and age.”

I have no doubt some of these promoters are the internet versions of televangelists: they prey on the gullible, the hard-of-thinking, the susceptible and the ill-educated, conning them through sales and marketing, through aggressively encouraged “donations.”

One of the most telling indicators of these conspiracy fantasies is that they seem to be held predominantly by those of the libertarian or uber-right-wing political stripe. Blaming Obama for anything spooky, inexplicable, disagreeable or simply misunderstood seems de rigeur among the conspiracists, even if it’s blatantly stupid or illogical to draw even the vaguest of connections between events and the administration. They finally got down to blaming the government for the weather.

Continue reading “Chemtrails redux: the attack of the tin-foil hat brigade”

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The Cosmic Origins of Life

CometHere’s one to confound the creationist crowd: life may have begun as a result of organic molecules resulting from impacts by comets or meteorites. No supernatural foundation, no invisible hand guiding the process. Just random crashes, a little physics, some chemistry, a while lot of time, and voila: life.

But wait, there’s more…

How did these molecules go from static organic molecules to self-reproducing you ask? Ah, therein lies another tale… that of enzymes, the little engines of life. More randomness, more chemistry. No intelligent design.

Let’s start with the comets.

According to a recent article in Science Daily,

Scientists … from Imperial College London, the University of Kent and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory discovered that when icy comets collide into a planet, amino acids can be produced. These essential building blocks are also produced if a rocky meteorite crashes into a planet with an icy surface.

The researchers suggest that this process provides another piece to the puzzle of how life was kick-started on Earth, after a period of time between 4.5 and 3.8 billion years ago when the planet had been bombarded by comets and meteorites.

The intrepid researchers fired projectiles at comet-like speeds into icy surfaces similar to what we know comets are made from.  They discovered that the shock wave slams simple molecules together into more complex forms. The heat from the impact  then transforms these more complex molecules into amino acids such as glycine and D-and L-alanine.

Dr Mark Price, co-author from the University of Kent, adds: “This process demonstrates a very simple mechanism whereby we can go from a mix of simple molecules, such as water and carbon-dioxide ice, to a more complicated molecule, such as an amino acid. This is the first step towards life. The next step is to work out how to go from an amino acid to even more complex molecules such as proteins.”

In a similar experiment, published in July,2013, scientists simulated an icy comet-like snowball using carbon dioxide, ammonia, methane, ethane and propane. They zapped it with high-energy electrons to “simulate the cosmic rays in space” and discovered that the result was “complex, organic compounds, specifically dipeptides, essential to life.”

Chemists from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Hawaii, Manoa, showed that conditions in space are capable of creating complex dipeptides – linked pairs of amino acids – that are essential building blocks shared by all living things. The discovery opens the door to the possibility that these molecules were brought to Earth aboard a comet or possibly meteorites, catalyzing the formation of proteins (polypeptides), enzymes and even more complex molecules, such as sugars, that are necessary for life.

Continue reading “The Cosmic Origins of Life”

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The colonization of land by life pushed back in time

Fossile lifeA recent story on Science Daily made me stop and read with fascination. It’s about the discovery of fossils that showed life colonized land more than two billion years ago. That’s a shocker, because all indicators are that the Earth was a hostile place, land was barren, and life was a lot simpler.

But apparently we underestimated the ability and tenacity of life. This gives us hope that life may exist on other planets or moons.

Mars, at least its surface, is unlikely to harbour life now, but may have in its water-rich past. We may find fossils. Europa, Jupiter’s ice-covered moon, may have life in the oceans under its surface. Finding out will be tough. Titan? A remote possibility. But these fossils give us new hope: life can survive in very hostile conditions.*

Conventional scientific wisdom has it that plants and other creatures have only lived on land for about 500 million years, and that landscapes of the early Earth were as barren as Mars. A new study, led by geologist Gregory J. Retallack of the University of Oregon, now has presented evidence for life on land that is four times as old — at 2.2 billion years ago and almost half way back to the inception of the planet.hat landscapes of the early Earth were as barren as Mars.

That raises several interesting ideas. First, what sort of life was it? The researchers don’t know for sure, but it’s a bit like slime mold or some lichen. It was tiny, but rather complex given its age and a promising candidate for the oldest known eukaryote. Sci-news notes:

Diskagma buttonii are very small – about 0.3 – 1.8 mm long. They most resemble modern soil organisms called Geosiphon, a fungus with a central cavity filled with symbiotic cyanobacteria.

It was something not quite animal or plant – something simple. But not that simple: they appear to have had symbiotic cyanobacteria in their interiors. Cyanobacteria appeared about 3 billion years ago, and started photosynthesizing (with water as a reducing agent) and making oxygen between then and about 2.6 billion years ago (life itself first showed up about 3.5 billion years ago but some estimates push it much earlier, to 4.3 billion).**

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Creationism’s stench still lingers in American education

CreationismCreationism (and it’s dressed-up-in-drag younger brother, “intelligent” design) is the black mold of education. It’s an insidious infection of the mind, an intellectual parasite. And like real-life black mold, it creates a toxic environment – for learning and critical thinking.

This week, creationism again came up in American school board discussions. According to the HuffPost, the American Taliban* – the Tea Party – is behind the debate at a Springboro, Ohio, school board, to add the pseudoscience of creationist claptrap to the curriculum. The school board president, Kelly Kohls, is also head of the local Tea Party.

Hardly any surprises there.

It’s a sad, creepy tale. Creationism just won’t get cured. At least not by having such myopic fundamentalists in positions of authority. How do people with closed minds get on school boards in the first place?

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What the Future Holds

BBC FutureIn researching my latest book, I’ve been reading about predictions for the future: what will happen in technology, science, politics, government and medicine. It’s pretty fascinating what some see coming at us for the next 10 to 100 years. There are some ideas that had never occurred to me. And many predictions which never came true.

(The image at the left is from the BBC Future website. Click the image to go to the site or here for a larger version.)

I’ve always been fascinated by “futurology.” Especially what our past thought of the future, and whether or not any of it came true. Back in 2006, I wrote about a book I had in my library:

In 1936, an MIT professor name Dr. Clifton Furnas wrote a book called “The Next 100 Years.” Among his predictions for the distant future were hydro corridors, synthetic vitamins and antibiotics. Within a decade, all of those things were already commonplace. He dismissed the fledgling television as a fad with no practical application. Within two decades it would become the most popular form of entertainment in the world.

I look at “here’s what the future will bring” books on the shelf today and think each one is a product of hubris more than insight.

Who could have predicted the Internet and its importance to our daily lives more than 10 years ago, aside from a few prescient science fiction writers like John Brunner (The Shockwave Rider)?

Continue reading “What the Future Holds”

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