August 24, 2007

Why science is cool

Every once in a while a story comes along that really makes you sit back and think "why am I not in that line of work?" This time it involves poking people with a stick in the name of science. From the New York Times:

Studies Report Inducing Out-of-Body Experience
Using virtual-reality goggles, a camera and a stick, scientists have induced out-of-body experiences — the sensation of drifting outside of one’s own body — in ordinary, healthy people, according to studies being published today in the journal Science.
When people gazed at an illusory image of themselves through the goggles and were prodded in just the right way with the stick, they felt as if they had left their bodies.
The research reveals that “the sense of having a body, of being in a bodily self,” is actually constructed from multiple sensory streams, said one expert on body and mind, Dr. Matthew M. Botvinick, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Princeton University.

Full story here. This research has all sorts of implications for how we understand religious experiences (re: Buddhist meditation, visions of angels, etc.), the classic out-of-body experience during medical procedures, and a host of other mysterious phenomena.

Posted by Will at 01:54 AM

March 25, 2007

Planet Earth

Fire up your DVR and if you're lucky enough to own an HD TV, even better. Tonight is the premiere of the Discovery Channel's 11-part series Planet Earth. It's supposed to be one of the most magnificent nature documentaries ever produced, with many never-before-filmed scenes with high-tech filming and editing. James Poniewozik at Time Magazine speaks highly of it. You can watch some clips of the series at the Discovery Channel truly is remarkable. Hopefully the series will live up to it's hype because the Discovery Channel needs to redeem itself after airing James Cameron's quasi-historical flop The Lost Tomb of Jesus. Watch a trailer:

Posted by Will at 12:45 AM

February 23, 2007

Steven Pinker on Point of Inquiry

Be sure to check out this week's episode of the Point of Inquiry podcast with guest Steven Pinker. Pinker is one of the "superstars" of the academic world and has done a lot of work with language and human cognition, including some research with implications for linguistic anthropology. One of my personal heroes, Pinker could read the phone book and one would be enthralled for hours.


I hate to sound like an advertisement, but for those unfamiliar with Point of Inquiry it is a weekly podcast produced by the Center for Inquiry. I've been hooked for about a year now because it's so damn enlightening. Past guests include Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, James Randi, Paul Kurtz, and many of the writers and editors for the magazines Skeptical Inquirer and Free Inquiry. Both magazines and their contributors have been major influences in my "escape to reality".

Posted by Will at 05:32 PM

February 13, 2007

Good news?

Coming a day after Darwin's 198th birthday, I find it sad (and embarrassing) that in 2007 it is necessary to rejoice over the following news item:

Kans. ed board OKs evolution-centered science
TOPEKA, Kan. - The Kansas state Board of Education on Tuesday repealed science guidelines questioning evolution that had made the state an object of ridicule.
The new guidelines reflect mainstream scientific views of evolution and represent a political defeat for advocates of “intelligent design,” who had helped write the standards that are being jettisoned.

Just for kicks, I copied the full text of the AP news story but replaced "evolution" with "gravity" and "intelligent design" with "intelligent adhesion." The result (below the fold) is comical yet just as ridiculous as the current "debate" about evolution.

TOPEKA, Kan. - The Kansas state Board of Education on Tuesday repealed science guidelines questioning gravity that had made the state an object of ridicule.
The new guidelines reflect mainstream scientific views of gravity and represent a political defeat for advocates of “intelligent adhesion,” who had helped write the standards that are being jettisoned.
The intelligent adhesion concept holds that the laws of physics are so complex that they must have been created by a higher authority.
The state has had five sets of standards in eight years, with anti- and pro-gravity versions, each doomed by the seesawing fortunes of socially conservative Republicans and a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans.
The board on Tuesday removed language suggesting that key gravitational concepts were controversial and being challenged by new research. Also approved was a new definition of science, specifically limiting it to the search for natural explanations of what is observed in the universe.
“Those standards represent mainstream scientific consensus about both what science is and what gravity is,” said Jack Krebs, a math and technology teacher who helped write the new guidelines. He is also president of Kansas Citizens for Science.
The state uses its standards to develop tests that measure how well students are learning science. Although decisions about what is taught in classrooms remain with 296 local school boards, both sides in the gravity dispute say the standards will influence teachers as they try to ensure that their students test well.
John Calvert, a retired attorney who helped found the Intelligent Adhesion Network, said under the new standards, “students will be fed an answer which may be right or wrong” about questions like the origin of life.
“Who does that model put first?” he said. “The student, or those supplying the preordained ‘natural explanation’?”
The Board of Education’s swing back wasn’t likely to settle the issue, given many Kansans’ religious objections and other misgivings about gravity.
“I don’t think this issue is going to go away. I think it’s going to be around forever,” board chairman Bill Wagnon, a Topeka Democrat who supports gravity-friendly standards, said before the vote.
“There’s this, I think, political agenda to just ensure that gravity is the driving, underlying notion that has to be accepted in Kansas science standards in order for Kansas to keep its head up in the world, which is just bizarre,” said board member Ken Willard, a Republican who supported the 2005 standards.
The debate has branched off into history, with the current board planning to delete a passage about abuses of science.
The wording mentioned the Nazis, forced sterilization and the decades-long Tuskegee syphilis study, in which public health officials falsely told poor, black men with the disease that they were being treated for it.
Critics claim the board is trying to sanitize the sometimes ugly history of science, while scientists argue the passage was inserted by supporters of intelligent adhesion during the last revision and unfairly targets abuses perceived as linked to gravity.
Last year, legal disputes or political, legislative or school debates over how gravity should be taught cropped up in at least seven other states. But none of those has inspired attention — or comedians’ jokes — like Kansas has since a conservative-led state board deleted most references to gravity in rewriting the standards in 1999.
Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” had a four-part “Gravity Schmgravity” series in 2005, and hearings that year drew journalists from Canada, France, Britain and Japan..

Posted by Will at 07:56 PM

February 12, 2007

Science, academia, and religion

Where should institutions draw the line between doing good science and permitting religious freedom? What is the value of research that is sound but is later used to mislead students? The New York Times has published an article today about Marcus R. Ross who was awarded a PhD. in geosciences from the University of Rhode Island. Not a small achievement by any means, except that now he now teaches at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Virginia. The article brings attention to the Creationist movement and their lust for young students with advanced degrees from legitimate universities. Although unsettling, I don't see it as becoming too much of a problem but it's important to know that it is happening and needs to be called out for what it is: a misuse of good science. I agree that good and relevant research can be carried out whatever your personal beliefs, but I find it a travesty that the degree that results from such research should be used to propagate a completely faith-based (and thus unsupportable) view of the world.

Read the article here.

Posted by Will at 07:50 AM

October 03, 2006

What geeks do with their birthday money

sciencemag.gifWhen most people receive money for their birthday they spend it one something like CDs, DVDs, or a cool computer game. Not I. I am now a proud card-carrying student member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), publisher of the cutting-edge journal Science. For the next 51 weeks I'll get the latest news from the all over the science world including a handful of academic articles that might as well be in Sanskrit (संस्कृतम्). Like the hair-raising Structure of the Exon Junction Core Complex with a Trapped DEAD-Box ATPase Bound to RNA or the much more light-hearted and whimsical Dok-7 Mutations Underlie a Neuromuscular Junction Synaptopathy (to mention only two articles from the latest issue). I'm going to assume these articles discuss something important for my health and that my membership dues are thus going to important research, but Science does have great news coverage and the occasional report on human evolution or development.

naturemag.jpgNot content with relying only on Science for my intake of over-my-head hard research, I also subscribed to Nature, the other "the scientific journal." They generally have all the good human origins stuff and other anthropology-related material (again, among all the reports with 20 words in their name). Great news coverage from Nature as well and online access to the entire archives since 1869 is a nice bonus.

Worried that Nature and Science will overload me, I also threw in a subscription to Scientific American, a far more mainstream with more pretty pictures and archaeology-related articles. Not as dense as the other two, it's probably the third most authoritative general science publication in the country. They periodically release excellent posters and graphics with their magazines, much like National Geographic. Hey, National Geographic...oh nevermind.

Posted by Will at 09:22 PM

October 02, 2006

The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science

dawkinsphoto.jpgJust after finishing up Sam Harris' fantastic new book Letter to a Christian Nation, I received Richard Dawkins' latest that just came out, The God Delusion. A review, if I write one at all, won't be for another several weeks but suffice it to say that these two books are on track to being two of the most important books since On the Origin of Species (ok, that may be a slight overstatement but definitely the most important books published since September 11th, 2001).

dawkins.jpgI was pleased to discover in one of the footnotes in The God Delusion that Richard Dawkins and others have launched a foundation dedicated to supporting the quest of science and reason, which is essentially (as I understand it) to supplant religious dogmatism in the world, especially in the United States. Dawkins notes early on in his book that atheists and humanists have been reluctant to organize and mobilize in order to achieve real progress in world and national politics because of the very nature of nonbelief. The Dawkins Foundation is a good start and I'm amazed at the wealth of resources already gathered on the site (I'm not sure when exactly it was launched, but it must have been recently).

There is an excellent introductory video that explains the objectives and is a good summary of the goal of the science- and reason-based movement. To everyone, I highly recommend Dawkins' latest book. As Penn and Teller are quoted on the back of the dustjacket: "The God Delusion is smart, compassionate, and true like ice, like fire. If this book doesn't change the world, we're all screwed."

Visit the and poke around.

Posted by Will at 06:04 PM

August 01, 2006

Midnight snacks explained?

From Science:

The body's internal clock is set by both light and food signals--that's one reason doctors recommend fighting jetlag with sunlight and regular meals. But just how these signals dictate our circadian rhythms is still being sorted out. In this week's online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists report that they have identified the region of the brain that seems to adjust a body's circadian clock in response to food. If confirmed, the find might help scientists explain a little-understood connection between obesity and late-night eating.

Full story here.

The name for that area of the brain? From personal experience, I propose the "Hot Pocket" region.

Posted by Will at 10:02 PM

July 11, 2006

Magical Mushrooms

From EurekAlert and Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions:

Hopkins scientists show hallucinogen in mushrooms creates universal 'mystical' experience
Using unusually rigorous scientific conditions and measures, Johns Hopkins researchers have shown that the active agent in "sacred mushrooms" can induce mystical/spiritual experiences descriptively identical to spontaneous ones people have reported for centuries.
Cited as "landmark" in the commentary by former National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) director, Charles Schuster, the research marks a new systematic approach to studying certain hallucinogenic compounds that, in the 1950s, showed signs of therapeutic potential or value in research into the nature of consciousness and sensory perception. "Human consciousness…is a function of the ebb and flow of neural impulses in various regions of the brain-the very substrate that drugs such as psilocybin act upon," Schuster says. "Understanding what mediates these effects is clearly within the realm of neuroscience and deserves investigation."

At the end of the linked article is an interesting Q&A with the study's lead author.

Posted by Will at 07:33 AM

March 30, 2006

Prayer and Health

Here is an interesting article about prayer and health:

Prayer Does Not Help Heart Bypass Patients
NEW YORK (AP)—In the largest study of its kind, researchers found that having people pray for heart bypass surgery patients had no effect on their recovery. In fact, patients who knew they were being prayed for had a slightly higher rate of complications.
Researchers emphasized that their work can't address whether God exists or answers prayers made on another's behalf. The study can only look for an effect from prayers offered as part of the research, they said.
They also said they had no explanation for the higher complication rate in patients who knew they were being prayed for, in comparison to patients who only knew it was possible prayers were being said for them.
Critics said the question of God's reaction to prayers simply can't be explored by scientific study.

Interestingly, I had just posted a question today on my class' online discussion board about religion/spirituality and health. The book I mentioned two posts ago about the cholera epidemic in Venezuela mentions the role of indigenous or folk remedies. Another article I read today for class* discusses patient compliance vs. noncompliance when receiving medication for mental illness, and appeals to God (including prayer) are cited as one possible type of noncompliance as a means for the patient to gain control over his or her illness. Anyway, here is my question:

If we subscribe to the notion that everything we do as anthropologists should be placed in the context of a particular society or culture (i.e. cultural relativism), how are we to reconcile the importance of health and disease prevention when so many people are blinded by irrational beliefs (i.e. religion, spirituality, etc.)? Put another way, is it ethically and/or morally responsible to refrain from criticizing another’s worldview when that worldview is contributing to the maintenance or spread of disease and sickness?

*Kaljee, Linda M. and Robert Beardsley
1992 Psychotropic Drugs and Concepts of Compliance in a Rural Mental Health Clinic. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 6(3): 271-287.

Posted by Will at 05:19 PM

March 23, 2006

Intermarriage and Genetic Diseases

Here's an interesting story from the New York Times about the practice of intermarriage among Bedouins in the Middle East and how this is having an effect on the prevelance of genetic diseases:

Until recently their ancestors were nomads who roamed the deserts of the Middle East and, as tradition dictated, often married cousins. Marrying within the family helped strengthen bonds among extended families struggling to survive the desert. But after centuries this custom of intermarriage has had devastating genetic effects.
Bedouins do not carry more genetic mutations than the general population. But because so many marry relatives — some 65 percent of Bedouin in Israel's Negev marry first or second cousins — they have a significantly higher chance of marrying someone who carries the same mutations, increasing the odds they will have children with genetic diseases, researchers say. Hundreds have been born with such diseases among the Negev Bedouin in the last decade.

Posted by Will at 12:13 PM

January 05, 2006

Science and Religion

I don't usually post links to Pharyngula because virtually all of PZ Myers' posts are fantastic reading. But this one really stands out because it gets to the heart of an issue that's very important to me: the compatibility (or lack thereof) of science and religion:

It is entirely correct that the scientific community is full of Christians and Muslims and Buddhists and agnostics and atheists, and I think that's reasonable and fair—we're even pleased to point out to the creationists that many of our leading lights have been and are religious (Dobzhansky, Ayala, Miller, Collins: it isn't at all difficult to find people who can do both good science and follow a religion in their private life). It is self-evident that scientists are not necessarily derisive of religion, and also that science as an abstract concept can't be derisive at all. However, I do think that the processes of science are antithetical to the processes of religion—personal revelation and dogma are not accepted forms of evidence in the sciences—and that people can encompass both clashing ideas is nothing but a testimony to the flexibility of the human mind, which has no problem partitioning and embracing many contradictions. There are also many scientists who are capable of suspending disbelief and reading fantasy novels with pleasure; that doesn't mean that magic is a valid way of manipulating the world.

Here, PZ raises an interesting point: the human brain is extremely talented at balancing opposing concepts and ideas. We can believe one thing and then turn right around and simultaneously believe something completely contradictory. This is why the science-religion debate exists. PZ observes that if one takes a step back and looks at science and religion for what they are, they are completely antithetical and simply cannot be reconciled. This of course is not a new idea and one that I have only recently subscribed to. I used to believe that one could have a personal God on Sunday and go to the lab on Monday morning and become a person who "believes" in science. This is not to say (as PZ notes) that religious individuals cannot do good science. It does, however, highlight the inherent contradictory nature of subscribing to both a religious worldview and one based on science and reason.

The problem of science and religion is more pronounced in the biological and natural sciences relative to the social sciences but the pitfalls of holding religious beliefs still apply. As an anthropologist, I am as dedicated to empirical evidence as a chemist. The difference is that the evidence I study (artifacts) was created by living, breathing, thinking beings with the capacity to develop ideas based on a number of observed and imagined criteria. Although every branch of science looks at different things, some animate and some not, we are all bound by a quest to achieve the greatest possible degree of certitude in our results. This is done via the scientific method and relying on the observable evidence as opposed to supernatural phenomena. You cannot do both and be called a scientist.

Scientists with a religious worldview sometimes succeed at keeping these two parts of their world separate, but with great detriment to the latter. Sometimes it is the other way around: one may be so dedicated to their religious beliefs that it interferes with their attempt at scientific inquiry. This is why intelligent design has been knocked down time and time again. I have always believed that a person is free to hold whatever worldview they wish, be it Christianity, Buddhism, Scientology, Atheism, or any other way of viewing the world around them. I am becoming increasingly convinced, however, that the coexistence of a consistent theistic worldview and science is not possible.

Posted by Will at 10:09 PM