Friday, July 4, 2008

Did you just eat watermelon or are you just happy to see me?

Scientists have found that watermelon may literally be a quick picker-upper. Apparently, watermelon contains a chemical that has the same effects as the erectile dysfunction drug Viagra. So there you have it, science is now confirming things that happened on Seinfeld, or at least coming close. In an infamous Seinfeld episode, George gets his vitality restored after eating mango, but that's still a fruit so that's close enough for our purposes.

There's no word on why the scientists were looking for this particular chemical in watermelon in the first place. So we can only imagine that it can get lonely in the lab. Poor scientists.

But before you rush out to chow down on some watermelon this 4th, it's worth noting that to get any appreciable effect from the fruit, you'd have to eat six cups of it. So you may be too full and bloated to be of any use in the bedroom.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Bad boys win in the mating game

I'm not sure we needed a study to confirm this, but here it is just the same: Two new studies suggest that bad guys tend to do better with the ladies than the nice guys. What's next, a study confirming that water is wet? But I digress.

The more interesting part of the studies is the finding that bad guys tend to have negative, antisocial personality traits, namely: narcissism, a manipulative nature that would make Machiavelli proud and the thrill-seeking and callousness of psychopaths. Put these all together and you have what is known as the "dark triad." And guys who display the highest levels of these traits have more partners and more desire for short-term relationships.

So these guys have game that makes ladies weak at the knees, but they're not sticking around to raise any babies, which raises a really important question: Why are women falling for these guys?

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Both Repubs and Dems Fall for Creationist Stupidity

The good news is that we're just as smart as we've ever been. The bad news is that we're not very smart. According to a recent Gallup poll, about 60% of Republicans and 38% of Democrats believe the Earth is 10,000 years old and humans did not result from evolution but were put here as is by god.

For those playing the home game of reality, the Earth is a lot older --much, much older by billions of years. The available evidence indicates Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. Scientific evidence also overwhelmingly indicates that humans are the result of an evolutionary process that occurred over millions of years. Taken in its entirety, the conclusion is inescapable that humans are just like any other creature on the planet in that we can trace our origins all the way back to the first primordial life forms that emerged on the planet 3 billion years ago. Unforunately for the creationist believers, all the evidence points away from the Earth being 10,000 years old or god depositing us here in our current form at that time.

Still though, a large swath of the public, particularly Republicans, seems completely ignorant of the facts supporting evolution, so the widespread view of creationism could have an impact on the presidential election this fall, according to Gallup:

Presumptive Republican nominee John McCain is facing the challenge of
gaining the confidence and enthusiasm of conservative Republicans. Turnout among
this group could be an important factor in determining the final vote outcome in
a number of key swing states. As seen here, Republicans are in general
sympathetic to the creationist explanation of the origin of humans, and if the
issue of what is taught in schools relating to evolution and creationism
surfaces as a campaign issue, McCain's response could turn out to be quite

Maybe appealing to the public's ignorance is par for the course in politics, but it's still disturbing that McCain's best bet for winning the White House in November may be to cast himself as accepting the unfounded and ignorant views of creationism, rather than as someone who's informed and educated about the scientific facts.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

EPO tests are unreliable, study shows

A while back I wrote about the questionable science behind last year's decision that 2006 Tour de France winner, Floyd Landis, was guilty of doping with testosterone. Now, two new studies shows that the tests used to catch illegal dopers are unreliable at best.

In a study released today, researchers doped men with EPO and collected urine samples from them. The samples were tested by two labs accredited by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). One lab found samples positive for EPO when they were actually negative, and negative when they were actually positive. The other lab didn't find any of the samples to be positive. Perhaps even worse, the two labs did not agree on the test results. This means the lab tests are bogus and a person deemed to be positive for EPO doping may just as well be innocent.

In the second study, which came out last month, researchers found that many men --Asians especially-- have a genetic mutation that allows them to dope with testosterone but test negative on the test used at the Olympics and the Tour de France.

It's important to note that a WADA-accredited lab in France did the initial testing on Landis' samples. If the WADA lab is using tests that are unreliable, their credibility is in question, especially after their sloppy procedures came to light in the Landis case. At the very least, WADA should make an effort to determine if the tests they use are unreliable or inaccurate. But once again, as it did in Landis' case, WADA has shown itself to be less interested in good science and more interested in blind dogma. According to the New York Times, WADA dismissed the study's findings:
Olivier Rabin, scientific director of the World Anti-Doping Agency, said his group had tested its labs, sending samples of urine from people who were taking EPO and from people who were not. In general, he said, the labs agreed. But Rabin added that when the agency sends samples to its labs, they are not sent anonymously — the lab knows the samples are from WADA.

The agency does not share data from the tests on its labs, so it was not possible to determine how the organization's research compared with the latest study.

It's unconsciounable that WADA's scientific director isn't concerned that the tests used by his labs may be implicating innocent people and letting the guilty go undetected. The only fair conclusion is the agency is less concerned about catching dopers and more interested in playing politics.

Monday, October 29, 2007

But do they have a wide stance?

At first glance, worms may not seem to have anything to do with human sexuality, but the invertebrates may shed some light on the origins of homosexuality. Researchers say that genetic experiments in nematode worms suggest homosexuality may be hard-wired into the brain. Activating a single gene in only in the brain of the worms did not affect their gender or appearance but made them attracted to worms of the same sex.

The findings appear in Current Biology.

Monday, October 15, 2007

WaPo gets fish-slapped

The Washington Post's story on the recommendations from a group with ties to the fish industry that mothers should eat more fish --contradicting the advice from the FDA and EPA-- took a beating last week.

The hoopla over the recommendations is important because of concerns mercury contamination in fish could lead to neurological problems in developing fetuses. To make the issue more complicated, the FDA barely monitors mercury levels in fish. And that's alarming, considering the recent food contamination issues that show quite clearly that even when the FDA is supposed to be safeguarding the food supply, the agency drops the ball.

In the front-page story, Washington Post reporter Sally Squires detailed the fish-eating recommendations from the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition. But Squires didn't disclose the fact that, according to The Washington City Paper's Erik Wemple, the group receives funding from The National Fisheries Institute, a group that describes itself as "the nation’s leading advocacy organization for the seafood industry. Its member companies represent every element of the industry from the fishing vessels at sea to the national seafood restaurant chains."

Wemple writes: "The National Fisheries Institute paid $60,000 to Healthy Mothers for its work on the report, not to mention disbursements of $1,000 to each of the scientists to attend a symposium on the topic. There’s more to the corporate commingling: The fisheries institute uses Burson-Marsteller as its go-to PR agency, and a Burson-Marsteller staffer works as vice-chair of the Healthy Mothers coalition—though the staffer, Hampton Shaddock, was not “a part of any decisionmaking on the relationship,” according to coalition Executive Director Judy Meehan."

Squires attempts to add credibility to the recommendations from the Healthy Mothers group by saying its members include "the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."

That may be true, but neither the NICHHD nor the CDC want to be associated with these fish-industry supported recommendations. NICHHD director Duane Alexander and CDC chief science officer Tanja Popovic made the point quite clearly in a letter to the WaPo editor, published Saturday.

"The recommendation by the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition that pregnant women consume more fish [front page, Oct. 4] has not been endorsed by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the Health Resources and Services Administration," Alexander and Popovic write in their brief but adamant letter. "The three agencies, all within the Department of Health and Human Services, were not participants in the formulation of this recommendation, learned about it only after it was announced, have not had the opportunity to review the data on which it was based and therefore cannot support it."

Alexander and Popovic further add, "We are not aware at this time of any new evidence sufficient to change the current guidelines set forth by the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, that pregnant women should consume no more than 12 ounces of fish per week. We continue to support those guidelines."

Squires might've learned of both NICHHD's and CDC's position had she bothered to contact them for her story. Actually, she might've done well to contact anybody who has reservations about the potential complications of mothers consuming more fish to provide a more balanced story to her readers. As it is the story is top-heavy with quotes from people supporting the increased fish consumption recommendations, and essentially reads like a pro-fish industry commercial, rather than what it actually is: a front page story from one of America's biggest newspapers.

I would expect better from both WaPo reporters and editors on a story as complex and important as fish consumption and mercury toxicity to developing babies. The paper may need to revise its reporting standards if an article this poor meets the criteria for page 1 billing.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Bees' buzz may keep elephants away

African elephants fear the buzz of bees, according to a new study that could have implications for efforts to prevent human-elephant conflicts in areas in Africa where the animals' habitat is being encroached upon by people. The findings suggest low-tech strategies, such as the placement of beehives or even just recordings of bees buzzing, could be used to keep elephants away from particular areas and may avoid the need for more extreme methods that can include killing the animals.

The study appears in the October 9 issue of Current Biology.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

NOVA to air intelligent design documentary

NOVA's documentary about the Dover, Pennsylvania trial over creationism 2.0 (AKA, intelligent design) will air November 13. Called "Judgment Day, Intelligent Design on Trial," NOVA describes it as capturing "the emotional conflict in interviews with the townspeople, scientists, and lawyers who participated in the historic six-week trial, Kitzmiller, et. al. v. Dover School District, et. al. ... With recreations based on court transcripts, NOVA presents the arguments by lawyers and expert witnesses in riveting detail and provides an eye-opening crash course on questions such as 'What is evolution?' and 'Does intelligent design qualify as science?'"

I hope this documentary presents the intelligent design wackery accurately and doesn't pull punches, but I have my doubts. Most media outlets have handled the intelligent design creationists with kid gloves, either ignorant of their lying, conniving ways or perhaps deluded into falling for their erroneous claim that there is a controversy over evolution.

There is no controversy or serious debate about evolution. To borrow a phrase from National Center for Science Education executive director Eugenie Scott, evolution is the only scientific game in town. All the forms of creationism, including intelligent design, don't even meet any of the basic criteria to be considered a science, let alone pose any real threat of challenging the validity of evolutionary theory.

Judge Jones said it best when he ruled in the Dover, Pa., case that intelligent design “is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism and not a scientific theory."

I'll post more about this after the program airs.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The rise and fall of the NIH

Monday, the NIH issued a press release touting the fact that two of the three winners of the 2007 Nobel Prize in physiology/medicine were funded by the agency. That's certainly a notable achievement and the NIH deserves praise for having the foresight to recognize the value of the scientists' research several decades before (the NIH funding began in the late 60's/early 70's) it would officially be recognized by the Nobel Prize committee.

The previous business day, however, the NIH issued a release that should cast serious doubt about the agency's scientific credibility and raise questions about where its headed. In the Oct. 5 release, the NIH boasted that it had expanded its
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine to include three new Centers of Excellence for Research on Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM).

This is disappointing for at least three reasons and maybe more, but it's late and I'm tired and 3 seems like more than enough.

First, there is no "alternative medicine" or "alternative scientific method" for investigating whether a particular modality has a benefit in treating disease. Something has either been proven to work using established and accepted methods or it hasn't. There isn't an alternative scientific system in some far-flung corner of Dover, Pa., or a parallel universe.

So there is no need for the NIH to segregate out and separately fund so-called "complementary and alternative medicine" therapies. If there are indications any of these strategies actually offer some benefit, the NIH could --and should-- fund research into them via any of its other institutes, using the rigorous --albeit not perfect-- review strategies it already has in place.

Second, the NIH not only appears ignorant of this, they actually tout their commitment to wasting millions of dollars on CAM (the proposed 2008 budget for NCCAM is $121.7 million):
"The addition of these centers ... confirms our continuing commitment to rigorous CAM research," said Ruth L. Kirschstein, M.D., NCCAM Acting Director.

Third, these new CAM centers will be focusing on therapies that are almost certain to be ineffective. How can I say this so confidently? Because they're focusing on diseases, such as pancreatic cancer, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer's disease, where treatment options are limited or often not effective, meaning any pharmaceutical or biotech company could make a bundle with an effective therapy (The research involves using lycopene (a chemical found in tomatoes) and green tea preparations to treat pancreatic cancer, reservatrol, a grape compound, for treating multiple sclerosis, and another grape compound called polyphenols for preventing Alzheimer's).

If these treatments were so promising, a researcher who was intent on pursuing them would have no problems getting funding through the normal channels of one of the 26 other institutes of the NIH, and it's very likely a pharmaceutical or biotech company would already be busy exploring them or funding the research.

More disturbingly, none of these research pursuits is likely to lead to the types of breakthroughs and widespread implications that get awarded with a Nobel prize decades down the road. And we may never know what kinds of discoveries we've missed out on because legitimate, basic research was not supported, while NCCAM instead squandered millions of dollars on fruitless endeavors.

P.S. Dr. Steven Novella recently wrote a post that quite nicely explains the problems with NCCAM. Check it out at his site. Steven Salzberg recently posted four examples of quackery funded by NCCAM at the expense of taxpayers (and common sense).

Monday, October 8, 2007

My piece makes a blog carnival

Anything Goes posted my piece on the Floyid Landis decision ("Tour de France doping decision is another win for bad science") as part of his blog carnival. Swing on over and check out the site.

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