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.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Secret Lives of Strippers

A new study that took a close look (no pun intended, well, ok, maybe it is) at strippers sheds some interesting light on the complex world of human sexuality. Apparently, strippers earn more tips when they're at the most fertile phase of their ovulation cycle, due to a variety of factors, including changes in their behavior, according to psychologists who I'm sure did not come up with the idea for this scientific study as a cover for hanging out in strip clubs. I'm sure it was a sacrifice they endured in the name of science. What brave souls.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Google Earth

If you don't have Google Earth yet, you should definitely give it a spin. It will let you zoom in to your town, down to your own individual street and also let you journey through the universe, exploring stars, planets and galaxies.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Deadly animals

This is a pretty good overview from National Geographic about zoonosis, or diseases that jump from animals to humans, such as Ebola, SARS and monkeypox. And it's at least as scary as any Halloween story you'll hear this month.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

New dinosaur fossil discovered

A new dinosaur fossil unearthed in Utah is being described as “the Arnold Schwarzenegger of duck-billed dinosaurs” for its massive skull and skeleton.

Gryposaurus monumentensis, as the animal has been dubbed, roamed the area around the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in the Late Cretaceous period, some 75 millions years ago. The fossil, which is described in the Oct. 3 issue of the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, is providing new clues about the ecology and evolution of duck-billed dinosaurs and may force scientists to reevaluate some of their previous ideas about the animals.

Paleontologists will discuss the find at a press conference Wednesday.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Much ado about bioweapons

The AP is going for public hysteria with their report on lab mishaps involving potential bioweapon agents, but they've missed the mark. Judging from the accounts they relay, the real threat isn't to the public at large, but rather to the lab employees working with these deadly pathogens. In most of the incidents, containment procedures were utilized and it doesn't appear there was ever any risk of spreading these diseases amongst the general population.

The story seems to be written from the perspective of someone who expects there to be absolutely no mistakes. That seems to be a naive view at best, given that humans do nothing if not make mistakes. That's why containment procedures and strategies, such as negative air flow and wearing protective equipment, are already in place at labs that handle these agents.

The reporting also attempts to be manipulative and alarming. Although the main thrust of the story is incidents at U.S. labs, the reporter attempts to arouse alarm by citing the situation in Britain in which a lab screwup may have spread foot and mouth disease. The reader is left on his own to work out the mystifying details of how British lab procedures have any connection to U.S. lab policies.

Then immediately after a paragraph informing the reader of the restrictions for working in Biosafety Level 4 labs ("Besides wearing full-body, air-supplied suits, workers undergo extensive background checks and carry special identification cards") , there's this unexplained quote from Edward Hammond, with the Sunshine Project, which tracks lab incidents:

"The risk that a killer agent could be set loose in the general population is real."

That's a serious allegation and it should be followed by some credible evidence to back it up. There's none. In fact, the report had previously told us, "No one died, and regulators said the public was never at risk during these incidents."

The only real risk mentioned in the article (lost shipments of deadly organisms) is only touched on briefly and even that appears to have amounted to nothing. "Some recount missing or lost shipments, including plague bacteria that was supposed to be delivered to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in 2003. The wayward shipment was discovered eventually in Belgium and incinerated safely."

I agree with the premise of the article that potential bioweapons should always be handled with the utmost caution. But I'm disappointed AP apparently didn't heed its own advice.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Anthrax attacks: 6 years later and still no suspect

It's been six years since anthrax spores were delivered via letters to several locations, including Florida, New York, Washington, DC, and Connecticut. Authorities apparently still don't have a suspect, while Steven Hatfill, the former "person of interest" in the attacks, is making more progress in his case against the government for invasion of privacy, as another journalist was recently ordered to give up his sources.

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