More on what Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini Got Wrong

Friday, July 30, 2010 at 12:12 AM Bookmark and Share
Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini have received quite a bit of criticism since the publication of their book What Darwin Got Wrong, which attempts to argue that evolution by natural selection is basically nonsense.  The consensus seems to be that Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini don't understand modern evolutionary theory, and that they're plainly wrong. However, in case you think they might be onto something you should check out this July 2010 critique of their book, which also takes them to task for getting it wrong.  The review is written by Harvard philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith. You should of course click over to the review and give it a good read, but I thought I'd comment here on a few highlights.

Peter begins by recalling a young Noam Chomsky's scathing book review of B. F. Skinner's 1957 book Verbal Behavior, which seems to have rightfully blown those ideas right off the map.  He suggests there is a parallel here, to what Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini seem to have attempted with their book... except this time it's they who have it wrong.
... A young linguist, Noam Chomsky, published a review of Verbal Behaviour... It was perhaps the most devastating book review ever written.

Chomsky argued that Skinner’s theoretical vocabulary could be applied to human linguistic behaviour only in an empty, post hoc way. He also thought that Skinner’s behaviourism had a simple architectural flaw: it held that external factors – especially experiences of reinforcement – were of ‘overwhelming importance’ in the explanation of behaviour. Hardly any role was given to what Chomsky referred to simply as ‘the internal structure of the organism’. It is unusual to do serious damage to a scientific research programme with a set of general arguments – not by citing experimental or mathematical results, but by looking at the basic ideas and revealing a crack in the foundations. Though the impact of the review itself is sometimes exaggerated, this is the effect Chomsky had on the behaviourist study of humans.

Jerry Fodor now hopes to do something similar to Darwinism in biology. Fodor has been making sceptical remarks about Darwinian ideas for decades. Three years ago he wrote a direct attack on Darwinian evolutionary theory in the LRB, and he has now published What Darwin Got Wrong, along with Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini. Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini believe that they can replicate Chomsky’s demolition job on Skinner because ‘Skinner’s account of learning and Darwin’s account of evolution are identical in all but name.’ As we shall see, ‘identical’ is quite a stretch, but there is a real analogy.
Peter then recounts the criticism others have made of Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, specifically the argument that natural selection needs to be an 'intensional process' that can distinguish between 'co-extensive' properties of organisms (translation: natural selection allows correlated traits to piggy back advantageous traits, and this somehow implies natural selection doesn't work...)  Now, while there's a more to the book than that (again, see the review for details) this argument sounds so blatantly wrong that I wonder if I'm even understanding it correctly!  I mean really?  Correlated neutral traits are the big showstopper for natural selection? Sadly, I don't think I'm wrong. This really appears to be part of their argument!  If that's true, then the book What Darwin Got Wrong should be given the more appropriate title, What Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini Got Wrong.

Now, I'm not just making this interpretation up... and neither is Peter Godfrey-Smith.  Here's what F&P-P had to say in their response to an earlier criticism by Block and Kitcher (links below, emphasis mine):
For example, suppose random variation produces a trait that tends to make its bearers invisible to their predators. Then, all else equal, the predators gobble up the creatures that don’t have it, and the relative frequency of the trait in the population increases from generation to generation. To repeat, we haven’t the slightest doubt that this is the process that Darwin called natural selection and that Darwinists have always believed in some or other version. In fact, it sounds pretty good. It sounds like it ought to work.

But it doesn’t. A way to see that it doesn’t (not by any means the only way) is to consider confounded (linked) phenotypic traits, one but not the other of which is fitness-enhancing. Both traits are then correlated with fitness, so both should count as adaptations according to the formulation of natural selection given above. But only one of them is a cause of selection, so only one of them is an adaptation, and, though both are selected, only one is selected-for. Thus the free-rider problem. Prima facie, free riding is a counterexample to natural selection.
Massive sadness... They botched it.  Prima facie, Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini are simply confused about modern evolutionary biology (which is forgivable) and publicly wielding some philosophical sledge hammers at it, creating some confusion in their wake (this fact is way less forgivable, in my opinion).

Peter I think sums it up nicely when he writes...
Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini criticise the tendency to talk of selection as if it were an agent. They are right that this is often misleading, but they seem to be making a similar mistake when they treat it as something over and above the ordinary facts of life, death and reproduction.
After all, recalling how natural selection works in a population, there really isn't much more to it that "life, death and reproduction." Just combine (1) some variation that is (2) heritable with (3) those variants achieving differential reproductive success.  Let that process run for a few generations, and blammo - evolution happens. The distribution of variation in the population changes and the rest is (natural) history. Darwin nailed it, over a century worth of scientific progress has confirmed it, yet unfortunately it appears Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini simply got it wrong.

But... perhaps one day they'll recognize their mistake, do the right thing, and admit they were wrong?  After all, they themselves say in their reply to Block and Kitcher (again, emphasis mine)...
Everybody makes mistakes. Even biologists do; even lots of biologists assembled together do; even great biologists like Darwin do...
Yes, gentlemen, so do very respectable cognitive scientists and philosophers, even those not unlike yourselves.

Related Links

  1. Misunderstanding Darwin: Darwin's Secular Critics Get It Wrong | Great critique by Block and Kitcher.
  2. "Misunderstanding Darwin" An Exchange. | Dialogue where Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini Respond

How to disprove evolution

Thursday, July 29, 2010 at 12:30 AM Bookmark and Share
... according to a Texan.


Oh, right, I should of course mention that this particular Texan is a wickedly sharp scientist and creator of some hugely popular YouTube videos on creationism, evolution and science education. Nothing wrong with knowing how to disprove a scientific theory - after all, that's how science works!

Now head on over and check out AronRa's youtube channel for more of his great videos.

Monday Mammmal #11: Mastodon or Mammoth?

Monday, July 26, 2010 at 10:22 PM Bookmark and Share
So which one's which, and what's the difference?  Who lived where, and when did they live there?


You can learn more about mastodons and mammoths from the The Field Museum in Chicago, jump ahead to their page on how to tell the difference between the two (or here from the Smithsonian), read more about Mastodons here, more about Mammoths here and more about the group as a whole here and here.

Secular Student Alliance 2010 Annual Conference

Sunday, July 25, 2010 at 8:11 PM Bookmark and Share
A few thoughts from the 2010 Secular Student Alliance (SSA) annual conference that took place this weekend in Columbus, OH.  All in all, a great conference from a top notch organization - one you should definitely have on your radar!

I first found out about the SSA last summer, when my wife and I joined 300+ attendees of the 2009 annual conference (including PZ Myers) on a tour of the Creation "Museum" in Kentucky (photos and commentary from that trip are in this series of posts).  Though I couldn't make the actual conference last year,  I was impressed with the organization and the work they do to meet the needs of Freethought, Rational Inquiry, Atheist, and Humanist student groups nationwide. This year, I decided to give up a few hours of thesis work and head to the conference -- here's a quick overview.

First, they had a great line up of speakers including well known bloggers like keynote speaker Greta Christina and the Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta.  Also on the program were various student leaders from across the U.S. sharing lessons learned from successfully starting and growing their organizations.  You can learn more about the speakers from the conference website (plus a few minutes chasing down names on the web). You can read more about the SSA, what they do, and check out their resources for students and for educators through the SSA website. Also, check out the SSA's  Facebook Page, and look for videos of the talks and other conference events on the SSA's YouTube channel.

What is the Secular Student Alliance (SSA)?

According to the "About" page on their website the purpose of the SSA is

I Join Twitter

Saturday, July 24, 2010 at 2:30 PM Bookmark and Share
I've been super busy lately finishing up grad school, which means less blogging about newsworthy items like this bit of craziness.  But have no fear! To keep you in touch with the latest posts and other news, I've joined Twitter. So click that "Follow" button, tell your friends, then carry on enjoying your weekend.

Looks like Boyd Haley is pulling OSR#1 following FDA warnings

Friday, July 23, 2010 at 2:11 AM Bookmark and Share
You may recall a post or two about on this blog about an industrial chelator turned dietary supplement called OSR#1.  It has been used by some to treat autism in children, despite a lack of evidence that it would be safe or effective to do so.  Well after the FDA stepped in recently, CTI Science Inc. appears to be pulling the product until further notice.

Here's an update from Orac at Respectful Insolence which includes part of what appears to be an email from CTI Science president Boyd Haley.  According to that email:
...CTI Science has voluntarily agreed to remove OSR#1® from the market effective Thursday, 29 July 2010.
If you were wondering why they're going to wait until July 29, Orac offers up an answer:
My question is this: Why don't Haley and CTI Science simply shut down production and sales now? Why sell OSR#1 for another week? My guess is that the answer is that Haley wants to milk his cash cow for one more week. All the quacks who "prescribe" or recommend OSR#1 to their clients will rush out to buy a boatload of the stuff before Haley cuts off the supply. It's pure profit, because the stuff costs only $0.25 per gram to synthesize. I don't know what Haley sells OSR#1 for wholesale, but Kathleen Seidel points out that certain retailers sell it for $60 to $105 for 30-100 mg capsules of OSR#1. That's right: $20 to $35 a gram--seriously righteous bucks, a markup of up to 14,000%. Given that the Univesity of Kentucky bore the costs of development, and the packaging and filler can't cost all that much...

"Welcome to this world..."

 at 12:09 AM Bookmark and Share
This should be an easy one, but can you guess the religious persuasion of the folks who made the video below? (answer at the end...)


Here's a hint...
Poe's Law states:
Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that SOMEONE won't mistake for the real thing.
Poe's Law points out that it is hard to tell parodies of fundamentalism (or, more generally, any crackpot theory) from the real thing, since they both seem equally insane. Conversely, real fundamentalism can easily be mistaken for a parody of fundamentalism.

Mid-week Reptilians #22: Why do snakes have scales?

Thursday, July 22, 2010 at 12:27 AM Bookmark and Share
Here's a quick video on why snakes (and other reptilians) evolved scales, including footage of some pretty sweet looking scaleless snakes.  At least watch the video up to around 3:23, then maybe consider some of the other videos on SnakeBytesTV.

Disclaimer: I almost didn't post this video because of some aversive racism that sneaks in at the end -- but those scaleless snakes are just too awesome to not share! While I love the SnakeBytesTV videos and Brian seems like a stand-up guy, I think he made a big mistake showcasing that comment.  Was that really the best comment he could dig up?  If "mexican" were replaced with "black" would he still have aired it?  Replace "mexican" with "white" and you might see how pointless it is to even mention race there in the first place.

Anyway, if the race thing has piqued your interest, you might find more to read elsewhere in the blogosphere.

BP Climbs Higher On My Shit List

Tuesday, July 20, 2010 at 11:22 AM Bookmark and Share
BP seems to be up to some really sleazy stuff.  I have zero respect for any organization that tries to pay away an entire community of scientists, just to cover it's ass when the shit hits the fan. Really, really bad form BP.  So scientists, please keep your wits about you and help your colleagues in kind.  As for BP, I decided to channel my disgust into something a bit less caustic than might actually be appropriate...

Monday Mammal #10: Yagán “dog”

Monday, July 19, 2010 at 8:15 AM Bookmark and Share
What's even cooler than those $5,950 domesticated Russian red foxes?

How about the (now extinct) Yagán dog - a domesticated South American fox (Pseudalopex culpaeus) that once lived among the Yagán people on the islands off the southern coast of South America. 

I knew you'd agree.

47% of High School Teachers Believe in Intelligent Design Creationism?

Sunday, July 18, 2010 at 2:45 PM Bookmark and Share
Recent posts by PZ Myers at Pharyngula and Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution is True have brought attention to the figure below, which suggests 47% of high school biology teachers believe in intelligent design creationism (ID).  The figure comes from this PLoS Biology article which summarizes the results of a survey of 939 high school biology teachers.  While these numbers are troubling, I think they and others are making two big mistakes in their commentary on these results.

Figure 1: A stripped-down and prettied-up version of Table S2 (see below).


First, we shouldn't give a dead rats ass what any teacher's personal beliefs are - only what say and do in the classroom.  Period.  When their personal beliefs become a problem in the classroom, then it's their actions that become fair game, not their personal beliefs.

Second, it's a mistake to say that 47% of high school biology teachers "believe in intelligent design" given these data.  To be clear, I'm not saying that those 47% aren't a concern - just that many of them might be doing a good job of teaching evolution in the classroom and that (as a group) they're much less of a concern than are that whopping 16% who are young earth creationists (YECs).  Again, these data don't quite clarify what's being taught in the classroom or how it's influenced by a teacher's personal beliefs, so I'm cautious to jump to any strong conclusions.

Both Myers and Coyne claim, as does the figure above, that 47% "believe in intelligent design" because those teachers believ there was some intervention in human origins and/or evolution from a supernatural entity.  Sorry, but that isn't intelligent design and not all creationists are equally problematic. 

Consider this definition from Wiktionary (emphasis added by me):
Etymology:
Coined in the 1987 draft of Of Pandas and People by Percival Davis and Dean H. Kenyon, as a repackaging of the term creationism after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the teaching of creationism in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987).

Proper noun:
intelligent design
  1. A conjecture claiming that biological life on Earth, or more broadly, the universe as a whole, was created by an unspecified intelligent agent rather than being the result of undirected natural processes.
That "rather than" is important, and largely why I disagree with Coyne and Myers. ID rejects the idea that complex organisms and structures can result from natural processes alone, and I can't assume all 47% believe that. Without further evidence that those 939 high school biology teachers actually knew what ID was when they took the survey, I can't get too worried about them failing to teach evolution properly.  Other information in the PLoS paper (I think) supports this interpretation.

That same study suggests some of that 47% of teachers don't subscribe to the more troubling aspects of ID. That is, they're a more science-minded group than the general population, and they do a better job teaching evolution than the YECs (though not as good as that 28% who don't believe a god intervened in human evolution).

First, table S4 provides a bit more information than the figure above and Figure 2 in the paper (also posted by Coyne).  To add to what's been said already, the lack of young earth creationists relative to the general population really is good news. 


Second, consider the data on the perceived importance of teaching evolution in the biology classroom.

Table S2 from that same paper shows 60% of those same 939 teachers agree that "Evolution serves as the unifying theme for the content of" their high school biology course. Furthermore, 82% think it's impossible "to offer an excellent general biology course for high school students that includes no mention of Darwin or evolutionary theory."  While something more like 100% would be best, these numbers paint a much less troubling picture than focusing on the teachers personal beliefs alone. 


Lastly, take another look at "how all these beliefs translate into education" by checking out table S5.


Now, 9.6 vs 13.4 vs 16.9 is something worth worrying about.  I'd really like to see how other covariates like school curriculum requirements, etc. impact these numbers and just how much of that drop from 16.9 to 13.4 is due to personal religious beliefs relative to those other factors, but again this is what we'd expect to see from a group that contains a mix of good and bad high school biology teachers.

All that said, I do agree with PZ and Jerry that these results do confirm what we already know and recognize as a problem: that there are a significant number of science teachers out there whose personal religious beliefs do negatively impacting their ability to teach science.  I think the real take home message here is that these results highlight the need for schools and the communities they serve to keep working to ensure teachers keep their personal religious beliefs out of the science classroom.

Related Links

  1. Graphic Biolgy Teacher Survey Results | John Hawks Weblog, 18 July 2010

    Evangelist Kem Ham Embraces Bad Science Journalism

    Saturday, July 17, 2010 at 3:02 PM Bookmark and Share
    In my previous post I mentioned a recent example of bad science journalism. Despite the fact that those news articles are a clear misinterpretation of the (freely available) original journal article at PLoS Pathogens, and that various bloggers have pointed out their mistakes, there are those who apparently really liked that incorrect interpretation and embraced it readily.  So who might have such an interest in the chicken coming before the egg?  None other than Creation "Museum" director and Answers in Genesis CEO, Ken Ham.


    Remember, Answers in Genesis and it's Creation "Museum" exist to spread a particular, literalist version of Christianity - and they do so by denying basic science and working to cripple public science literacy. 

    So what did Ham say about the (erroneous) news that chickens came before eggs? It can be summed up in a single phrase: non sequitur.
    Which came first: the chicken or the egg?

    I smiled yesterday as I read this news story from MSNBC:
    It is an age-old riddle that has perplexed generations: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Now British scientists claim to have finally come up with the definitive answer: The chicken. The scientific and philosophical mystery was purportedly unraveled by researchers at Sheffield and Warwick universities, according to the Daily Mail newspaper.  The scientists found that a protein found only in a chicken’s ovaries is necessary for the formation of the egg, according to the paper Wednesday. The egg can therefore only exist if it has been created inside a chicken.  The protein speeds up the development of the hard shell, which is essential in protecting the delicate yolk and fluids while the chick grows inside the egg, the report said.
    “It had long been suspected that the egg came first but now we have the scientific proof that shows that in fact the chicken came first,” said Dr. Colin Freeman, from Sheffield University’s Department of Engineering Materials, according to the Mail.
    Well, the secular world is catching up to what the Bible has taught all along.  At our student assemblies over the years, I have often taught children the answer to this chicken and egg problem this way:

    “What came first: the chicken or the egg?  Well the Bible teaches us that God made the flying creatures on day five of creation, and God told the animals to be fruitful and multiply.  So obviously the chicken (a bird) came first, and then they laid eggs.”  So the kids would learn it this way, “The chicken came first because God made the birds on day five of the creation week!”
    Poor Ken Ham, if that blog post were a video, it would no doubt star in one of the "Why Do People Laugh At Creationists?" series on YouTube.

    Ken goes on to ignore everything we know about eggs from fossils to the various kinds of living reptiles (the closest living relatives of birds), monotremes (egg laying mammals) and other egg-laying organisms.  He rattles off this bit of unfounded nonsense...
    Of course there is also the design issue, which is also alluded to in the article.  All the parts/chemicals etc. have to be there for the egg-laying system to work in the first place—it certainly couldn’t evolve.

    You can read the entire article at: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38238685/ns/technology_and_science-science/?Gt1=43001
    Oh, gee, right - the egg couldn't have evolved without a hard shell, because... wait, why?  Hasn't Ken ever seen soft, leathery reptile eggs before, or gooey fish eggs?  Is he intentionally ignoring all that evidence - which suggests how chicken eggs could have evolved - or is he just ignorant of those facts?

    Listen, Ken, you shouldn't bullshit the people you're trying to convert - it makes you look dumb, and come off as an untrustworthy source of information.  Also, you should direct your readers to the actual, primary sources of information (e.g. in this case, a link to the article at PLoS Pathogens).  If it's available, quote the primary source - not a secondary source of information like a news article... well, unless you're more concerned with being persuasive than correct. 

    Anyway, this part of Ken's blog post made me smile...
    By the way, even the evening TV news programs on Wednesday covered this story, including The NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.  The CBS Evening News program ended its segment on the chicken/egg study with the follow-up question, “And the chicken came from... ?” Well, the anchor did not offer an answer but maybe that’s good—he might have given an evolutionary answer.
    Fortunately, everyone in central Ohio watching the news last night did hear the science-based answer: that birds almost certainly evolved from dinosaurs.

    Ken then tries to poison the well to ward off any criticism:
    I wouldn’t be surprised if atheist scientists will loudly complain that this study actually supports the creation account in Genesis and then try to attack the research.
    Well I would be surprised, actually, and here's why: the study in no way supports the creation account in Genesis, so there's no need for even the most unscrupulous scientist to "attack the research" based on his or her religious beliefs.  They need only point out the non sequitur, and they're done.  Ken apparently didn't even read the abstract of original article, otherwise he'd know this.

    Which Came First: The Chicken or the Egg?

    Friday, July 16, 2010 at 12:52 AM Bookmark and Share
    I was surprised to hear my local news anchor announce that scientists have "finally" answered the question of which came first: the chicken or the egg.  The story is making rounds in the news - for example here, here, here, and here - but they're getting it wrong.

    Three words: Bad. Science. Journalism.

    Now, before you think I'm going off the deep end here - I'm not the only one who thinks this is crappy science journalism, and I try to keep things in perspective...



    Back to our question. Ignoring the original causality dilemma, didn't we clear this up a century or two ago?  The egg came first (yes, even the shelled egg) and it arrived on the scene a couple hundred million years earlier, so it isn't even close!

    Despite the horrible news coverage, the real story behind the bad headline is interesting. In short, molecular modeling work suggests the role of a certain protein (ovocleidin-17) is to catalyze the deposition of calcium during the formation of the egg shell in chickens.  This has been it's suspected role for a few years now, but it's great to have another line of evidence that also suggests this protein's function, plus it gives us a better understanding of how eggs are produced.

    The news story does has a silver lining. After covering it, my local Fox news anchors went on to mention that the authors of the research did point out that birds evolved from dinosaurs, and that perhaps we should rephrase the question in terms of dinosaurs versus dinosaur eggs.  If you missed that, let me reiterate: my local Fox News anchors pointed out that birds evolved from dinosaurs!  

    Given the results of a recent poll, that's a welcome statement on the evening news.
    In the United States, almost half of respondents (47%) believe that God created human beings in their present form within the last 10,000 years, while one-third (35%) think human beings evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years.

    Half of people in the Midwest (49%) and the South (51%) agree with creationism, while those in the Northeast are more likely to side with evolution (43%).
    These are similar to previous polling results from Gallup on Evolution, Creationism and Intelligent Design.

    Related Links:

    1. Bad science journalism the fault of chickens or eggs?  | Thoughtomics by Lucas Brouwers
    2. Freeman C. L., Harding J. H., Quigley D., Rodger P. M. 2010. Structural Control of Crystal Nuclei by an Eggshell Protein. Angewandte Chemie International Ed. 49(30) doi: 10.1002/anie.201000679

    Photos of Wildlife Affected By The BP Oil Spill

    Wednesday, July 14, 2010 at 12:52 PM Bookmark and Share
    There is a growing collection of wildlife photos from the gulf oil spill up on the web (e.g. here, here and here), but like so many other wildlife photos in the media many organisms are woefully unlabeled, or even labeled incorrectly (gasp!).  I mean come on folks, "bird" and "turtle"? We can do better than that!

    Check out the photos below, for example, and if you're an ID-fiend feel free to take a stab at identifying these species (speculation and/or solid IDs are welcomed in the comments section).

    On a side note, the media has basically been shut out of most of the affected areas.  This basically cuts off public access to these kinds of images which portray the huge impact the oil spill is having on coastal and marine ecosystems.  Images like those below or others like these from the Boston Globe, are less common in the press than they should be - so do take some time and check them out.


    Photo #1:
    A bird covered in oil flails in the surf at East Grand Terre Island along the Louisiana coast Thursday, June 3, 2010. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

    Photo #2:
    A sea turtle is mired in oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on Grand Terre Island, Louisiana June 8, 2010. (REUTERS/Lee Celano)

    Photo #3:
    An oil soaked bird struggles against the oil slicked side of the HOS Iron Horse supply vessel at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana Sunday, May 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

    Photo #4:
    A dead turtle floats on a pool of oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill in Barataria Bay off the coast of Louisiana Monday, June, 7, 2010. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

    The (latest) Vaccine Song

    Tuesday, July 13, 2010 at 4:42 PM Bookmark and Share
    This one's making the rounds, so I thought I'd share. Enjoy!

    Homeopathic Infertility Treatment


    [Thanks to Mike for the link to xkcd]

    Live Video Saturday As Space Probe Passes 100-km Wide Asteroid

    Friday, July 9, 2010 at 7:50 PM Bookmark and Share
    Update: The first images of 21 Lutetia should be broadcast around 3pm EDT.  See links or embedded video below.

    This Saturday, 10 July at 11:45am (EDT), the European Space Agency will be steaming live video taken as one of their space probes flies within 2000 miles (3200km) of a sizable asteroid named 21 Lutetia.  How awesome is that!? So be sure to gather up any family or friends that might be around, and make sure they get a chance to watch!

    So how big is 21 Lutetia?

    According to this site, it's about 2.57E^15 metric tons and between 80km and 100km wide.  Translating that into something we can actually wrap our brains around, that means... it's really big.  It's just a notch smaller than some of the largest asteroids in our solar systems's main asteroid belt, 2000 times larger than the Earth's estimated coal reserves,  about half the mass of one of Saturn's moons (Hyperion), and we'd need too line up something like 15-25 Lutetias to span the diameter of our own moon.

    Phil Plait over at Bad Astronomy has more details, and will be streaming video here.  You can also watch directly from the ESA streaming video page here, or the embedded video below.


    To learn more about why the Rosetta probe is out in space chasing around asteroids in the first place check out the ESA's Rosetta probe blog, this new article and of course it's wikipedia entry.

    Paul Pick's Spain

     at 12:27 PM Bookmark and Share
    I don't follow professional sports much, so I was a little confused to read on Jerry Coyne's blog that apparently I had chosen Spain, and that Jerry agreed.  Then I realized he was of course talking about Paul the cephalopod, not Paul the grad student who should be writing his thesis right now instead of blogging.

    Despite the fact that I'll be content to see either country win, Jerry was right!  I really did end up picking Spain!  I didn't have an octopus handy, and no coins within reach of my computer, so I just used R to do the coin toss. See for yourself...
    > date()
    [1] "Fri Jul 09 12:09:24 2010"
    > set.seed(09072010)
    > ifelse(runif(1) <= 1/2, "Spain", "Netherlands")
    [1] "Spain"
    > 
    
    See, Spain wins!  Wow - I mean really, what are the odds?

    Animated Wall Art!

    Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 3:02 PM Bookmark and Share
    Ten minutes of a jaw-dropping amazingness, starting in 3... 2... 1...

    from blu on Vimeo.

    [Hat tip to PZ]

    ScienceBlogs Losing Bloggers Over Questionable Pepsi Deal

     at 10:43 AM Bookmark and Share
    Update:  According to this post by PZ Myers, the Pepsi blog is gone. Science writer Carl Zimmer also chimes in.

    If you don't follow the blog "Good Math, Bad Math" you should check it out - well, you should check it out once it finds a more permanent home. It looks like blogger Mark Chu-Carroll is done with ScienceBlogs, and headed elsewhere. He explains why here.

    ScienceBlogs recently decided to host a blog on nutrition called "Food Frontiers," but it's run by the Pepsi company -- basically, opening up the potential for corporate pseudoscience or spin to appear along side blog posts from dedicated individuals without such conflicts of interest.

    Basically, ScienceBlogs is selling their bloggers' science-cred to a corporation (i.e. a for-profit entity), with huge potential for some serious conflicts of interest. Not cool.

    That said, some effort went to address these concerns before the blog went public (snippets from their first post, basically a welcome page):
    PepsiCo’s R&D Leadership Team discusses the science behind the food industry’s role in addressing global public health challenges. This is an extension of PepsiCo’s own Food Frontiers blog.

    This blog is sponsored by PepsiCo. All editorial content is written by PepsiCo's scientists or scientists invited by PepsiCo and/or ScienceBlogs. All posts carry a byline above the fold indicating the scientist's affiliation and conflicts of interest.

    ... As part of this partnership, we'll hear from a wide range of experts on how the company is developing products rooted in rigorous, science-based nutrition standards to offer consumers more wholesome and enjoyable foods and beverages. The focus will be on innovations in science, nutrition and health policy. In addition to learning more about the transformation of PepsiCo's product portfolio, we'll be seeing some of the innovative ways it is planning to reduce its use of energy, water and packaging.

    You can read more about ScienceBlogs deciding to host a Pepsi blog alongside their other blog posts in the news here and here. To hear more from other sciencebloggers, you've got plenty of options including The Thoughtful Animal, Common Knowledge, Laelaps, GrrlScientist, Adventures in Ethics and Science, and some of those who have left ScienceBlogs over the Pepsi debacle: Neurotopia, Neuron Culture, and Science After Sunclipse.

    You can glean more from the listing of the past 24 hours of ScienceBlogs posts, here.

    Elements of Math, by Steven Strogatz

    Courtesy of the editors at the New York Times Opinionator blog:
    Professor Strogatz’s 15-part series on mathematics, which ran from late January through early May, is available on the “Steven Strogatz on the Elements of Math” page.
    Go check it out! Strogatz is an excellent speaker and writer, and any minute spent reading his writing is a minute very well spent.

    New Reptile Laws For Ohio?

    Tuesday, July 6, 2010 at 2:03 PM Bookmark and Share
    Last week Ohio Governor Ted Strickland made an agreement with the Humane Society of America and "agricultural interests" that may impact laws regarding the owership of large reptiles.  You can read some press here, here and here.  A copy of the agreement can be found here and here.

    Of particular interest are these two points in the agreement (emphasis added by me):
    2) The Ohio Department of Agriculture and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources will coordinate and take action on wild and dangerous animals including the prohibition of the sale and/or possession of big cats, bears, primates, large constricting and venomous snakes and alligators and crocodiles. Existing owners will be grandfathered in, but they could not breed or obtain new animals.
    ...

    10) The HSUS will not submit a constitutional amendment on animal welfare in 2010 to the Ohio Secretary of State. Failure to implement the provisions related to wild and dangerous animals or the reforms recommended to the OLCSB by December 31, 2010 could void the agreement and allow the HSUS to pursue a ballot initiative whenever it chooses. However, if the terms of this agreement are met and implemented to the satisfaction of all parties, the agreement will extend to January 1, 2014. At that time the agreement shall be extended through January 1, 2017, and subsequently through January 1, 2020, if the terms continue to be met, and no party shall reasonably withhold its consent to the extensions. Any future pursuit of a ballot initiative by HSUS could nullify the limitation on gestation crate or battery cage facilities until and unless other lawful prohibitions come to exist.

    It's sad the agreement uses such vague terminology. What about other large predators, like hyenas or wild canines? And what counts as "large" or "venomous"?  Do they count venomous species like the harmless-to-humans Ringneck Snakes?  Would a stringy, 13 foot carpet python  be too big?

    HSUS appears to only condone keeping pets if those pets are mammals, birds or fish.  Reptiles and amphibians? Nah -- they all make bad pets. 

    Here's what HSUS has to say about snakes...
    So many people seem to be afraid of snakes that some experts speculate this is a predisposition inherited from our distant primate ancestors. But snakes are not out to get us, and will avoid people as much as they possibly can. These incredible creatures fare best when left alone in their natural environment, not as pets.

    As beautiful as some snakes are, they do not make good pets. A girl was killed by a python kept as a pet in 2009. People get snakes when they’re small and may let them loose as they grow. Burmese pythons have invaded the Everglades and could spread—and other species may follow. Help stop the trade in large constrictor snakes as pets.
    ...
    Seems odd for them to include mention of a snake-related death here (e.g. no mention of deaths on their dog page) but I suppose it's an otherwise reasonable blurb. Well, except that they're wrong. Some snakes do make good pets! At least as good as fish and birds, if I do say so myself.

    So why all the fuss?  Maybe it's a safety concern? How big of a problem are large captive snakes?

    According to REXANO (Responsible Exotic Animal Ownership) in this summary (PDF), the number of deaths from large constrictors in the U.S. between 1990 and 2008 was a whopping eight.   Yup, eight deaths over almost two decades.

    While each of those deaths is tragic, this statistic hardly warrants a campaign to completely ban "large" constrictors. Even correcting for the number of snakes in the U.S. over that time period, it still strikes me as a very low number.   If 8 deaths in 18 years warrants a ban, then it's puzzling how we can still comfortably allow dogs, horses, and backyard swimming pools - each of which kill more people in a single year than large constrictors have killed in nearly two decades. Banning big snakes is not the solution.

    My advice for HSUS is that it needs to reevaluate (or be more clear about) it's motives and rationale, particularly regarding why a ban is the best solution to whatever problem(s) they are concerned about. After all, "so many people seem to be afraid of snakes..."

    ADDENDUM:  All that said, there is plenty of room to improve the humane treatment of captive reptiles and to protect wild reptile populations.  For more on the reptile trade, I highly recommend Bryan Christy's book and blog.

    Monday Mammal #9: Marsh Rice Rat

    Monday, July 5, 2010 at 6:13 PM Bookmark and Share
    Many of this week's Monday Mammal, the Marsh Rice Rat (Oryzomys palustris), have likely perished recently as oil from the spill off of the Louisiana coastline has been recently been penetrating the coastal salt marshes.  Fortunately, these little rodents aren't limited to these coastal marshes (unlike some species), and should (as a species, at least) persist beyond the recent disaster.

    Figure 1:  "Oryzomys palustris - lower image is silvery subspecies O. p. argentatus of Florida Keys
    Credit: painting by Ron Klinger from Kays and Wilson's Mammals of North America,
    © Princeton University Press (2002)"  [Source]

    This rather broad ranging American native was first described in 1837 from a specimen taken in the north of their range in Salem Co. New Jersey.  They are semi-aquatic, mostly nocturnal omnivores and are found primarily in coastal (salt water) and interior (fresh water) marshes.  Like many (most?) other species, their distribution hasn't always been restricted to their current range.  Despite being endemic to the south eastern U.S. their ancestors likely trace back to central and South America.

    These rats belong to the subfamily Sigmodontinae, the South American rats and mice. While there is one other species of Oryzomys that makes it up into North America -- the Coues's Rice Rat (O. couesi) which occurs in southern Texas -- the other species in the genus Oryzomys all appear to occur further south.

    Oh, and here's one of those random facts you just don't find in species accounts any more -- just in case you were wondering how different these rats are from their domestic cousins. Unlike domestic rats, Marsh Rice Rats have 27 pairs of autosomal chromosomes plus two sex chromosomes for a grand total of 56 chromosomes...

    Hmm... this could make for a nice little pop quiz!  Do you know how many chromosomes do we humans have?

    Religious Fundamentalists vs. Religious Moderates: Tell Me Again Who's Got Their Religion Wrong?

    Friday, July 2, 2010 at 12:59 PM Bookmark and Share
    I'm not a religious or superstitious person, but for as long as I've thought about these things I've been in awe of how people acquire and adhere to these kinds of beliefs. It gets particularly interesting when someone is confronted with evidence contrary to a belief - or contrary to the justification for adopting that belief - or when one tries to apply some of those justifications across different religions with surprisingly mixed results.


    But suppose supernatural entities like ghosts or gods do exist, and that some humans have knowledge of these things. Doing a quick survey of "who believes what," one thing quickly becomes clear:

    Our beliefs are too varied and contradictory 
    for most people's beliefs to be correct.
    Most people have it wrong.

    But how can we tell who (if anyone) has the right religious/supernatural beliefs?

    The First American Oil Spill?

     at 12:27 AM Bookmark and Share


    The Lucas Gusher at Spindletop Hill, Jan 10, 1901
    [Source: The American Petroleum Institute & PRI]
    I was watching the History Channel this evening, and caught part of a program that included some of the history of oil prospecting in the U.S.

    One of the pivotal drilling attempts occurred at the turn of the century in - you guessed it - Texas.  The particular location was on a hilltop called Spindle Top, located near Beaumont, Texas, and the find opened up the vast oil reserves below the Texas soil.

    You can read more about those early days in the Hand book of Natural Gas by Henry Palmer Wescott (Yay, Google books!).

    So why am I bringing all this up?  Perhaps not ironically, this early find started with a bit of an oil spill - nothing like the current disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, but it still caught my attention as an example of the real challenges we still face tapping these deep, pressurized pockets of crude.

    While I'm poking around in historical documents, here's part of a newspaper article published in the Houston Daily Post shortly after the find on January 11, 1901.


    OIL STRUCK NEAR BEAUMONT.
    A Stream of Petroleum Shot Into the Air for a Hundred Feet.

    Prospector Who Has Been at Work for Two Years
    Has His Faith Rewarded -- The Flow Is Esti-
    mated at 5000 Barrels Per Day.


    Beaumont, Texas. January 10.--Beaumont is excited tonight and it has good reason to be. About three mils south of the city there is spouting an oil well the equal of which can not be seen elsewhere in the United States and probably in the world.

    Captaion A. F. Lucas, a geologist of Washington, D. C., made the lucky strike. The captain has been prospecting in the vicinity of Beaumount for more than two years.  He has spent thousands of dollars with indifferent results until this morning, when the inside pipe in a hole in which he was operating blew high into the air, and it was followed by a six-inch stream of oil, which spouts nearly fifty feet higher than the sixtey-foot derrick.
    ...
    The post correspondent visited Captain Lucas this afternoon, but that gentleman was so happy over his strike that he would not talk. He merely hugged the reporter and pointing to oil as it sailed high into the air, said: "Its equal can not be seen on this earth." Under existing conditions there is no way of estimating the flow of oil, but Captain Lucas says 5000 barrels per day would be exceedingly low...

    By today's standards, it would indeed be exceedingly low, but at the time - that was quite a gusher! That well spewed oil for a few days before it was finally brought under control (if I can trust my recollection of what I heard on the History Channel...). While I doubt it got any bad press at the time - for better or worse - it went on to help fuel the last century of the modern industrial era.

    Are Haeckle's embryos a fraud?

    Thursday, July 1, 2010 at 8:09 AM Bookmark and Share
    Creationists often cite Ernst Haeckle's drawings of embryological development as a fraud in attempts to discredit evolution and pave the way for religious claims about how the world works. Like here, for example. But do they get it right?  Not really.

    Here's a clip from the movie Flock of Dodos on one case of these overblown claims by creationists...


    Fortunately, it isn't too hard to find reasonable (i.e. science based) replies to clear up any misrepresentations about Haekle's drawings (e.g. here and here or just crack open a modern embryology textbook). 

    For an up-to-date response to some of these latest shenanigans, check out this post at Josh Rosenau's blog.

    Hasn't somebody taken Haeckle's drawings and done a concise side-by-side comparison with more accurate modern images?  Maybe something like this, but in the form of a spiffy web page??