Monthly Archives: September 2008

As the central valley bakes on, will we have to move the Sierra ski season…

… all the way to Mars? Doesn’t this sound appealing, my fellow parched-and-sweltering Californians?

MarsPhoenix: The low temp here has hit -90C (-130F) in recent days,… As temps go down, I use more of my limited power to keep heaters on. Brr!

Further, the Phoenix Lander says this is how it saw the snow, on Lidar:


Looks better than those economic graphs in the news lately, doesn’t it? Heck, the way things are heating up elsewhere in the US nowadays, we may want to move as far as Mars anyway…

[Hat-tip: Amygdala]

How the Gray Wolf was re-endangered by Dubya’s gummint

Back in July, I ranted about the massacre that had ensued in Montana & Wyoming since the Grey Wolf was de-listed from the Endangered Species Act last spring, with approximately one wolf being killed per day. A judge had then granted the wolf a temporary reprieve from hunting. Well now the USFWS may have come to their senses because last week they capitulated and began the process of re-listing the wolves! And in the meantime, at least 130 of the animals have been massacred, most within the first month in so-called “free-fire” zones, resulting in a 10% decline in population! Yes, 10%!!! And I don’t think even the free-fire zones actually went as far as republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s Alaska, where the poor beasts are hunted aerially! Today’s Los Angeles Times has the story of how the wolf was re-endangered in the Rockies by the hasty delisting by the Bush administration as well as the govts. of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana:


DANIEL, WYO. — It’s hard for ranchers here to figure how it came to this — again.

After railing for more than a decade against the federal government for reintroducing gray wolves to the region, after finally winning the battle to get the animals taken off the endangered species list, what went so wrong that Washington stepped in last week to protect the wolves all over again?

It began near here in this high-altitude chaparral. No sooner were gray wolves delisted in March than sportsmen in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming began locking and loading. Wyoming officials declared 90% of the state a “free-fire zone.” Hunters from around the state flocked to rural Sublette County to bag a wolf.

Read the rest of the story, and weep! Particularly telling is this graphic accompanying the report:

Do you need a more compelling argument for maintaining the Endangered Species Act than this evidence of how thin the line is that is holding the rabid hunters at bay? The Act obviously has teeth enough to protect the wolves for now – but don’t count on it, given the persistent efforts from this administration to gut it in various ways. And I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they invoke the current wall street banking crisis as another club with which to beat down those protesting the attacks on the Endangered Species Act. They will happily sacrifice the Gray Wolf and any other animal to the wolves of Wall Street

So tell me, again, why is it that this country cannot support the wolf (and other megafauna) in some of its still vast regions least populated by humans?

So who didn’t see this market economy crash coming?

That would be those guys (Dems and Repubs) actually in-charge of running the US economy. You know the ones with all those economics and law degrees from prestigious universities, not to mention finely-honed political skills, and all their free-market gurus. Too bad they, presumably, didn’t have the time to read the cartoons once in a while, or they might have seen this piece of comic prescience, from exactly a decade ago:

And they say it is hard to make long-term economic forecasts! I guess some of us can see quite clearly when the bus is hurtling towards the cliff and about to run over…

Americans: time to tone that relentless positive thinking down a notch

If you’ve ever been irked by the relentless, and quite often baseless, positive-thinking that infects so many Americans (and who hasn’t been so irked?), you’ll like what Barbara Ehrenreich has to say about its links to the current economic meltdown facing this country:

As promoted by Oprah Winfrey, scores of megachurch pastors and an endless flow of self-help best sellers, the idea is to firmly believe that you will get what you want, not only because it will make you feel better to do so, but because “visualizing” something — ardently and with concentration — actually makes it happen. You will be able to pay that adjustable-rate mortgage or, at the other end of the transaction, turn thousands of bad mortgages into giga-profits if only you believe that you can.

Positive thinking is endemic to American culture — from weight loss programs to cancer support groups — and in the last two decades it has put down deep roots in the corporate world as well. Everyone knows that you won’t get a job paying more than $15 an hour unless you’re a “positive person,” and no one becomes a chief executive by issuing warnings of possible disaster.

The tomes in airport bookstores’ business sections warn against “negativity” and advise the reader to be at all times upbeat, optimistic, brimming with confidence. It’s a message companies relentlessly reinforced — treating their white-collar employees to manic motivational speakers and revival-like motivational events, while sending the top guys off to exotic locales to get pumped by the likes of Tony Robbins and other success gurus. Those who failed to get with the program would be subjected to personal “coaching” or shown the door.

The once-sober finance industry was not immune. On their Web sites, motivational speakers proudly list companies like Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch among their clients. What’s more, for those at the very top of the corporate hierarchy, all this positive thinking must not have seemed delusional at all. With the rise in executive compensation, bosses could have almost anything they wanted, just by expressing the desire. No one was psychologically prepared for hard times when they hit, because, according to the tenets of positive thinking, even to think of trouble is to bring it on.

[From Op-Ed Contributor – The Power of Negative Thinking – Op-Ed –]

Read the rest of her plea to return to a sense of realism rather than oscillating between Oprah-Secret positivism or the Calvinist-guilt ridden negativism that drove this country in the past. I wonder if “reconciliation ecology”, esp. the idea that humans can make room for other species in our habitats, is also afflicted somewhat with this American cultural malady. Some people think so, but I’d like to think we’re aiming for that realistic middle ground – and daresay we need to given how easy it is to be sucked into negative-thinking in the conservation arena. But then, those positive-thinkers and their corporate clients go ahead and cheerfully drive the economic bus straight off the cliff… and I dread to think how many notches the “environment” has slipped down people’s priority list in these hard times!

But, if you still want to chuckle at the positive-thinking Americans, check out the latest Coen brothers satire “Burn After Reading” for an excellent caricature (played by none other than Brad Pitt)…

Are Prius owners like Mac owners? – a casual friday survey

mac_mini_prius.jpgAs a long-time Mac owner and wannabe Prius owner (as soon as I can afford it!), also in the pinko-green part of the political spectrum, I have to point to this casual friday survey put together by Dave Munger over at Cognitive Daily:

Perhaps there is something to this stereotype, and Casual Friday may be just the time to find out. I’ve created a brief survey that asks you a few questions about your car, your computer, and your attitudes. If enough of you respond, perhaps we’ll be able to (non-scientifically) settle the question once and for all!

Click Here to participate.

As usual, the survey is brief, with about 20 questions, which should take less than five minutes to answer. You’ll have until Thursday, September 25 to respond. There is no limit on the number of survey respondents. Don’t forget to come back next Friday to see the results!

How about you? What computer and car do you own? Thought about getting a Mac and/or a Prius? Or even build your own combo MacPrius as seen in the above picture?! That sounds like a great combo! And for field work in remote places, I would have to put that combo platter on a larger set of wheels, like this:

Now that’s what we call a case mod, am I right?! A dream vehicle for a smug-n-self-superior pinko-green field biologist! I should put that on my next grant proposal… 🙂

Can a brain scan really tell if someone committed a crime?

Here’s another disturbing story this week about India’s march into a brave new world:

When 24 year-old Aditi Sharma was tried for the murder of her former fiance, her brain was the chief witness for the prosecution. Sharma had submitted to the highly controversial Brain Electrical Oscillations Signature test (BEOS), now employed by prosecutors in the Indian states of Maharashta and Gujarat. Going beyond lie detection, the BEOS test is supposedly able to identify whether an individual possesses memories related to a specific event. And Sharma’s conviction represents the first time an Indian court has accepted the BEOS results as proof of guilt, although neuroscientists remain skeptical about the technology’s reliability.

The NY Times also covered the story.

So how is this supposed to work? You can read the two stories above for the proposed mechanism of, is it BEOS: it depends upon certain memory-related brain areas lighting up on an EEG when the alleged perpetrator of a crime listens to an account of the alleged crime. If certain areas involved in processing smell light up, for example, the interrogator may infer that you are reliving the experience, and therefore you committed the crime! And this was apparently sufficient to convince the judge in this case to issue a life sentence!

I’m not sure what to make of my still-developing country being ahead of the curve on this new technology, but perhaps it goes hand in hand with the apparent rise in the far-right in the country and the escalation of state responses towards terrorism. So now, in addition to hardening so called anti-terror laws that further curtail civil liberties, we will have these new technologies to defeat the terrorists as well as stop your everyday garden-variety crime of passion, is it? Doesn’t all this make you feel safer already?

It apparently does not trouble the judges in Maharashtra and Gujarat (two of the most industrialized, “forward” states in the nation) that the science underlying BEOS hasn’t really passed the normal standards of scientific peer review. So are we now going to accept new tools based on non-expert judicial review alone since this judgement has now set the precedent?

Who needs expert scientific peer review anyway? Welcome to the brave new world!

Learning from the vapidity of creationists and Conservapedia

Here is an excellent example of how a creationist argument can still help us understand the scientific method! And it starts on a topic we’ve been discussing in my Evolution class this week: Homology! Larry Hufford of Washington State University was preparing a lecture on homology, went googling for any new supporting material, stumbled upon the Conservapedia entry on homology, and ended up discussing their creationist claim in the classroom! And the result is something that should make creationists think twice about continuing to demand that biologists (real scientists) give equal time to creationism in the classroom. Its a risky proposition (for creationists) if a competent biologist takes creationism on in such a thoughtful discussion because it is so easy to show why creationism is not a science! Do you want us to keep doing that over and over again? I suppose there is some educational benefit to that – but I’d rather use our class time to explore the real wealth of insights from evolutionary biology, than keep flogging the intellectually dead horse of creationism (or Conservapedia). It is nice therefore to have Hufford’s article which lays out the argument with regards to one creationist “claim” about the invalidity of homology. It is worth your while to read the whole story, which starts by outlining what the homology argument is and how a scientific explanation of it can be constructed:

Homology is basically a proposal of equivalence. If we say that the arm of a human, the arm of a chimpanzee, and the wing of a bird are homologous, then we are hypothesizing that these corresponding structures are somehow equivalent. The somehow of that equivalence is what a biologist wants to explore and to explain. In a facile manner, I could say that homology of the arm of a human, the arm of a chimpanzee, and the wing of a bird is explained because they are all modifications of a corresponding structure in their most recent common ancestor, which is to say that we have homology because of evolution.

A less facile explanation would require us to explain how common position within bodies and possible similarities in development, including perhaps similar genes being expressed to control development, of humans, chimpanzees, and birds lead to a hypothesis of homology. We might also be expected to explain how intermediate structures in the lineages ‘between’ humans and chimpanzees as well as between them and birds help to demonstrate the transformations that could have occurred since their divergence from a common ancestor. Formulating this set of explanations to propose an hypothesis of homology is sometimes called a ‘homology argument.’

After laying out that excellent explanation, Hufford went looking for examples:

As I wrote my lecture on Monday, I wanted to look for new examples of homology arguments—so I googled ‘homology argument.’ One of the top links that Google returned in the search was for an entry in the Conservapedia, which subtitles itself as “The Trustworthy Encyclopedia.” The link took me to the Conservapedia entry for homology, which it defined as “. . . the theory that macroevolutionary relationships can be demonstrated by the similarity in the anatomy and physiology of different animals.” While I don’t regard that definition as accurate, it’s neither egregious nor exactly untruthful.

It was the section below the Conservapedia’s definition of homology that caught my attention—it was labelled “Invalidity of the Homology Argument.” How could the homology argument be invalid, I wondered? After all, a homology argument is a method of comparing and reasoning rather than an assertion of truth.

The explanation offered by the Conservapedia for the invalidity of the homology argument is straightforward: “Creation scientists claim that similarity can just as readily be explained by a common Designer as common ancestry, and that homology is therefore not evidence that can be used to support the evolutionary view.”

So a “claim” from creationists is sufficient to dismiss out of hand a logically constructed and repeatedly well tested scientific argument? And they claim that scientists are the ones acting in an authoritarian manner when keeping creationism out of the classroom? Interesting. Anyway, the above “claim” then led to a useful class discussion on what separates scientists and creationists:

We discussed in class a critical difference between a scientist and a creationist. Creationists think they have THE answer from the beginning, whereas a scientist has only a question in the beginning. While a creationist may accept absurd dogma and simplistic dismissals of rational ideas, a scientist looks for a way to test ideas. That willingness to test and to infer from the results of those tests the best explanations distinguishes the scientific method from the creationist method. [A great untruth of the Conservapedia’s entry on homology was its claim that there are creation ‘scientists’—creationists offer religious explanations and dismiss the results of repeatable scientific studies rather than using a scientific method.]

Once this very basic difference between the two approaches is recognized, is there really any reason to keep discussing all the other creationist arguments in the classroom?

Sciencedebate 2008 – McCain’s response: more “sound science”!

Well, well, I can let out my breath now, for John McCain has finally responded to the 14 questions from Science Debate 2008, a mere couple of weeks after Obama. And he’s even used more words than Obama on many of the questions – but then he needs them to mention his service in the navy and how that qualifies him to be president, doesn’t he? And remember, his team had two weeks to study Obama’s response and tailor their responses. This is still not an actual debate, with a sustained back-and-forth; this may even be the one and only time we hear from the candidates on science policy issues, although I still hope some of these questions make it into the televised debates. What of the substance of McCain’s answers, though, you ask? Well, see for yourself, in this side-by-side comparison. I may add some specific thoughts later, especially on environmental and conservation issues (like I did with Obama’s anwers), but let me just make some quick observations. On the surface, both candidates hit similar themes on many of the questions, with McCain attempting to retain some of his “maverick” pro-science creds by addressing global warming, and even stem cell research better than the current occupant of the white house. Therefore, one must look more closely; I haven’t had the time to do that yet, but some things do jump out:

  1. On global warming (as indeed elsewhere throughout the questionnaire), the language both of them use is very revealing, and probably worthy of some linguistic analysis. McCain avoids blaming human activities directly for climate change or even clearly agree that the climate is already changing! (e.g., when he says, “The same fossil-fuels that power our economic engine also produced greenhouse gases that retain heat and thus threaten to alter the global climate.“)
  2. McCain sets a less stringent goal for 2050 in reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to 60% below 1990 levels compared to Obama’s 80% goal. And both want to use market-based cap-n-trade solutions.
  3. McCain makes no mention of any engagement with the international community on global warming, nor even acknowledge that the US has any obligations towards the rest of the world on this issue. His focus is entirely on US economic and security issues – not surprising, but something to give you voters a pause. And this is true for most of his answers – very little international engagement.
  4. On energy, McCain is strongly pushing nuclear energy, with hardly any mention of associated environmental or safety issues, while Obama is more cautious in including nuclear energy within a range of other options.
  5. It is also clear that McCain—no surprise here—favors private R&D over publicly funded science to find solutions to many of the challenges. Think about what that means, especially on environmental issues where industry has more short-term reasons to paper over problems than implement unpalatable solutions!
  6. There is also the expected difference in how much each candidate emphasizes military or defense related science & tech.
  7. The differences on stem cell research and genetics are predictable too.
  8. On question 12 (Scientific Integrity), the difference is again revealing: McCain (obviously) does not mention the problem of ideological bias that so pervades decision making by the current administration; so expect more of the same, I worry.
  9. Even more revealing, and worrisome, is McCain’s repeated invocation of that loaded phrase: sound science! That alone bears a good bit of attention, for it is right-wing / industry-shill code used to question established science by generating false controversies!

I’ll let you ponder that while I get ready to teach in 20 minutes. More later, perhaps.