Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Mind-Body Experience

There is a nice interview with medical historian Anne Harrington in Salon today (by Katharine Mieszkowski).  She is chair and professor of the History of Science at Harvard, and has a new book out titled "The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine" (reviewed by the NY Times here).  It sounds to me that she may be going a little too easy on people who promote the notion that we can heal ourselves with our minds, but she seems more interested in where the notion came from than whether it is right or not.  It's easy to tell from the interview though, that she does not think the data holds up for most of these notions.

Sounds like it could be a good read, and I might have to check it out.


Friday, January 25, 2008

1000 Human Genomes Project

Interesting article about the new plan to sequence 1000 human genomes over the next 3 years (sorry if you don't have access to that article, try this one).  We are step-wise approaching a new age of enlightenment, and it's amazing to watch it unfold.

It's the next logical move in understanding how our genetic material makes us who we are. Having so many genomes sequenced and at our disposal will make it easier for researchers to make confident conclusions about which genes cause certain traits.  For example, imagine a researcher comes across a patient with a rare disease, which has not been traced to a particular mutation. All the Dr has to do is sequence the patients genome, then search a database which contains the 1000 genomes to see if there are any patients with the same affliction.  If there are, Doc can then align the 2 (or more) genomes and see if any SNP's or haplotypes stand out.

This strikes me as a perfect primer situation.  Once these genomes become publicly available, researchers who utilize it can deposit the sequences of their own patient's genome into the database.  So the more people utilize it, the more useful it becomes.  1000 sounds like a very reasonable starting point to get people using it.  Once enough sequences are deposited, diagnosing genetic disorders will become a thing of ease.

A small technical note, it looks as though they plan on using shared sequences to move the project along quickly.  By looking specifically for stretches of DNA that show a lot of variation, they can streamline their efforts.  It will be slightly less complete than if they were to sequence the entire genome, but equally useful.

It can be utilized by researchers who are interested in what causes any type of trait, not only diseases (although that's obviously the most useful).  Let's say I want to know what gene causes red hair, or an excess of moles on a person's skin.  With enough sequences it will become almost trivial.  We're not quite there yet, but it is coming soon.


Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Tiktaalik Goal Post

This was just too much.  Over on the Discovery Institute webpage, Casey Luskin is trying to explain away the marvelous Tiktallik rosaea find of Niel Shubin and his group.  I guess I shouldn't be that surprised, they usually start grasping for straws when something so convincing comes into play.  This time Luskin uses so many logical fallacies that it is hard to know where to begin.  First he uses a favorite ploy of the ID'ers by moving the goal posts of proof.  Next he sets up a straw man argument by saying that "evolutionists boast about the size of the previously large "gap" in this transition, and how Tiktaalik solves all these previously unanswered questions".  He rounds it all off with the equally fallacious (and equally commonly used by the ID'ers) argument of incredulity.  In other words, he doesn't see how the evidence could fit and therefore it doesn't.

Here we have an ideal example of an animal that shares features of a fish and the first tetrapods (four legged animals).   It had fins scales and gills like a modern fish, but its flat head, neck and ribs were more like similar to those of early tetrapods.  Moreover, the truly amazing thing about the find is that they predicted that it would be there!  The fossil record and molecular evidence suggested that there should be a flat-headed fish in a fossil bed from that time period (375 million years ago), and it was.  This further solidifies the predictive power of evolutionary theory. 

Yet Luskin chooses to ignore all of this beautiful evidence and instead sets up a straw man by saying that evolutionists believe that this answers all of the questions about the fish to tetrapod transition.  I can assure everyone that no biologist thinks this.

Since he has set up this straw man that there is 100% confidence in the field, he then moves on to knocking it down.  He attempts to do so by looking at the fin skeletons of Tiktaalik and the other early tetrapods.  They do not look similar enough to him, so he brushes off the entire find as unimportant since, as he says "I would assume that documenting how fins turned into feet would be one of the more important aspects of the fish-to-tetrapod evolutionary story".  (He also seems, unbelievably, to think that Panderichthys is more similar to the tetrapod skeletons and I really don't know what to say about that.  This is a subjective argument which he tossed in, but cannot really make.  Has he been trained in comparative anatomy?  I doubt it.)  Well, if you can't see the similarities, they must not exist, right?

Well Mr. Luskin, you assume wrong.  There are many fundamental differences between fish and tetrapods, not just that one can walk and the other has fins.  These anatomical features are spelled out very clearly on Shubin's webpage so I won't go into it here.  On top of it all, these differences evolved at different rates.  So yes, there are more fossils to be found that would ultimately show a smoother transition between Tiktaalik and the early tetrapods, but this beautiful  fossil still provides a vast amount of evidence that a transition does indeed exist.

Let's try to be a tiny bit objective (I know, I'm asking way too much her) about this and not make logical fallacy after logical fallacy.  Next time, try making an argument that at least utilizes a few facts, not just your opinions.  As you point out, we will find another fossil in the future that solidifies this transition even more.  But contrary to your statement, we will not claim that we knew vary little about the transition before, nor will we claim to know it all after. As someone smart once pointed out (mockingly towards an ID'er, naturally), every time we find a transition fossil, we create another gap.  But we make the gaps smaller, and we increase what we know by orders of magnitude.  You can't keep moving the goal posts.  There is currently sufficient evidence to show that fish evolved into tetrapods.  But what will it take to convince you?  By paying attention only to the gaps, you are missing the big picture.  You are claiming that a TV show is no good because you watched the commercials.  Not exactly convincing my friend.


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

I'm back baby

I was out of town for close to a week attending to some family business.  I'm back now though, and I'm glad to be.

There are a few things I hope to write about in the next day or so, but for now I just wanted to thank Karl at Inoculated Mind (a top-notch blog if ever I saw one, aye) for including my Shermer write-up in the most recent tangled bank (#97 to be precise).


Thursday, January 17, 2008

From my favorite comic strip; 'Tom the Dancing Bug'.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Believability of Godlessness

I was lying in bed last night contemplating my godlessness, as I often do after drinking several imperial pints of local brew, and a few thoughts passed through my groggy mind.  For various familial reasons I have been considering people's belief in the afterlife, and why it is considered to be comforting for so many.  Personally I am perfectly comfortable with my heaven-less eternity, in fact it makes me appreciate life all that much more.  I'm not looking over my shoulder at a god who wants to send me to hell at the first sign of indiscretion, or asking for forgiveness for every little mistake.

Anyway, believing in the afterlife is fine for some people.  What I don't understand is why it is so difficult for people to even imagine that there may not be one.  It seems pretty obvious to me.  Think about it, of the >99% of the species that exist on earth today which are not humans, we do not think that they go to some heaven or hell.  There is no dog heaven, or bee hell, or fern purgatory.  So why then, is it so unbelievable that we may not exist beyond our current existence?  Considering the major difference between ourselves and those other animals is an awareness of our own consciousness, isn't it much more likely that the idea of existence after life would arise from that self awareness rather than that we have been chosen for an afterlife because of it?  If dogs and bees can simply stop existing, why can't we?

The point is, don't act so freakin' surprised at people who don't believe in the afterlife.  It's not that hard of a concept to grasp, it's just a different way of thinking.  It doesn't make life any less endurable, in fact in my case, it has made it more pleasant*.


*and before you ask, it's not because I feel I have carte blanche to do whatever I want.  I'm a good, honest person.  So there.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The New-New England

Here's an interesting article on which direction the temperatures are heading, at least in the Northeast United States.  The reason that I post this is not to try to convince the world that global warming exists, at this point I doubt there are very few (rational) people left who doubt this.  The argument has shifted to a debate over whether or not it is being caused by man (ah, the old moving goal-posts).

I do, however, think it's interesting that it is beginning to hit us where we live in a dramatic, quantifiable way.  Will this be enough to make people change there ways?  Stay tuned, but I think it may take a more forceful showing by the government before this country changes its ways significantly.  Also, it's nice to have some more solid numbers to cite when people say things like "brrraaapppp, global warming can't exist, durh, it's freezing outside!"... idiots


Sunday, January 13, 2008

Academic Life

As a grad student in the sciences, I find that I have a difficult time conveying to people what I do, what I plan on doing, and how I do it. Of course part of this is due to the inherent difficulties involved in explaining hard science topics to people with zero background in science. But I am starting to think that there is something even more fundamental than that which is not getting across, and therefore confusing the whole situation. And that is basically that people don't understand the type of graduate school that I attend, they don't understand what a post doc is, and they don't understand what the long-term career options for someone with my background would be. They don't understand the whole cascade of events that lead to a scientific career, and they therefore are unable to comprehend what scientists do. Maybe if we make this crystal clear, it will be a first step in breaking down that wall, so let's break it down in a chronological fashion (I will intersperse some anecdotes from a made up scenario when I think it might help):

First, some definitions:

The Primary Investigator (aka the PI)- The head of the laboratory. He is a professor, faculty member, and mentor to his post docs and students.

PhD (aka Doctor of Philosophy) - An advanced academic degree, usually given in the sciences or humanities.  Often has a research focus.

Qualifying Exam (aka Quals, Prelims, Comps) - An exam given to PhD candidates which determines if they are competent to pursue the remainder of their thesis.

Graduate School in the Sciences - Basically, if someone wants to do any kind of scientific research; biomedicine, chemistry, physics, cell biology, biochemistry, etc., one needs a graduate degree in one of these fields. For simplicity, I will focus on the biological sciences I am most familiar with that area. This would include biology as well as areas like biochemistry, cell biology, biophysics, molecular biology, and microbiology. There is a ton of overlap in these fields, so avoid getting bogged down in the details of the names. There are a few programs around the country which give out masters degrees in hard sciences, but not many. This is typically not thought of as all that useful for someone who wants to do their own research down the line (it can be useful for someone going into industry, because they might be in a more business oriented job that requires some science background). For the most part, when someone gets an undergraduate degree in science, and they are interested in pursuing research as a career, they apply to  PhD programs. Most universities have a separate PhD program for each department.

PhD Programs - The best thing about these typed of programs is that they pay you to attend. Typically, they give all of their students a yearly stipend which can run between $18,000 and $25,000. Not much but it's enough to get by on for 5 or 6 years, while you are in your early to late 20's. This is the typical length of time that you would spend in grad school. Often the first 2 years are spent taking classes. In the first year we do rotations along with classes. Rotations are essentially try-outs for a few labs at the university to see which type of research we want to go into. It's both a try-out from the PI's perspective (do we fit in with the lab?) as well as from ours (is this the type of lab we want to be in?). In the second year, we have decided which lab we want to work in, but are still taking classes (this can vary depending on the program). At the end of our second year, most programs require us to take some sort of right-of-passage test, often called a qualifying exam (or qual, see definitions). The format of this can vary from a multiple choice exam, to an oral exam, to a more research oriented oral presentation. It is however, extremely stressful and can be quite difficult. It essentially determines whether the program believes that you are good enough and smart enough to continue with a thesis in their department. If you fail, which happens with surprising frequency (again, depending on the place), the department will often give you a masters degree and send you on your way. This, I believe, is another reason why masters are not particularly useful in the sciences. They are probably thought of as someone failing to get a PhD, rather than someone achieving a masters (not to knock anyone with one, just my observation). Anyway, once you pass your qual you are ready to working towards your thesis.

The Thesis - Actually, by the time the end of your second year rolls around you have probably already figured out what you want to work on, and it will typically take another 3 to 4 years in order to accumulate enough information to be considered worthy of a thesis. The term thesis itself has several meanings. It is the central argument of a paper or proposition. It is also the name for the physical document which is the summation of your 5-6 years of graduate work (this definition is interchangeable with dissertation). So there is some understandable confusion when someone says "I'm in grad school working on my thesis". Typically this is not what a person who is, at that time, writing their actual thesis would say (if they were doing that you probably would not see them for several months anyway). What they mean is that they are busily working in the lab to accrue enough data to support their thesis. Usually a student is required to propose their idea for a thesis topic (called a thesis proposal) around the beginning of his/her 3rd year, after qualifying for continuing her/his education. The student must select a few faculty members to make up his thesis committee. This group will judge the students proposal, determine whether it is a) achievable and b) worthy of a potential thesis, make suggestions and send the student on his/her way. Typically students meet with their committee members yearly, so they can assess the progress and guide them in the right direction. It's a particularly useful part of grad school as the committee members are often very knowledgeable people who are there specifically to help.

As an example, let us say that Jimmy applied and was accepted to the biochemistry department at Cornell University. He spent his first year rotating in 3 different labs, a fly genetics lab, a structural biology lab, and a cell division lab. All the while he was taking classes on Cell Biology, Gene Expression, and Human Genetics. You'll notice that there is a seemingly wide range of fields that Jimmy is learning about. That is typical as even though each of those labs has an area which they specialize in, there are many techniques and principles which would be used in each lab. Additionally, even though Jimmy will choose a fly genetics lab to work in, it behooves him to learn as much as possible because, as we shall see in the post doc section, he will most likely choose to work in an area that differs in some way in the future.
So at the end of his first year Jimmy chose the structural biology lab, and started discussing with the PI what type of research project he is interested in pursuing. Jimmy, it turns out, would like to know the 3-dimensional structure and function of a protein from a bacteria which is involved in infecting humans. The PI and Jimmy plan out a loose course of action for the next several years which will hopefully allow them to understand a significant amount about this protein. If they succeed in shedding light on the details of this protein, JImmy will have enough data to write his thesis, and will have supplied the world with a little bit more information about a disease causing bacteria. Not bad, but it's still a long way off. He spends most of his second year toiling away in the lab, trying to work out conditions for isolating large amounts of this protein from the dangerous bacteria, all the while taking another 2 classes in order to fulfill the requirements of his program. By the time spring of his second year rolls around, he realizes that his approach has not worked as well as he had hoped, and he needs to alter his approach. But now his quals are coming up and he has to put everything on hold so that he can study for them. He passes his oral exam, and submits his thesis proposal to the dean of his department which is accepted. 

Finishing Grad School - Once the proposal for the thesis has been accepted, the student toils in the lab for another few years. Not to sound self-pitying or anything, but we often work long, painful hours with very few results. We're like baseball players, if we get something to work 3 out of 10 times, we're all-stars. Most of what we try does not work. That's why you have to have a very specific personality to enjoy research. You can't get discouraged, and you can't expect too much. Anyway, this is the time that I find to be the most difficult to explain to non-science people. We are no longer taking classes, but we aren't working at a job. I often interchange work and school when describing what I do. Sometimes I feel as though it is more accurate to say that I have a full-time job, because saying that I'm in school gives the impression that I do nothing except attend classes and study. That's really not the case. I personally work 10+ hours in the lab/day during the week, and another 15 or so on the weekends. Plus I often come in at 3am simply because my experiments don't care what time it is. Add in the reading that I do at home in the evenings and I certainly work more than any non-scientists that I know (except, frustratingly, newly graduated lawyers).

Let us now return to Jimmy's hard-working adventures in crystallographyland. He returns to the lab to rework his approach and gather some data. While he failed in his first year in the lab to purify the protein in any significant amount, it was not a total waste of time. He was able to optimize the conditions of is purification so that, in the end, he had a small amount of highly pure protein. He also was able to clone the gene which encodes for this protein, which meant that he could try and express it in large amounts in some other type of cell. He does this, optimizes things, works long hours in the lab at all times of day, and ultimately gets his hand on large amounts of the desired protein. He crystallizes it and determines the 3-D structure using x-ray diffraction. This takes many months, but in the mean time he has designed an assay for the activity of the protein, and makes several mutants, which in the end reveals how that protein helps the bacteria to infect humans. Overall, this body of work took him 3 years. When he presents it to his thesis committee, along with a paper that he authored and published, they tell him "good job, go write your thesis". He takes another 6 months to write, as well as finishing a few "loose-end" experiments. He submits the thesis to his committee, and prepares his defense. He presents his thesis work in a public lecture and then his committee asks him tough but important questions about his work and what it means. He answers them appropriately, and they award him a PhD. It took 5+ long years, but it was worth it, because now he can go on to a pot doc, which is not exactly a huge change. Wait, that wasn't worth it at all! Jimmy is pissed!

The Post Doc - This term is a shortening of 'Post-doctoral researcher'. So it means someone who has received their PhD is doing some more research. Grad students and post docs work in the same labs, but most often a grad student moves to a new lab upon graduation. Basically, this is an advanced but in-between stage. In grad school we kind of learn how to do research, and many of the underlying principles of research, and a whole lot of background in whatever general field we are entering. When we move on to a post doc, we are essentially thought of as independent researchers who must come up with our own experiments and projects. As with many things in this field, there is not really a clear demarcation in these things. Good grad students who are trained well by their PIs often have the capacity to think creatively about their project, and often times post docs need a little help from their advisors in designing experiments. However, by the time they are finishing in the lab, a post doc should really be quite competent at thinking creatively and critically, and have a good idea of a research project that is heavy enough so that they could start up a lab based around that idea.  I think this is the main point of a post doc; to hone one's experimental skills as well as one's publication record enough to where universities will consider you for a faculty position.

Faculty Life -Now, I am nowhere near starting a lab, but even from my distant vantage point it looks like a daunting task. First you have to convince a department at a university that your ideas are original and important enough to warrant a significant chunk of startup money and lab space. Then, if you are fortunate enough to get that, you have to convince the US government (some other grant agency) of the same thing so that they will give you renewable grant money for your research. The odds of getting a position get slimmer and slimmer every year, and the odds of getting both are shrinking to nothing (especially with this administration and their cutting of funding for basic research). But if you are fortunate enough to get those things, you still have to be hard-working and fortunate enough to get enough good results so that your department will grant you tenure. Once tenure is granted, you can finally relax, a little bit anyway. There's a myth that tenured faculty do nothing, but I have never seen a single person stop working once they receive tenure. In fact, I think that most of the greatest work is done after tenure, possibly because they no longer have pressure to get positive results (except for the pressure to maintain the non-guaranteed grant money will keep coming in). They can move over to some more risky projects which may or may not work, but which are potential home-runs. Anyway, a young PI only has so much time in order to accomplish what is required for tenure. We call this a tenure clock, and it begins ticking the moment he/she sets foot on campus. It's usually somewhere between 5-10 years, but it depends on the institution and their policies. If they do not accomplish enough, their tenure committee will deny them, and their career can be in jeopardy. Often when this happens a PI will move to a smaller university or switch to more teaching duties, or leave academia altogether.

So you can see that academia is a high-risk, low reward type of career. Grad school is long and demanding, but at least they pay for it. Professors don't get paid that much on average, although a tenured professor can make a decent living and the job security is unbeatable. Aside from that, I believe there are 2 reasons for people to enter this line of work:

1) We want to change/save the world. This can be a little misleading, because realistically we are not going to make much of an apparent difference. However, the research that we do can lay the groundwork for more research which can ultimately lead to cures for diseases, or new technology that will better people's lives. This is what we tell ourselves at least.

2) We are insatiably curious and have questions that need answering. This, I would guess, is the most common reason. I often tell people that I am not, by any means, altruistic  (so take me out of category 1), I just enjoy science very much, and happen to be pretty good at it. What else can I say?

So if you are a grad student/scientist and have been having trouble explaining to your parents or friends what you do, feel free to pass this along. Also, if there are other areas that could use clarification, I'd be happy to edit this with those in mind.


Thursday, January 10, 2008

Michael Shermer's Book Lecture

So last night I went to the New York Academy of Sciences to watch Dr. Michael Shermer talk about his new book titled The Mind of the Market. The talk was part of the NYAS Author's Series which is apparently one of their public gateway programs. Overall it was a nice evening (the wine and cheese helped), and I strongly encourage any scientists in New York to get involved with the NYAS, become a member, go to some talks, etc. If for no other reason, go for the amazing view of lower Manhattan from the 40th floor of WTC Building 7. Unbelievable.

Anyway, before giving my thoughts about the lecture/reading (just to be clear, I have not yet read the book), let me declare my predisposition on this matter. For one thing, I am an unyielding skeptic. I am a card-carrying member of The Skeptics Society, of which Dr. Shermer is a founding member, and I read Skeptic magazine front to back the moment it reaches my apartment. However, I have noticed that I differ greatly with several of Dr. Shermer's views in the past.

Furthermore, as other bloggers have noted, his newest book was given a very interesting review on amazon by Dinesh D'Souza (and other conservatives) who trumpeted it as putting a positive evolutionary spin on free trade. Now, I hate D'Souza and think he is a spineless leach (I won't get into why now), but I vowed not to let a positive review by him automatically translate to a negative review by me. On the other hand, having read this review, I did not put it past Shermer to make these types of claims as he has made no bones in the past about jumping back and forth across political lines (i.e. he's a libertarian).

My main reason for concern is that I get a little antsy when people try to shoe-horn evolutionary explanations for human behavior. Don;t get me wrong, I love learning why we do the things that we do, and more often than not there is an evolutionary component to behavior. What kind of gets me is when people offer a change in our behavior to satiate some evolutionary need.  Unfortunately, even if the explanation fits nicely as it often does, there is still no guarantee it is the bona fide root of that behavior pattern. So my opinion on these types of exercises is they are fun and interesting, and can be very educational in some cases, but it is wrong to extrapolate from them that we should modify our society in order to more comfortably fit our "nature". It is a huge leap to begin solving problems from hypothetical explanations.

The reason that I went through all of that before discussing Dr. Shermer's talk is that I believe he was greatly misrepresented by D'Souza in this particular case. It did not sound to me like he was proposing that a free market system would be better for America, only that he thinks that our evolutionary past would predispose us to making good decisions if given a chance to do so in an open system (keep in mind here that I have not read the book, I'm only interpreting what was discussed at this particular event). This immediately addresses my main concern about translating a theory about our behavioral evolution into a drastic societal change.

In any case, his evidence was fairly convincing. He mainly cited things like Prisoner's Dilemma, which is a game theory scenario that posits a series of choices to people. There are many variations on this problem, but typically two people are given a choice to take all of something, share something, or give up something and there are a series of consequences for each choice. The bottom line is that most of the time, people choose to collaborate with the other person because the consequences are mutually beneficial. That was a poor description, but the outcome is all that matters. It seems as though humans are hard-wired to work together, because the benefits will outweigh the cost (the cost being a slightly lower payoff than making the "take all" choice). Similar experiments were performed on monkeys, and they made the same choices suggesting that it was a very early adaptation in our ancestors.

He also claims that most hunter/gatherer populations were egalitarian in nature, and that simpler societies make use of trade in order to establish trust and to firm up relationships. This, he suggests, means it is in our nature to do behave appropriately in issues of economics. Again, it's an interesting theory, but it would be a huge leap to say that a free market would benefit our society. For one thing, we have essentially been outside the realm of evolutionary pressure for a very, very long time. So even though many humans may have some predisposition to behave appropriately in a free market scenario, a few bad eggs would have grave consequences for the rest of society. And these bad eggs have not been weeded out by natural selection. it reminds me of the hawk/dove scenario that Dawkins has discussed. When a mutant hawk behavior is introduced to a stable population of doves, that behavior would take over. But this is no longer a stable situation, so the population would ultimately swing back to an equilibrium. However, if there is no pressure on the hawks, ESS does not apply and hawks would dominate the population. He answers this concern by saying that we of course need some rules, and that sending them to prison would be like selecting against those people. Not 100% about that, but it's a debatable point.

I guess the question is 'where should the line between free market and what we have today lie'? If we take away all of the rules then most people would behave, but the hawks might take over. If we have too many rules, we may not be getting the full benefit of our collaborative disposition. It's too complicated a matter for conservatives to blithely suggest that we should move towards a completely different economic situation. I won't even delve too deep into the hypocrisy here. If you don't believe that evolution can explain human behavior as D'Souza has stated (in fairness, he has said that he believes in evolution, but that it does not explain things like why we are here, or why we do things, only god can explain that), you can't then turn around and agree with someone who is proposing an evolutionary support for free markets. Whatever.

In any case, Dr. Shermer was a very engaging lecturer. He was witty and entertaining, and clearly knew his shit. My interpretation of his stance is that we evolved in a free market, 90% of our history was within a simplified free market, and therefore we would behave in a surprising way if we returned to it. I don't think he was necessarily condoning a sudden reversion to it, but again, that's my interperetation. I'd be interested to hear what other skeptics thought about him or his book.


Friday, January 4, 2008

Scientists Advise Government to Teach Evolution - How Controversial!!!

A report was given to the government today which emphasized the importance of teaching evolution in schools. No big surprise there, since the group consists of scientific advisors from the National Academy of Sciencesas well as it's Institute foe Medicine.

No big shock here, but I think that it underscores an important issue. Namely, there is no controversy surrounding evolution! I'm probably preaching to the choir here, but if any of you are ignorant enough to fall into the newest ID catch phrase "teach the controversy", please do not bring it up until you have read the information withinreport discussed above. You really cannot speak on the topic with any authority until you have gone through all of the scientific evidence. If you still have doubts, bring up your specific questions and we can discuss them one by one. (If you don't want to read the book, check out this link).


Edit: There was also an article published this month in the journal FASEB which is aimed at encouraging scientists to "become more involved in the promotion of science education, including evolution" (press release found here). I think it's great that major science groups are unafraid to promote science and empiricism, and willing to criticize those who want to teach pseudoscience and woo in our schools.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Herbs and Medicine

Here is a great post about the misleading dichotomy between pharmaceuticals and medicinal herbs (incidentally it is a new blog on science and medicine which looks like it will be very good).  It is specifically referring to a web article in the New York Times about a medicine hunter in Peru named Kilham (the blog is far more informative than the NYT article).

This is an old debate that seems to be one of those things where people just can't grasp a very basic principle which would make things very clear.  Basically, botanicals (or herbs, or medicinal herbs or whatever) are themselves drugs.  They just haven't been put through the rigorous trials that pharmaceuticals have to go through.  In fact, many pharms are derived from natural products, as are many poisons.  So an herb may in fact have some sort of helpful compound within it, but there is an equal chance that it will have a harmful one.  We cannot know for sure unless it is tested in double-blind experiments.  In any case, the bottom line is that there is nothing inherently good about botanicals, nor is there anything inherently bad about pharms.  In fact, there is no difference except one has to have been proven to be effective and relatively safe.  Of course, sometimes even pharms are not as safe as we think, but that is another issue.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Happy New Year!

I resolve to get a few readers and comments!