Monday, April 21, 2008

Magnets for Fighting Cancer? It's Even Cooler Than it Sounds!

Now, I'm a big-time skeptic.  So when I saw the title of this article had to do with magnets, "Tiny Magnets Offer Breakthrough In Gene Therapy for Cancer", I rolled my eyes and expected the worst.  You know what I was imagining, a bracelet that supposedly improves blood flow to the problem area (in this case a malignant tumor), but in actuality does nothing at all...

But when I read the article, I realized it was legit.  Researchers from the UK were using gene therapy to treat cancer cells, but were having difficulty getting enough of the monocytes localized to the tumors.  Monocytes are a form of immune cells, but in this case they are being used as a carrier for genes that are meant to aid in the fight of cancer.  The researchers overcame the problem by loading the monocytes with ferromagnetic nano-particles.  They were then able to sequester the therapeutic monocytes to the tumor by holding a magnet over it (results to be published in the journal Gene Therapy in June).

It's unlikely that the magnet is strong enough to actually pull the particles from other parts of the body to the problem area, but they probably flow around the body in the bloodstream, and the magnet concentrates the particle-containing cells in one place.  It's like panning for gold with a sieve, only the magnet is the sieve for magnetic particles.  There's a long way to go before something like this is proven to be safe and effective in humans (the article didn't say which model organism they used, but it was probably done in mice), but the idea is so cool I just had to write about it.

If you're worried about how a magnet might affect your blood, always remember that the iron in your blood cells is non-ferromagnetic, meaning it has no magnetic properties.  So it should be safe, at least based on what we know now.

DS

Friday, April 18, 2008

Expelled, Exposed, Expunged

Alright, here is the best analysis of Ben Stein and Mark Mathis's movie that I have come across, written by two of my favorite people when it comes to conveying science to the public; John Rennie and Steve Mirsky.

This is on the heels of a question and answer session, where the editors of SciAm got a chance to grill Mark Mathis about the movie.  It's definitely worth listening to if you have 75 minutes to spare.

The bottom line:  These guys are being insanely dishonest.  Utterly, and unabashedly dishonest. It's not that I don't expect it from creationists, and there's nothing novel about this conclusion. It's just that it will never cease to shock me when I come across individuals who so brazenly flaunt their ideological blindness.  They know they are lying, but they don't care.  They're no better than a snake oil salesman who tells you his cure-all potion is fool proof, then sneaks off to the next town before you realize it's nothing more than scented water.  It's depressing more than anything, really, that such people are getting our attention.  But you can't ignore them. They must be answered.

Fortunately, the movie is getting absolutely panned by all major critics.

DS

Skeptologists




Here's something we should all be pulling for.  A skeptical TV show!  I mean, Mythbusters is great and all, but how about something a little more scientific?

DS

*Edit - I forgot to mention that they are asking people to write emails stating that this is a show that they could get behind and watch.  Please take a moment to do so here.  I would actually pay for cable if this show was on TV.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Loss of Legs, or Acquisition of Traits?


French researchers uncovered a 92-million year old fossil of a snake with two "unmistakeable leg bones".  The interesting thing here is not that we have a beautiful example of a transition fossil (or a fossil of a descendant of a transition species), we have plenty of those, but it's entertaining to watch creationists once again move the goal-posts for the burden of proof on evolution.

Over at AiG they have scrambled to explain away such a nice bit of evolutionary history.  Here's a funny quote:

"Bible believers should be wary of rushing in with comments about the serpent in Genesis. This fossil was probably formed in Noah’s Flood, hence the creature it represents was in existence some 1600 years after the cursing of the serpent to crawl on its belly."

Not quite sure where the evidence for this lies, or even what it is supposed to mean.  So basically, serpents where cursed to crawl on their bellies, but then another snake with small hind legs was designed?  (Incidentally, why did god curse some lizards and not others?  And while I'm at it, why curse any of them just because the devil dressed up like a one?  Seems sort of reactionary if you ask me).  He was, however, kind enough to leave rudimentary legs on the cursed serpents.  Is this because he felt bad for them having to copulate without legs?  I'm sure we can all imagine how difficult that would be, and it was kind of him to make this beneficent gesture.  Maybe he felt bad for overreacting.

They also go to the oft utilized but always silly - scientists debate the details, therefore they are wrong - argument:

"The findings are controversial. Some evolutionists claim that snakes came out of the sea, from something like a mosasaur. Others insist on a land-based origin. The controversy still rages. In other words, the fossils are open to interpretation."

This is factually incorrect, but more importantly, it's stupid.  Scientists debate the details, but either way, they agree that the snakes evolve.  You can't have your cake and eat it too.  If you believe that scientists are completely wrong about evolution, you can't use their arguments to support your own.  They're wrong, remember?

There was, at one point, a debate as to whether snakes lost their legs on land or in water. There was fossil evidence that suggested it may have happened in the ocean.  In the end researchers used molecular techniques to create a family tree of snakes and lizards, and found that the only ocean-dwelling lizards known (they're now extinct, but are closely related to monitors) are too far up the evolutionary tree to be the descendants of snakes, suggesting that legs were lost on land and then some snakes moved back into water.  It's still possible that another fossil will come along and change that, but this is what the evidence says for now.

Another contradictory point made by AiG:

"Even assuming it could be established that the ancestor of snakes today had legs, creationists have no problem in principle with loss of features through natural processes. Development of leglessness is not evidence for molecules-to-man evolution, which requires addition of newgenetic information. Loss of legs could be achieved through degeneration of the DNA information sequences that specify leg development."

How is this any different from evolution?  Loss of a feature is gain of a trait.  In fact, they've explained this one aspect of evolution fairly nicely in the last sentence.  However, for this to explain the loss of legs, you have to believe in natural selection.  You believe that degeneration of DNA leads to new traits, and that these traits can then be selected for if they are advantageous.  If you don't believe that it's advantageous, then how could degenerate DNA persist in snakes?  So, if you agree that natural selection can occur from loss of information, why are things like gene duplication so hard to accept?  They have been observed and documented!  It really boils down to an argument from incredulity, or one from ignorance, take your pick.  You can't imagine, or don't understand how such a thing could happen, therefore it didn't.  Not exactly convincing logic there.

I know, I know.  I'm arguing against people who have already made up their minds.  But the fallacies here are unforgivable.

DS

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Massimo Pigliucci and Scientific Objectivity

I was able to attend a talk this past weekend by Massimo Pigliucci, which was put on by the NYC Skeptics.  It was quite good, and I have since caught up on Dr. Pigliucci's blog.  He's a fascinating guy with a ton of great insight into scientific truth and objectivity (by the way, you can view the slides for his talk here).

I took exception to one thing that he said in his talk, but it was a minor, minor point.  He suggested that most scientists would take the side of the correspondence theory of truth, which is to say that scientific theories are true if they approximate reality.  He goes on to make the great point that reality is dependent on our position, since we all see things a little differently. 

I would suggest that that we scientists think a theory is true if it matches our observable, measurable reality.  This, I think, is positionally independent because it is open to modification.  All of science is pending further data.  Now that's objectivity!

This is only a slight variation on what he says, and I think he made the same point at the end of his talk when discussing how we can define truth.  My only complaint is that not all scientists are so arrogant to assume that we are in position to know what is real.  We just measure what we see, and call it a spade.

DS

Thursday, April 3, 2008

World Science Festival in NYC

Good news!  Brian Greene - famed string theory proponent - and his wife Tracy Day (plus a smattering of other prominent NYC scientists and science supporters) have put together a science festival in NYC (link to a NY Times article about it here).  I'm all for it of course. Hopefully it takes off and the city becomes invigorated about science.  Take a look at the prominent list of speakers who will be there:


to name a few.  If you live in or around NYC, and are even remotely interested in science, I recommend going.  For whatever that's worth.

DS