Social Sciences

It begins with a garden or two. Once you have gardens, you have a resource that has the two most important characteristics anything can have with respect to human society. First, you can eat it. Second, your enemies can destroy it. If you have just a few gardens and get your food somewhere else, no big deal. But back in the old days, and by "old days" I mean any time during the last several thousand years everywhere and anywhere that is not urbanized and has gardens, most people relied on their gardens. These gardens were maintained by families or small villages or occasionally larger…
I bet antivaccinationists would be annoyed if they knew what I was up to yesterday. This week, our department had a visiting professor for Grand Rounds, and that professor was a Nobel laureate. Of course, it's not every day that we have a Nobel laureate visiting us (actually, it's rare). This time around the Nobel laureat visiting us was Harald zur Hausen. He won a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2008 for a discovery he made decades ago, namely his discovery of the role of papilloma viruses in causing human cervical cancer. Yes, antivaxers, not only did I meet the man whose science…
Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food. - attributed to Hippocrates Who said anything about medicine? Let's eat! - attributed to one of Hippocrates forgotten (and skeptical) students   Who hasn't seen or heard Hippocrates' famous quote about letting food be your medicine and your medicine your food? If you have Facebook friends who are the least bit into "natural" medicine or living, you've almost certainly come across it in your feed, and if you're a skeptic who pays the least bit of attention to what's going on in the quackosphere you will almost certainly have seen it plastered…
If there's one thing that will annoy an antivaccinationist, it's to call her what she is: Antivaccine. While it's true, as I've pointed out on numerous occasions, that there are some antivaccinationists who are antivaccine and proud, unabashedly proclaiming themselves antivaccine and making no bones about it, the vast majority of antivaccinationists deny they are antivaccine. They frequently retort that they are "not antivaccine" but rather "pro-vaccine safety" or some such dodge. Most recently, we've seen this tack taken by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (and, of course, Bill Maher) himself, the…
It's been complete bedlam at my house lately. I made one of my periodical forays into cultural Judaism this past weekend by hosting a Passover seder. My parents, my brother and sister-in-law and their two kids (ages eight and ten) and some friends, eleven in all, packed into my small house. It was a lot of fun, but stressful too. The poor cats had a rough weekend, since they're morbidly afraid of anyone who isn't me. This was disappointing to my niece and nephew, who had been told that there would be cats to play with. But that's all behind me now, so it's time to get back to sneering…
Got back last night from a six-day stay in London with wife & daughter. YuSie had rented a flat in Southwark for us via Air BnB, so we had a good base of operations. I fell ill with a bad cold halfway through our stay, which explains the complete lack of museum visits and rock gigs, but I still managed to do some fun stuff. (Left to their own devices, it turns out, the ladies will sleep late, eat big meals, shop for clothes and ride buses for fun.) Outsiders in London portrait photo exhibition in the crypt of St Martin in the Fields. Lovely work, interesting subjects, and I had a long…
Yesterday (Tuesday) was another great day for Comparative Physiology! Congratulations to Dr. Arthur DeVries (above; Professor Emeritus, Department of Molecular and Integrative Physiology; Professor of Animal Biology, University of Illinois), this year's recipient of the August Krogh Distinguished lecturer award from the Comparative and Evolutionary Physiology section of the American Physiological Society. Dr. DeVries gave an excellent seminar summarizing his career studying fish that live in some of the coldest waters without freezing! The fish accomplish this amazing task by having anti-…
In this recent essay at The New York Times, philosopher Gary Gutting argues that the Catholic Church should reconsider its ban on gay sex and its opposition to gay marriage, for explicitly Catholic reasons. He is especially critical of “natural law” arguments against homosexuality. It’s mostly a sensible essay, I think, but it is not the subject of this post. Instead I shall consider this reply to Gutting, written by John Finnis and Robert George. They were unhappy with Gutting, a philosophy professor at Notre Dame, for being so dismissive of natural law. Sadly, though, their attempted…
I happen to be in Houston right now attending the Society of Surgical Oncology annual meeting. Sadly, I'm only about 12 miles away from the lair of everybody's favorite faux clinical researcher and purveyor of a cancer cure that isn't, Stanislaw Burzynski. Such is life. In any case, this conference is all about cancer and how we treat it surgically. That includes prophylactic surgery designed to prevent cancer in people at very high risk. Prophylactic surgery to prevent cancer is never a decision that should be undertaken lightly and almost never is, rants from quacks notwithstanding that…
“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” -Isaac Asimov Yet it's that intersection -- of science with our day-to-day lives, our imaginations, our hopes, fears and dreams -- that's going to be the thing that drives us towards a scientifically literate future. Have a listen to Leonard Cohen’s dark, apocalyptic vision of it, The Future. But when I think of the future -- when I think of it optimistically -- I think of one where we trust what science tells us to the best of our confidence, and use technology, once we grapple with…
Human caused greenhouse gas pollution is heating the Earth and causing the planet’s polar ice caps and other glacial ice to melt. This, along with simply heating the ocean, has caused measurable sea level rise. Even more worrisome is this: the current elevated level of CO2 in the atmosphere was associated in the past with sea levels several meters higher than they are today. Even if we slow down Carbon pollution very quickly, we can expect sea levels to be at least 8 meters higher, eventually. How soon? Nobody knows, nobody can give you a time frame on this because the rate of melting of the…
Quite to my surprise, apparently I've become fairly well known as a critic of so-called "integrative medicine," that which used to be called "complementary and alternative medicine" (CAM) but whose name was changed because its practitioners didn't want to be "complementary" to anything. Rather they wanted their woo to be co-equal with science-based medicine (SBM). Before that, what is now "integrative medicine" after having been CAM was known as "alternative medicine." (The wag in me can't resist further pointing out that before that it was mostly known as quackery.) As I like to say, the…
The last couple of days have been unrelentingly serious and depressing, with posts on the (probably) preventable death of a young Australian woman named Jess Ainscough of a rare cancer because she made the mistake of choosing the quackery that is the Gerson protocol rather than conventional medicine. Unfortunately, the "natural health community" will almost certainly learn nothing from her story, in which Ainscough, facing the very unpleasant prospect of a radical amputation, instead chose Gerson therapy and became an evangelist for that particular form of cancer quackery and "natural healing…
I thought my pet was a meerkat, but it was in fact a mere cat. Movie: Wild Tales. A collection of unconnected short wry films about revenge. Grade: pass. Eagle-eyed Roger Wikell found something that looked like a duplicate entry in my database. A flanged axe found at Vappeby hamlet by someone named Winberg, and a flat axe found at Väppeby hamlet by someone named Vinberg. Turns out they are different axes found by different people, one at Vappeby in Torstuna parish and one at Väppeby in Kalmar parish. Phew! Reading Stanislaw Lem's 1959 novel Eden. His big point is that aliens, their structures…
My title comes from a lying "letter of recommendation" for Soon, which says in part: ...Willie is scrupulous in attending to the basic scientific veracity of everything that he presents in public about scientific matters. He is careful not only in that regard, but also in the attention he pays to drawing reasonable and balanced conclusions, and in rigorously eschewing the unfortunate ad hominem arguments that too often characterize public “debate” about human-caused climate change. The entire thing is a tissue of lies, but that one is particularly galling. My picture demonstrates that its a…
Photo by: Leif Richardson, Dartmouth College I came across this neat press release from the University of Massachusetts: AMHERST, Mass. – Researchers studying the interaction between plants, pollinators and parasites report that in recent experiments, bees infected with a common intestinal parasite had reduced parasite levels in their guts after seven days if the bees also consumed natural toxins present in plant nectar. In this early and most comprehensive study of its kind, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Dartmouth College studied hundreds of eastern bumblebees…
That quote is from a good article in Nature on how sex is non-binary -- my only quibble would be with that "now". You'd have to define "now" as a window of time that encompasses the entirety of my training and work in developmental biology, and I'm getting to be kind of an old guy. Differences in sex development (DSDs) are common knowledge, and rather routine -- and coincidentally, I'm giving an exam on sex chromosome anomalies today. The article works through a lot of basic concepts: chimeric sex, genetic vs. cellular vs. organismal sex, and the development of sexual characters. I was so…
It's been a while since I've taken notice of Vani Hari, a.k.a. The Food Babe, the misguided "food safety" activist who sees chemicals, chemicals, chemicals everywhere and raises fears about them all, especially the ones that she can't pronounce. The first time I took any significant notice of her was about a year ago, when she was making news for lobbying Subway to remove the "yoga mat chemical" azodicarbonamide from its bread. Of course, as I explained, azodicarbonamide is a safe chemical that disappears during the baking. It's a maturing agent that makes bread dough rise better and…
Sometimes, in order to understand advocates of pseudoscience, such as antivaccinationists, it's a useful exercise to look at their most extreme elements. Admittedly, in focusing on such loons, one does take the risk of generalizing the nuts to everyone a bit much, but on the other hand I've often found that the extremists are basically like the less loony versions on steroids. The advantage, to me, is that they are unconcerned (for the most part) with hiding the craziness at the root of their beliefs. While, for instance, SafeMinds of the merry band of antivaccinationists at Age of Autism (…
I swear, I had wanted to write about something else today. I really had. The reason is that we're in one of those stretches of time where things seem to be happening fast and furious that have led most of my posts over the last couple of weeks to be about the Disneyland measles outbreak, how it was facilitated by the antivaccine movement, and the fallout, both in terms of the measles outbreak continuing to spread and the pushback by antivaccinationists anxious to distance themselves from blame for the outbreak. Yes, I've written about "Dr. Bob" Sears, "Dr. Jay" Gordon, and, most recently,…