science

most Republicans deny evolution

From the "this is why we can't have nice things" department:

Republican Acceptance of Evolution Plummets (Slate Magazine)

A poll released today by the Pew Research Center reveals that acceptance of evolution among Republicans has plummeted in recent years, from 54 percent in 2009 to a jarring 43 percent today. The poll also found that a startling 48 percent of Republicans believe that all living things today have existed in their present form since the start of time.

Democrats and independents fared much better: 67 percent of Democrats accept evolution today (up from 64 percent in 2009), while 65 percent of independents accept it (down from 67 percent in 2013[sic]).

(That "67 percent in 2013" should read "...in 2009".)

But there's more: for purposes of this poll, "evolution" means only "humans and other living things have evolved over time", even if some supernatural intelligence were responsible for this change. Many Americans who accept "evolution" in this general sense don't understand or believe that it's due to natural selection, so only 32% of the American public overall believe one of the most basic tenets of biological science.

Perhaps the only good news here is that acceptance of evolution (in the general sense) is higher among young people, suggesting that despite the anti-science faction fighting tooth-and-nail, gains are being made in science education.

Compulsory science fiction in West Virginia schools?


From the Guardian: Bill for compulsory science fiction in West Virginia schools:

A bill calling for science fiction to be made compulsory reading in schools has been proposed by a politician in West Virginia in order to "stimulate interest in the fields of math and science".

Ray Canterbury, a Republican delegate, is appealing to the West Virginia board of education to include science fiction novels on the middle school and high school curriculums. "The Legislature finds that promoting interest in and appreciation for the study of math and science among students is critical to preparing students to compete in the workforce and to assure the economic well being of the state and the nation," he writes in the pending bill.

...

"I'm not interested in fantasy novels about dragons," Canterbury told Blastr in a recent interview. "I'm primarily interested in things where advanced technology is a key component of the storyline, both in terms of the problems that it presents and the solutions that it offers."

three crazy things before breakfast: bad science and GOP politics

Three crazy things I read before breakfast today:

  • a purported "theory of everything" from an assistant professor of molecular biology and microbiology at Case Western Reserve University. A breathless press release titled "Radical theory explains the origin, evolution, and nature of life, challenges conventional wisdom" has been making the rounds, and kicking up some excitement among people who don't read it thoroughly or don't know enough science to spot it as the gibberish it is:

    By fitting the gyromodel to facts accumulated over scientific history, Dr. Andrulis confirms the proposed existence of eight laws of nature. One of these, the natural law of unity, decrees that the living cell and any part of the visible universe are irreducible. This law formally establishes that there is one physical reality.

    Another natural law dictates that the atomic and cosmic realms abide by identical organizational constraints. Simply put, atoms in the human body and solar systems in the universe move and behave in the exact same manner.

    For thorough debunking, see Ars Technica, Retration Watch, and PZ Myers. My first guess was that we might have a Sokal here, but instead it looks like a smart guy having a breakdown. May his nervous system recover its equilibrium.

    But the product of Dr. Andrulis's unbalanced brain is not nearly as nutso as two proposals I read today from Republicans:

bonobo makes fire: "Give me the power of man's red flower / So I can be like you"

In the Disney version of The Jungle Book, King Louie famously sings of his desire to master fire:

Now don't try to kid me, mancub

I made a deal with you

What I desire is man's red fire

To make my dream come true

Give me the secret, mancub

Clue me what to do

Give me the power of man's red flower

So I can be like you

Kanzi the bonobo not only shares this fascination with fire, but can use a lighter to start one, putting to rest the myth that the "dumb beasts" fear fire.

more evidence of Neanderthals in the family tree

I've previously mentioned the evidence that those of us whose ancestral group developed outside Africa, have inherited some percentage of our genome from Neanderthal ancestors. There's more evidence to add to the pile now: a specific region of the X chromosome, which had looked suspicious for almost a decade, has been shown to originate from Neanderthals. The sequence in question was present in people from all over the world except for sub-Saharan Africa.

making outer space safe for beer

Saurian Brandy and Romulan Ale may still be lightyears away, but thanks to Australia's 4 Pines Brewing Company, astronauts and cosmonauts may soon be able to enjoy a beer in orbit. (If you don't think that's important, consider that beer might be the beverage that created civilization.)

Their reduced carbonation stout, named "Vostok" in honor of the first manned spacecraft (flown by Yuri Gagarin in 1961), is designed to avoid the gross phenomenon of the free-fall "wet burp", and also to account for changes in the sense of taste brought on by the space environment. But it's also designed to be tasty here dirtside. Sixpacks are available for in selected stores in Australia for around AUD 20. (If any readers down under care to send me a sixer, I'll pay you back...)

want to eat like a caveman? eat grains and legumes

I recently mentioned a study showing that dietary intake of fiber from grains was strongly tied to lowered risk of death from cardiovascular, infectious, and respiratory diseases, and also protective against cancer deaths in men. (That intake would have to be mostly from whole grains, since the whole point of refining grains is to remove the fiber-rich bran.) And I mentioned that this was another strike against the "paleo" diet, which strongly discourages consumption of grains, as well as legumes and tubers.

Followers of the paleo fad argue that their diet is optimal because it represents what humans ate before the development of agriculture. But as it happens, for years we've had evidence that consumption of wheat and barley -- and perhaps even grain-flour bread -- goes back at least 23,000 years. (And there are hints that it might go back as far as 105,000 years, but that's still very speculative.)

And more recently, in an analysis published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences researchers from George Washington University and the Smithsonian Institution examined phytoliths (microscopic bits of silica or other minerals from plants) and starch grains found on Neanderthal teeth dating back 36,000 to 46,000 years. Their research shows that these most iconic cavemen (who have been recently shown to be part of our ancestry and not just an evolutionary dead-end, as was argued for some years) were not only eating legumes and grains like barley, but were cooking these carb-rich foods to improve their digestibility. (Full article here, though it may be hit by the copyright cops at some point.)

veggies, fruits, and grains for longer life

Yet again, a scientific study shows that if you don't want to die, plant-based nutrition is the way. A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine shows that intake of dietary fiber -- which comes only from vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, and grains, and is not found in meat, eggs, or dairy products -- was associated with a lowered risk of death from cardiovascular, infectious, and respiratory diseases in both men (24% to 56% lower) and women (34% to 59% lower). Fiber was also found to be protective against cancer in men, though a significant effect was not found in women -- perhaps because men are more likely to die from cancers with a strong dietary link, such as esophageal cancer.

Putting yet another nail in the coffin of the psudeoscientific "paleo" diet fad, the results showed that fiber from grains (discouraged in paleo diets) was most strongly tied to lowered risk.

The study, conducted by the National Institutes of Health and AARP, included more than 388,000 people ages 50 to 71. Diet was self-reported by a questionnaire that asked participants to estimate how often they ate 124 food items. After nine years, more than 31,000 of the participants had died, and national records were used to find out who died and the cause of death.

Risk factors including weight, education level, smoking and health status were accounted for in the statistical analysis, but the protective effect of fiber remained.

dead birds and fish mean OMG the end of the world! Or, not.

People panic as in a matter of weeks, large numbers of dead birds are found in Texas, Austrailia, and Russia, and hundreds of thousands of dead fish are found in California.

Whoops! Sorry, had the Guardian of Forever showing me the wrong year. That was 2007. This year, it's dead birds in Italy, Sweden, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Louisiana, and dead fish in Maryland and dead crabs in England

Mass bird and fish kills are not unprecedented. This is the third year in a row for the English crabs, while the Maryland Department of Environment counts 2,900 mass fish kills between 1984 and 2009. Forteans have have collecting stories of birds falling from the sky for decades.

It's certainly possible -- though I have no evidence either way -- that the frequency is increasing, due to pollution, climate change, and the generally shitty way we're treating our planet's life support systems. And that's a very legitimate concern.

But the current spike in observed mass deaths is partly a result of increased information and reporting. A century ago, the news of such an incident would be a local story. Even just four years ago, many fewer us us were rocketing stories around Facebook and the like. But now, thanks to the web, a dozen dead birds in a small town somewhere can fuel panic around the globe. And then once we're primed to look for them, every incident that would have passed with little mention just months ago becomes Part Of The Pattern. (It's a Law Of Fives sort of thing.)

So let's turn down the end-of-days talk and the deep-conspiracy-theory nonsense, okay? Then maybe we can look with a clear and level head at our impact on the planet. Thanks.

ISS + moon + sun

We all need an occasional reminder that, hey, we're living in the future, with computers in our pockets and cyborgs walking the streets -- and a space station orbiting the Earth. This amazing photo by Thierry Legault, showing the ISS transiting the Sun during the recent partial solar eclipse, is a great reminder. That thing that looks like a TIE fighter in front of the Sun? That's the International Space Station. There's people up there, zipping around Sol III at 17,000 mph. That's worth stopping to think about.

You can also see the ISS transiting the Moon in another wonderful photo by Legault.

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