Archive: December, 2011
Higgs did well as a guest blogger. He's also an early adopter, having had his own google+ account for months now. If you google Higgs Flam you'll find he's navigating gracefully through the world of social networking. Deep down, however, he's quite shy and would be pleased to have more people join his circles.
Several readers corrected me on the headline I gave his post, informing me that Higgs is not yellow. The correct term for his coloration is apparently orange, or ginger. To me his fur looks yellow in indirect or artificial light and orange when low-angled sunshine streams in the windows. Ginger sounds too feminine for a male cat.
But that’s just his haircolor. As you can see, his true color is pink. He got this radical punk hairstyle courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, where he underwent some allergy tests last March. Is there a name for this style? If they shaved the other side it would almost be a Mohawk. I was horrified when I first saw him in this state, but he wears it well. It's fashionably asymmetrical. If he ever got to back outside, every cat in Philadelphia would want to look like this.
The National Center for Science Education(NCSE) has just reported on two new bills introduced by the New Hampshire legislature that would restrict teaching of evolution in public schools. One would require evolution be taught as “a theory” along with “the theorists’ political and ideological viewpoints and their position on the concept of atheism.”
The other, according to NSCE would, "[r]equire science teachers to instruct pupils that proper scientific inquire [sic] results from not committing to any one theory or hypothesis, no matter how firmly it appears to be established, and that scientific and technological innovations based on new evidence can challenge accepted scientific theories or modes."
Hearings are scheduled for February.
I came across this piece in Slate, reprinted from New Scientist, which I found interesting because it’s about rules science journalists should follow, and the piece itself breaks a rule I’ve always considered important, which is to be specific whenever possible.
The rules outlined by the Slate/New Scientist piece are no-brainers for those of us at the Inquirer – especially for my colleagues who specialize in medical reporting. The impression the Slate story leaves, by implying these rules aren’t already widely followed, is that it’s just the Wild West at newspapers and we freely distort and hype news to get more play, with little or no intention of explaining complicated things or digging up the truth:
A checklist would look something like the following. Every story on new research should include the sample size and highlight where it may be too small to draw general conclusions. Any increase in risk should be reported in absolute terms as well as percentages: For example, a "50 percent increase" in risk or a "doubling" of risk could merely mean an increase from 1 in 1,000 to 1.5 or 2 in 1,000. A story about medical research should provide a realistic time frame for the work's translation into a treatment or cure. It should emphasize what stage findings are at: If it is a small study in mice, it is just the beginning; if it's a huge clinical trial involving thousands of people, it is more significant. Stories about shocking findings should include the wider context: The first study to find something unusual is inevitably very preliminary; the 50th study to show the same thing may be justifiably alarming. Articles should mention where the story has come from: a conference lecture, an interview with a scientist, or a study in a peer-reviewed journal, for example.
I occasionally post feedback to my column, partly to stimulate discussion but also to shed light on America’s peculiar resistance to evolution. The issues expressed by these readers sometimes suggest science illiteracy, but it’s not so much a lack of the right facts and figures as a misunderstanding of the nature of the scientific method.
Normally when I post feedback I offer some counterpoint from a scientist. But it’s the holiday season, and most scientists are on vacation, so I thought I’d make a special exception this week and let Higgs the cat take a stab at this job. Let’s see how he does.
And here’s one I’ll transcribe from my voice mail on Dec. 26:
A group of UFOlogists are meeting this Saturday in the Philadelphia area, and I’d like to call their attention to this photo. Could that face belong to a creature of this world? I found out about the meeting from a press announcement, which boasts we in PA are second only to California in sightings:
"Do you know that Pennsylvania has the highest number of sightings reported, next to California? (Mutual UFO Network report in September, 2011)"
Second place isn’t bad but we might move into first if we could figure out what they’re after in California. Is it the sushi? The wine? Are Californians more fun to abduct? Here’s more:
Lately I’ve collected a file of stories and press releases claiming that some new biological finding vindicates French natural philosopher Jean Lamarck. The guy sure could use it. It’s good to be famous, but Lamarck is remembered mostly as a court jester of evolution. When I hear the name Lamarck, I think of giraffes, since these are often used as an example of so-called Lamarckian evolution. In Lamarck’s evolution, the story goes, giraffes acquired long necks over the generations by reaching for high leaves, thus stretching their necks and passing the stretched neck on to the next generation.
The scientific advances that are claimed to vindicate him are examples where some acquired traits can be inherited, not through DNA changes but through other mechanisms, such as alterations in the molecules that are attached to DNA. But these advances don’t vindicate Lamarck because he wasn’t the one to come up with the idea that acquired traits can be inherited. Inheritance of acquired traits has stuck to his name like a barnacle, but his error was not to invent this idea but to fail to see past it.
I learned this from further reading into Loren Eiseley’s Darwin’s Century. Pop history gives us an erroneous view of Lamarck, who was born in 1744. Lamarck’s innovation was to see thought the entrenched concept that species of living things were immutable. Breeds and varieties could emerge, but a cat was always a cat and a dog a dog and it had been so since the beginning of time.
The interrelated topics of animal research and animal rights bring out powerful emotions in many people. There’s no scientific consensus converging on an answer. What bothers me is that I’m not sure humanlike intelligence and self-awareness should be the only thing considered when deciding whether an animal should be subject to research that causes it harm.
My own cat Higgs may not be particularly intelligent, despite having his own Google + account and twitter handle Darwins_Hellcat. In his real life he’s sweet, shy and so easily terrified that he hides in the closet when anyone sneezes. The thought of him caged in a lab or used in a biomedical experiment is horrifying.
I have the same revulsion to dogs being used in invasive experiments. I confided this to a biologist who responded to the column and here’s what he wrote back:
Chimps are about 96 percent genetically identical to humans, and like us they are self-aware enough to recognize themselves in a mirror.
But physically, we show some remarkable differences. They don't get the same kind of heart disease humans get. They develop some of the brain abnormalities associated with Alzheimer's disease, but not others. And despite being more sexually promiscuous than humans, they don't get the same sexually transmitted diseases.
They heal better than we do and don't get sleep apnea, hemorrhoids, varicose veins, or acne. They aren't vulnerable to cancers of the breast, lung, stomach, pancreas, colon, ovaries, or prostate.