Archive for the ‘Biology’ Category

Have We Found Aliens?

January 25, 2016

It is just barely possible that we have discovered the first evidence for some sort of extraterrestrial intelligence. At any rate, astronomers have discovered a star that is something of an anomaly, according to this article.

Three months ago, news broke that a giant “alien megastructure” could exist around a bizarre-looking star 1,500 light-years away.

While the prospect of aliens was first launched by Penn State astronomer Jason Wright, almost everyone in the astronomy community agreed that the chances that this was the case were “very low.

Now, the latest investigations into this strange star by Louisiana State University astronomerBradley Schaefer have reignited the alien theory, New Scientist reported.

What makes this star, KIC8462852, so bizarre is the drastic changes in light we see from it over time. Many stars experience temporary fluctuations in brightness, increasing and decreasing in luminosity over time, but KIC8462852’s changes are severe by comparison.

Astronomers refer to stars that experience those fluctuations in luminosity as variable stars. A star can change in brightness either because something occasionally blocks the star’s light, usually a companion star or perhaps a planet, or because the internal processes of the star cause variations in luminosity. Probably every star is at least a little variable. The Sun has its eleven year sunspot cycle, for example. Whether the cause of a star’s variability is external or internal, its cycle of variability tends to be regular. That does not seem to be the case with KIC8462852.

Between 2009 and 2013, astronomers using the Kepler space telescope discovered that it would sometimes lose up to 20% of its brightness. What’s more, the changes didn’t follow any obvious pattern.

That would suggest something gigantic must be blocking the light at random times, meaning that it couldn’t be a planet or other regular orbiting object because that would generate a distinct pattern of dimming light. It must be something that changes shape over time, thereby blocking different levels of light at random intervals.

Could the cause be artificial?

An alien megastructure, called a Dyson swarm, was suggested as one explanation for what scientists have observed, but the most likely reason astronomers came up with was comets — a giant family of them.

But Shaefer says not so fast.

“The comet-family idea was reasonably put forth as the best of the proposals, even while acknowledging that they all were a poor lot,” Schaefer told New Scientist. “But now we have a refutation of the idea, and indeed, of all published ideas.”

To make his discovery, Schaefer had to dig deep down into the astronomy archives at Harvard. It turns out, astronomers have data on KIC8462852 dating back as far as 1890.

By analyzing over 1,200 measurements of this star’s brightness taken from 1890 through 1989, Schaefer found that the irregular dimming of KIC8462852 has been going on for over 100 years. Schaefer published his findings in the online preprint server arXiv.org.

What’s more, he explains in his paper that this “century-long dimming trend requires an estimated 648,000 giant comets (each with 200 km diameter) all orchestrated to pass in front of the star within the last century,” which he said is “completely implausible.”

By killing the comet theory, Schaefer has brought us one step closer to finding out what is really happening around KIC8462852.

At the same time, he’s also reignited the possibility that the source could be an alien megastructure that an advanced alien civilization has been slowly building over time. One thing’s certain for Schaefer: The bizarre dimmings are probably caused by a single, physical mechanism that’s undergoing some type of ongoing change.

“The century-long dimming and the day-long dips are both just extreme ends of a spectrum of timescales for unique dimming events, so by Ockham’s Razor, all this is produced by one physical mechanism,” Shaefer said in his paper. “This one mechanism does not appear as any isolated catastrophic event in the last century, but rather must be some ongoing process with continuous effects.”

Schaefer isn’t the only one interested in learning more about KIC8462852. Late last year, astronomer Doug Vakoch and his team at the new organization called SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) International — not to be confused with the SETI Institute — went hunting for aliens around KIC8462852.

They searched for signals that an alien civilization might be beaming toward Earth either in radio or visible wavelengths, but ultimately they came up empty handed. So, if it is aliens, then they’re being awfully quiet.

Is it aliens? If this is some structure created by an extraterrestrial civilization, we shouldn’t expect to be receiving any sort of messages from them. They would have no reason to believe that there is any intelligent life here on Earth since any radio waves we have emitted cannot be farther than about 100 light years away by now. Any message to or from KIC8462582 would take 1500 years to reach its destination. They may have sent a message last year but we won’t get it for a long time.

I tend to think, however, that the explanation for the strange behavior of KIC8462582 will turn out to be due to an entirely natural phenomenon.I think that as we begin to explore the universe we will find that life is fairly common. The elements and compounds that make up the basic components of life are found throughout the universe and if the current understanding of the earliest history of the Earth is accurate, it seems that life arose on this planet as soon as it was physically possible. Scientists do not know precisely how life began on Earth, but I think that they will find that where ever the right conditions are found, there will be life of some sort. I think, though, that most of the life we find in the universe is going to be simple and primitive, some equivalent of terrestrial bacteria. Bacteria were the only form of life found on Earth for most of its history. Intelligent life must be still rarer. Human beings have only been around much less than 1% of the Earth’s history and we have only had to capability to communicate by radio for a little over a century. There doesn’t seem to be any reason to believe that the development of intelligent life or a technological civilization was inevitable and considering the strange twists and turns of the history of life it  may not be very probable. I think then, that we will find some few worlds with alien plants or animals, but that we are probably the only intelligent form of life in our galaxy.

Even if there are extraterrestrial civilizations, our relations with them will not be like Star Wars or Star Trek in which there are a number of different races at about the same level of technology. It is more likely that if two civilizations make contact, one civilization will be millions of years ahead of the other. Any space wars are likely to be short and decisive with the more advanced civilization quickly overcoming the more primitive. With that in mind, maybe we shouldn’t be trying to draw attention to ourselves. I would hate to think that there is a fleet of conquistadors from KIC8462852 heading this way.

Ben Carson and Evolution

November 9, 2015

I got this meme off of Facebook. I think it originally came from the left-wing blog Daily Kos.

Carson Evolution

Why is this an issue in any presidential campaign? Since the duties of the President of the United States do not include teaching a science class, how is any candidate’s opinion on the theory of evolution particularly relevant? I would be more concerned with a candidate’s opinion on the theories of Marx than of Darwin. Marx’s ideas have contributed to the murder of millions and has caused more misery than any opinion on evolution ever has, yet candidates with ideas derived from Marx never seemed to be questioned by the media. The fact that Bernie Sanders calls himself a socialist or that Barack Obama had as mentors such left-wing Marxist radicals as Bill Ayers and Frank Marshall Davis seem to me to be of far more concern than Dr. Ben Carson’s thoughts on evolution.

I suppose that the people at Daily Kos would argue that Dr. Carson’s beliefs about evolution disqualify him for the presidency because they show that he is anti-science. If that is the case, that Carson really is against science, what do they imagine he will do as president? Cut all funding for research? Insist that universities that accept federal funds teach creationism? Even if he wanted to do this, and there is no indication that he did, President Carson would find it very difficult to impose creationism on the scientific community. The President of the United States is not a dictator, at least not yet, and cannot single handedly control the education policies of the entire country. I think that science is safe from a president who does not believe in evolution.

But is Ben Carson really anti-science? For that matter are creationists really anti-science? They certainly do not believe that the theory of evolution is a valid explanation for the origin and adaptation of life on Earth and they disagree with current ideas about the age of the planet and the universe, but is this being anti-science? According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, the definition of science is:

The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.

Science can also mean “an organized body of knowledge on a particular subject”, so one might argue that Dr. Carson and creationists  are not knowledgeable in the sciences of biology and geology but that is not the same as saying that they are anti-science in the first sense. In fact, hardly anyone is actually anti-science in the sense of being against the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world. Even people people espousing wildly unscientific ideas try to assume the mantle of science. Creationists like to say they have scientific evidence for their position, even when it really boils down to, “The Bible says it”. Disbelief in evolution does not necessarily imply disbelief in the scientific process.

The real importance of evolution to the left does not seem to be its status as a scientific hypothesis subject to falsification but as a means to differentiate between the elite intellectual elite and the bitter clingers in flyover country. To them, belief in evolution is a sign to show that you are on the right side of science and history. It, along with climate change is sacred knowledge, not to be questioned or doubted. By demonstrating a disbelief in evolution, Dr. Carson shows that he is lacking in intelligence and should be disqualified from the presidency.

The irony here is that Dr. Ben Carson is probably a good deal more intelligent and educated than the person who put together that meme. He is certainly more accomplished, being a gifted neurosurgeon. It is even possible he is more scientifically knowledgeable, even about evolution. I wonder how much that that person who created that meme really knows about the theory of evolution or can explain why it is accepted as an explanation for the development of life by nearly every scientist knowledgeable in the relevant fields. I would guess that he believes in evolution because it is what was taught in school and that it is what all of the smart people believe. Well, that is not the same as actually investigating the matter for oneself and actually trying to understand why a given theory is believed to be true. You don’t get to give yourself credit for being in the intellectual elite for simply remembering what you learned in school twenty years ago and you don’t get the right to sneer at people better than yourself.

 

 

Hitler’s Illness

October 26, 2015

Not long ago, I wrote about how Vladimir Lenin‘s poor health and untimely death after a series of strokes drastically effected the course of Soviet, and world, history. This time I want to write a little on how Adolf Hitler’s state of health influence the decisions he made just before and during World War II and whether his judgement was affected by  illness. Hitler clearly was not in very good health towards the end of World War II and it seems likely that even if the Germans had won the war, Hitler would not have lived to enjoy his Third Reich for very long. The precise nature of any illness that Hitler suffered from is unclear since he is not available for a medical examination and his body was not autopsied. There has been much speculation about Hitler’s health in the decades since his death, with theories that Hitler was afflicted with syphilis, suffered from the ministrations of his personal physician; a quack named Theodor Morell, or simply was consumed with the crushing stress of leading a losing war. The most likely theory to explain Hitler’s symptoms is that Hitler suffered from Parkinson’s Disease, as related in this article from the Daily Mail that I read recently.

Parkinson’s disease may have played a crucial role in Adolf Hitler’s defeat, according to a controversial new study.

The research claims the neurological disease influenced some of the dictator’s biggest decisions, making him reckless and ultimately losing World War II.

But it also goes a step further to say that Hitler’s horrific and inhumane murders were also influenced by his disease, exaggerating his ‘volatile temperament’.

The study was led by Raghav Gupta and a team at the University of Pittsburgh and recently published in the journal World Neurosurgery.

‘The possibility of Hitler suffering from Parkinson’s has long been the subject of debate,’ writes Gupta.

‘Video evidence depicts that Hitler exhibited progressive motor function deterioration from 1933 to 1945.’

By the end of his life, Hitler had a pronounced tremor in his hands, particularly his left hand, which has caused a number of scientists to question whether he had the disease.

Parkinson’s can also cause a slow gait, bent posture and a dull stare, along with cognitive disorders such as a lack of imagination and a general apathy.

The researchers suggest that Hitler’s condition may have led him to attack Russia prematurely in 1941, according to a report in Discover.

A previous study claimed that Hitler’s decision to invade Russia, before defeating Britain on the western front, was a direct result of his failing health.

The study points to other bad decisions of Hitler’s such the failure to defend Normandy in 1944, alongside keeping his forces in Stalingrad in 1942.

They say this was the result of the dictator’s ‘volatile temperament’ which may have been aggravated by his Parkinson’s.

The study also goes on to suggest that Hitler’s lack of remorse and sympathy can be associated with his Parkinson’s.

Assuming that Hitler did indeed suffer from Parkinson’s disease, how did it affect his judgement and the outcome of the war?

Did he have Parkinson's Disease?

Did he have Parkinson’s Disease?

 Hitler always was something of a gambler and a risk taker, preferring to improvise rather than making elaborate plans. This willingness to risk everything on a single throw of the dice, as it were, helped Hitler immeasurably during his rise to power in Germany and in the early years of his rule, especially since he could also be patient when it was necessary. Up until around 1937 Hitler was largely successful in obtaining his goals both inside Germany and in Germany’s relations with its neighbors. Germany seemed to have largely recovered from the Great Depression and regained its place as one of the leading nations of Germany. Had Hitler stopped then, he would possibly be regarded as a great statesman.  After 1937, Hitler seemed to become more impatient and reckless.

Consider the timeline leading up to the Second World War. In March 1938, Germany invaded and annexed Austria. Almost immediately, Hitler began pressing for the session of the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia on the grounds that the majority of the population were ethnic Germans and therefore the region rightly belonged to Germany. After the Munich agreement in September 1938, the Germans occupied and annexed the Sudetenland. Then in March 1939 Germany annexed the rest of Czechoslovakia. Then Hitler demanded that Poland cede the city of Danzig to Germany and when Poland refused, he ordered the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, beginning World War II. Now, each step of Hitler’s path to the war was in itself reasonable and could perhaps be justified in terms of Germany’s national interest. No one in Europe really wanted a war, even Hitler. If he had allowed more time to elapse between his conquests, it is likely that he would have continued to lull France and Great Britain into inactivity. As it was, one move after another in quick succession thoroughly alarmed both Britain and France. They might have gone to war in any case after the invasion of Poland, but if Hitler had waited perhaps longer between conquests, Germany might have been more prepared for the war. As it was, the war really started too early for Germany. The Germans had been rearming almost since the Nazis had gained power but it would have been better if Hitler could have put it off until around 1942 or 1943, especially since Mussolini had advised Hitler that Italy could not be ready for war until at least 1945. Why the hurry?

By the end of 1940, Hitler had defeated France and was the master of continental Europe with only Britain still opposing him. Then on June 22, 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. This was not an entirely unreasonable course of action for Germany. Hitler had good reason to suspect that Stalin was biding his time waiting for the capitalist powers to exhaust themselves in war before swooping in to bring the revolution to Europe. Moreover, Stalin’s purges had badly weakened the Red Army and Hitler could reasonably consider that it would be better to invade before Russia recovered its strength. Still, why the hurry when Hitler was still at war with Great Britain and it was increasingly obvious that it was only a matter of time before the United States intervened? Surely Hitler could have waited another year. By that time the morale of the British people would likely to have decreased to the point that they would have been extremely receptive to some peace proposal. The Germans had also wasted valuable time in the spring and early summer of 1941 assisting Italy after its disastrous invasion of Yugoslavia. Why couldn’t Hitler have waited until the spring of 1942 to begin his invasion of Russia, giving the Germans plenty of time to conquer as much territory as possible before the cruel Russian winter began.

I suppose the answer is that Hitler knew by 1938 that he was not especially well and that he perhaps did not have much time left. It may be that the best thing Hitler could have done for the Third Reich would have been to retire from the day to day running of the country and appoint a successor. The problem is that Fuehrers really can’t retire, and Hitler was not willing to be known to history as the predecessor to the man who created the thousand year Reich. He did not want to play the role of Phillip the Macedonian to another man’s Alexander the Great.

It is a little strange that Hitler’s increasingly obvious lapses in judgment towards the end of the war did not lead to some sort of coup. There were attempts to assassinate the Fuhrer, most notably the plot by Army officers led by Claus von Stauffenberg, but no attempts to seize power by the members of Hitler’s inner circle who had direct knowledge of his increasing inability to lead the Third Reich. They schemed among themselves for Hitler’s favor right up to the end, but none of them ever seem to have seriously considered replacing him. Perhaps they realized that they were not strong personalities in themselves and their fates were inextricably tied to Hitler’s.

Whatever the precise nature of Hitler’s illness, I think we can all be grateful that Hitler did suffer from ill health that made him more impatient and reckless. A healthier Hitler might have been a more rational Hitler better able to lead his nation in war and peace and perhaps more likely to succeed in his goals. It maybe that Hitler’s illness is the major reason Nazi Germany is not the leading world power to this day.

The Life and Death of Lenin

August 24, 2015

I am a fan of Isaac Asimov‘s science fiction stories, particularly of his Foundation series. In this series of books, a mathematician named Hari Seldon invents a way to predict the future through the mathematics of probability, which he calls Psychohistory.  It is not possible to predict the future actions of an individual person or even small groups of people. Psychohistory only works which large populations, entire worlds and nations. By using psychohistory Seldon learns  that the Galactic Empire, which has existed for thousands of years, is falling and the galaxy will enter into a dark age lasting for many millennia if nothing is done. It is too late to avert the fall of the Empire, but Seldon hopes to shorten the interregnum between the First and Second Galactic Empires to merely a thousand years by setting up two Foundations at opposite ends of the galaxy that will preserve the scientific knowledge that would otherwise be lost and to lead the way to the reunification of the galaxy.

Could there really be such a method of calculating the future as Isaac Asimov’s psychohistory? In order for something like that to work, history would have to be determined by great economic and social forces and the choices of individuals, even great generals and kings, would have to be inconsequential. Carlyle’s Great Man Theory would have to give way to Spencer’s theory that even great men are mere products of their environment.

For my part, I do not believe that psychohistory could really be possible. I think that great men, and women, really do alter the course of history. There are just so many ways in which history could have turned out very differently, if the personalities of the persons involved has been different. Imagine the American Revolution without George Washington or Germany after the First World War without a Hitler. Then too, there ware the completely unpredictable workings of nature. Climate change has had a greater effect on the rise and fall of empires than is generally recognized. Diseases like the Black Death can appear due to chance mutations of a virus or bacteria and kill half the population of a continent with little warning.

I could give many examples, but the one that I would like to consider is the life and death of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the founder of the Bolshevik Party and the first leader of the USSR. Before the Russian Revolutions of 1917, there were many socialist factions seeking reform or revolution in Russia, some Marxist, some not. Among all these parties, Lenin’s party, the Bolsheviks were the most radically Marxist and the most given to violence and terrorism. Lenin and his lieutenants had no use for the kind of parliamentary reforms that more moderate groups wanted to bring to Russia, nor did he care for reforms to improve the conditions of the masses. Lenin and the Bolsheviks wanted revolution.When the Czar was overthrown in February, 1917 and a republican Provisional  Government set up, the Bolsheviks played almost no role in the great affairs. Lenin was still in exile and wanted his party to have no part in bourgeoisie elections. The party would seize power in a Communist revolution.

It is important to understand that this decision to seize power was entirely Lenin’s. None of the other leading Bolsheviks thought it was a good idea and properly speaking, as good Marxists, the Bolsheviks ought not to have led a revolution at all. Marx has very definite ideas on how Communism was supposed to come about. He believed that every society moved through stages, from the primitive socialism of savages to the great slave states of the ancient world, to feudalism,  capitalism, socialism, and finally communism. Since Russia was still emerging from feudalism into capitalism, Lenin ought to have waited until capitalism was fully developed in Russia before leading the revolution. Lenin, however, realized that the Bolsheviks would never have a better chance for power than while the Russian government and economy were in a state of collapse.

Lenin

Lenin

Lenin’s rule as the first leader of the Soviet Union was a disaster for the Russian people. All of the totalitarian aspects of the communist regime that are usually attributed to Joseph Stalin’s tyranny had their beginnings with Lenin. Lenin was the one who setup the Checka, the secret police and it was Lenin who established the Gulags and the use of terror to subdue the population. Yet, despotic as Lenin was, Stalin was far worse and it was doubly unfortunate for the Russian people that Lenin’s premature death in 1924 led to the assumption of power by Stalin.

joseph-stalin-and-vladimir-lenin

In the year before his death, Lenin was increasingly uneasy over events in the Soviet Union. The great revolution did not seem to be leading to a communist utopia but had exchanged the tyranny of the Czar with the tyranny of the commissar. Lenin began to consider ways of making the Soviet state more representative of the workers it purported to serve. Lenin was also becoming aware that Stalin, while a good man to have around in a revolution, was wholly unsuited to wielding power after the revolution. Lenin decided that Stalin had to be relieved of his powerful position of Party General Secretary. If Lenin had lived a normal lifespan, it is likely that he would have succeeded in unseating Stalin.  It is less likely that he would have made the Soviet regime in any sense democratic. Lenin’s own autocratic personality prevented him from ever really seeing that the cause of the increasingly oppressive regime was his own reluctance to allow anyone outside the Communist Party from gaining any real independence from the rule of the Party. Still, if Lenin had not died, the rule of the Communist Party, while still despotic, would not have reached the insane level of repression as it did under Stalin. The history of the twentieth century might have been very different, depending on whether Lenin lived or died.

Lenin was only 53 when he died following a series of strokes over the previous year which progressively weakened him. After his death, an autopsy showed that he had advanced arteriosclerosis in his brain with some blood vessels completely calcified. The arteriosclerosis was far worse than might be expected in a man of Lenin’s age, especially as he had none of the risk factors that might be associated with the disease. Lenin did not smoke, was moderate in his diet, and exercised regularly. He was under a considerable amount of stress as leader of a nation in a civil war and which had to be rebuilt almost from the ground up. Still, such an advanced case of arteriosclerosis at Lenin’s age is unusual, particularly considering that the worst buildup of plaque was in the blood vessels of his brain. The blood vessels in the rest of Lenin’s body were no more afflicted by the disease than might be expected by a man of his age and habits. Something strange was going on.

Recently, researchers have discovered that a mutation in a single gene can cause a selective buildup of the plaque that causes arteriosclerosis in the legs. Could Lenin have suffered from a similar genetic disorder that caused such a buildup in the brain? Lenin’s father also suffered from cardiovascular disease, dying of heart disease at the age of 54. While it is not yet confirmed that Lenin himself suffered from a genetic defect that specifically targeted the blood vessels of the brain, it is clear that there was some sort of hereditary predisposition for cardiovascular disease.

Getting back to psychohistory, I do not see how any method of predicting the future could account for the life and death of Lenin. It would not be difficult to predict the fall of the Czar many years before it happened. It may not have been too difficult to predict that the most radical faction of the revolutionaries seeking the overthrow of the Czar would end up in control. Other revolutions have seen similar outcomes. But how could anyone predict that a small splinter faction would end up seizing power in a coup? Remember that Lenin was the only Bolshevik who thought such a coup had any chance of success. If Lenin had still been in exile, the October Revolution wouldn’t have happened and either some other Marxist faction would have gained power, or the Provisional Government would have had time to get things settled down enough to establish a more permanent government. Even if it were possible to account for the rise of the Bolsheviks, how could anyone predict in advance that their leader suffered from a genetic defect that would kill him prematurely and pave the way for a psychopath like Stalin to gain power?

I think that it is clear that it is individuals who make history, either by the decisions of the great ones, or the actions of millions of lesser people. The social and economic forces that historians like Spencer believe that drive the course of history are nothing more than the trillions of actions made by billions of people over time with considerable influence brought on by unpredictable natural events. Psychohistory will probably have to stay in the realm of fiction.

Transcending Truth

June 8, 2015

Everyone seems to be talking about Bruce Jenner and his transformation into Caitlyn Jenner, so I might as well say what I think, although I am afraid that I have already committed a micro-aggression by referring to Bruce/Caitlyn as “he”, when he, I’m sorry, she, has always been a woman, even though she has had a man’s body most of her life. I may be an incorrigible micro-aggressor who will need to be sent to the diversity  camps since I posted this picture on Facebook last week.

B9SorakCcAAuuKI

 

I should explain that I do not have anything against Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner. Before this latest adventure, I barely knew he (there I go again) existed. Mr. Jenner’s choices in life are his own business. I don’t have anything in particular against the transgendered. It must be fairly unpleasant to be confused about which gender you are. I do not have any moral or religious objections to this sort of thing. My objections are based on epistemological and linguistic grounds.

We recognize and categorize objects and concepts based on the attributes we observed through our senses and the use of our reason. I know that a four-legged, furry animal that barks is a dog because it has the attributes of a dog. I know that a four-legged, furry animal that meows is not a dog but a cat, because while it shares some attributes (four legs, fur) with a dog it has an attribute, (meowing) that distinguishes it from a dog. I know that a larger four-legged animal that people ride, a two-legged animal with feathers, and a four-legged animal with scales are not dogs but a horse, a bird and a reptile because of the observed attributes that distinguish each kind of animal. All of the organisms I named have the shared attribute of being able to move about on their own. A tree cannot move on its own and since it lacks the attribute that animals share, a tree is not an animal but a plant. This is all a vast oversimplification of a subject that philosophers have debated over for centuries, but I hope you  understand what I am saying.

Now, Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner does not possess any of the attributes that distinguish a woman from a man. He has not had any gender reassignment surgery, as far as I know, and even if he has, it still would not really make him into a woman. The best that the most skillful surgeon in the world can to is to give someone something of the outward appearance of the opposite sex. There is not, at present, any medical procedure that can really change someone’s gender. Yet, I feel as though I am expected to say, and believe Jenner is really a woman, despite the evidence of my senses and reason on pain of being branded a bigot and ostracized from polite society. I really do not much care for being put into a position in which I have to say something that is simply not true.

But, there is something else that bothers me about this affair. We use language in order to communicate with one another. We use words to name and classify the objects we wish to talk about. In order for this to work, we have to agree on which words go with which objects and concepts. If you call an animal that barks a dog and I call it a cat, we are likely to become confused. I cannot say that I feel that it is a cat and if you do not agree, you must be some sort of bigot, yet if I say that Bruce Jenner is actually a man because he still fits the definition of a man, I am a hater and a bigot. The idea seems to be that the words we use do not describe or reflect reality but create reality. A woman is not a person with certain attributes that indicate the female gender, but whoever happens to feel like a woman.  A hairy, burly man with a long beard could declare himself a woman and we would have to agree because calling himself a woman really makes him a woman.

Surely, this is madness. If I were to state that I am really Napoleon Bonaparte, I don’t imagine that anyone would believe me since I am not a French Emperor and Napoleon has been dead for a long time. If I were to travel to Paris and demand to be reinstated to my rightful place, I don’t think the French authorities would pay much attention to me, except to send me back to America in the next plane. There would be no question in most people’s minds that I was suffering from a delusion. If I insisted that I was really a tiger and demanded surgery to reshape my body to conform to my true self, no surgeon would comply, at least not if he wanted to keep his license to practice medicine. It would be clear that I had some sort of mental illness.

His modifications were not done by an actual surgeon.  And no, that isn't a good idea.

His modifications were not done by an actual surgeon.
And no, that isn’t a good idea.

 

Yet, if I started to wear women’s clothing and insisted that I was really a woman, I could, after some counseling get a surgeon to make changes not much less drastic that the obviously not entirely sane person pictured above.

This is madness. The simple truth is that there is no way to really change someone’s gender. There is no difference, in principle between the man who wants his penis cut off and the man who wants to have his arm amputated because he feels as though he is really an amputee, except that the one is clearly recognized as suffering from a mental disorder and needs help, while the other has become the latest group of people being used by the loony left to fundamentally transform this country.

Bruce Jenner is not a fruit loop. He is a man with some issues regarding his gender and he deserves our help and sympathy. It is the the people who are enabling and encouraging this sort of madness for their own reasons who are the fruit loops.

God on the Ropes

February 28, 2015

According to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, some brilliant new scientific research has demolished the Christian Right and the Creationists.

The Christian right’s obsessive hatred of Darwin is a wonder to behold, but it could someday be rivaled by the hatred of someone you’ve probably never even heard of. Darwin earned their hatred because he explained the evolution of life in a way that doesn’t require the hand of God. Darwin didn’t exclude God, of course, though many creationists seem incapable of grasping this point. But he didn’t require God, either, and that was enough to drive some people mad.

Hatred is perhaps too strong a word to apply to many Christians’ feelings about Charles Darwin, but many Christians certainly do not approve of his theory, judging it to be a direct attack on their faith. They shouldn’t feel that way. Darwin’s theory of evolution is an attempt to explain the development and adaptation of organisms to their environment. Like every other scientific hypothesis, evolution has nothing to say about any deities. Questions about the existence of God belong to the realm of metaphysics, not physics. To say evolution dispenses with the hand of God is a metaphysical rather than a scientific statement. One might just as well say that Newton’s theory of gravity or Einstein’s theory of Relativity dispenses with the hand of God. An Atheist may believe this but a Theist would see the hand of God behind evolution or gravity.

Darwin also didn’t have anything to say about how life got started in the first place — which still leaves a mighty big role for God to play, for those who are so inclined.But that could be about to change, and things could get a whole lot worse for creationists because of Jeremy England, a young MIT professor who’s proposed a theory, based in thermodynamics, showing that the emergence of life was not accidental, but necessary. “[U]nder certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life,” he was quoted as saying in an article in Quanta magazine early in 2014, that’s since been republished by Scientific American and, more recently, by Business Insider. In essence, he’s saying, life itself evolved out of simpler non-living systems.

I hope that there are not many Christians who would make the argument that because we do not know, at present, precisely what natural processes were responsible for the beginning of life on Earth, that no natural process could have began life and therefore life had to have a supernatural origin. This attribution of divine intervention for things that we do not understand is called the God of the gaps argument. God is held to be active in areas scientific research has not yet penetrated. This is a very bad argument because the gaps are always shrinking. It also does not give God enough credit. God is not active just in matters that we cannot explain, but is present and active in the whole world. The observations we make about the motions and relationships of the objects in the universe and which we call natural laws are all ultimately manifestations of the divine will. The hand of God is everywhere and there are no gaps in His providence.

For this reason, I have never been very impressed with the argument that the origin of life on Earth is so statistically unlikely that only divine intervention could explain it. When God created the universe he also created the natural laws by which the universe operates. If God wanted life in the universe, why would He design it in such a way that the formation of life would be very unlikely, even impossible? It seems to me that the idea that God had to step in to correct the natural course of events makes for a rather clumsy and bumbling God. I believe, rather, that God specifically designed the universe to make the formation of life not just possible but likely and even inevitable. Thus, I do not see Jeremy England’s hypothesis, for it cannot yet rise to the status of theory, as any particular challenge to my faith, but as a sort of confirmation how I believe God interacts with the natural world, provided that the hypothesis is found to be supported by data and research.

Just the Facts About Vaccination

February 17, 2015

I read this open letter on the rejection of the proven, life saving technologies vaccination and genetically modified organisms.

Dear Every American Who Doesn’t Believe in Science:

I know you are smart.  I know you care about your kids, your family, your pets.  I know you are a basically decent human being who wants to do right and contribute to society.  And because I know these things, I’m going to try very hard to understand why you refuse to believe in scientific fact, rather than berate you and call you names.

The funny thing is, I actually think I’m reasonably good at seeing the other side of any issue.   There are a few issues where I struggle, but even then, if I’m honest with myself, I can intellectually understand the other side of the issue and why my friend or colleague has positioned himself on that side.

Regarding immunizations and genetically modified organisms, I can’t.

Yes, I view these two issues – though they are definitely in different industries – as intertwined.  Why?  Because the people who are anti either of them have a blatant disregard for science and I just don’t understand that.

Scientific consensus on both of these issues is that both are safe.  Immunizations are safe for the vast majority of people.  GMOs are safe for everyone.

Do you understand what scientific consensus is, my friend?  That means that most of the scientists (maybe even those who don’t usually agree) believe the safety of GMOs and immunizations to be fact.  It’s beyond dispute.  The data has proven safety beyond a shadow of a doubt so that scientists no longer squabble over this issue.

I appreciate what this writer is trying to do and agree with her positions, yet I cannot help but consider that her arguments are somewhat flawed, or perhaps insufficient is a better way to put it. Basically, her argument is that Science has decreed that vaccines and GMO’s are safe because there is a consensus and all the scientists say they are safe. In my view, this is a misunderstanding of what science really is and how it should work.

Science is not a body of lore handed down on stone tablets at Mount Sinai by God or some famous scientist. Science is a method of inquiry used to learn facts about the natural world. It does matter what Einstein or Newton or some other famous scientist says, no matter how great their contributions to science. They can be wrong. It does not matter what the consensus is. The consensus could be mistaken. Not so very long ago, the scientific consensus was that disease was caused by imbalances of bodily humors and bleeding was the most effective treatment. The only thing that matters, or should matter in science is the observations that are made and the logical inductions that are made from those observations Ideally, scientist should be interested in “just the facts”. I think the best arguments on any subject are those based on just the facts.

So, what are the facts about vaccination. Before the widespread introduction of vaccination, people fell sick and even died from a variety of infectious, contagious diseases’ smallpox, measles, whooping cough diphtheria, to name just the ones that spring immediately to mind. These diseases have been virtually wiped out since vaccines for them have been developed. Smallpox, the deadly disease that people feared, is now extinct. Only in backward regions, filled with ignorant and superstitious people, such as the darkest regions of California do these diseases continue to plague humanity.

There have been no credible studies linking vaccination with autism or any other chronic illness. The one study that did propose such a link has been discredited and retracted. This does not mean that there isn’t such a link.There could well be one that has not yet been discovered. But, consider the fact that millions of children have been vaccinated with no ill effects. There may be some danger in being vaccinated, nothing in this world is completely safe, but the dangers associated with not being vaccinated are far greater and more certain. Any rational consideration of the risks and benefits of vaccination must come to the conclusion that the benefits outweigh the risks. If you do not get your children immunized, you are putting them at risk of catching  preventable diseases that could cause permanent damage to their health, or even death. Those are just the facts.

 

 

The Bubble Boy Cured

November 20, 2014

One of the funniest episodes of the sitcom Seinfeld was The Bubble Boy, which naturally featured a boy with a severe immune disorder who lived in a “bubble”. The main characters of the show; Jerry, Elaine, George and George’s girlfriend Susan are all going  on a trip to Susan’s family’s cabin with a stop along the way for Jerry to meet a young fan of his who happened to be a bubble boy. Driving in two separate cars, the group becomes separated and George and Susan arrive at the bubble boy’s house not knowing where Jerry and Elaine are or how late they might be.

 

This episode aired back in 1992 and advancing technology has rendered the premise of a party being lost and separated obsolete. In our age of ubiquitous cell phones, Jerry Seinfeld and his friends could have easily kept in touch with one another. Even better, recent advances in medical research may soon make the whole concept of keeping children with severe immune disorders in sterile environments, or bubbles, as obsolete as the iron lung or bleeding with leeches. Here is the article from Time with the good news.

Alysia Padilla-Vaccaro and Christian Vaccaro owe their daughter’s life to stem cells. Evangelina, now two, is alive today because she saved herself with her own bone marrow cells.

 

Evangelina, a twin, was born with a severe immune disorder caused by a genetic aberration that makes her vulnerable to any and all bacteria and viruses; even a simple cold could be fatal. But doctors at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Broad Stem Cell Research Center gave her a new treatment, using her own stem cells, that has essentially cured her disease. She’s one of 18 children who have been treated with the cutting-edge therapy, and the study’s leader, Dr. Donald Kohn, says that the strategy could also be used to treat other gene-based disorders such as sickle cell anemia.

Known to doctors as adenosine deaminase (ADA)-deficient severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), it’s better known as “bubble boy” disease, since children born with the genetic disorder have immune systems so weak that they need to stay in relatively clean and germ-free environments. Until Evangelina and her sister Annabella were 11 months old, “We were gowned and masked and did not go outside,” says their mother Alysia Padilla-Vaccaro. “Our children did not physically see our mouths until then because we were masked all the time. We couldn’t take them outside to take a breath of fresh air, because there is fungus in the air, and that could kill her.”

 

The only treatments for SCID are bone marrow transplants from healthy people, ideally a matched sibling; the unaffected cells can then repopulate the immune system of the baby with SCID. But despite being her twin, Annabella wasn’t a blood match for her sister, nor were her parents. Padilla-Vaccaro and her husband, Christian, were considering unrelated donors but were concerned about the risk of rejection. “We would be trying to fix one problem and getting another,” she says.

That’s when the doctors at the Children’s Hospital at Orange County, where Evangelina was diagnosed, told her parents about a stem cell trial for SCID babies at UCLA, led by Dr. Donald Kohn. “As soon as they said trial, I thought, ‘my kid is dead,” says Padilla-Vaccaro of the last resort option. But a dozen children born with other forms of SCID—in which different mutations caused the same weak immune systems—who were successfully treated by Kohn convinced the couple that the therapy was worth trying. Kohn had one spot left in the trial and was willing to hold it for Evangelina until she matured more. Born premature, she was diagnosed at six weeks old and needed more time for what was left of her immune system to catch up to weather the procedure.

When she was two months old, Evangelina was admitted to UCLA and had bone marrow drawn from her tiny hip. It contained the stem cells that go on to develop into all of the cells in the blood and immune systems. Kohn treated them with gene therapy, co-opting a modified virus to carry the healthy ADA gene so it could infect the stem cells from Evangelina’s bone marrow. The idea was that by transplanting these healthy ADA-containing cells back into Evangelina, she would soon be making her own healthy immune cells. And because they were made from her own cells, her body wouldn’t reject them.

“After the transplant of this miraculous tube of stem cells, which literally took five minutes, we had to just wait and see for a good six weeks,” says Padilla-Vaccaro. “The week after Christmas [in 2012], Dr. Kohn came in and told me, ‘It worked.’ It worked. Those words…besides the birth of my children, that day will always be the best day in my life.”

There is more about how Dr. Kohn developed his procedure.

This is truly wonderful news and I hope that the techniques used in cases like this can be used to treat or cure other genetic diseases. As Glenn Reynolds might say, faster please.

 

Plant Cruelty

October 27, 2014

 

I have to confess that I am prejudiced against vegetarians, especially vegans. It shouldn’t really matter to me what someone chooses to eat, yet the sense of self-righteous moral superiority they exude over us meat eaters is more than a little annoying. They are better than the rest of us because we enable cruelty against animals. Thus we see scenes like this.

 

Now I realize that not all vegans are like this. There are many moderate, reasonable vegans who respect the dietary choices of others and do not embarrass themselves in restaurants. Unfortunately, 90% of them make the other 10% look bad.

Well, they can stop the moral superiority. Science has discovered that plants know when they are being eaten, and they don’t like it. I learned of this from an article in Modern Farmer.

We’ve been hearing for decades about the complex intelligence of plants; last year’s excellent New Yorker piece is a good place to start, if you want to learn more about the subject. But a new study, conducted by researchers at the University of Missouri, managed to figure out one new important element: plants can tell when they’re being eaten, and they don’t like it.

The word “intelligence,” when applied to any non-human animal or plant, is imprecise and sort of meaningless; research done to determine “intelligence” mostly just aims to learn how similar the inner workings of another organism is to a human thought process. There’s certainly nothing evolutionarily important about these sorts of intelligence studies; a chimp is not superior to a chicken just because chimps can use tools the same way humans do. But these studies are fascinating, and do give us insight into how other organisms think and behave, whatever “think” might mean.

This particular study was on the ever-popular Arabidopsis, specifically the thale cress, easily the most popular plant for experimentation. It’s in the brassica family, closely related to broccoli, kale, mustard greens, and cabbage, though unlike most of its cousins it isn’t very good to eat. This particular plant is so common for experiments because it was the first plant to have its genome sequenced, so scientists understand its inner workings better than almost any other plant.

The researchers were seeking to answer an unusual question: does a plant know when it’s being eaten? To do that, the researchers had to first make a precise audio version of the vibrations that a caterpillar makes as it eats leaves. The theory is that it’s these vibrations that the plant can somehow feel or hear. In addition, the researchers also came up with vibrations to mimic other natural vibrations the plant might experience, like wind noise.

Turns out, the thale cress actually produces some mustard oils and sends them through the leaves to deter predators (the oils are mildly toxic when ingested). And the study showed that when the plants felt or heard the caterpillar-munching vibrations, they sent out extra mustard oils into the leaves. When they felt or heard other vibrations? Nothing. It’s a far more dynamic defense than scientists had realized: the plant is more aware of its surroundings and able to respond than expected.

So, there you have it. Those fruits and vegetables you are eating were once happy growing in the earth until someone came along and yanked them up and killed them. They were probably screaming in pain as they were chopped up to make your salad. How do you feel now, vegans? Are you happy to be so cruel to plants. The only way you can truly live without exploiting your fellow organisms would be to not eat at all. In fact, you shouldn’t even drink. Who knows how many microbes you are slaughtering with each drink of water?

Maybe we need to form a new organization, People for the Ethical Treatment of Plants or PeTP. End plant exploitation!

 

Dying at 75

October 13, 2014

Ezekiel Emanuel has written a somewhat controversial piece in The Atlantic on his hopes to die at the age of seventy-five. He doesn’t hope to be able to live to that age. He hopes he won’t live much past it.

Seventy-five.

That’s how long I want to live: 75 years.

This preference drives my daughters crazy. It drives my brothers crazy. My loving friends think I am crazy. They think that I can’t mean what I say; that I haven’t thought clearly about this, because there is so much in the world to see and do. To convince me of my errors, they enumerate the myriad people I know who are over 75 and doing quite well. They are certain that as I get closer to 75, I will push the desired age back to 80, then 85, maybe even 90.

I am sure of my position. Doubtless, death is a loss. It deprives us of experiences and milestones, of time spent with our spouse and children. In short, it deprives us of all the things we value.

But here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.

 

He does not intent to commit suicide on his seventy-fifth birthday, to be sure.

Let me be clear about my wish. I’m neither asking for more time than is likely nor foreshortening my life. Today I am, as far as my physician and I know, very healthy, with no chronic illness. I just climbed Kilimanjaro with two of my nephews. So I am not talking about bargaining with God to live to 75 because I have a terminal illness. Nor am I talking about waking up one morning 18 years from now and ending my life through euthanasia or suicide. Since the 1990s, I have actively opposed legalizing euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. People who want to die in one of these ways tend to suffer not from unremitting pain but from depression, hopelessness, and fear of losing their dignity and control. The people they leave behind inevitably feel they have somehow failed. The answer to these symptoms is not ending a life but getting help. I have long argued that we should focus on giving all terminally ill people a good, compassionate death—not euthanasia or assisted suicide for a tiny minority.

I am talking about how long I want to live and the kind and amount of health care I will consent to after 75. Americans seem to be obsessed with exercising, doing mental puzzles, consuming various juice and protein concoctions, sticking to strict diets, and popping vitamins and supplements, all in a valiant effort to cheat death and prolong life as long as possible. This has become so pervasive that it now defines a cultural type: what I call the American immortal.

He will not take any active means to extend his life any further.

Once I have lived to 75, my approach to my health care will completely change. I won’t actively end my life. But I won’t try to prolong it, either. Today, when the doctor recommends a test or treatment, especially one that will extend our lives, it becomes incumbent upon us to give a good reason why we don’t want it. The momentum of medicine and family means we will almost invariably get it.

I must say that I am at least somewhat sympathetic to this point of view. Anyone who has ever watched a loved one growing older into senescence and decay must wonder if longevity is really something to be desired. What good is it to live to be ninety if the last decade is spent chronically ill and miserable? There is also something unseemly and even futile about this quest we have to live ever longer. We cannot be immortal. No matter how healthy our lives, we will die eventually.

If I eat the right sorts of foods and get the right amount of exercise, perhaps I will live to be eighty rather than seventy. So what? Compared to eternity, ten or twenty years is an infinitesimal amount of time. If I ate a diet of bean curd, perhaps I might live to be one hundred. What good is that if I am miserable every day because I am eating food I hate? Of course, I am being a fool. Living in a healthy body is more pleasant than living in an unhealthy body. But, then this is a matter of quality of live as opposed to quantity of life.

For a Christian, it is especially unseemly to cling to this life. We believe, in theory, that this life is only a prelude to a greater life to come. Why cling to the shadow when we can have the substance? Perhaps our attitude should be that of Pope Pius IX on his deathbed. When told that people around the world were praying for his recovery, he jokingly rebuked his advisors saying, “Why do you want to stop me from going to Heaven?”. Why are we determined to stay out of Heaven? Many other religions have similar views.

I don’t quite agree with Ezekiel Emanuel’s position, all the same. For one thing, I do not have the authority to choose the time of my death any more than I had to choose the time of my birth. It is common to say that this is “my body” or “my life”, but it really isn’t. None of us created ourselves. It would take a PhD in several fields to even begin to understand the processes that keep us alive. If any of us were given conscious control of every biological and chemical reaction in our bodies, we would die within seconds. Properly speaking, my body and my life belongs to the One who made them.

Perhaps Mr. Emanuel might agree with me, although I have no idea what his religious views are. As I noted, he does not plan to actively seek death.

This means colonoscopies and other cancer-screening tests are out—and before 75. If I were diagnosed with cancer now, at 57, I would probably be treated, unless the prognosis was very poor. But 65 will be my last colonoscopy. No screening for prostate cancer at any age. (When a urologist gave me a PSA test even after I said I wasn’t interested and called me with the results, I hung up before he could tell me. He ordered the test for himself, I told him, not for me.) After 75, if I develop cancer, I will refuse treatment. Similarly, no cardiac stress test. No pacemaker and certainly no implantable defibrillator. No heart-valve replacement or bypass surgery. If I develop emphysema or some similar disease that involves frequent exacerbations that would, normally, land me in the hospital, I will accept treatment to ameliorate the discomfort caused by the feeling of suffocation, but will refuse to be hauled off.

Surely there is something to be said for this attitude. Yet again, I do not quite agree with him. I do not and cannot know what my ultimate fate will be and it seems presumptuous to decide that after a certain age I am finished. For all I know the plan might be for me to live to ninety-five in reasonably good health. It would be foolish not to take reasonable steps to keep myself well. If one must accept Mr. Emanuel’s reasoning, surely a consideration of overall health and quality of life is a better basis for deciding when to stop getting checkups, etc, than an arbitrarily chosen age. In any case, I will simply take what comes.

Ezekiel Emanuel states that he is opposed to euthanasia or physician assisted suicide, and I see no reason to doubt his word. He does not even recommend that every one agree to his ideas.

Again, let me be clear: I am not saying that those who want to live as long as possible are unethical or wrong. I am certainly not scorning or dismissing people who want to live on despite their physical and mental limitations. I’m not even trying to convince anyone I’m right. Indeed, I often advise people in this age group on how to get the best medical care available in the United States for their ailments. That is their choice, and I want to support them.

And I am not advocating 75 as the official statistic of a complete, good life in order to save resources, ration health care, or address public-policy issues arising from the increases in life expectancy. What I am trying to do is delineate my views for a good life and make my friends and others think about how they want to live as they grow older. I want them to think of an alternative to succumbing to that slow constriction of activities and aspirations imperceptibly imposed by aging. Are we to embrace the “American immortal” or my “75 and no more” view?

He wants medical research to focus on better treatments for the diseases of old age rather than simply prolonging life or extending the process of dying. But, does he not see that he is actually making some very good arguments for euthanasia? He spends the middle part of his article noting that creativity tends to decline with age, even when there is no dementia. The minds of the elderly no longer work as well, just as their bodies no longer function as well.

Even if we aren’t demented, our mental functioning deteriorates as we grow older. Age-associated declines in mental-processing speed, working and long-term memory, and problem-solving are well established. Conversely, distractibility increases. We cannot focus and stay with a project as well as we could when we were young. As we move slower with age, we also think slower.

It is not just mental slowing. We literally lose our creativity. About a decade ago, I began working with a prominent health economist who was about to turn 80. Our collaboration was incredibly productive. We published numerous papers that influenced the evolving debates around health-care reform. My colleague is brilliant and continues to be a major contributor, and he celebrated his 90th birthday this year. But he is an outlier—a very rare individual.

American immortals operate on the assumption that they will be precisely such outliers. But the fact is that by 75, creativity, originality, and productivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us. Einstein famously said, “A person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of 30 will never do so.” He was extreme in his assessment. And wrong. Dean Keith Simonton, at the University of California at Davis, a luminary among researchers on age and creativity, synthesized numerous studies to demonstrate a typical age-creativity curve: creativity rises rapidly as a career commences, peaks about 20 years into the career, at about age 40 or 45, and then enters a slow, age-related decline. There are some, but not huge, variations among disciplines. Currently, the average age at which Nobel Prize–winning physicists make their discovery—not get the prize—is 48. Theoretical chemists and physicists make their major contribution slightly earlier than empirical researchers do. Similarly, poets tend to peak earlier than novelists do. Simonton’s own study of classical composers shows that the typical composer writes his first major work at age 26, peaks at about age 40 with both his best work and maximum output, and then declines, writing his last significant musical composition at 52. (All the composers studied were male.)

Perhaps he does not intend it, but this is dangerously close to valuing individuals not as human beings created in the image of God but on a utilitarian basis according to what they can be expected to contribute to society. If we are going in that direction, we might as well open up the death panels right now. We had also better be honest enough to admit that most of us are not going to contribute very much to the arts and sciences and might be fair game for such a panel at any age.

As for me, I will take whatever comes

 

 

I wonder if a lot of the conservatives who written about his article have actually read it.


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