Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Resistance is Futile...You Will Be Assimilated

Following up on the previous post about belief in science, here's an interesting article about why some folks "don't believe in science". Basically, it's all about how and what we learn as children and what is (or isn't) reinforced by our parents and immediate cultural surroundings. To be overly crude and simplistic: Ignorant people breed ignorance.

BTW, my favorite line from the article:

All other things being equal, a rational person is wise to defer to a geologist about the age of the earth rather than to a priest or to a politician.

Hear, hear!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Can you believe in science?

Reading Sheril Kirshenbaum's posts on Framing Science as guest blogger over at The Intersection got me to thinking about the language of science. Actually, it's more the language used by media, politicians, and a large mass of the general public when talking about science or scientific ideas. I am in no way a scholar of linguistics, but have always been interested in words - their etymology, history, use, connotations, power to clarify, and power to bewilder and confuse. Words can have many meanings that often differ between people so we have to be careful of the words we choose when we want to convey specific meanings otherwise we run the risk of our audience inadvertently hearing the wrong message, whether explicitly or "between the lines".

The most obvious of this problem is the use of the word "theory" - as in "Evolution is just a theory". Coverage of the importance and misuse of this word has been beaten to death, so I won't go into it here. What I do want to go into however (regardless if it has been beaten to death, though to my knowledge it hasn't) is the use of the word "believe" as applied to science.

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This usage took center stage during the first Republican presidential candidate debate when the candidates were asked "Do you believe in evolution?" and three of them answered that they did not. While I understand what the question means and am horrified (though not surprised) by the response, I must take issue with the wording used.

By using the words "believe" and "evolution" together we are implicitly suggesting that evolution is based on belief and not on scientific facts. In fact I would argue that "believe" suggests the absence of facts. Isn't that what belief is? The acceptance of something sans empirical evidence? Or at best "believe" suggests a gut feeling or an opinion. The phrase "I believe in evolution" is easily translated as "In the absence of any tangible facts, it is my gut feeling that evolution is real". It is therefore just as easy for an anti-evolutionist to say "I don't believe in evolution". I think that the scientific community as a whole does a disservice whenever we use the phrase "I believe in [insert scientific principle]" when we mean "Scientific evidence has lead to the conclusion that [insert scientific principle] is at work". Belief suggests choice - you can choose whether or not to believe in something. But does anyone ever say "I believe in photosynthesis" or "I don't believe in redox reactions!"? (well, I'm sure there are a few crackpots out there, but you get my point).

Am I arguing semantics? Well, yes, but that's my point - words and their meanings are powerful and can define the argument. When it comes to science in general and evolution in particular, belief has nothing to do with it - or at the very least it doesn't have anything to to with its veracity.

The other night my mother-in-law cooked a "Turducken" (you know, a chicken stuffed inside a duck stuffed inside a turkey). My wife asked which type of meat she had on her plate and a variety of quips followed - "Poultry", "Some kind of fowl", "Something that had feathers", etc. I answered with "Something that descended from dinosaurs". Facetiously (I hope), she quipped back "Only if you believe in evolution" to which I said "Actually, they descended from dinosaurs whether or not you believe in evolution". Belief (or lack of it) doesn't change facts.

I think that we're playing into creationist's and IDist's hands when we make our stand and say "I believe in evolution!". We need to change the framing. So, I will go on record as saying I don't believe in evolution.

It's existence doesn't need me to.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Estrogen: Good for Birth Control, Bad for Fish

A recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) by members of Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the U.S. EPA reports on the detrimental effects of synthetic estrogen on wild fish populations. Estrogen is a naturally occurring sex hormone found in vertebrates. This hormone is responsible for stimulating the development of female secondary sex characteristics and, in mammals anyways, for readying the uterus for the fetus embryo during pregnancy. The production of estrogen by the placenta and corpus luteum during pregnancy in turn helps maintain the pregnancy and prevents further ovulation.

For this last reason, synthetic estrogen, specifically 17α-ethynylestradiol, is a main component of the birth control pill (essentially the pill tricks the body into thinking that it's pregnant, thereby preventing ovulation, thus preventing pregnancy - ironic, no?). It turns out however, that the efficacy of the pill (which I will go on record as saying I think is a good thing for a multitude of reasons) has resulted in a large amount of estrogen being released into our waterways (normally via waste water treatment plants). Excess estrogen in the water has serious effects on the resident wildlife - including male sterility, delayed sexual development, and the feminization of males (males having female sex organs/characteristics). These effects have been reported before (e.g. here and here)

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The new study in PNAS takes this issue a step further by following a population of fish over seven years to assess the effects of estrogen-related sexual disruptions on the population as a whole. In this study, the sizes, numbers, gonad development, and male feminization of individuals were compared between two populations of flat-head minnows. One population was kept under natural conditions (the control) while the other was kept in a lake augmented with low doses of synthetic estrogen. As expected, those fish exposed to estrogen showed high levels of male feminization, irregular gonad develppment, and delayed sexual maturity.

However, the estrogen not only messed with individuals' reproductive system, but also had serious consequences for the long-term survival of the minnow population. Low doses of synthetic estrogen not only lead to feminization of males and delayed maturity in females, but also to the near extinction of the population. Compared with the control population, the experimental population showed little reproductive ability (and possibly higher mortality if I am interpreting the data/graphs correctly). As adult fish got older and died, there were no young fish to take their place.

This is an example of how the presence of anthropogenic chemicals in our waterways is not just causing a few biological freaks, but is messing with survival of populations and, perhaps, species. It's also an example of how complex most environmental issues are. Synthetic estrogen and the pill have given us cultural, social, and medical benefits. It's also given us environmental benefits by limiting human population growth. Of course, few things give benefits without a cost (and some would argue that the benefits I allude to are nothing of the sort), so we need to make choices - do we sacrifice fish and other wildlife and, potentially, human health? do we spend money on updating/improving our waste water treatment plants? do we limit the use of synthetic estrogen? do we make women on the pill pee into hazardous waste bottles?

(go ahead, I dare you to try that last one, but I take no responsibility for any physical harm rained down on you.)

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Sigh...what now?

Well, the AP Biolgy exam is done, so even though the school year is not yet over I feel as though my ties to AHS are also done. I would love to hear what was thought about the exam, but as far as I can tell, no AHS students are still lurking here. So, what happens to this blog, now that I've lost my presumed audience? I could shut it down I suppose, but I must admit that I get some level of vain entertainment from posting - thinking that someone out there finds my words useful or interesting or entertaining. I guess I'll just have to continue writing and perhaps find an audience. Though, if I really want people to stop by and read consistently, I should probably be more active and perhaps try to be more original - how many bio-based blogs are out there anyways?

Still, I'd love to hear about the AP exam, if anyone happened to take it.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Good luck

Not sure if any AHS students still stop by here, but if so, I wanted to wish you all good luck on the AP Bio exam (if I remember right it's coming up on Monday). Wish I could have stopped by sometime this semester, but the days have moved by quicker than I thought they would as I've settled into my new routine down at RWU.

By now I am sure your heads are chock full. I am sure all will go well. Just relax, remember to breath (it's biologically rather important - cellular respiration and all), and if you get anxious or overly stressed, just think of this