Category Archives: Revisit

May 2013 Revisit: Roadkill Amphibians from Atlantis… or Something

Lots of updates this month, so let’s get to it!

In March we took a look at the most spectacular feats of regeneration in the animal kingdom while simultaneously realizing such superpowers are likely beyond our reach.  Enter the axolotl salamander and its mighty macrophages.  The specialized immune cells are present in human beings too, but in the axolotl they seem to foster the regrowth process in ways ours don’t.  Amphibious amputees depleted of their macrophages by an Australian group developed stumps and scarring like we do, instead of brand new limbs.  When the stump itself was lopped off and the macrophages reintroduced, voila!, the magic was back!  There’s obviously something else at work here that we don’t quite understand, but seeing the role that similar cells play in another animal’s miraculous recovery at least drives our prospects from “impossible” to “really goddamn unlikely.”

Earth and planetary scientist Michael Wysession sees something fishy about the “Brazilian Atlantis,” and not just the way its discoverers went about publicizing the find.  He quibbles with the interpretation that the uncovered continental crust submerged when Africa split off from South America, noting that it could have alternatively been brought to that location by ice rafts or glaciers.  But hey, there is a lost underwater city off the coast of Suffolk, England, or at least what’s left of it.  Much like Hurricane Sandy deposited New Jersey’s Jet Star roller coaster in the Atlantic, storms in the 1200′s brought down much of the port city of Dunwich.  The burgh was abandoned in the 1400′s and its buildings continued to slip away as erosion ran unabated.  New surveys show the ruins  in greater detail than ever.  Obviously a very slow disappearance, and not one involving the fracturing of crust.

Despite the tricky tactics of the cliff swallow, it seems roadkill rates may actually be rising, according to numbers provided by the Insurance Information Institute.  And that’s just the big stuff; the animals that do enough damage for a claim to be filed.  Not many people care about turtles and some of the other guys least likely to get a quick evolutionary boost.  That’s why Matt Aresco made the problem a priority in Florida.  He and supporters were eventually able to leverage the state into employing engineering controls such as high roadside fencing and additional crossing culverts to facilitate the reptiles’ safe transport, dramatically reducing turtle death on the highway.  If nature can’t give its critters a fast kick in the pants, we may have to take it upon ourselves to devise other solutions.

Going back to February, new research may show that a protein-lipid complex found in human breast milk may actually make antibiotic resistant bacteria more vulnerable again.  And if that doesn’t work, we might be able to send OTHER bacteria against their malevolent brethren.  Fight fire with fire!

MRSA may soon meet its match.  From the-scientist.com

On a more personal note, I had the opportunity to practice what I preach earlier this month.  I had been burdened by throat and chest congestion for over a week before finally breaking down and seeing the doctor.  Not being able to tell if my infection was caused by bacteria or a virus, the young physician handled the situation admirably.  She wrote me a prescription, but told me to wait and only take it if I hadn’t “turned the corner” in a couple days.  Sure enough, I was feeling much better two days later, and I let the scrip set.  Conversely, if she had just blindly given me antibiotics without thought… what would I have done?  I may have made the wrong decision.  This was instead a great example of doctor and patient working together to avoid unnecessary drug consumption.  We can all manage that!

June starts off on Monday with an actual look at an electron orbital!  No shit!

A Neophyte Visits NECSS

With an extra Monday to play with this month, I’ve decided to do two separate “Revisit” posts.  The usual  look back will happen on the 29th.  This entry focuses on recounting a real life, three dimensional event, as I attended the 5th annual Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS) in Manhattan on April 6th.  NECSS is co-promoted by the New England Skeptical Society, founded in 1996, and the New York City Skeptics, a group not much older than the conference itself.  The first NECSS took place in 2009 and boasted 400 attendees, a number that has only grown, if my shaky estimation skills can be trusted.  While the lectures span an entire weekend, 2013 was the second year in a row that I could only make the Saturday session, as other social engagements unfortunately overlapped.  I missed the Sunday in 2012 because… well, I had only found out about the damn thing shortly before it was to occur and I had no idea what I was getting into.  That and I’d have been in the doghouse had I completely blown my girlfriend off to dork out for two days straight.

When that day concluded last year, I was kind of shaken.  The legendary conjurer and debunker of flim-flam, James “The Amazing” Randi had given the final talk of the afternoon, concerning his unequivocal expose of despicable televangelist Peter Popoff, a tale recounted in Randi’s famous tome The Faith Healers.  Tears welled in his eyes as he told the stories of disabled children who, looking to be made well by his divine guidance, left Popoff’s revivals no healthier (but more destitute), as the money-hungry swindlers cackled over the radio connections they used to pump the crowd for seemingly impossible to attain information about their ailments.  I too became misty, but the sadness turned to revulsion when Randi revealed that despite his irrefutable recordings of Popoff and his crew hoaxing his revelatory, “God given ability,” the charlatan was experiencing an inexplicable resurgence in popularity.  Randi implored that we all band together to combat such debilitating deceit, and I was inspired to agree.  But what could I do?  I carried that question with me all year, and into the 2013 edition of NECSS.

necss

The event’s activities had expanded since 2012 to include a series of workshops the day before the conference proper.  The first was led by Julia Galef, still a member of the New York City Skeptics board of directors in addition to her position as President of the San Francisco based Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR), who offered a helpful presentation on her work with the Center and their goals.  She gave several suggestions on how to keep your reason about you during a discussion, such as dissociating yourself from your argument so as to not react defensively, and she further explained how CFAR teaches these skills through seminars.  When Julia finished, I wanted to ask what kind of people signed up for these sessions, but at least two others beat me to the punch, amidst many more thoughtful queries.  I guess we’re a boisterous bunch.  The answer was not unexpected; that the participants were usually leaning toward those tendencies already.  While it’s nice to get us all on the same page and sharpen our own skills, I think we all left considering how to bring in the people who could most benefit from those techniques.

NECSS officially began on Saturday morning with a presentation by physicist Leonard Mlodinow related to his most recent book, Subliminal:  How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior.  Mlodinow’s prior popular works include a joint venture with Stephen Hawking, and another with Deepak Chopra of all people, whom Leonard playfully apologized to while looking skyward when experiencing technical difficulties with his talk.  My personal highlight here was the playing of the infamous Led Zeppelin SATANIC BACKWARD SPEAK~!  I had never actually heard it, so it just sounded like gibberish until the “lyrics” that some nutbar pulled out of the aether were shown alongside the sounds.  Suddenly, I couldn’t NOT hear them!  We’re designed to find patterns, not ignore them!  Again, another helpful lesson that drives home how fallible we all are, partly due to our biology, but one still likely destined to not reach beyond the already sympathetic audience.

During the break for lunch, I perused tables set up outside the auditorium that were helmed by groups such as the Center for Inquiry and the James Randi Educational Foundation.  There seemed to be at least twice as many in 2012.  Maybe it was a smaller room then.  More psychological effects.  I spoke to the kind gentleman at the New York City Skeptics table and asked what sort of things the organization was involved in.  He told me of lectures and meet-ups of fellow skeptics (often involving alcohol).  I’m a fan of the creature myself, so that’s cool, but not exactly what I was looking for.  “Do you guys do any kind of community outreach?”  I think he was unsure of what I wanted him to say.  I’m unsure of what I expected.  Steven Novella, neurologist and prime mover of the wildly popular and hilarious Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast, was also asking the poor guy if anyone had found out the Wi-Fi password yet.  More technical problems.  Not wanting to distract him from his actual work, and realizing that we had probably reached an impasse anyway, I ceased to pursue the issue.

It seemed to me the most important points were raised in a panel discussion that included Michael Shermer, Editor-In-Chief of Skeptic Magazine, Mariette DiChristina, who holds a similar position at Scientific American, and Cat Bohannan, who studies how narrative influences cognition at Columbia University.  Led by the “Science Babe,” Deborah Berebichez, the group discussed how people tend to (wrongly) be more influenced by stories rather than data, and how the “other side” uses that to great effect while the good guys can sometimes overlook such a utility.  Debbie’s frustration was shared by everyone as she noted how many skeptics struggle to make ends meet while Deepak Chopra rakes in millions (Deepak took a beating this day).  Another member of the panel, Nathalie Molina Niño, suggested abandoning the war metaphors that we “take into battle” with us, to lessen the appearance of confrontation.  We’re all on the same side in wanting to figure out the truth, after all, we just approach it (not “attack” it) from different angles.  Shermer remarked that offering the story of how you yourself came to skepticism can often elicit empathy from suspicious adversaries listeners.  While some think the facts should speak for themselves and almost see such “framing” and storytelling tactics as cheating, I wonder if using the system against itself isn’t the worst idea in the world.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

So that’s my story.  My 2013 NECSS experience was even more enjoyable than the previous year’s, and I got a further glimpse at just how hard the volunteers and everyone involved work to make this happen.  It’s clear by the crowd size and the technical problems however that as a group, we skeptically minded folks who ask for evidence of everything are still a niche group (though I guess even the most prestigious academic conferences still experience computer glitches, so maybe that point’s moot).  But the crowds do indeed seem to be growing and everyone’s enthusiasm was undeniable.  I witnessed how brilliant people are doing great things, but left still contemplating just how it is we can reach the folks outside our little circle.  Are these incremental gains enough?  Is there a way to make bigger breakthroughs?  I guess those are questions everyone else has been carrying with them forever, and ones we’ll all likely continue to shoulder for years to come.

March 2013 Revisit: UFO’s Regrow Teeth Using Facebook… Or Something

Three cool updates to close out March.  The first actually calls back to a February post, wherein WDTM? speculated that the stunning footage of the Russian Chelyabinsk meteor, shot from multiple sources, angles and locations, should make UFO enthusiasts queasy, as the modern ubiquity of worldwide camera technology has somehow not yet provided similar spectacular evidence of something they claim to be continually happening.  We found out in the February revisit, instead, that the Russian populace had gone gaga with woo-woo over the incident.  Oops.

Of course in science, one incident is not indicative of a trend, as shown in the newest issue of Intelligent Life magazine, from the publishers of The EconomistThe article, boasting the unfortunately confrontational title “Twilight of the Gullible,” highlights the morose musings from a November 2012 meeting of the British-based Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP), at which science writer Ian Ridpath explained that UFO sightings were indeed following a drastic downward trend, despite the fact that nearly everyone in the western world now carries a video camera in their pocket.  In fact, cases reported to the Association have dropped a staggering 96% since 1988.

UFOsWhere are the real versions of this photo?  Image from travelandleisure.com

When commenting to The Daily Telegraph prior to the conference, Sheffield Hallam University professor David Clarke echoed what we noted in the February revisit, that “[t]he reason why nothing is going on is because of the internet. If something happens now, the internet is there to help people get to the bottom of it and find an explanation.”  ASSAP’s chairman, Dave Wood, further explained that, “When you go to UFO conferences it is mainly people going over these old cases, rather than bringing new ones to the fore.”  Sound familiar, Bigfoot enthusiasts?  The same lack of progress that pegs a pseudoscience.

Coming back down to Earth, the future of human body part regeneration seemed comparably dreary, unless you count the flicker of hope provided by African spiny mice.  Well, the mice make nice again, this time with teeth!  In a March issue of the Journal of Dental Research, Paul Sharpe’s King’s College London team described their work in combining human gum cells with those from the molars of fetal mice to grow new teeth, roots and all.  Of course, the teeth are human/mouse hybrids and such procedures are far, far removed from clinical use, but hey!  It’s a start!

Finally, we tried to prove that Facebook is good for your brain, or at least that the WDTM? page is.  The research of Jeff Hancock and Catalina Toma, published in the March issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, seems to support that assertion.  The authors tested how experiment participants reacted to negative feedback and found that those who soon after checked their Facebook profiles became less defensive.  This is contrary, however, to other studies published about a year ago that argue reading other people’s positive status updates can make a person feel worse about themselves.

 WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

The truth may be out there, but UFO believers might not want to hear it.  You shouldn’t dump your dentures in the hopes of getting rodent replacements anytime soon.  And, as always, Facebook is a tool whose benefits and detriments will depend on how you interact with it.

April starts off with a look at just how the hell astrophysicists can figure out the age of the universe, to be followed later in the month with a discussion on whether cloning can bring long last animals back from extinction.  Join the conversation in the comments section or on Facebook!  I swear it’s okay!