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July 2009 Archives

... to which I knew the answer. It was 'homeopathy'.

Quite a few science bloggers comment on homeopathy from time to time. I haven't done so myself, before this - partly because I haven't been inclined to stir things up.,.. But recently I've read material that rather bugs me.

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I have to say, at the moment I'm feeling a bit like this chap:


Mainly because we are currently 'between' registrars & so I don't seem to have a life! But I shall press on - with a question from the 2006 paper on human evolution.

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Courtesy of PZ - a wonderful collection (well, I got a giggle out of them!) of dreadful puns & other science-flavoured jokes. Enjoy.

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When I was little, I remember, my mother was forever trying to get me to eat all of my sandwiches: "if you eat your crusts, your hair will curl." (It didn't. If that particular tale was true, I'd have a massive afro. It must date back to a time when curly hair was particularly desirable, & perhaps also when people were less inclined to leave things on their plates.)

After the headlines on Friday, I suspect some children will be hearing a different refrain. "Eating crusts 'protects against bowel cancer,'" said the Telegraph. "Bread crusts key to bowel cancer fight," said The Grocer.

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In the community paper that arrived in our letterbox this morning there was a letter expressing very strong 'anti' feelings with regard to folate. The writer would, he said, boycott bread if this dreadful chemical was added. Google 'folate & prostate cancer', he said, & all would be revealed. (This was in reference to the original TV program, where one of the panel of 'analysts' commented on a purported link between folate & this particular cancer.)

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Our International Biology Olympians, that is. My School at Waikato, along with the Department of Biological Sciences, has been hosting several days of the NZ Olympiad team's training camp for 4 years now. This sees students from all round the country coming into our first-year labs to get hands-on experience of many of the techniques that they'll be tested on in the actual international competition.

So I was rapt to hear that this year the New Zealand team gained its highest ever ranking at the 2009 competition in Tokyo. The top NZ student came 35th in a field of 221 students from around the world, and overall the team gained one silver & two bronze medals. This is an outstanding acheivement & a tribute to the hard work, dedication &  talent of the students themselves - and also to the enormous effort put in by the dedicated team of educators who pour hours of their own time into the various activities necessary to select, support & train the NZ team each year. (For everyone interested in applying to try out for the team, everything you need to know is on the NZ IBO website.)


New Zealand's successful International Biology Olympiad team (from left to right: Max Biggs (Scott's College, Wellington); Sophia Frentz (Tauranga Girls' College); Geoffrey Hoggins (King's College, Auckland); and Jenny Liu (Burnside High School, Christchurch).

Congratulations to everyone involved, from all of us here at the University of Waikato :-)

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Funny how one thing leads to another :-) While I was looking around for extra material on moa coprolites, I happened across this National Geographic page on penguin poo & its significance to scientists studying Emperor penguins. Because the birds' breeding colonies are so big, & because the penguins stand around in their colonies for so long, guess what - the guano stains they leave on the ice are visible to satellites orbiting high above. This has enabled researchers to identifiy previously-unknown colonies of these big birds. The site quotes one of the research team as saying Now we know exactly where the penguins are, the next step will be to count each colony so we can get a much better picture of population size. Using satellite images combined with counts of penguin numbers puts us in a much better position to monitor future population changes over time. From piles of poo to projections of population size - how's that for an unexpected synergy?

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Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research When I was looking for the original paper for my post on moa feather colour & reductionism, I found a whole lot of other equally interesting stuff. As one does. (It's just so easy to wander off down some interesting side path & get completely distracted from the original task...) One of those 'other' papers was on fossil moa poo - coprolites - & what they have to tell us about moa feeding ecology (Wood et al., 2008).

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That's the eye-catching title of my current reading matter - the book Lies, Damned Lies, & Science by Sherry Seethaler. And reading it led to the following musings:

Science is complex. Yet too often it's presented - in the media, but also in textbooks & science classes - as a series of stand-alone facts (in the case of many media reports, one could probably say, 'factoids'). Talking about science in this reductionist way is doing a real disservice to our students, & in fact to society as a whole.

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One of the reasons put forward for not adding folate to bread is the perception that this will lead to a rise in some forms of cancer (specifically, prostate & colo-rectal cancer). The Science Media Centre has posted a commentary from Dr Murray Skeaff, who's the Professor of Human Nutrition down at Otago. He discusses the results of a meta-analysis of studies looking at the impact of folate on human health. Such studies [look] at the totality of the scientific evidence. It’s state of the art — the highest quality of analysis that there is. And on the basis of that evidence, he concludes that adding folate to food will not result in an elevated risk of cancer.

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Here's a nice quote for you about the nature of science (courtesy of a commenter over at Open Parachute):

There are two ways in which I think science, as a way of learning about the natural world can be distinguished from other proposed methods. First, science is not a personal and private experience. It is available equally to all and is identical regardless of gender, creed, etc. It is not dependent on private revelation or a personal experience. Secondly, it is self correcting. Nothing in science is held to be absolutely true; everything is provisional and ready to be discarded or modified when evidence shows science and reality to differ.

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In this morning's Herald is an article on the inclusion of folic acid (aka folate) in bread. This has hit the news recently because (among other things) bakers are concerned about the cost of adding this supplement to bread. (One figure that's been bandied about is that someone would have to eat 11 slices of bread to get their recommended daily dose, but this surely a 'straw man' argument: while the NZ diet tends to be low in folate it's not at zero - any amount of bread would supplement that low intake.)

There are a number of issues associated with this story, one being a perceived toxicity associated with folate & another being one of the ethics of mass medicalisation of a population.

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Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research Perhaps - if you're a mouse...

A couple of nights ago TV3 news treated us to a breathless little item about an antibiotic compound, rapamycin, that appears to promote longevity in mice. If it was applied to people, said the reporter, we could live for another 20 years or so!


Well, I can think of at least a couple of problems with the hype surrounding this apparent medical breakthrough.

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This is the title of both a recent paper in Evolution: education and outreach & the focus of an interesting post by Brian Switek on his blog Laelaps. I though I'd just link to both here for any of you who might be interested in getting into science blogging (including those I met at Biolive!) as both Brian's post & the original paper are good on what a science blog might, & might not, be.

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I'm just catching up with my reading material & ERV has an interesting post up about noroviruses (aka Norwalk virus - you'll see why it's called that when you read her post). One of the things she talks about is just how researchers originally got their gloves on the virus & demonstrated that it was implicated in outbreaks of infectious gut disease... (You may prefer to read it before lunch. Or then again, maybe not...)

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One of the keynote addresses at the Biolive 2009 conference talked about systems thinking: helping students to see the interconnections that link the various concepts they're learning - to 'get the big picture', to recognise that any given system (whether it be an ecosystem or a digestive system) tends to be rather more than the sum of its parts.

This struck a chord with me because I've always been a 'big-picture' thinker, & it's something that I try to develop in my students. And it also got me thinking - how did I get that way? Over a good cup of tea (real tea!) with a friend, in a cafe near the Dunedin railway station (the weather was awful & we decided to skip the field trips...) I decided that it was an intergenerational thing - my mother had a lot to do with it.

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Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research Sometimes I suspect that you think I'm over-reacting to poor reporting of science stories in the media. Maybe I'm just picky, or pernickety, or - as my Significant Other would says - purely pedantic. So I was interested to see a paper in PLoS One (Ly & Lane, 2009) that looks at the quality of various medical research stories that make it to newspaper front pages. It's interesting stuff:

The researchers searched a news database to find medical research stories that made it to the front pages of major newspapers during the period January 1, 2000 to December 31, 2002. This yielded a total of 734 front-page articles. They then used 2 search engines, Medline & Google Scholar, to find the corresponding journal articles, & decided whether the research was 'mature' (ie with a solid research basis, published in the peer-reviewed literature) or 'preliminary' (an interesting finding but one that needed further research work to support it, & presented at a conference or a press briefing).

It turns out that only 57% (417) of those newspaper stories had been published in peer-reviewed journals (and  they tended to have a higher evidence level than the remainder). The rest were picked up by the journalists via conferences or press briefings, although 144 of those subsequently reached the stage of being published in the scientific literature. So that leaves 173 pieces of research that never went any further but - unfortunately - still received the same weight in the press & in the public mind as those items with a stronger evidence base behind them.

Yes, not one of those 734 news stories indicated the level of evidence behind the story, and less than 20% of them made it clear that the news article was reporting on preliminary findings. But at least some of the peer-reviewed work, and many of the preliminary outcomes, would later have been rejected on the basis of further research - because that's how science research pans out. Much of what we do turns out to be 'wrong' in the sense that we don't get the answers that our initial hypotheses predict. Nothing wrong with that at all, but that side of things rarely makes the headlines. 'X is a cure for cancer' is going to sell papers, in a way that 'X is not a cure for cancer' most definitely will not.

And as a PS - here is an excellent example from Ben Goldacre about how badly a news report can get it wrong.

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Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research Now, here's a misleading sentence for you: The giant moa has been "rebuilt" by scientists using DNA from prehistoric feathers, revealing the true colours of the extinct bird. It's from a news story in the Dominion Post, although I first read it in the Herald. At the time I thought this would be a good topic for a blog, & I've been spurred to write one following a discussion I had today at this conference. (This one's for you, Rose!)

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and, from what Brian Switek says over at Laelaps, a whole lot more media hype.

The new fossil is a 38-million-year-old primate from Asia, Ganlea megacania (the species name refers to the fact that it has enormous canine teeth). While the paper describing this fragmentary fossil (teeth & bits of jaw) describe it as a seed-eating monkey, nonetheless the overseas press seems to have had something of a field day: the common ancestor of man & apes evolved in Asia, for example. Or, even worse, 'early man evolved in Burma'. That last headline's particularly bad - as you know, the last common ancestor of chimps & humans lived in Africa about 6-7 million years ago, so there's no way that a claim of early humans evolving in Burma can be justified. The scientific paper itself makes no such claims, & you have to wonder why the journalists concerned felt they had to descent into such extravagant hyperbole.

Anyway, Brian does his usual excellent job of discussing the fossil & its significance; well worth a read. And what I particularly enjoyed about the comments thread for his post is that one of the authors of the Ganlea paper came over to add his perspective on the piece, & was joined by other researchers with somewhat different perspectives. Previously this sort of argument would have been held behind the scenes, & it's rather neat to have the opportunity to see how scientists bat ideas around & discuss/defend their findings. I suspect that with the advent of science blogs this sort of discussion will become more & more common.

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I don't often watch the TV news, but on Monday last week I didn't feel like doing much else after work. Anyway, about 1/3 of the way through a story came on that had my critical radar twitching. It was effectively a puff piece about how employers were sending their workers on a course teaching them how to breathe properly, in order to oxygenate their brains & consequently think better & suffer less stress. The item showed a guy being fitted with some sort of sensor & receiving messages on his cellphone instructing him to breathe at a particular rate. We were informed that using this technique would maximise oxygenation of your brain, with a whole range of benefits following on from this.

Well, quite apart from the fact that any benefits wouldn't accrue to the brain alone, I found the article rather irritating.  (Although, to be fair, on that particular day I might have found a whole lot of things irritating.) Because - I couldn't really see that there was much in it, & yet people were paying for advice along the lines of 'in times of crisis/stress, a deep breath will help you think more clearly'. I'll admit that I'll take a deep breath before answering if I'm put on the spot - but because it gives me time to think of an answer, not because I think it'll do much for the oxygenation of my brain. (Incidentally, there's no reason why that blood would all be channeled to your grey matter in any case.)

But in addition to this, control of our gas exchange system has been shaped by millions of years of evolution to give optimal oxygenation. Control of breathing rate is influenced by changes in the levels of CO2 in your blood (rather than oxygen concentration), as measured by a part of the brain called the medulla oblongata. As cellular respiration rates increase (due to increased activity), this generates more CO2, & this in turn triggers an increase in breathing rate. (I remember being quite excited when I found out that this was how haemoglobin 'knows' where to release its oxygen - the trigger is local changes in pH/CO2 concentration as a result of cellular respiration.)

So I'm just a leetle cynical (although happy, as ever, to be proved wrong!)

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... for the next few days - I'm off to a conference in Dunedin tomorrow & not sure about the state of net access where I'm staying (or the amount of time I'll have to write anything substantial). Yes, yes, I know, I could have planned ahead & have a few posts scheduled in advance. Often I do that, but I'm afraid I've just had too much going on lately to fit it all in.

So - I'll see what I can do but no promises. Normal service should resume next Wednesday (unless the airport is fogged or iced in...) See you then :-)

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This morning's Herald carried the news that Joan Wiffen had died, at the age of 87, in Hastings hospital. Joan was a very special lady who made a significant contribution to our understanding of New Zealand's palaeontological past, & she'll be very sadly missed.

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I've finally finished marking my A semester exams :-) Which has spurred me to (yet again!) write about How To Do It Properly...

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