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June 2012 Archives

Wellington Zoo has just imported 106 Chilean rose tarantulas as part of a captive breeding program for these lovely animals. From the tone of a letter in today's Waikato Times, the spiders are also in need of a public relations officer.

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 Checking my in-box today I came upon this offering:

HCG Diet Direct - hCG Diet Drops - Homeopathic Drops

HCG Diet Direct - Lose weight on the homeopathic HCG Diet without heavy exercise or without frozen or prepared foods to buy. HCG Diet Direct - a brand you can trust

HCG = Human Chorionic Gonadotropin, a hormone produced during pregnancy. Quite how it would help you lose weight, I am not sure. The idea that it could do so appears to be based on claims that - in combination with an ultra-low calorie diet (around 500 cal/day) - use of this hormone would help obese individuals lose weight. However, there is no clinical evidence to support this claim, & I see that in the US over-the-counter sales of 'homeopathic' HCG diet products were banned by the Food & Drugs Administration - something our advertiser gets around by being based in Russia. (Although I see you can also buy the stuff here in NZ.)

I suppose you could argue that since the highly diluted nature of most homeopathic products means that they contain no active ingredients, then all you are ingesting is water or sugar pills (the latter, of course, are not going to help with weight loss!), so the product's hardly going to do any harm. It's not unknown for homeopathic 'remedies' to actually contain physiologically-active levels of various drugs & other chemicals (think Zicam), and this may have influenced the FDA's ban, but more likely they were working from the viewpoint that there is no way such a weight-loss product could do what is claimed for it. Low-cal diets - yes, the weight should come off (although whether it will stay off is another matter). After all, the original claims about HCG's efficacy in weight loss saw it combined with that very low caloric intake. So why bother with the additional water/sugar pills? Anyone buying such products in the expectation that the kilos will melt away without any additional effort on their part is likely to be sadly disappointed. 

In other news: the Quackometer examines claims that homeopathic products are useful in dealing with sports injuries (worth knowing, I guess, as Olympics fever strikes).

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We've just held the second day of the annual "Waikato Experience of Biology" (WEB) days - around 700 year 13 biology students, & their teachers, have come on campus over those 2 days for a program of seminars + some lab experience that supports their learning in several areas of their Biology curriculum. (There are photos on the Faculty's Facebook page.) I give seminars on human evolution & other colleagues talk about gene expression, patterns of evolution, biotechnology, and plant responses/animal behaviour.

The students were great - it's always fun to spend time talking with young people about biology :-) They were also a credit to their schools - when you've got a lecture theatre full of 400 year 13 students, & absolutely no issues with noise or chatter during a talk, then that speaks volumes.

I spoke with a lot of the attending teachers as well, just catching up & making sure that we had things pitched at the right level & were meeting their needs & those of their students. (It sounded like we had things pretty much spot-on.) But we also talked about the impending implementation of the new ('aligned') Achievement Standards at Level 3 - this is the last year that gene expression will be taught & examined at that level, for example, as it's moving down to year 12 & in its place comes a new AS on homeostasis, and another on 'human manipulation of genetic transfer' which seems a more tightly focused version of the previous standard on biotechnology.

And it became quite clear that many of those I spoke with were concerned at how well they were going to be able to deliver this new content & develop their students' understanding of it. One of the things we'll be doing here at Waikato to support them is running a teacher evening to provide ideas, content knowledge & maybe other resources. If you're a scientist with an interest in, say, homeostasis (or cloning, or transgenes), and an interest in communicating the science around it, why not contact the HoD Biology at your local secondary school and offer to help? It could be the start of a wonderful new working relationship :-)

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I took a little time over lunch to catch up with the work of various science communicators, most notably that of Brian Switek, whose blog Laelaps is carried by the Wired website & who also writes Dinosaur Tracking on I'm now regretting my long absence, for not only is Brian an excellent communicator of science, he's also jolly good at debunking pseudoscience. And I thought I'd share a couple of examples.

The first is his take on a story that caught my eye when it first came out, but I didn't have the time to something on it myself. That story was was the target of some rather sensationalist reporting that included (courtesy of the Daily Mail, no less) the claim that  that researchers had found that the sheer number & volume of dinosaur farts were sufficient to change the global environment and drive the mega-farters to collective extinction. 

Brian points out that this isn't what the original paper actually said: rather, (in Brian's words)

[t]he researchers conclude that so much dinosaur flatulence - in addition to greenhouse gases from fires and other sources - might have created and sustained the relatively warm world of the dinosaurs.

And really nice to see a good, skeptical take on the media fuss from TV3's website :-)

Brian's other piece caught my eye as I'm currently getting ready for my talks on human evolution at the Waikato Experience of Biology days we run for year 13 bio students & their teachers. Why? - because his debunking of an item about mermaids on Animal Planet mentions the 'aquatic ape hypothesis', something that is sometimes mentioned by WEB-day attendees (in much the same way that the 'Neandertal predation "theory"' came up at a session I did in Auckland a couple of years back). 

The program's called "Mermaids: the body found", & the on-line press release, while it sounds all gushingly science-y, is actually describing a fictional story. (As Brian points out, it even tells you so - in a couple of lines of type at the top of the page, whose sense is then overwhelmed & lost in what follows.)

And what follows includes reference to the 'aquatic ape hypothesis' (I refuse to call it a theory) popularised by Elaine Morgan & still doing the rounds (there's a good backgrounder/overview here). It has surprising longevity for something that has no real evidence to support it: no fossils, for example; and its suggestion that our lack of body hair can be ascribed to an aquatic phase in our history, in the same way that whales are hairless, doesn't really stack up (otters, seals, & polar bears  - all with aquatic lifestyles - are all remarkably hirsute). And as palaeoanthropologist John Hawks says

[i]t makes sense that hominids would develop new anatomies to adapt to such an alien environment. But once those hominids returned to land, forsaking their aquatic homeland, the same features that were adaptive in the water would now be maladaptive on land. What would prevent those hominids from reverting to the features of their land-based ancestors, as well as nearly every other medium-sized land mammal? More than simply phylogenetic inertia is required to explain this, since the very reasons that the aquatic ape theory rejects the savanna [sic] model would apply to the descendants of the aquatic apes when they moved to the savanna.

In the conclusion to his article, Brian comments that 

[s]peculative biology can be a lot of fun - to wonder how different forms of life might have evolved. And, with the right context and presentation, Mermaids could have been a unique way to highlight evolutionary and biological ideas.

A pity that this seems to be an opportunity that missed its mark.

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I haven't blogged much lately, due to a combination of factors to do with my 'day' job. But I've followed the recent heated debate around proposed changes to class size with much interest, & I did manage to pull together something for my 'other' blog. So I've reproduced that here :-)

Here in New Zealand, the compulsory education sector has recently received a lot of media & political attention (see here & here, for example), culminating in the reversal of a Ministerial decision to change pupil-teacher ratios in our compulsory schooling sector. Part of the money ‘saved’ by this move was to have gone towards improving teacher quality, a praiseworthy goal but one that so far lacks any clear mechanisms to support it (apart from a Ministry of Education statement that “[r]aising the quality of teaching will be helped by attracting higher quality applicants, raising the entry criteria for becoming a teacher and improving the quality of programmes of learning in ITE [Initial Teacher Education].”

Like most educators I know, I was concerned at the now-reversed proposal, for a number of reasons.

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 (And once again, I found this via PZ Myers.)

Although it looks like a flower , this is an image of a limpet embryo, stained to show 4 different proteins and viewed (& photographed) using a confocal microscope. There are several other stunning images at the Node, which is an on-line community site for developmental biologists - and you can vote on which one should grace the next cover of the journal Development.

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