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November 2010 Archives

I'll bet that got your attention!

A little while ago I was running through a seminar with a colleague. It was an end-of-semester trip through various 'oddities' in the biological literature, including things like the amazing corkscrew penises of mallard ducks & the tendency of some tree shrews to use pitcher plants as potties. 'Hmmm,' said my colleague, 'why don't you include the one about necrophilia by a mallard drake?' I must have given him a rather funny look because he hastened to assure me that this was totally true & had even won an Ig Nobel award for the scientist who described it.

Now, I know that mallard drakes are randy little devils and that groups of them will harass hapless females for forced copulations, particularly later in the breeding season. But this did sound a bit over the top. So, in the interests of completeness & also to check this story for myself, I went looking. and found...

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A friend of mine, who happens to be a biology teacher, recedntly forwarded me an e-mail. Quite apart from the fact that the sender had sent it to what looks like every secondary school in the country & didn't have the courtesy to bcc the mailing list, there are a number of issues around it that give me some soncern.

But first, the e-mail:

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I teach a bit of botany, to our first-year students. I really enjoy the subject & hopefully some of that rubs off :) Anyway, I'm always on the lookout for new images to use in my lectures, & tonight I came across this stunning photograph by Eckhard Völcker, who has very kindly given his permission for me to share the image with you.  

While it looks like a lovely piece of lace in contrasting colours, it's actually a section through a willow shoot, stained with dyes that (for example) highlight the lignified tissues in xylem and the fibre caps on vascular bundles.

You can see more of these beautiful photos here, or visit Herr Völcker's webpage for more of his work.

(Your turn, Grant!)






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When I set essays for my first-year students to write during the semester, I try to give them a scientific paper on each topic to start them off. This means that I need to do some extra bedtime reading as I need to select those papers carefully. Today’s post is based on one of those: a paper about a fascinating mutualistic relationship between marine algae and a species of isopod (the same crustacean group as the more familiar slater).

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Over at Grant's, a commenter on one of his posts noted that, in its 'World News' pages, the Dominion-Post included an article entitled: "Pioneering’ astrology analysis may help women get pregnant after IVF treatment has failed". The commenter said he'd nearly choked on his weetbix when he saw that, & I can sympathise.

I'd like to have read the item on the Dom's website but unfortunately our Waikato Times subscription doesn't give me access. But - never underestimate the power of the internet! This would have been a syndicated article & there it is on several other 'news' pages, including here at The Australian. So, with breakfast out of the way & no coffee anywhere near the keyboard, I pressed on...

Now, the use of the word 'analysis' in the headline makes this sound sort of science-y, so maybe there's something in it, right? But no, this 'analysis' hasn't actually happened yet, so we don't know if astrology actually has the claimed effect. The article is built upon anecdote: testimonials from two women who had undergone multiple (failed) attempts at pregnancy via IVF before becoming pregnant at times suggested by the astrologer, & a statement by said astrologer that "she has helped many women in Britain and her native Cape Town to conceive."

Interestingly, she went on to admit that "success may be due to coincidence, a placebo effect, or the power of suggestion." Of which, coincidence is the most likely. After all, one study of Dutch women who'd had several cycles of IVF found that "1349 of the women (16 per cent) had conceived naturally after stopping IVF treatment (in a maximum timeframe of 13 years). Forty-five per cent of these had conceived within 6 months after their last IVF cycle." And Cahill et al (2005) report similar odds of natural conception following a series of unsuccessful IVF treatments, commenting that factors such as maternal age and the reasons for infertility affect the likelihood of success.

We're told that a group of IVF clinics in the US is going to test the astrologer's 'abilities', providing her with the birth dates of clients, asking her to calculate the best dates for them to attempt to get pregnant, and comparing these with actual dates of conception. Given that other studies of astrology have found that it failed to perform at a level better than chance, I hope that the researchers will be allowing for the impact of coincidence in analysing their results.

D.J.Cahill, J.Meadowcroft, V.A.Akande & E.Corrigan (2005) Likelihood of natural conception following treatment by IVF. Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics 22(11/12): 401-405. doi: 10.1007/s10815-005-6655-y 

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With the implementation of the 2007 NZ Curriculum comes the need for teachers to think about how best to help their students to develop an understanding of the nature of science.

The Nature of Science is the overarching unifying strand. Through it, students learn what science is and how scientists work. They develop the skills, attitudes, and values to build a foundation for understanding the world. They come to appreciate that while scientific knowledge is durable, it is also constantly re-evaluated in the light of new evidence. They learn how scientists carry out investigations, and they come to see science as a socially valuable knowledge system. They learn how science ideas are communicated and to make links between scientific knowledge and everyday decisions and actions. (from the NZ Curriculum, 2007) 

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The third question in last year's Schol Bio paper was about bats - specifically, the ecology, behaviour, and evolution of New Zealand's only two extant native land mammals, the lesser short-tailed bat & the long-tailed bat (Mystacina tuberculata & Chalinolobus tuberculata respectively).

The long-tailed bat is a relatively new immigrant, arriving from Australia 'just' a million years ago or thereabouts. It's a 'typical' bat, catching food (mozzies, moths & beetles) on the wing. The short-tailed bat, on the other hand, has been here at least 35 million years, with its ancestor arriving from what is now Queensland. M.tuberculata lives in dense forests and, the examiner tells us,

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Recently our local paper ran an article on Mt St Helens, which hit the headlines with a violent eruption back in 1980. The words 'big bang' were mentioned in the title. This seems to have struck a chord with one reader...

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Grant's just sent me a piece that a recent Sciblog commenter posted on a US website. (Oh, all right, it was the Huffington Post. Not a place to go for good science coverage, but anyway...)

I knew a New Zealand dairy farmer who told me that her 9-year-old daughter had been growing breasts and pubic hair. Somewhat alarmed, she and her husband tried to figure out what caused the problem. It turned out that the vet had injected a few cows in ther herd which had not become pregnant in the first round of artificial insemination with a powerful hormone to induce ovulation, in the hope to impregnate them this time. The milk from these cows, along with the milk from all the pregnant cows, had been going into the tank from which the milk was collected by a milk tanker in the morning. The family had used some milk from the tank for their daughter's breakfast every morning. Once they realised what the problem was, they stopped using the milk and their daughter reverted back to normal. So much for "100% Pure New Zealand"!


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Over at Sciblogs there's a lengthy comments thread on vaccination, following an excellent post by Darcy on some myths about vaccines. I hesitate to call the thread a 'debate' because, frankly, it's impossible to actually debate someone who practices what evolutionary biologists would call the 'Gish gallop' - firing off so many factoids that you might manage to correct one or two in the time available, but too late! they'll have already moved on to the next set.

On the other hand, this sort of thing can be educational, on several fronts. First up, there's the hope that any undecided lurkers might be swayed by your arguments (which is why both sides continue to engage, I guess). But also - what a rich mine of examples of bogus science!

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in a reversal of normal practice, what follows was first written for the Sciblogs site (usually it's the other way around) but I thought I'd share it here as well :)

Okay, a bit late for 'vaccination awareness week' but I have to share this one. Over on Science-Based Medicine, Mark Crislip is talking about homeopathic vaccines (something I've had a go at myself).

Anyway, it seems there is a homeopathic vaccination for smallpox. How, thought I to myself, can they make this? After all, smallpox has been extinct in the wild since the late 1970s. Trust Dr Crislip to enlighten me: homeopaths rely on 'nosodes'. A 'nosode'

“is a homeopathic remedy prepared from a pathological specimen. The specimen is taken from a diseased animal or person and may consist of saliva, pus, urine, blood, or diseased tissue.”

Bleuch. This is, um, rather worse than what is wrongly claimed to be in actual vaccinations. Just as well it's diluted to the point where there's nothing left :) But whence comes the nosode for smallpox? Dr Crislip also wants to know:

And they have a nosode for smallpox?  It is supposedly derived from the ripened pustule of a smallpox patient and I have to wonder about their source.  There has been no smallpox in the world since the mid 1970′s,  either they have a stock of smallpox that they feed like sourdough starter or they are not really selling the real deal. 

'Nuff said, really.

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One last post for raising-awareness-of-the-science-behind-vaccination week :)

On one of Grant's threads, an antivaccination commenter has posted links to very old images of smallpox victims from a German publication.  The commenter implies that these patients acquired the infection as a result of a smallpox vaccination (as I don't speak or read German I can't comment on the information accompanying the images) and holds this up as an example of the 'atrocity' of vaccinations to support his argument that all vaccines should be done away with.

Sometimes strong emotions cloud our ability to look carefully at fact and context. And for sure, these are not nice images.

But let's step back a bit. Smallpox is now extinct in the wild, as a direct result of vaccination. Before Jenner came up with the concept of inoculating people against smallpox by using pus & serum from active cowpox lesions (see Grant for more on this), smallpox was rightly feared. If people didn't actually die from the disease they were usually left disfigured by the scars that formed as the pox lesions healed.  

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Since over at SciBlogs many of us are blogging about vaccination, I thought I'd take the opportunity to re-post something I wrote earlier this year, concerning the promotion of homeopathic 'vaccines' for a range of serious illnesses.

Over on Code for Life, Grant's put up some posts concerning homeopathy (here & here, for example). He's also suggested that homeopathic (& other) remedies should carry disclaimers to do with their active ingredients (or lack thereof) and what they can & can't do.

Anyway, one of the common responses to articles critical of homeopathy & other 'complementary & alternative medicines'** is that, even if they 'work' only via the placebo effect, at least they do no harm. I would argue that if the placebo effect masks an ongoing problem, then it is doing harm. And the same is true if patients are led to stop taking necessary medication. But - & I think more seriously - here's an example where following a homeopathic prescription may do considerable damage: homeopathic vaccinations.

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You may be aware that November 1-6 is 'Vaccine Awareness Week' (a reminder from Darcy, over at SciBlogs, prompted my previous post.). Those who originally gave the week this label are actually strongly-antivaccines, so all the more reason for some science-based discussion around it as well :)

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As a child, in the 1920s, my mother contracted polio. It left her with little in the way of the muscle at the base of her right thumb, and her right calf muscle was much smaller than the left. At about the same time my friend Dorothy (who fairly obviously wasn’t my friend at the time :) ) also contracted the poliomyelitis virus. She was much more badly affected than my mother and spent some months in hospital in an iron lung. Neither mum nor Dorothy spoke much about their experiences & I really only gained a sense of what things must have been like when I read Jean Opie’s affecting book Over my dead body.

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