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January 2012 Archives

That's the title of Susan Musante's paper in the latest issue of Bioscience (& many thanks to David Winter for sending it on). It's a summary of some key points made by speakers at an NAS convocation called "Thinking evolutionarily: evolution education across the life sciences."

Now, I find science fascinating, exciting, & endlessly interesting, & I'm sure my colleagues feel the same. The thing is, how to pass all that on to our students? As I've said before, simply providing them with quantities of facts is not going to do it. At the convocation, several speakers stressed that

[simply] regurgitating the biological knowledge generated by the scientific community or conducting "cookbook" laboratory experiments does not result in genuine understanding or excitement on the part of students... Instead, the nature and process of science, the unifying concepts and connections to the real world, and the problems encountered and discoveries made by scientists are what make biology come alive.

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I joined Facebook about a year ago - primarily to access the NZIBO pages, but subsequently I found I quite enjoyed keeping up with what friends & family are up to. More recently I've added 'entities' like ScienceAlert, & through that particular link I've just found an excellent series of short videos on critical thinking. With the new NZ school year coming up, I thought it might be good to share them more widely.

So, here we go :-)

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One of my tasks at the moment it the revision/rewriting of the study guide (along with my actual lecture notes etc) for my A semester first-year biology class. As part of that I'm reviewing some of the material I give the students to read & came across a previous post of mine on the relationship between atmospheric oxygen and the size of eukaryote organisms. And I liked it (still), so thought I'd repost it here :-)

The earliest fossils we have are of prokaryotes - a major taxonomic grouping that includes both bacteria and members of the Archaea (things like blue-green algae, aka cyanobacteria). And like modern prokaryotes, those early life-forms were tiny. Most of us are far more familiar with some of the eukaryotes, and perhaps a major reason for this is that we can see them: they are orders of magnitude bigger than microbes. And an interesting question is: what sort of trajectory took some forms of life from the tiny to the ginormous? Was there a smooth upward trend in the maximum size of living things? Or did things progress like a learner driver - by bunny-hops?

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 An article in the Sydney Morning Herald tells its readers: Scientists urge unis to axe alternative medicine courses. According to the article, 

[a]lmost one in three Australian universities now offer courses in some form of alternative therapy or complementary medicine, including traditional Chinese herbal medicine, chiropractics, homeopathy, naturopathy, reflexology and aromatherapy.

We were talking about it & my friend Aimee said, "I think the key question to ask here is whether universities are scientific bastions, educational institutes, or organisations geared towards making money." And I agree with her. While alternative therapies/complementary medicines are certainly popular, & there's wide public interest in them (as evidenced by stories in the NZ Herald - here, & here) - universities surely teach critical thinking (within & beyond their science programs), & there's little evidence of either in many CAM modalities. Nor should the hoary old argumentum ad populum carry weight in scientific circles: just because an idea is popular, doesn't mean it's correct. 

In other words, universities are educational institutions offering research-based, evidence-based programs in science & other disciplines, & subjects that lack that strong basis should have no place in their curricula. As the newly formed Australian lobby group, Friends of Science in Medicine, said in its letter to Australian vice-chancellors,  

by giving "undeserved credibility to what in many cases would be better described as quackery" and by "failing to champion evidence-based science and medicine", the universities are trashing their reputation as bastions of scientific rigour.

Hear, hear! After all, it's not enough to put on a course because of actual or perceived student demand. The program also needs to be academically rigorous. And applying that rigour to an examination of the content should enough to see offerings such as homeopathy out the door. After all, claims that the homeopathic treatment for burns is more heat, or that homeopathic plutonium is a valid treatment for anything, are easy to test (& to find wanting). And explanations for its mode of action fly in the face of all we know od how the world works. The same is true for many other CAMs (& don't get me started on leeches!).

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Just a heads-up for teachers & students: next month Chris Stringer will be giving public lectures on human evolution in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch & Dunedin. (No Hamilton talk! I am sad :-( I've got an all-day meeting that means I'd never get up to the Auckland  event in time.) From the latest Royal Society "Alert":

Professor Chris Stringer: ‘Origin of our species, Neanderthals and the Early Human Occupation of Britain and Europe’, February 2012


Professor Chris Stringer answers some of the big questions:  How can we define modern humans, and how can we recognise our beginnings in the fossil and archaeological record? How can we accurately date fossils, including ones beyond the range of radiocarbon dating? Has human evolution stopped, or are we still evolving? What can we expect from future research on our origins? 


Professor Chris Stringer is in New Zealand by invitation of the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution and his public talks are supported by the Royal Society of New Zealand.  Details for booking tickets are available at


  • Auckland, 6.00 pm, 22 February, Auckland War Memorial Museum;
  • Christchurch, 6.00 pm, 23 February, C1 Central Lecture Theatre, University of Canterbury;
  • Dunedin, 6.00 pm, 24 February, St David Lecture Theatre, University of Otago;
  • Wellington, 6.00 pm, 25 February, Embassy Theatre, Courtenay Place.

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 A new post by Orac discusses various tactics of the anti-vaccine movement, with reference to a new paper published in the journal Vaccine. (Link is to a pdf - apologies if this isn't accessible to all as it's well worth the time spent reading.) In the paper (entitled Anti-vaccine activists, Web 2.0, and the postmodern paradigm – An overview of tactics and tropes used online by the anti-vaccination movement), Anna Kata comments on how the combination of ready access to information via internet search engines, combined with a post-modern attitude to science as a means of viewing the world, have enhanced the spread and uptake of anti-vaccination messages.

In fact, you could argue that this combination enhances the spread of pseudoscience per se. For that reason I found Anna's concluding statement particularly valuable & (like Orac) have reproduced it here (with bolding for emphasis):

... [F]inding common ground with those who question, fear or crusade against vaccines** is no easy task. Their arguments are constantly shifting and evolving - this has been furthered by the fluidity of the Internet and social media. While acknowledging and correcting flawed arguments is important, an approach that moves beyond providing "the facts" is likely needed. With the anti-vaccination movement embracing the postmodern paradigm, which inherently questions an authoritative, science-based approach, "facts" may be reinterpreted as just another "opinion". This issue is as much about the cultural context surrounding healthcare, perceptions of risk, and trust in expertise, as it is about vaccines themselves. For these reasons it is possible the minds of deeply invested anti-vaccination activists may never be changed; therefore it is for both the laypersons with genuine questions or worries about vaccines and the healthcare professionals who work to ease their fears that keeping abreast of the methods of persuasion discussed here is essential. Recognising anti-vaccine tactics and tropes is imperative, for an awareness of the disingenuous arguments used to cajole and convert audiences gives individuals the tools to think critically about the information they encounter online. It is through such recognition that truly informed choices can then be made.

** or in favour of other modalities


Kata A. Anti-vaccine activists, Web 2.0, and the postmodern paradigm – An overview of tactics and tropes used online by the anti-vaccination movement. Vaccine (2011), doi:10.1016/j.vaccine.2011.11.112


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 The other day my friend Renee sent through this link, & her thoughts. "This article (& website) set my woo-ometer off big time," she said. The article's entitled Scientists cure cancer, but no one takes notice, and begins thusly:

Canadian researchers find a simple cure for cancer, but major pharmaceutical companies are not interested. Researchers at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Canada, have cured cancer last week, yet there is a little ripple in the news or on TV.

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 ... not only do we have at least one homeopath using heat to treat burns (yes, really! That piece of burning stupid - to use an Oracian aphorism - is admirably covered here by Grant), but we also have the Daily Mail announcing that scientists have discovered - ta-daah! - a hangover cure (hat-tip to David Winter for passing the story on):

New drug lets you enjoy a drink without getting drunk, and wake up without a hangover - at least if you're a rat

Well, at least they mention that the work's been done in rats, which is a step up from many such reports (although I suspect that the first clause is what most readers will remember). What else do they have to say? From the sub-header we learn that the drug

  • [was] extracted from [an] ancient Chinese remedy

  • stops hangovers, prevents rats passing out

 and that

  • rats given [the equivalent of] 20 beers in two hours.... recovered their balance in 15 minutes [when given the drug].

The drug is "now moving to tests in humans."


The drug in question is called dihydromyricetin, or DHM, "a flavonoid component of herbal medicines." It's not unknown for 'ancient remedies' to turn out to actually have some pharmaceutical benefits. Think willow bark, for example. So we can go with that. But this 'stops hangovers' bit - how on earth would they know? (Hint: the research was done on rats, which I seriously doubt go round groaning "oh my aching head" the morning after.)

Anyway, what was the actual scientific study about? The full article is behind a paywall but you can read the abstract for free here. It turns out that the researchers weren't looking for a hangover cure, & in fact were not looking at hangovers at all. They were instead looking at potential means of treating 'alcohol use disorders' (AUDs), which they describe as "the most common form of substance abuse" & characterise thusly:

The development of AUDs involves repeated alcohol use leading to tolerance, alcohol withdrawal syndrome, and physical and psychological dependence, with loss of ability to control excessive drinking.

In other words, they're talking about alcoholism.

It seems that when rats were injected with DHM they didn't develop "acute alcohol intoxication"; nor did they suffer from withdrawal symptoms. The drug also cut back on the animals' drinking. It seems to do this through its effects on particular receptor molecules in the brain, some of which are inhibited and others enhanced. Identifying some of the key molecules in the brain that are involved in addictive responses to alcohol, and of a compound that seems to block the development of this addiction, opens the way for the possibility of developing a pharmacological means of treating alcoholism. 

But a hangover cure, it ain't.

Y.Shen, A.K.Lindemeyer, C.Gonzalez, X.M.Shao, I.Spigelman, R.W.Olsen & J.Liang (2012) Dihydromyricetin as a novel anti-alcohol intoxication medication. The Journal of Neuroscience 32(1): 390-401. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4639-11.2012


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 This week I've found myself becoming quite frustrated with the way alternative 'therapies' are being presented in the NZ Herald. Two of the three described to date are - as described - essentially massage therapies (as Michael Edmonds has noted here) & hardly need the overlay of pseudoscientific claims (unless, perhaps, to gain wider acceptability?). The third, so-called hirudotherapy, has the potential to do real harm - as Siouxsie and I have both pointed out - and lacks any evidence for several of its claims. And I'm left wondering why the journalists concerned don't appear to be querying any of the claims made for & about these various modalities.

Which leads me to think that Steve Novella's BS** detector needs to be very widely read & discussed. There's a full article about this in last September's The Skeptic magazine, but the key points are summarised below. Useful in science classrooms - heck, in any classroom! - and in newsrooms as well. As Steve notes, "raising the red flag or activating your BS detector doesn't mean it's going to be BS in the end", but what follows is a a list of questions that we should all ask when presented with a new claim where we can't be sure whether or not it's actually legit:

  • How extraordinary are the claims?
  • How many different conditions are claimed to be treated by one modality?
  • What is the mechanism?
  • What is the plausibility?
  • Is the treatment generally accepted or promoted by a single individual or group?
  • Are there claims for a conspiracy of suppression?

It would be a useful 'nature of science' classroom exercise to revisit the Herald's articles with these questions in mind.

** BS = bovine excrement

Steve Novella (2011) The BS Detector. The Skeptic 31(3):11-15 (the magazine of the Australian Skeptics,

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This morning's Herald ran an article on 'alternative therapies' - New Zealanders' beliefs about their effectiveness, & a Herald reporter's experience of one such 'therapy'. (Apparently there will be more to come over the next few days.) The article presented some results from a recent UMR research poll - as it was provided 'exclusively to the Herald' I wasn't able to read the whole thing - which apparently show that around 75% of those surveyed believe that arnica reduces bruising (which it may well do, provided we're talking therapeutic & not homeopathic concentrations), while 51% believe that homeopathy has been scientifically proven. Sigh. (The article also cited a 2008 Massey University study, which I wrote about at the time it came out.)

So I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised to read on & find that the reporter who tried hirudotherapy (ie blood-letting using medicinal leeches) didn't actually question any of the claims made for this particular treatment modality.

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Over at this post by Seth Mnookin** in the new HuffPo science section (like Orac I will be rather interested to see how this section pans out), a commenter with the 'nym Seeking Clarity remarked:

What our mainstream science education curricula apparently fails to adequately teach is why the process of science tends to produce information of relatively high reliability and why this process is such useful compensation for human limitations.

We are instead taught to recite the requisite repertoire of science fact and vocabulary that may be useful to science majors but which (divorced from its epistemological context) is experienced by average students as irrelevant to their own lives. 

As a result, the findings of science are seen as one of any number of engines of opinion. The public often misses the role of carefully and collaboratively vetted empirical corroboration as a basis of confidence.

Therefore the relative tentativeness, incompleteness, and internal controversies that characterise the products and the community of science can be mistaken for weakness in contrast to those persons who unhesitatingly and appealingly claim to have access to conclusive truths.

I've reproduced the comment here as it's very relevant to discussions I've had with colleagues & fellow science bloggers about the voluminous quantities of pseudoscience circulating on the internet & also available through the media (some of the latter masquerades as 'entertainment' but some - Ancient Aliens for example - is presented with a seemingly straight face). There seems to be a huge demand for this sort of stuff, as witnessed by the number of websites offering up kitty-litter as a cure-all (not that they come out & call zeolite 'kitty-litter'), or the 'miracle mineral supplement' (knock back bleach & it will cure your ills), or detox foot-pads, or... the supply seems endless, & that's not even counting the more 'mainstream' things like homeopathy.

People do tend to seek certainty in their lives, & as the comment above notes, scientists simply can't give absolute certainty. But that's often not understood, & it may well make the 'alternatives' seem that much more attractive. Hopefully the implementation of the 2007 science curriculum will help to redress that, at least with current & future students. But at the same time we do need to address the sheer volume of information (aka facts) that students must learn; in my opinion that discussion is long overdue!


** which is an excellent commentary  on the importance of & need for vaccination - & for responsible science journalism.

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 I was reading Andy Lewis's Quackometer blog while eating lunch & came across a reference to a homepathic preparation of Tyrannosaurus rex. Hoho, I thought, you are joking; please pull the other one. And then (being of curious persuasion & also it was still lunchtime) I decided to check it out.

But no, it turns out that this 'product' is actually on offer - for all sorts of mind-related issues if this site is to be believed. If you'd rather shop around you can also find it here (although I apparently don't have permission to access the specific information about the remedy), or here, or read about 'case studies' here.

Now, over on the syndicated version of this post, at Sciblogs, a supporter of homeopathy invited me to keep an open mind about the issue. Unfortunately the use of such an item does require the asking of critical questions; it does not mean simply taking claims at face value. And what we have here is a bunch of claims that you can buy 'remedies' that at one time have had a passing acquaintance of a bit of Tyrannosaurus rex. And that those 'remedies' actually do some good. (None of the sites I visited provided any clinical evidence of this.)

Let's leave aside the issue of why someone, somewhere, might take it into their head that a preparation of long-dead dinosaur might be a useful addition to the homeopathic pharmacopeia, and assuming that the original solution (prior to dilution well past Avogadro's number) did actually involve fossil remains, I do have a couple of questions.

Do those offering this concoction really really think that it once included actual T.rex? Because the chemical composition of a T.rex fossil is going to be significantly different from that of the once-living animal. (While one recent find seems to have included some organic material, this is not going to be readily available to all comers.)

And - where did they get their original sample from? (A question one could also ask of those claiming to sell homeopathic plutonium. No, really.) Because there aren't exactly a lot of T.rex fossils lying around for the taking: around 30 specimens in total. (Although I suppose they could have purchased teeth over the internet. But would teeth do something different from the rest of the animal???)

I rather feel that it's not me that needs to be opening the mind's doors...


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Via one of Orac's commenters I happened on a webpage of this name. The page's author is a hypnotherapist who describes his work as involving taking patients into their past lives ('regressions') and future lives ('progressions'). Hence, I suppose, the 'time travel'. 

And these supposed time travellers seem to be very advanced: 

Time travel will be discovered in approximately the year 3050 by a man named Taatos. He is the Hermes of ancient Egypt and the very first chrononaut (time traveler). Prior to his actually traveling back in time, holographic images were sent into the past. This is why the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, etc. described "visions" by their oracles, soothsayers and psychics.
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 The intrepid reporters from Number 8 Network e-mailed the other day. "What are you reading?" they asked; "after all, it's the holidays & you must have heaps of time to put your nose in a book." Which is sort of right, it is the Christmas/New Year break, but the days just seem to fly by when you're doing not very much at all.

However, as it happens I'm working my way through several books at the moment, so I was able to oblige.

First up is Skulls, by Simon Winchester. Strictly speaking it's not actually a book but an interactive iPad app, based on the enormous personal collection of Alan Dudley. I bought it because I find skulls fascinating (though not so obsessively fascinating as I think they must be for a collector of same) & the blurb at the app store offered me the ability to zoom in, out & around a whole bunch of bony brain protectors. This, I figured, would be quite fun & could also be a useful teaching tool (I'm looking forward to showing it to a colleague who teaches 3rd-year zoology). 

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