Instant Theory

Monday, November 14, 2005

You're so mind-controlled and you don't even know it

To all who live in constant fear of that most personal invasion -- mind control -- the most time-honored line of defense has now fallen into disrepute. It turns out that tin-foil hats not only fail to protect the wearer from malevolent broadcasts, but actually AMPLIFY signals in the range most commonly used by the Government. Using a $250,000 signal generator, researchers have all but proven Reynolds foil is useless as a prophylactic against "The Voices" (especially if The Voices use the same radio frequencies as GPS sattellites!).

Thanks to that juggernaut of scientific advancement, MIT, maybe we can soon rest a little easier... that is, if they ever develop a technology to actually keep the invisible rays out of our heads.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Heavy exploration, little return

According to a study by the Environmental Working Group, the oil industry has little to show for several decades of fossil fuel exploration on public and private lands of the western US. The study comes on the heels of the Bush Administration’s Energy Policy Act, which emphasizes and provides large incentives for home exploration.

Between 1989 and 2003, on 229 million acres in 12 western states, the industry has extracted enough oil to power the nation for a paltry 53 days. Natural gas finds haven’t been much better—the industry has only extracted 221 days worth, according to the EWG report, Losing Ground.

In the same era, industry has taken advantage of the “split estate” land designation, which gives the government mineral rights even on privately owned land. These claims are often sold to the highest industry bidder. In fact, the EWG report states that the oil industry controls lands inside, or within 5 miles of, 69 percent of the West’s national parks. The figure jumps to 75 percent in wilderness areas.

In many of these places, the goods are not easily gotten. On the Roan Plateau in Colorado, for example, natural gas deposits are found deep beneath undulating sedimentary formations. In this landscape, explosives and chemicals are used to puncture the ground and tap these deep reserves. Once these reservoirs are “cracked” however, “gushers” rarely follow, as the hundreds of abandoned natural gas wells on the Western Slope of Colorado testify.

A strange event nearly 35 years ago perhaps best illustrates the depths the industry has gone to tap stubborn western reserves. In 1969, near the town of Doghead Mountain, Colorado, engineers detonated a 40-kiloton atomic bomb, 8,500 feet underground to crack open a sandstone reservoir. Ironically (i.e., fittingly) the fuel released was too radioactive to sell.

With the oil industry’s poor returns, in spite of its carte blanche access to private and public lands, we might well ask whether the small energy returns justify the large environmental costs. We should demand greater accountability from the Bureau of Land Management and stricter management of those digging for elusive--perhaps illusory--gold beneath the ground while spoiling the real treasures found at the surface.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Ever donated sperm? It might catch up to you.

A 15-year-old boy has just tracked down his father (an 'anonymous' sperm donor) by using DNA analysis, genealogical records, and the internet. Basically, the boy used the DNA to identify men with similar DNA, two of which had the same surname . The boy's mother had been told the donor's date and place of birth, so he found all the men born in that place on that day. Only one matched the surname: his father.

I wonder how this man reacted? The story mentions that banks may not be able to guarantee anonymity to donors if their offspring have the same detective abilities (and a computer and $289 for the DNA-testing) as the boy had. A bioethicist was quoted as saying, "The case shows that there are ethical and social concerns about assisted reproduction that we did not think about."

Wow. It kind of seems obvious that there would be unforeseen consequences to assisted reproduction. Even if they were college students just "trading their sperm for beer money," donors should have realized that they could have a dozen offspring out there. Maybe they even crossed them on the street or worked with them or taught them in school. And maybe they'll even ring their doorbell and say, "Hi, Dad!"

This technique might not work for everyone, but wouldn't it be cool if everyone in the world could participate in this? We could create a great, giant family tree and see how we're all related. That might even be more powerful than the first images of a border-less Earth from space.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Ok, "design" but what else?

Looks as if the Intelligent Debate is getting a lot more... um... tedious. This paper by Stephen C. Meyer, posted last month on the Discovery Institute website, is a position statement about the scientific status of Intelligent Design. But, once again, instead of setting forth a problem solving agenda or defining the movement further in terms of of what ID "can" do, the paper attempts to bash the idea of "science" into a mash of confusion. Apparently, since no plausible case has ever been made that ID is science, ID-ists are bent on redifining "science" to fit their multiplicitous agenda. Time and time again, the only thing ID-ists prove they can do is wheedle on about being against something.

The failure of the movement to do anything but be against something is only half the problem -- the other half of the problem, of course, being that ID doesn't measure anything, make any predictions, or solve anything. But what's most frightening about this paper is that, since ID-ists are not out wasting time observing anything or collecting data, they have all the time in the world to refine their bluster and pontifications. The result is a very nuanced, sophistocated set of deconstructions that most evolutionary biologists would be hard pressed to counter -- partly because tautology and circular reasoning are hard to refute, and partly because evolutionary biologists have a bigger job than sitting around merely opposing things.

The time for dignified silence against ID is over. Scientists and philosophers of science should and must now engage this movement head on. The Discovery Institute has so perfected the use of babbly sci-jargon that, to an indifferent and ignorant audience, their hornswoggling silver-tongued blather might start to pass as actually having meaning.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Too good to be true

One of MIT's rising stars has just been fired for falsifying data. Today, The Boston Globe and New Scientist, among others, report that MIT on Wednesday sacked Luk Van Parijs, 35, an associate professor in the school's department of biology (home to 4 nobel laureates). Van Parijs admitted, after a 14-month investigation by the school, to faking data left and right: in published papers, in unpublished manuscripts, and in grant applications. Now, the researcher's former affiliates, Harvard Medical School and Cal Tech, have concerns that work he conducted there may have also been tampered with. Van Parijs was previously considered to be a scientist with great potential, conducting elegant experiments that were published in major journals.

This debacle, which surely is a blow to one of the great academic powerhouses in the country, demonstrates the achilles heel of scientific research: Data and results can only be trusted as much as the scientists who produced them. In nearly every realm of science, there is a point in the research process where the men and women doing the science can be tempted to "clean up" or "polish" the data. Still others are tempted by the spoils of scientific breakthroughs that they completely invent results to conveniently prove their hypotheses. It might be surprising for people who have worked so hard to jeopardize their careers with such foolish mistakes, but it has happened before; just scan the Office of Research Integrity's case list to get an idea of how often this happens.

Research, especially in an academic setting, is a field that often relies on success of the scientist's work. Scientists need to publish papers, to get tenure, or to get and maintain funding. The temptation to produce successful studies is unfortunately too great for some to maintain their integrity. Hopefully, those who do misrepresent themselves or their work will be found out, and, as was the case with Van Parijs, it may require members of their own labs to blow the whistle.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Intelligent Design Must Win

The fight over evolution is boiling over once again: a federal court is hearing debate over whether the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board can place mentions of intelligent design in its science curriculum. Some parents, the ACLU, and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State are arguing that intelligent design is at least quasi-religious, and is therefore constitutionally barred from public classrooms. They're wrong.

There is no doubt that intelligent design is a highly evolved form of creationism. For decades, some of the shrewder creationists have whittled down statements of their belief in an effort to make it palatable both to the courts and more members of the public. They realized that to bring the idea of miraculous creation into schools and the rest of official public life, it had to pass the Supreme Court's current interpretation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

With intelligent design, they've basically succeeded -- they've pared back the idea of miraculous creation to such a general notion that it is not inherently religious. There are two components of this generality: first, it does not advocate any particular religion; intelligent design leaves room for the Creator(s) to be Jehovah, Allah, Vishnu, Zeus, Marduk, or whoever else. The second component is that it doesn't even specify divine species creation. ID opens the possibility that some non-supernatural intelligent entity -- the space aliens? -- created Earth's species. Snarky folks lampoon ID by saying a Flying Spaghetti Monster created the universe. Laugh all you want, but this is ID's great strength: it's agnostic about the source of Creation.

So even though most proponents of ID, both academic and populist, clearly think the intelligent designer is the Christian God, the theory does not -- at least not inherently or overtly. This may sound like a weaselly legalism, and it is. But legal systems work, by definition, with legalisms. As long as ID retains its creation- and religion-agnosticism in schools -- no mentions of Jesus or the Bible, folks -- it passes constitutional muster. The federal courts should allow the teaching intelligent design.

All of this is not to say that intelligent design should actually be taught in science classes. Teaching intelligent design as though it were science is forsaking part of the pursuit of truth, and anyone who supports ID is pushing our our children and our nation toward regressive ignorance. But our country has different bodies to make different decisions, and in this case, the power to choose between ignorance and the pursuit of truth lies in local school boards. This choice belongs to regular people chosen by their communities, not professional jurists on the federal bench.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Jurassic Park: Don't Hold Your Breath

Scientists recently found the intact blood of an extinct 20-million-year-old spider captured in amber. Unfortunately, they're saying they can't recover any DNA from the sample, which means they can't clone the disappeared bug. So the prospect of re-creating dinosaurs from similar blood samples seems to be "virtually nonexistent," according to the scientists.

I continue to hold out hope that genetic-recovery methods will improve in the next few years and allow us to bring back from the dead all manner of ancient fauna. Basically what I'm saying is that I hope to one day look outside my window and see some velociraptors traipsing down the street, even if it meant there was some chance that I'd encounter one in my own traipsing.

There are some other interesting angles of the research, by the way, despite the heartbreaking DNA news.