August 2006 Archives

Homo floresiensis: To Have Been or Not to Have Been

New Species?

In 2004, Peter Brown, Mike Morwood et al. published research in the journal Nature describing a hominin that they had discovered in a cave on Flores island in Indonesia (LB1), that they proposed to be a member of a new species. The work was exciting for a number of reasons. It showed evolutionary pressures on humans not unlike other species and stimulated new ideas and insights about how we evolved. The group published their second article a year after the first. In that 2005 Nature article, Morwood et al.analyzed the excavated bones from nine more individuals from the cave. They measured the skeletal remains and proportions, and their findings seemed to bolster the discovery of the new species. Acronym Required wrote about their discovery briefly here.

Morwood et al concluded that the smaller stature of LB1 was due to island dwarfism and that the species most likely split from Homo erectus. Morwood has now refined his original thesis that LB1's small stature was a result of island dwarfism and believes that the species arrived on Flores with its small stature.

Last spring, Science published an article by Falk et. al, about the derivation of the ancient bones of a small individual (LB1) found in a cave in Flores, Indonesia. They had analyzed the brain of LBI and determined that the convoluted brain showed that LB1 was a new species, Homo floresiensis. However, their findings were quickly disputed by paleontologists from the University of Chicago and Indonesia, who claimed that these individuals were simply Homo sapiens afflicted with microcephaly.

Individual Aberration?

Martin et al. published their opinions in comment in the May 2006 issue of Science. That group concluded that the brain was disproportionally large for a proposed species, but was comparable to other microcephalophic brain fossils. They dismissed the fossil find as merely the skull of 10 year old H. sapiens afflicted with microcephaly. The tools found in the cave they said, were not evidence of the higher cognitive skills of a new species, they could have only have been used by Homo sapiens. Falk wrote a letter in response to the comment that Science published at the same time.

Martin et al, the group that has been dismissing the new species, fleshed out their long-standing contentions in a new paper that stoked last week's attentive excitement. Titled, "Pygmoid Australomelanesian Homo sapiens skeletal remains from Liang Bua, Flores: Population affinities and pathological abnormalities", the paper is posted for all to read freely, online at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (Jacob et al. published online August 23, 2006, accessed Aug. 25th) As reflected in the title, the paper heartily disputes the evidence for a new species, H. floresiensis.

Martin et al. present a laundry list of data based on the their own investigation of the remains. They describe geological circumstances as proof against the isolation of H. florensiesis, and assert that the island of Flores is too small to support 40,000 generations of a hunter gatherer population. They list "94 descriptive features of the LB1 cranium or the 46 features observed on both mandibles", that they claim are not unique to the 'hobbit'. They categorize all this and more, with a trace of alacrity common to the pre-dawn hawker of kitchen utensils in a TV commercial.

Of course they do discuss utensils - microblades. Martin et. al question whether an individual with a brain less than the size of a chimpanzee could manufacture and use tools that seem more compatible with the abilities of Homo sapiens. If they did use these tools, the researchers think that these 'H. sapiens-like' faculties might actually be evidence of species commingling. This theory, disconcerting to some, has also been forwarded to explain other pieces of the evolution puzzle and runs counter to Morwood et al.'s claim that LB1 is a unique species that evolved in parallel but distinct from H. sapiens.

Martin et al present a mountain of evidence against the argument for a new species, but his paper (naturally) draws criticism. Some scientists claim that the new evidence was "cherry-picked", and that the method of computer generated skull analysis that portrayed abnormal asymmetry in the paper is prone to manipulation. Critics say that the comparison between the LB1 chin and the chin of modern pygmies was spurious. They assert that so-called signs of disease in the leg bones were "a house of cards". (Culotta, E.,"Skeptics Seek to Slay the 'Hobbit,' Calling Flores Skeleton a Modern Human" Science 25 August 2006: Vol. 313. no. 5790, pp. 1028 - 1029).

The two groups each claimed that their evidence was the final word on the issue. But the most definitive "comment" was by an anthropologist not involved with the research at all, Ian Tattesall, who said, "this argument is going to run and run". It is "running", and perhaps because the research is about evolution, it's fitting that the media latched on to it. Indeed it seemed inevitable that Time magazine began calling the controversy the "Hobbit Wars". Time characterizes the participants as "intellectual gladiators", and "grownups with PhDs" who behave like "fifth-graders". Apparently all hell's breaking loose in this niche of academia, therefore we must have the makings of a minor media fest.

In academic style, the critics also launch assaults not specific to the data. They don't flinch from asking how the paper got published in the first place (a routine slight for PNAS publications), and they also question the political motives of the authors. Teuku Jacob of Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, the first author of the PNAS paper, has attracted suspicion by moving the skull of the LB1 to his own facility in Indonesia in 2004. Jacob has always refuted the findings supporting the existence of a new species.

Clearly the PNAS paper is not the final word.

The Dispute that Keeps on Giving

In the meantime, scientists agree that DNA analysis would provide information, but finding workable DNA at the site is unlikely. They also say that other individuals could be unearthed and morphological studies could be done to show common traits among more individuals.

While the research is exciting, the natural controversies have all the makings of those aggrandized science disputes, where the media sits on the sidelines and urges paying readers to cluck disapprovingly at the bellicosity of the Ph.Ds. Is the "hobbit wars", just another tiff that falls somewhere on the continuum between a *real* war, like the Iraq War, and the Lilliputian Wars of Jonathan Swift's crafting? You decide which end of the continuum is a more compelling place for the hobbit "wars".

But even as the scientists goad each other and argue passionately over the interpretation of the results, they provide deeper analysis that contributes to current understanding of evolution and our origins. It will be exciting to learn more about what LB1 was doing, with or without Homo sapiens, among the Komodo dragons and pygmy elephants and microblades and other tools. Did they come to Flores once, or several times over the thousands of years they inhabited the island? Did they perish in a volcano? Exhaust their resources? While the disagreements may be distracting, there are lots of interesting details that we have yet to learn that will be revealed in spite of, and/or at least partially motivated by, the debates.


Acronym Required wrote about the discoveries last year in "The "Hobbit" Species of Indonesia"

Beyond Biomechanics

David Foster Wallace takes a look at Roger Federer's game in "Federer as Religious Experience", published in today's New York Times. Wallace is awed:

"...given Agassi's position and world-class quickness, Federer had to send that ball down a two-inch pipe of space in order to pass him, which he did, moving backwards, with no setup time and none of his weight behind the shot. It was impossible. It was like something out of "The Matrix." I don't know what-all sounds were involved, but my spouse says she hurried in and there was popcorn all over the couch and I was down on one knee and my eyeballs looked like novelty-shop eyeballs."

The author wonders about the source of Federer's talent. Is it the way the racquets are built - "lightweight frames made of space-age materials..." that favor "powerful hitters who rely on heavy topspin", as the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum would have it? If this were true, he reasons, then someone of Federer's "consummate finesse" wouldn't be dominating the game, Wallace says. Wallace even explores metaphysical explanations, that to a top player like Federer the ball just seems to move slower, be more within reach of his racquet, as well as the star's kinesthetic sense -- the neurological coordination of the body's movement in space, details that sportswriter's so often brush over.

Acknowledging the comedic sport sometimes taken with Wallace's writing -- there are of course footnotes in the printed edition -- the article is a fine tribute both to Roger Federer's talent as well as the fantastic grace with which humans can occupy space. Best to read the original essay in all its detail here.

Computers Write News

"Computers write news", is the headline under the left "Briefing" column on the front page of the Financial Times today. The front page teaser says "Thomson Financial, the business data group, has found a way to replace human beings in the newsroom and is using computers to write some of its reports. Page 3"

We can see how this might work. Your average financial story might very simply be composed of a noun (company name or sector), + a verb describing movement in space, + a number, and a few articles. For example: "Dow Industrials Climb 7.84 points to Extend Rally","...a slide in oil prices", "...futures contracts fell 2.5%", "...shares jumped 2%", "...the industrials have risen nearly 247 points" ...oil has plunged off 5.8% to a two-month low". Add a few adjectives like, "cloudy" "troubled", "psychological", "important", or "sunny", and you have the makings of a juicy investment news story if there ever was one.

But we can only speculate. There is no story about about computers writing news on page 3. Indeed, these new details might be hidden away somewhere in the paper, but we couldn't find them in today's FT. We know computers are already capable of generating "news", so what are those computers up to?

Science Education. Does it Matter?

Among Wealthy Nations, Across Disparate Studies, It Seems That US Churchgoers are Skeptical of Evolution

Last Friday's issue of the journal Science published a science Policy Forum article by Jon Miller, Eugenie Scott and Shinji Okamoto, who surveyed attitudes towards evolution in Japan, the U.S. and European countries. They tried to correlate individual attitudes towards evolution with people's political and religious leanings in "Public Acceptance of Evolution". Their results are interesting and so are their conclusions.

The authors found that in the U.S., "One in five adults [is] still undecided or unaware of [evolution]". This number has remained stable over the past 20 years. However among 34 countries, including Europe, Japan, and the United States, citizens living in the U.S. are least likely to believe in evolution. The graph below, which I based on their bar graph, summarizes some of the data.(The sample size was about 1000 people (median) per country)


It's disheartening to see the US at the bottom of the chart like that, but before becoming too morose consider the investigators' methodology. They compared different studies done at different times, across different years, in different countries:

"Beginning in 1985, national samples of U.S. adults have been asked whether the statement, "Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals," is true or false, or whether the respondent is not sure or does not know. We compared the results of these surveys with survey data from nine European countries in 2002, surveys in 32 European countries in 2005, and a national survey in Japan in 2001."

Are these studies comparable? Doesn't it depend on who asks the question, how they ask it, and what the follow-up question is? For instance there are lots of polls here, and you can see how you might derive different answers from different questions. Consider the following questions about cloning:

  • FOX News questions people about cloning, saying: "As you may know, scientists have made advances in cloning, where they can reproduce a whole animal from a single cell. Do you think it's acceptable to use cloning to reproduce..a beloved pet? Humans?" In response, 84/89% (pets/humans) of those surveyed opposed.
  • Pew Research asked, "Do you favor or oppose scientific experimentation on the cloning of humans", and why to you object? 77% opposed.
  • Virginia Commonwealth University asked: "In general, do you think it is morally use human cloning technology in developing new treatments for disease?" (emphasis added) 53% opposed.

Fox News frames the question around the market and asks people to visualize cloning a whole person. Virginia Commonwealth, on the other hand, asks the more scientifically feasible and politically realistic question, and the results differ by 30%! How can you merge these results?

Different audiences, different questions, will yield different results. The Science authors acknowledge that the true-false format of the U.S. surveys skew the results towards extreme positions, but say that the disparate data sets are comparable. Whether you raise an eyebrow at that or not, you can still accept their conclusion that the U.S. harbors many religious people. The United States is historically a far more religious country then Western Europe. Over 90% of Americans believe in God, 97-98% according to some sources, while only 40% of Europeans believe in God. About 60% of Americans attend church, compared to 10% of Europeans in some countries. These numbers have apparently been fairly stable for decades (despite what the press says). With these wide differences, readily accessible on the internet, it's easy to surmise that "doubt" in evolution might be more prevalent in the U.S than in Europe without doing any study.

Do the number of hours spent in church correlate with more doubt about evolution? Maybe. The authors of the Science study found that people U.S. who self-identified as religious were much less likely to believe in evolution compared to those in Europe. But it's even more basic than that. Glancing at a Pew Research study on attitudes towards religion shows that those countries where people reported that "religion plays a very important role in their lives", are the very same countries that where the Science authors found that people were the least likely to believe in scientific evolution.

This shows a direct inverse relationship between church going, and trust in the science supporting evolution. Below is a list of all the countries that appeared on both tables, in the order that they appeared. Interestingly, however, the strong inverse relationship between the two falls apart around Communism. SP

If we were to take this inverse relationship one step farther, we could use the Pew Research data to forecast how a certain country's attitude about religion might predict attitudes towards evolution. As the table shows, according to the Pew Research, Brazil, S. Africa and India are more religious than the U.S., as is all of Africa, much of South America, and South Asia. Therefore although the Science data shows the U.S. at the *bottom*, as the Pew Research report concludes, it is only at the bottom of wealthy countries. This presentation of the data is less alarming (I think), than what Science finds, that bloggers have latched onto. Mexico has about the same attitudes as the U.S towards religion, about 57% of the people are "very religious". Canada is closer to Great Britain, at 30%. Only 25% of Koreans said they were "very religious".

The authors also used structural equation modeling (SEM) to correlate between different variables, in a survey of nine European countries and the U.S. In addition to religion, they looked at age, gender, education, genetic literacy, attitudes toward life, political ideology and attitudes, beliefs and reservations towards science and technology. Interestingly, the authors found that U.S. participants scored higher for "Genetic Literacy", but were confused about "core ideas related to 20th and 21st century biology":

"78% of adults agreed to a description of the evolution of plants and animals. But, 62% of adults in the same study believed that God created humans as whole persons without any evolutionary development."

The Science authors chalk this up to an exceptionalist perspective; people contort their ideas about evolution to fit their religious ideas, or vice versa. They point out that not many adults understood the extent of the genetic overlap between humans, chimpanzees, and mice, but say this isn't surprising given many adults don't know what DNA is. They find that "The results of the [statistical analysis] indicate that Genetic literacy is one important component that predicts adult acceptance of evolution." The authors note this "should be troubling for science educators" and advocate for better science education:

"Basic concepts of evolution should be taught in middle school, high school, and college life sciences courses and the growing number of adults who are uncertain about these ideas suggests that current science instruction is not effective."

Does Education Matter? Or Does Peers, Politics and Pressure?

Some of the most public Intelligent Design (ID) proponents are very schooled, the most "educated". Many of the founders of the ID movement have years of science classes. Two days ago the New York Times published an article about the Kansas school board, How to Make Sure Children Are Scientifically Illiterate. Lawrence M. Krauss wrote:

"The chairman of the school board, Dr. Steve Abrams, a veterinarian, is not merely a strict creationist. He has openly stated that he believes that God created the universe 6,500 years ago....A key concern should not be whether Dr. Abrams's religious views have a place in the classroom, but rather how someone whose religious views require a denial of essentially all modern scientific knowledge can be chairman of a state school board...To maintain a belief in a 6,000-year-old earth requires a denial of essentially all the results of modern physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology and geology. It is to imply that airplanes and automobiles work by divine magic, rather than by empirically testable laws."

The NYT author concludes: "As we continue to work to improve the abysmal state of science education in our schools, we will continue to battle those who feel that knowledge is a threat to faith." It's disturbing to consider a zeitgeist where faith and knowledge are competing interests. But it's equally disturbing, and simpler, to consider the background of Abrams, the school board veterinarian. How could such a well-schooled, science educated veterinarian, broadcast such aspersions against the basic science that bulwarks his profession?

How could a cardiologist or biochemist do this? Yet all these fields, and others, are represented in the ID community. Developmental biologists, evolutionary biologists, geologists, and other scientists might claim in ornery moments that these people, vets and docs and all, aren't evolutionists, therefore aren't really qualified to speak about it. But that's a weak argument. The vet had many basic biology, biochemistry, chemistry and physics courses before veering off to treat cat diabetes. So did the cardiologist, before cashing in on bypass surgeries. Both had to memorize an awful lot of physiology. Both had to know evolution science. The doctor needed to ply apart many bits of a wizened cadaver and has intimate knowledge of human development. They have the information and intellectual tools that make them most capable of grasping evolution, yet they instead choose biblical stories to explain human existence on earth. Faced with this real and discouraging evidence, why do smart scientists keep insisting that more education will solve the problem?

We heartily argue in favor of education, of course, but politics is influential, perhaps more influential than we would like to admit. Pay attention to school boards Krauss says. The Science authors found that those who self-identify as politically conservative were also less likely to believe in religion -- but that didn't make them approach the subject rationally:

"Politicization of science in the name of religion and political partisanship is not new to the United States, but the transformation of traditional geographically and economically base political parties into religiously oriented ideological coalitions marks the beginning of a new era for science policy".

Politics routinely uses religion for coercion, from the Blasphemy laws and taxes in Europe during the Protestant reformation, to George Washington's hope that religion would help keep the troops in line and later, the citizens from resisting. Alexis de Tocqueville famously wrote in Democracy in America (1835): "There is no country in the whole world in which the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America." He also said, that "they brought with them into the New World a form of Christianity which I cannot better describe than by styling it a democratic and republican religion." Scholars like Jon Butler argue that America emerged after many years from deist, rather that pious, Puritan roots, and that Americans have become more religious over time. In all ways, religion has historically used as a political tool -- this is not new to the United States, nor are are "ideological coalitions".

That science should be swept up into this is no surprise. Science has become an integral part of our lives, and so all politicians and ID proponents embrace science even when they reject science. You don't hear a lot of politicians saying, "no I don't want that triple bypass, I'll just let God deal with it". But from a political control perspective, the spector of God serves to keep people in line. So despite how discouraging the present moment seems with regards to the number of vocal believers in creation, this too will ebb. Religious attitudes have surged and waned throughout history, always taking science hostage to superstition.

Education is important, but perhaps we shouldn't expect education to fix the problem. Will education sustain voters who believe that a certain political candidate will reward them financially? Will education make voters feel *included*? Perhaps politics and peer pressure at church exerts more influence than peer pressure in education. Maybe if Sunday school only lasted for a quarter or a semester, but then every Sunday for the rest of peoples' adult lives they went to Science School and a picnic afterwards, where politicians dropped by to chat and smile and kiss their babies, people would acknowledge the science of evolution.

Silicone Implants Find Renewed Popularity in Market

Silicone Breast Implants -- Now Safe?

In 1992, the Food and Drug Administration convened on the subject of silicone breast implant safety, as reported by the Washington Post:

" the panel members spoke up one by one, it became clear that they were far from certain about the risks and benefits of the devices. The first scientist to speak quoted the prophet Isaiah and writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Samuel Johnson before calling for more testing. The second said it was impossible for women to make an informed decision about whether to use implants because there was not enough information. The third complained that the issue should have been resolved years ago.

Unable to agree on how to interpret the jumble of opinion, fragmentary data and scientific speculation, the panel members finally threw up their hands in frustration."

So reported Malcom Gladwell in "Breast Implants; After a Decade of Controversy, Key Questions are Unanswered and the Future of the Device is Unresolved", perhaps before he reached a tipping point, blinked, and got off that beat.

Since then, scientists have continued to debate the safety of silicone implants. While doctors and patients often say that compared to water implants "silicone implants feel more natural and look better", lawsuits against Dow Corning in the 1980's and 1990's linked silicone breast implants to breast cancer and various autoimmune disorders. The suits threw Dow Corning into bankruptcy protection, from which it emerged in 2004. Now, following several reports claiming the implants are safe, silicone breast implants look poised for renewed popularity.

Last year the Economist acknowledged that Dow Corning that it had "earn[ed] a lifetime achievement award for the courting of controversy", in "America's Most-hated Companies: The Very Bottom Line" (Dec 20th), but now, the company once routed by the legal repercussions of leaking breast implants , has reorganized, emerged from bankruptcy, paid out at least 3.2 billion dollars to plaintiffs, and is courted as a Wall Street "darling". Be that as it may, silicone implant safety is no less controversial then it was 15 years ago, but the FDA is now edging towards approving silicone implants.

Unfortunately, if silicone implants are approved, women will still be challenged in their quest to make informed decisions about implants. Who should they trust? Their surgeons? Scientific research in prominent journals? The FDA?

Research Showing Oxidized Platinum Leaked Into Implant Recipients, Retracted by Dow Chemical Following Complaints by Manufacturing Companies

If women turn to the internet for safety data, they will quickly find reassuring answers from sites like, or The latter site features interviews with bronzed, well-fed doctors who urge you that their highest concern is women's safety. A more time consuming search turns alarming news, such as the recent, controversial paper in the journal Analytical Chemistry, widely covered in the national press.

The journal published a paper on silicone breast implants last May which provided evidence of platinum leakage from the implants. The authors proposed that the blood, urine and hair of 18 of 23 women who had implants contained higher levels of platinum then the controls. (Lykissa, ED and Maharaj, 2006. Total Platinum Concentration and Platinum Oxidation States in Body Fluids, Tissue, and Explants from Women Exposed to Silicone and Saline Breast Implants by IC-ICPMS. Anal. Chem. 78:2925-2933). Lykissa and Maharaj asserted that the platinum was found in oxidized reactive states, states that are associated with toxic physiological affects.

One the heels of that publication, Analytical Chemistry then published two articles that criticized the study and journal's editors quasi-retracted the paper. It was a confusing move from a research journal that you would expect would have subjected the first paper to rigorous enough peer-review to stand by its publication.

One was written by a chemist at Dow chemical, Thomas Lane. Lane has long been a supporter of silicone implants. He had testified about implants to the FDA, the National Institute of Cancer, and "other similar venues", but he had not been an expert witness, said the journal's disclaimer, writing, "Dow Corning Corporation has not manufactured silicone breast implants since 1992." Lane might be an unbiased scientist, as the journal says, yet he has long claimed that silicone implants are "harmless", which is quite controversial given the science research. Dow Corning might not currently manufacture implants, but that's irrelevant.

The corporation it is compelled to mount an active defense that 'the implants are and always were safe'. Michael Brooks, the other expert in the 'field' who wrote in to provide criticism of the paper was a 'neutral commenter' - according to Analytical Chemistry. However his background is not 'neutral'.

" ...he provided information on the chemical nature of the platinum in silicone breast implants at the FDA panel hearing on breast implants April 2005 on behalf of Inamed Corporation. He was also a member of Health Canada regulatory advisory panels considering applications by Mentor Corporation and Inamed Corporation for new breast implant models in March and September 2005."(Analytical Chemistry 78 (15), 5609 -5611, 2006.)

Brooks and Lane leveled specific criticism at the chromatography methods the authors used, as well as the authors' interpretation of their statistics. The original report's conclusion that "Pt levels [in the experimental group] exceed that of the control group" was spurious, Brooks and Lane said. According to them, the statistics in the paper proved there was no difference in platinum levels between the control and the implanted groups.

Disinterested Parties?

Clearly Brooks and Lane represent the interests of silicone implant manufacturers. But what are Lykissa's interests? Once a doctor at Baylor University, he now owns a toxicology lab and has been trying to show the presence of platinum for years. In 2000, the Minnesota Star Tribune reported that Lykissa had identified reactive platinum in implants that had been removed from women. (The FDA discarded that research for the same reasons.) His latest research was sponsored by a non-profit group dedicated to fighting the use of silicone implants. We can only speculate how he might benefit from the research.

A couple of weeks ago, when editors for Analytical Chemistry published a warning that Lykissa's and Maharaj's evidence flunked "this journal's standards", we wondered about the truth. The editors of Analytical Chemistry chose to throw a lot of doubt on the publication but do we really know why? The journal didn't accommodate a rebuttal from the original authors when they published Lane's and Brook's critiques. Should we trust that the science was lousy? Or should we wonder whether the journal was swayed by the critics' affiliations with Dow Corning Corporation, Mentor Corporation and Inamed Corporation?

So when Analytical Chemistry retracted the paper, did that soothe readers and potential patients, or, as it should have, did it alarm them.

The FDA is still wobbly on the implant safety issue, but we can see which way their leaning. A couple of years ago, in "FDA Breast Implant Consumer Handbook - 2004 (Specific Issues To Consider), the agency provided ample warnings about the implants. Among them, the FDA said that implants could interfere with cancer detection via mammograms, and that mammograms might cause implants to rupture. Women "may not be able to breastfeed" their babies, and there were safety risks to unborn children and nursing infants. There was a "...slight increase in deaths due to suicide", the FDA said, and there was a risk of "Gel bleed". The 2004 report also stated that although "platinum leaches (leaks) from these implants and is present in the surrounding tissue" causing "concern" there was no evidence that "leached platinum causes illness in women with breast implants." Today, two years later, the FDA is hardly more confident about the platinum risks and they continue to call for more research:

"Some studies have shown that small quantities of platinum may bleed through an intact implant shell and be present in trace amounts (parts per billion) in surrounding tissue. However, these results need to be confirmed using a larger number of subjects...Even if the analytical results of large, well controlled studies were to show relatively high levels of platinum in biological samples, the toxicological significance would still need to be determined."

For now, the FDA cites Brooks, the consultant for the silicone implant manufacturer, who votes: "The experimental evidence supports the conclusion that there are no clinical consequences of the platinum in silicone breast implants". The FDA concludes:"[The]FDA concurs with Brook's conclusions.".

So while it seems that neither the FDA nor the journal can really judge the veracity of competing conclusions in the available research, both the journal and the FDA nevertheless appear to favor the opinions of scientists with vested interest in promoting implants. The FDA has repeatedly discounted Lykissa's work. Yet he is not the only scientist with these concerns. Where are the "neutral" scientists? After a quarter of a century, women are still confronted with a sea of confusing, biased data in the leaky boat that is science research on silicone implants.

On a final, slightly different note, breast implant advocates might have more evidence for for their arsenal of reasons for why women should trust the implants. MSNBC reports in "The Breast Job That Saved a Life", that a women hit with shrapnel from an exploding rocket was spared piercing of her heart by her silicone breast implants.


Acronym Required previously reported on silicone breast implants in Silicone Implants -- A Health Risk to Choose?, and Silicone Implants and the FDA (more).


United States citizens exhaled a sigh of relief last week when hurricane forecasters downgraded the severity of their predictions for this year's hurricane season. The National Ocean and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA), projected a total of 12 to 15 named storms, down from their May prediction of 13 to 16 named storms. The odds are that the U.S. will also experience fewer hurricanes than last year.

But Asia is not faring as well. Yesterday "super typhoon" Saomoai struck China. The deaths and casualties from this storm continue to increase after Saomai came ashore with winds speed estimated at landfall to be 216 km/hour. Between one and two million people were evacuated according to various government sources. A weather bureau in Zhejiang said it was "the most powerful storm to strike China since the founding of the communist government in 1949".

This season has been devastating for Asia as warm Pacific ocean temperature and atmospheric conditions favor the formation of large storms. The similar perfect storm conditions occurred in the Atlantic last year, while Asia saw fewer hurricanes than usual. So far this year Asia has seen at least eight major storms including these:

  • Typhoon Prapiroon came ashore in southern China a week ago.
  • Typhoon Maria was downgraded to a tropical storm and did not hit land.
  • Typhoon Kaemi hit Taiwan and the Fujian coast at the end of July, and over 100 people were reported dead by China's press.
  • Typhoon Bilis was also a super-typhoon before it was down-graded to a tropical storm when it struck China on July 14th. The death toll from that Bilis was over 600.
  • Typhoon Ewiniar struck South Korea and China, earlier in the year.
  • Typhoon Chanchu hit on May 18, at least 40 days earlier than most years.

While China is recovering the most recent storms, the good news is that meteorologists are predicting that the tropical depression that was once Typhoon Bopha will fizzle. NASA released a photo at the beginning of the week which showed typhoons Bopha, Saomai and Maria over the Pacific ocean, and before Saomai gained speed it was Bopha that looked most threatening. TyphoonsThe original impressive photo is here. Jeff Schmaltz, of the MODIS Rapid Response Team, Goddard Space Flight Center, is credited with the photo.

The destruction for these storms this year is hard to calculate. The People's Daily online reports that according to the Red Cross 1,699 people in China and left 415 missing before the latest typhoon. The storms have cost millions of dollars in damage across Asia. But many of the affected areas are remote, countries have different reporting methods and North Korea, which apparently lost hundreds of lives during typhoon flooding, refuses to do anything but downplay the numbers for casualties and amount of damage.

In contrast to the elusive record of death and destruction of the storms, is the winsome naming schema. The names of the storms and meanings are highlighted in almost every article. The naming is a collaboration between countries, with different countries submitting names for the storms. All countries have particular standards, in the U.S. they are given names, in Korea they are plants or animals.The lovely names belie the destructive storms. Saomai is named for the morning star Venus. Kaemi is the Korean word for ant. Chanchu is "pearl", in Macau. Ewiniar means "storm god" in one of the Micronesian tribal languages. Prapiroon means "God of rain" in Thai. Maria is a girl's name, submitted by the U.S. Bopha means flower, and is a girl's name in Khmer. Bilis means "speed" or "swift" ( it was called Florita in the Phillipines). Most of the hurricanes have different names as they pass through different countries. The next storm apparently will be named Wukong for the monkey king hero of the Chinese story.

Science, Faith and Books

Scientists Who Believe in God and Now Write Books About It

A few weeks ago the New York Times listed seven books that focus on science and religion. A couple of the books occupy familiar turf for scientists, as the author summarized: creationism is wrong, evolution is right, and religion is a universal belief system explained by evolutionary psychology. A few of these books claim to fill in ground that tends to be deeply divisive, for instance in science education, where we are acutely aware of the Intelligent Design (ID) proponents on one side and the scientists on the other. Ira Flatow talked to two of these authors on Science Friday last week. Owen Gingerich wrote God's Universe and Dr. Francis S. Collins wrote The Language of God. Collins was also interviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday.

Dr. Collins, a physician and geneticist who is the director of the National Genome Research Institute, describes a challenge made to him by a dying patient who was relying on faith to see him through his disease: what did he, Collins, believe in? Bereft of a lucid explanation or proof for his atheist beliefs, the young medical student went in search of "evidence". He was given a C.S. Lewis book by a Methodist minister he sought out, and this was the beginning of his conversion from atheist to believer. The story is at least anthropologically interesting, though it is not unique. ID proponents in the film Flock of Dodos had the same adult "awakening", as did Philip Johnson, a founder of the ID movement. Thousands of people privately and publicly follow this path. But unlike some of his religious brethren who turned their faith against science, Dr. Collins did something different. Instead of denouncing science and defining himself by his religion, he stuck with science and merged his beliefs with his "day job". Perhaps had he not navigated his way to the minister's doorstep to look for proof for his atheist views we would be facing a very different book, but needless to say he became a "believer" at 27, and we can now read about his interpretation of science through the lens of religion, and vice versa.

Defining the "Middle Ground" of Science and Religion

As "believers", Collins and Gingerich describe their stance on science and religion as the "middle ground". Although such a positioning is hopeful, their interpretation is troublesome. "Middle ground" seems like it should incorporate a wide range of views, from borderline atheist to borderline "believer", as well as a wide range of religious beliefs -- Hinduism, Buddhism, Muslim, etc. But Collins talks about a "believer" as someone who has a "personal God" ("to whom one turns to answer questions"). This interpretation seems like it could accommodate other faiths, but he and Gingerich limit their flexibility to those religions celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. This in itself makes their "middle ground" seem like strict Christianity. So while this new "middle ground" may generously allow scientists to be "believers", it's proponents seem to be dividing the world into "believers in God and Jesus", and "non-believers". They have staked out a place that seems to exclude many scientists in the world of varying inclinations and faiths that don't involve their particular "God". Thus their positions don't seem to be any more generous then any other fundamentalist dogma, although they do allow for stem cell research.

As they unfurl their theories, it seems as though "middle ground" becomes more and more exclusive. Collins asserts that religion is imperative because without it the world would be material and amoral. This is invalid and seems like a brittle reason to embrace religion. If religion's only place were to instruct humans of moral behavior than perhaps we should rid the world of it, seeing that it has caused so much harm. Similarly, we would not advocate learning empathy from biology's descriptions of birds and animals displaying altruistic behavior. But while religion does not necessarily instruct morals, who could not deny the great influence of some religious leaders have had on both history and morality. Scientists can't deny the positive influences of Martin Luther King, Gandhi or William Sloane Coffin. The world would be worse off without these religious leaders.

Collins argues that science is outside of nature, and Gingerich notes that God's existence can't be proved or disproved by science. But, they continue, being that God created the universe, and made man "in his image" (or perhaps "for fellowship"), they believe that being a scientist allows researchers a particular affinity with God as s/he explores God's creations. Gingerich asserts that research allows a special "link to God". The title of Collin's book, The Language of God refers directly to the genetic code. If this is "middle of the road", then I find myself in a ditch off to the side.

To their credit, both authors come out very strongly against what they consider extreme positions on either side of the religion/science debate, and clearly some people will take comfort in the fact that such esteemed scientists also *believe in God*. But given the nuances in their arguments, they don't offer council against intolerance as much as they tout their own highly personal, philosophical gymnastics. This makes it seem like they are driven solely by trying to reconcile their vocational choices with their personal religious convictions.

Both authors say that their proclamations feel a bit uncomfortable, like "taking a public bath", according to Collins. But it doesn't seem brave to me these days, if you work in the executive branch of government as Collins does, where the president holds daily prayer breakfasts, to publicly announce your religious beliefs. It seems politically prudent. Likewise, publishing a book on these personal decisions, given current media attention to these issues, seems like an economically sound or even opportunistic decision.

On Scientists who Alienate Religion

We had hoped for more from these books. Acronym Required generally veers away from discussing of religion and science, except when religious fundamentalists tromp into science territory and we feel compelled to join the crowd and give them a bit of a swat. Both the stem cell research ban and the Intelligent Design proponents' encroachment on the teaching of evolution in schools invited such commentary from us a few years ago. But we are similarly intolerant of science fundamentalism that strikes out at anyone who professes faith. To what end, we ask?

GaneshaWhy would anyone attempt to pry away some other person's faith that serves to comfort them through death, disease or insurmountable difficulty? We are driven by science and education and become as irritable and apoplectic as the next person about superstition and woo, nevertheless, why would you want to vanquish Ganesh -- from earth?

We had hoped books dealing with such subjects might focus on questions like this: When the world is chocked full of misunderstanding, war, and killing, why should gutting people's faith suddenly be a science agenda? We had hoped that someone might advocate that scientists be tolerant of faith, but rightfully intolerant of political agendas that manipulate the faithful against science. As Acronym Required wrote previously, Edward Larson's 1997 book Summer of The Gods describes how the conflict that culminated in Scopes trial was manufactured by a couple of influential authors in the early 19th century. Over time, according to the book, "[this] warfare model of science and religion had become ingrained into the received wisdom of many secular Americans"(p 21). It doesn't require an immense intellectual endeavor to see the same political manipulation of religion and science today.

We had hoped that the authors would say, since we hate getting preachy ourselves, that scientists should not pit themselves against people who believe in some God or higher power, however incongruous those beliefs may seem. It may be at times necessary for scientists to position themselves in some "battlefield", to protect the integrity of research. But doesn't attacking faith seem very self-destructive? These religious arenas are more often political constructs with political aims, then they are religion's paradigms. Scientists who are set up in these political arenas often fare poorly, as Daniel Dennett describes here.

We wanted the authors of these books to ask: doesn't it seem unfathomable that scientists should on one hand complain that science education is under funded, and loudly recognize that huge numbers of people misunderstand really basic science, but then express equally loud vitriolic intolerance of peoples' personal beliefs? Why on earth, in these times, would scientists want to alienate potential allies?

Science is truly a huge part of our history and our future. But it is nothing short of arrogance or ignorance to deny the existence of other immutable truths in our history. As we see it, attempting to expunge faith from the human experience and history only undermines acceptance for science. Perhaps these books also offer this reading, but these two authors seem advocating strictly to Christianity or CS Lewis, while the other authors tread the well worn path of damning faith -- nothing new. The New York Times author concludes:

This is where the scientific method comes in. If scientists are prepared to state their hypotheses, describe how they tested them, lay out their data, explain how they analyze their data and the conclusions they draw from their analyses -- then it should not matter if they pray to Zeus, Jehovah, the Tooth Fairy, or nobody.

Their work will speak for itself.

It's a good point and we wish it were true. But as we know, and much to our dismay, the work does not always speak for itself. Science is often truncated, misquoted, misinterpreted, refuted, disputed, and suppressed. So is the NYT author saying, in so many words, that we should turn the other cheek? Perhaps scientists cannot and sometimes should not be full-time public relations advocates, but if we want people to embrace science with all its inherent challenges, we should perhaps start by being as inclusive as we can, even of their religion. Perhaps we can just hold our tongues. These two books are ostensibly aimed at younger (perhaps college age) people confronted with seemingly conflicting truths of science and religion. Unfortunately the books don't seem to be embracing an inclusivity which would let all beliefs, and science, win.

Image from Wikipedia commons. Ganesh(a) is the Hindu God of intellect, wisdom.


Acronym Required previously wrote about science and religion in Evolution v. Not Evolution", Dover: Science Prevails over Intelligent Design: Judge Doesn't Monkey Around, witchcraft, in Haunting Through The Centuries, and education in Prioritizing Science, The Latest Report, A Fine Balance, Science Education, Who's Ahead, and others.


The books:

By Francis S. Collins. Free Press, 2006.

By Owen Gingerich.
Harvard University Press, 2006

Other books mention by the New York Times:

By Richard Dawkins. Houghton Miff lin, 2006

By Daniel C. Dennett. Viking, 2006.

By Joan Roughgarden. Island Press, 2006.

by E.O. Wilson. W.W. Norton, 2006.

By Lewis Wolpert. Faber & Faber, 2006 (British edition).

When Fame Interfered with Good Works

A previously unknown photo of Florence Nightingale at the Embley estate has been unearthed and is on view at a museum in London (Update: the photo has since been sold). As we tend to learn in grammar school, Nightingale was famous for leading nurses who cared for patients during the Crimean War. She also started a nursing school and made contributions to public health. Her army and hospital recordkeeping skills were rewarded when she became the first woman to be elected as a "a fellow of the Statistical Society", a coveted award.

Photographs of the nurse are rare, not only because photograph technology was rudimentary in those days, but because of Ms. Nightingale's religion and her concern that 'personal fame might hinder her work in public health'.

The FDA's "Medical Ideology"

In a surprising turn-around Monday, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) re-initiated discussions with Barr Pharmaceuticals about the company's Plan B birth-control, an emergency contraceptive. The move came one day before Senate confirmation hearings with acting FDA head Andrew von Eschenbach on his nomination to the permanent post heading the FDA.

Andrew von Eschenbach, on the brink of a Senate nomination to become the full time chief of the FDA, claims that the latest surprise decision to approve over-the-counter Plan-B one day before his Senate confirmation hearings is not politically motivated. In the committee hearings yesterday, Senator Tom Harkin (D. Iowa), said "We all know what's going on here. This is a disregard for science out of ideological concerns". To which von Eschenbach replied that his decision was based on a particular, non-ideological type of ideology: "not on a political ideology, but on a medical ideology."

In light of recent history and the fact that there are reportedly 100 whistle-blower cases currently active in the FDA alleging conflicts between ideology and science in the agency, we wonder about his assertion. A recent poll by the Union of Concerned Scientists, showed that 40% of 1000 FDA employees polled said they knew of cases where political appointees had interfered with agency decisions. Given this, Von Eschenbach's assertion borders on outlandish. Therefore, despite his "impeccable credentials", why, when grilled about the politics, did he not say something like this:

"Sir, Honorable Senator, I was a "political appointee". Bush and I are family friends from Texas. We're pals, in fact sometimes he affectionately calls me little nicknames like he does the others. Perhaps we pray together, but I'm not telling -- top secret. The point is, how could I be a "political appointee" and NOT understand the Imperative of Politics for an FDA chief? You've got the Pharmaceuticals, the left wing, the right wing, you've got religion, you've got deaths from drugs claiming to cure this and that, you've got scientists clamoring, citizens clamoring, and lobbyists swarming The Hill. I would be (in fact, I am now) juggling life and death decisions day in and day out and balancing those with the pharmaceutical industry, a virtual economic powerhouse. Silly Senators, of course, the FDA is willing to announce that Plan-B is slated for approval. Stop acting like you're surprised. Honorable Senators, if this weren't about politics, why would I be entertaining this barrage of questions from you, the politicians? Senators Murray and Clinton have said they won't appoint me with Plan B in limbo. I'm politically prudent. You're politically prudent. Senators, be real -- shall we revisit your campaign "promises"?

Senators, you know that before yesterday, there was no need for such a transparent conciliatory gesture. We know, that you know, that we know, that you know, and we don't worry about the clumsy looking timing. It's the base who are important, see, and now their mad at us. When mongo church membership balloons a bit more all your clucking and clacking will matter even less. [Behind his hand] Of course, if this doesn't fly, the President will simply approve me while you're all on recess assuring the voters with short attention spans of how tough you looked in your bold ties, crisp shirts and red dresses asking me these questions. I serve at the President's..pleasure, and being that this is politics, it's ALL political, all the time -- of course."

We're not surprised that the doctor didn't say this, but on the other hand, he seems to have a loose grip on these most obvious facts. How can we trust him to capably run the FDA? How could he oversee the approval of drugs, their safety and efficacy, how could he protect the health of Americans? How could he lead such and enormous, bureaucratic, entrenched agency, with such a pathetical level of political savvy? Unless this hearing, these questions, these tough stances are all kind of part of a political charade-like ritual that we knowingly revel in.

The Food and Drug Administration has successfully stalled the approval process of Plan B for years, refusing to allow the drug to be sold without prescription despite its own scientists' and independent review boards' recommendations, enduring leadership upheaval over its refusal, and successfully rebuffing outside insistence that the agency quit stalling. Scientists have verified safety data, and studies show that it does not change sexual habits (or pregnancy rates) in women. 45 countries allow women of all ages to access the drug without prescription. But while researchers have found Plan-B to be effective as a last resort for avoiding pregnancy, conservative religious groups say that the use of the drug without a prescription would have negative consequences such as promiscuity, drug use, or exploitation.

Acronym Required last wrote about Plan B and the FDA in FDA - Calling off The Dogs". At the time, Susan Wood had resigned as head of the Office of Women's Health over the FDA's denial of the Plan B application. A male veterinarian with no experience in women's health had just been assigned to take her place. Lester Crawford, another veterinarian, who briefly and tumultuously headed the FDA, had just resigned. The resignation was somewhat mysterious, but came in wake of the Plan B upheaval and uproar over his assignment of the male veterinarian to the woman's health division. He is now facing criminal charges of an undisclosed nature. Plan B medication is available as a behind the counter drug in some pharmacies in some states, but the FDA at the time seemed like it would successfully stall approval of the drug indefinitely.

The decision to withold Plan B was completely in line with the administration's antiquated, paternal "abstinence only" dogma, and runs counter to scientific advice. Yet despite this obvious chasm between science and policy, the very public political upheaval in the FDA about the decision, and the administration's blatant stance against birth control, the FDA flatly denied that the decision was about politics. The agency published a Questions and Answers" on Plan B on its website. The Q&A addressed politics in question #11, that asked, "Did the FDA bow to political pressure in making this decision?" The FDA wrote,"No. This decision was made within the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research." We thought the evasive "answer" was perhaps the quintessential "no" that said "yes" (with a wink and a nod). However this is political obfuscation of the facts and blatant denial that it's all politics, is so routine these days, hardly even gains attention.


The FDA is planning talks with Barr Pharmaceuticals next week.


Acronym Required previously wrote about the FDA:

"Resuscitating The FDA", about the FDA in the wake of various fiascos.

FDA -- Calling Off The Dogs, about Plan B and staff turnover.

Ethics- The NIH and FDA, about conflicts of interests among scientists in these two agencies.

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