A profoundly misguided cartoon

Usually I like Zach Weinersmith’s SMBC (Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal) series, but this one is off the mark:


Well, of course feeling or receiving love and getting kicked in the cojones are subjective sensations, and we don’t yet know exactly how the nerve impulses become perceptions. But we do know two things. First, love and pain have emotional connotations, and when we think about them, they don’t seem like chemical reactions. And love, at least—albeit chemical—is one of the things that makes life worth living. Pain, however, does not, though it serves an immensely adaptive function: alerting us to damage to our bodies.

But I doubt that Weinersmith is just touting the emotional value of love here; rather, he seems to be dissing the very notion that love and pain are chemical reactions. But they are, and we have good evidence for that. You can affect the affections of people and animals by injecting them with chemicals.

Pain, too, is a chemical reaction, or at least has something to do with nerve transmission and is therefore based on molecules. We know this for several reasons. One is the existence of Congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis (CIPA), a genetic disease that simply removes the ability to sense pain (as well as heat or cold) from its unfortunate victims. And they’re “victims” because, heedless of damage to their bodies, they get burned, infected, break bones, and continually hurt themselves without knowing that they’ve done it, and without seeking medical care. If you’re a CIPA sufferer and put your hand on a hot stove, you won’t remove it. The consequences are clear. And so are the implications: if a mutation in the DNA can remove the sensation of pain, and undoing that mutation can presumably bring back the sensation of pain, then pain must be a physiochemical phenomenon.

We know the same thing from local anesthetics, like the novocaine you get at the dentist’s. You’re conscious but don’t feel pain in the area where the chemical is injected. It clearly does something to the nerves or their transmissions that eliminates the subjective sensation of pain. The sensation thus has a neurological/chemical basis.

Unless Weinersmith sees “believing in love” as “finding value in love”, then the cartoon is profoundly antiscientific. But even if he isn’t, the existence of anesthetics and diseases like CIPA tell us that, at bottom, subjective sensation has a materialistic and physical basis. We all know that, but many religionists reject it.

h/t: jsp

A crocodile, a zebra and an equation. Can you find the answer?

by Matthew Cobb

A recent Scottish Higher maths exam question – designed for pupils at the end of their schooling – proved a bit too hard for the students, and the pass mark for the paper had to be dropped to 34%. Can our readers do it? I could just about work out the first two answers, but the main part was way beyond me.

Here’s the paper. To help out the maths challenged, I’ve posted a 10 minute YouTube video from DLBMaths in which he goes through the question and the answer, in a lovely Scottish brogue (the first minute is some technical stuff about the format of the exam – most of the video is about the problem).

And here’s the answer. Don’t watch the video until you’ve had a proper go at the question! As always with maths, it looks so easy when it’s explained carefully.


Anti-vaxxers fund studies proving that vaccines are safe!

The anti-vaxxers are hoist with their own petard—again! According to a long article in Newsweek by Jessica Firger, the organization SafeMinds, dedicated to ending the “autism epidemic” has funded medical research designed to show that autism was a result of vaccination: presumably via the antigens in vaccines themselves and certainly by the preservatives in vaccines, notably the mercury compound thiomersal, long suspected, but never shown, to cause autism. (Note that for nearly all childhood vaccines, this compound is either no longer present or added in negligible amounts.)

All scientists know that it’s not good practice to do an experiment or make an observation if one result is immensely more desirable (and career-making) to you than another. That is a temptation to fudge results or, more often, to practice “confirmation bias”: ignoring those results inimical to your desired hypothesis. But wanting a result doesn’t make it more likely. As Voltaire said in 1763: “The interest I have in believing in something is not proof that that something exists.”

But SafeMinds fell into this trap, funding work designed to show a given outcome. Now I can understand their desire to find the cause of the autism “epidemic”, although we still don’t know if it’s really an epidemic or a change in diagnoses. Parents, who would feel guilty if they contributed environmentally or genetically to their kids’ autism, want to find some external cause, and of course many of them are desperate to find a cure for their disturbed children. But nature is nature, and what happened in the present case is predictable from previous results: the SafeMinds-funded research found that vaccinations (either with or without thiomersal) didn’t show any connection to autism, at least to indicators of the syndrome in primates.

One of the papers from this work, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (reference and link below) gave totally negative results. The abstract is very clear:

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder. Some anecdotal reports suggest that ASD is related to exposure to ethyl mercury, in the form of the vaccine preservative, thimerosal, and/or receiving the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine. Using infant rhesus macaques receiving thimerosalcontaining vaccines (TCVs) following the recommended pediatric vaccine schedules from the 1990s and 2008, we examined behavior, and neuropathology in three brain regions found to exhibit neuropathology in postmortem ASD brains. No neuronal cellular or protein changes in the cerebellum, hippocampus, or amygdala were observed in animals following the 1990s or 2008 vaccine schedules. Analysis of social behavior in juvenile animals indicated that there were no significant differences in negative behaviors between animals in the control and experimental groups. These data indicate that administration of TCVs and/or the MMR vaccine to rhesus macaques does not result in neuropathological abnormalities, or aberrant behaviors, like those observed in ASD.

Now of course this was done in macaques, and one could argue that they don’t get autism (I have no idea), but macaques are biologically close to humans, and autism in humans shows not just a spectrum of behavior disorders, but is also associated with brain changes: changes in the size of neurons and reduced numbers of “Purkinje cells” in the brain, as well as other brain abnormalities and screwups in biochemical pathways. No abnormalities were seen regardless of whether the vaccinations contained tiomersal or not.

Another SafeMinds-funded paper, published this June in Environmental Health Perspectives (free download at link; reference below) showed that the same group of infant macaques used in the PNAS paper displayed no behavioral or developmental anomalies compared to controls.

Now one would think that by ruling out vaccines as a cause of autism—something that’s already been done by tons of research—SafeMinds would be happy. Now we can inoculate our children without fear of turning them autistic, and thus protect them against infectious disease. And we have ruled out one cause of the autism “epidemic”—if it is an epidemic. But confirmation bias among autism advocates dictates otherwise. As Newsweek reports:

SafeMinds, the nonprofit that funded the research, is not happy with the results. Representatives from the group say the findings contradict both an earlier pilot study and interim progress reports the organization received from the researchers.

And they cite two “pilot studies” that claim to show otherwise:

The pilot study, undertaken at the University of Pittsburgh, led to two papers, both published in 2010, showing that the vaccines did in fact affect brain development in infant macaques. One paper, published in Acta Neurobiologiae Experimentalis [pdf here], looked at the development of the amygdala region of the brains of monkeys that received the complete U.S. childhood vaccine schedule from the 1990s and then underwent MRI and PET scans at 4 and 6 months of age.

The researchers reported that amygdala volume was different in monkeys that received the vaccines versus those that did not. They also reported differences in certain opioid receptors in the brains of monkeys in the vaccine group.

Note, though, that this pilot study used only 16 macaques (as opposed to the 79 in the PNAS and EHS studies and so the sample size was very small.  Newsweek continues:

The other paper, from the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, looked at differences in the reflexes of baby monkeys that received a single dose of thimerosal-containing hepatitis B vaccine versus those in a control group. In that paper, the researchers reported that “in exposed animals there was a significant delay in the acquisition of root, snout, and suck reflexes, compared with unexposed animals.”

If you check the paper, though, the sample size was six in the control group and seven in the experimental group, an even smaller  sample than in the ANE paper. The surgeon-blogger Orac has analyzed these “pilot studies” and found them “bad science”; you can see his first analyses here, here, Steve Novella’s critique hereand Orac’s overall conclusions (published Sept. 15) here. (Curiously, Laura Hewitson, an erstwhile collaborator with the discredited anti-vaxxer Andrew Wakefield, is an author of the PNAs study, and is quoted below defending it.) Much of the problem appears to have stemmed from one or two primates that affected the entire study.

Orac’s conclusion:

For instance, Laura Hewitson followed up her first study with another one in 2009 and yet another in 2010. All were bad science. All were preliminary studies at best. All claimed to relate the pediatric vaccine schedule to neurodevelopmental disorders. All were touted by antivaccinationists. One was withdrawn.

But Orac also faults the Gadad et al. study not for its methods, but for beating a dead horse: wasting the lives of primates testing a hypothesis that has already been amply refuted. He considers it no longer useful to study the connection between vaccinations and autism.

At any rate, which set of papers does SafeMinds accept? You guessed it;

SafeMinds also believes that the research team behind the new PNAS study may have cherry-picked their data. SafeMinds Director Lyn Redwood, a registered nurse, says she received an email in 2013 from the researchers reporting a “statistically significant” 11 percent reduction in certain types of hippocampal cells in the vaccine groups. But she says the authors did not include these findings in the new paper.

Dr. Laura Hewitson, director of research for the Johnson Center for Child Health & Development, an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, a lead researcher on project and co-author on all four papers, says that at the time that email was sent, it was also made clear to SafeMinds “that the data should be treated as preliminary until all of the animals had completed the study.” She added that none of the study’s procedures changed once her team moved from the pilot program to a larger sample.

“The same assessments were performed on a much larger number of primates by a team of behaviorists with decades of experience working with nonhuman primate infants,” Hewitson tells Newsweek. “For example, in the pilot study we examined 13 different neonatal reflexes from birth to 14 days of age in just two groups of animals. In the current study, we examined those same 13 reflexes, plus six others from birth to 21 days of age, in six groups of animals—a much more comprehensive experimental design.”

. . . “As you can see, we have done everything possible to ensure the integrity of the data. My co-authors and I stand by our published findings,” she says. “The comprehensive nature of the current study underscores why the findings from the pilot study should be interpreted with an abundance of caution, given the small number of animals included.”

But such is the faith that the anti-vaxxers have in their theory that they feel that the research they funded that didn’t show what they wanted must have been nefariously redacted. But why would the researchers do that?

Here’s more of SafeMind’s confirmation bias:

But Sallie Bernard, president of SafeMinds, says she would at least like to see a re-analysis of the newest data. “We feel that embedded within these data sets there are animals that have potentially an adverse reaction to this vaccine schedule that would mirror what happens in human infants,” she says. “The majority who get vaccines are fine, but we believe there is a subset that have an adverse reaction to their vaccines. By looking at the raw data, not data in aggregate, we may be able to identify the subgroup that had that reaction.”

Well, I’m sure they’ll be able to get the raw data: the law mandates that that be made public. I look forward to their reanalysis.

After looking at all these papers, Orac’s and Novella’s critiques, and reviewing the other research they cite, it’s pretty clear that Orac is right: we no longer need to spend money testing whether vaccines, with or without thiomersal, cause autism. One might as well keep testing the idea that bad air (“mal aria” in Italian) causes malaria.


Gadad, B. S. et al. 2015. Administration of thimerosal-vaccines to infant rhesus macaques does not result in autism-like behavior or neuropathology. 112:12498-12503. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA

Curtis, B. eta l. 2015. Examination of the safety of pediatric vaccine schedules in a non-human primate model: assessments of neurodevelopment, learning, and social behavior.  Envtl. Health Perspectives 123:579-589.

My podcast on “Religion for Life”

Some time ago I was interviewed by the amiable John Shuck, a Presbyterian minister in Oregon whose show, “Religion for Life,” is broadcast on several stations throughout the U.S. It’s not a Bible-thumping pro-religion show, though, but a thoughtful examination of the intersection of faith with other spheres of life.

Some time ago, John interviewed me about Faith versus Fact, and, though I haven’t heard the podcast, I remember it as a good discussion. It wasn’t at all confrontational, which is what I expect when talking to a minister (and I don’t avoid such clashes when they come). Anyway, John let me know that our conversation is now being broadcast, and will also be archived as a podcast after being broadcast on the radio between tomorrow and next Wednesday. It will go up as a one-time podcast this Sunday, and the archived link will probably be here. Below are the stations and links where (and when) the show will air:

Sunday, October 11th at noon on WEHC, 90.7. (WEHC 90.7 Emory, VA)
Sunday, October 11th at 2 pm on WETS, 89.5. (WETS 89.5 Johnson City, TN)
Monday, October 12th 1 pm on WEHC, 90.7. (WEHC 90.7 Emory, VA)
Wednesday, October 14th at 6:30 pm on WEHC, 90.7.(WEHC 90.7 Emory, VA)
Via podcast 11 am Pacific, Sunday October 11th.

I haven’t heard it yet, and will be traveling, but let me know how it goes.

The TSA: Security theater?

The premise of this video, from the show “Adam ruins everything” is that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is worthless for two reasons: it hasn’t yet stopped any terrorist attacks by discovering weapons or explosives, and, by making public its methods and what has been confiscated, simply encourages terrorists to come up with new methods.

I agree that the TSA’s procedures are inefficient and intrusive, and I’ve objected several times to being groped in my nether parts. And of course there are other ways to improve security, including beefing up the presence of armed air marshals on flights.

But consider this: if you think the TSA is pure “security theater”, do you think we should do away with screening entirely, as was the case 15 years ago? If we did that, the terrorists wouldn’t need to come up with new methods; they’d simply carry on their guns and bombs. And air marshals aren’t very effective against bombs. Perhaps the TSA hasn’t stopped a terrorist incident already in play, but surely it’s prevented some from being conceived. Imagine what would happen if there were no screening!

Saying that the TSA is useless because it hasn’t stopped terrorism is like saying that the police are useless because we still have crime. Perhaps there are some readers who think that we should dispense with screening entirely, and deep-six this “security theater.” If so, weigh in below and justify your ideas.

h/t: Kieran

Readers’ wildlife photographs

Today I’m featuring photos by our most regular regular, Stephen Barnard of Idaho. His notes are indented:

Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) looking at Deets [the border collie]:


Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis). The was a large wolf across the creek in the field this morning and
Deets was going nuts.


European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris). These introduced birds are harmful to native cavity-nesting birds and are considered pests, but they’re beautiful in their winter plumage.


Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) doing a fall dance. Unlike the spring dance, this isn’t (I think) an overt mating ritual. They’re feeling frisky before the migration. Maybe it’s a bonding or dominance ritual. They’ll be gone at the next cold snap.


Desert Cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii). They’ve become abundant since we removed the feral cats.


A ruby- crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula): Pretty cute, I think. These are tiny birds, always moving, hard to shoot. This one was hunting insects in a Russian Olive tree (Elaeagnus angustifolia). [JAC: This is a contender for the cutest bird ever!]


Lagniappe: A Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis) grooming, making himself attractive to the ladies.


Stephen labeled this one “black-billed magpie” (Pica hudsonia), but there’s other wildlife there, too:

Black billed magpie


Friday: Hili dialogue

Well, today’s my last full day in Dobrzyn, and I’ll be sad to leave. This is a warm haven for secular writing and discussion (see the dedication of Faith versus Fact below), and besides the wonderful hospitality of Andrzej and Malgorzata, which includes daily pies, there’s also The Furry Princess of Poland, who sat purring on my lap this morning.

Screen Shot 2015-10-09 at 9.48.36 AM

Tomorrow through Tuesday, posting will be light as I head to Sweden and then Atlanta, but I hope that Grania, Greg, and Matthew can fill in (Matthew promises a post on the new finding that the descendants of some hominins who left Africa migrated back, contributing genes to the African gene pool). Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili ponders the mystery of biological altruism:

A: Who is an altruist?
Hili: A human who never forgets about the cat.


In Polish:
Ja: Kto to jest altruista?
Hili: To człowiek, który nigdy nie zapomina o kocie.

And the scientist shall lie down with the d*g; and a little cat shall lead them

Everyone in bed

The Pope performs a miracle!

Well, it looks like one. And if this is real, he needs only one more before he can canonize himself!

h/t: Taskin

San Francisco’s last gun shop closes; Ben Carson puts metatarsals in mouth again

If we’re to reduce gun violence in America, which I think is ineluctably connected to the easy availability of guns, it will have to be a bottom-up phenomenon. We can’t count on the Supreme Court, which has construed the Second Amendment as allowing a “right” for private citizens to own guns, nor can we count on initiatives from the federal government, whose legislators are under the thumb of the National Rifle Association. No, we have to develop an anti-gun sentiment among the people, and, given that half of Americans think gun rights are more important than gun control (see recent Pew survey here), and that view is growing, I’m not optimistic:


But at least in some more liberal places, there are ways to control guns through stringent regulation. One of them is San Francisco, where High Bridge Arms, the last gun shop in the city, is closing. Why? Because of stringent regulations, both real and impending, as well as restrictions on the sale of ammunition. As the Associated Press notes,

. . . the breaking point came this summer when a local politician proposed a law that would require High Bridge Arms to video record every gun sale and submit a weekly report of ammunition sales to the police. If passed, the law would join several local gun control ordinances on the books in a city still scarred by the 1993 murder of eight in a downtown high-rise and the 1978 assassination of Mayor George Moscone and gay rights activist Harvey Milk.

. . . In the end, [store manager Steve] Alcairo said, he and the High Bridge Arms owner tired of the continued opposition and mountains of paperwork required by the San Francisco Police Department, state Department of Justice and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

and, from Fox News (whose headline for this item is “Surrender”):

Past regulations have required the shop to bar ads and displays from its windows and install cameras and barriers around its exterior. The shop has 17 cameras as it is, and turns video over to police on request, he said.

“This time, it’s the idea of filming our customers taking delivery of items after they already completed waiting periods,” Alcairo said. “We feel this is a tactic designed to discourage customers from coming to us.

The only reason such regulations exist is because the San Francisco City Council sees a connection between gun control and gun violence. The City Supervisor, Mark Farrell, asked the city’s district attorney to draft the camel’s-back legislation because “easy access to guns and ammunition continue to contribute to senseless violent crime here in San Francisco and across the country.”

Of course San Francisco is hardly representative of the U.S. as a whole, but it does show the way forward. Given strong enough public sentiment against lax gun laws, cities can draft constitutional legislation restricting guns and ammunition stringently enough to reduce the availability of firearms. And it can happen on a national level: the history of gun control in Britain, for instance, shows that more and more laws can take a society once ridden with firearms down to one in which guns are rare. There is, for example, no “right” in the UK that allows guns for self-defense. (One must give a valid reason for wanting to own a gun.) Besides banning all automatic and most semiautomatic weapons, as well nearly all handguns, the following is permitted (with strict licensing):

All other rifles and their ammunition are permitted with no limits as to magazine size, to include: target shooting, hunting, and historic and muzzle-loading weapons, as well as long barrelled breachloading pistols with a specific overall length, but not for self-defence; however if a home-owner is threatened they may be used in self-defence, so long as the force is reasonable.

(There are strict laws against illegal possession of ammunition as well.)

And of course gun violence is far rarer per capita in the UK than in the US.

Meanwhile, Ben Carson continues to utter the Republican mantra; here’s a snippet from his public Facebook page:

Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 1.07.24 PM

The striking phrase is, of course, “I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.” But the “right to arm ourselves” produces a lot of bullet holes, and how can one even compare the mental devastation of seeing a bullet-riddled body (especially if you knew the person) with the “devastation” of contemplation a revoked Second Amendment?

How many tragedies will it take before Americans realize that yes, people do kill people, but they often use guns, and those guns help people kill more people than they could with, say, knives or arrows. Will we have to become a Wild West, with all Americans toting a pistol strapped to their waist, before we try to ratchet down the folly that is gun ownership in the U.S.?


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