Monday, August 25, 2008

Not at all natural

Over the past decade genetic engineers have made huge advances in the field of genetic modification. Organisms have been cloned, and genomes have been completely sequenced. It seems as if there are an endless amount of possibilities in terms of what scientists can achieve with knowledge of genetics and the tools to alter these instructions for life. The social controversies that will arise from these advances will undoubtedly require skeptical thinking.
First I'd like to mention the field of genetically modified food. So you've probably already heard about Prince Charles's Paranoid doomsday rant against GM food from earlier this week. Luckily for all the starving people in the world, Prince Charles isn't much more than an insignificant figurehead. Genetic engineers will continue developing ways to increase the yield and nutritional value of our food. Of course, precautions need to be taken, and there are already researchers that work constantly to determine the possible consequences of modifying an organism to the public and the environment.
Here's how inserting a gene from a soil dwelling bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis, into a simple corn plant can cause the corn to be poisonous to the corn worms that threaten to diminish the yield of the crop, without harming humans who consume it.

The prospect of curing many diseases have driven the field of genetic modification forward into the world of animals. Maybe you’ve seen fluorescent fish like these at your local pet store.

In this case, genetic engineers extracted DNA from jellyfish and inserted that genetic information into zebra fish. This gene dictates the construction of fluorescent proteins, and results in an organism that glows under ultraviolet light. When the fish reproduce, their offspring are also fluorescent. From what I understand, these are the only genetically modified pets that are available to the public right now. In the past several years, scientists have tried this with multiple genes that code for different fluorescent colors in a variety of animals. This research can help scientists to have a better understanding of gene expression.
Check out these fluorescent pigs.

I don't know about you, but I think being fluorescent would be pretty badass.

Although this example seems almost novel, new research in genetics is quickly propelling us forward into an age where we could select for many different traits in humans.
This may sound very 'Frankenstein' at this point, but the fact is that people are constantly born with genetic diseases that could soon be avoided by employing the method of gene therapy. Modifying the genotype of a human could also increase the size of a human, alter any birth defects, or even raise the overall intelligence of the person.

So the question is: Where do we draw the line in terms of what techniques would be considered treating a disease, and what techniques would simply be enhancing the person?

The possibilities of people we could save with these genetic alterations are endless, but these advancements will undoubtedly lead to a countless number of ethical debates that will have very real consequences. The fact is that we will all have to employ methods of critical thinking to make a decisions on such complex issues.These issues, without a doubt, will be politically charged, but for those of us who do look beyond party affiliation, how should these decisions be made?

Whats the difference between someone who's lacking in a trait like height or intelligence to the point where gene therapy is the answer, and someone who just happens to be below the average?

It seems we may need to draw a clear line in the sand separating what kind of gene alterations are treating diseases, and what kind are simply trivial enhancements that only marginally increase chances of that individual’s survival.

Give me some feedback.

That's all I've got for now,


Sunday, August 24, 2008

If you're still on the fence in terms of ID theory...

"The man who follows is a slave. The man who thinks is free." Robert G. Ingersoll

As a skeptic, one is faced with dozens of ideas that aren't backed up by sufficient evidence each day. One notion that skeptics seem to be continuously faced with is that old misconception that we really can't trust everything that science has to offer us. Truly understanding the scientific method would clear this up for any logical thinking person.
The basis of science and skepticism alike is collecting all of the evidence that is available, and making the most logical judgment based off of the results presented. I refer to it as a "best we've got" stance because taking a step back from politics and pop culture, you realize that all knowledge that we have about the world has been obtained through the gathering of empirical evidence and testing that evidence over time to see if it holds. The scientific method is nothing more than that.

Recently I was reading the blog Neurologica, by Dr. Steven Novella, host of The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe podcast, when I came across his response to yet another confused individual questioning how much trust we ought to have in science. His response can clear up this confusion:
"Science is, by its very nature, a self-corrective process. Science is the process of questioning our models of reality. Saying that it is important to question science is therefore redundant."

Science gives us provisional answers to questions in a massive world that is constantly changing. People are making amazing discoveries every day and if we try to say some things are set in stone (and we all know how much people like to follow rules that are set in stone), then we'll never really know anything.

So the scientific method and the evaluation of empirical evidence (which is the basis of skepticism), should not be confused with a belief or a viewpoint. There's a big difference between "I think John McCain would be a bad president because he has short arms." and "we inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide", or "5+5=10". the first is an opinion (even if it seems so logical), the second is science, and the third is mathematics which is simple undeniable logic in it's rawest form. So the next time a proponent of intelligent design "theory" tells you the world is to complex to not have some omnipotent designer, explain to them that Darwinian evolution is backed up by MOUNTAINS of empirical evidence and therefore is logical and accepted by a majority of scientists. Explain to them that ID theory will have to be published and reviewed in a legit scientific journal, (not some janky psedojournal that their buddies threw together) or their ideas will never be viewed as more than pseudoscience. The last place it needs to be is a science class.

If the eye is so perfect, then why did I have to turn to science for prescription glasses?

Thats all I've got,


Polls about psychics and conspiracy theories, and RSS Feeds

At OU, we have the Scripp's Survey Research Center who has a site: They recently published findings that say 1 in 12 Americans have "seen a mysterious object in the sky that might have been a visitor from another world" and 1 in 5 "personally knows someone who has seen a UFO. Although these are extremely vague descriptive stats, its still pretty wild that 1 in 12 Americans are mistaking mysterious objects in the sky with otherworldly visitors.

Another study from the same group is saying that nearly 2/3 of Americans "think it is possible that some federal officials had specific warnings of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, but chose to ignore those warnings".

Although these results aren't terribly surprising, this is what Skeptics are up against. There is still a lot of work to be done with just the basic misconceptions such as UFOs, conspiracy theories, and the other topics we deal with such as psychics, ghosts, and superstitions. Although there are new things popping up everyday that are presented in an uninformed way that require some basic critical thinking, we still have the life long battle against these other beliefs that will almost inevitably continue to transcend time and culture.

Also, I just registered the blog as a feed for RSS readers and news aggregaters. In order to subscribe just click the link to the left of the page and it will bring up all of the options for all of the different readers and whatnot. Also, if you don't already use an RSS reader or aggregater I highly recommend Feedreader - its freeware and extremely easy to use and edit. This is probably the easiest and most efficient way to keep up with blogs and the news.

So, continue to watch out for those watching out for UFOs and government conspiracies, and get Feedreader!!



Thursday, August 21, 2008

lame ID stuff

Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute (intelligent design collective) wrote this article in response to how some new evidence suggests that the prevailing idea as to what Endogenous Retroviruses are still around for.

Endogenous Retroviruses are derived from ancient infections of germ cells in humans and animals such that their proviruses are passed on to the next generation and now remain in the genome. It is also widely assumed that they place a role in driving the evolution of their host. So, it could already be said that they have a ‘function’. According to Luskin:

“ID predicts function because the basis for ID’s predictions is observations of how intelligent agents design things, and intelligent agents tend to design objects that perform some kind of function.”

In response to this I’ll simply quote David Sloan Wilson in his book ‘Darwin’s Cathedral’:

“Thinking about an object or an organism as if it has a purpose can be called functionalist thinking. Functionalist thinking can be highly effective when applied to things that actually have a purpose, but in other contexts it can be misleading. Wondering about the purpose of your neighbor’s behavior can help you discern his intentions, but wondering about the purpose of the moon leads only to a folk tale.”

To identify function in a sense that something functions for the sake of something else one must know it was created or altered by that which it is functioning for. This thing is arranged top-down in order to function to the extent it was intended to.

When considering ourselves intelligent agents that have designed things to perform some kind of a function it seems like it is easy for some to superimpose this on everything they see. The ID people do this to uphold their belief in a god who created everything. They claim that their central prediction is that everything has a function. However, every time something that seemed functionless at first turns out to have some sort of a function they wish to claim this as evidence to their idea. In this article, Luskin focuses on the possibly newly found function for ERVs which have been considered ‘junk’ functionless DNA. What Luskin mentions then ditches immediately is that there is still the prevailing hypothesis that”if we find the same ERV’s in the same genetic loci in different species of primates, Theobald concludes they document common ancestry.”

There are thousands of adaptations which proved useful over time and thus survived natural selection. They were not created, they developed. These things that developed generally are considered the ‘processes of nature conflicting with design’. The example commonly used is a truck with rust on it – we designed the truck but the rust is of a natural process. However, one could assert that the function of the rust is to destroy the truck to make more room for people. As it can be understood, we could superimpose function on both the natural stuff and the stuff that has been deemed designed. So where does the distinction lie?

The most used (and now used up) idea is complex specified information (CSI). The basic idea is that if anything with a less than 1 in 10150 chance of occurring naturally. However, this number was assigned almost arbitrarily by William Dembski (ID advocate). The idea has been rejected by the scientific and mathematical community. Although Dembski is very well informed and smart, his belief in a designer (god) leads him to make very simple logical mistakes and the overuse of rhetoric. So, I guess whether he truly is informed or smart is up to you.

Furthermore, assuming the CSI were true, it must be admitted that the designer must be more complex than its design, because within the designer must exist the capacity to think about the design as well as be complex enough to create it, or create the means to create it. Then this designer, being as complex as it is must have had its own designer which was even more complex…….ad infinitum.

I’m getting too far into ID and I need to cut this off now. Basically, ID people are creationists in a new suit who are using rhetoric and weak philosophy that does not stand up even to simple logic to push their religious beliefs into the education system under the guise of science.



Athens Psychic featured in ANews

In the article “Local reader…” article from Thursday 8/21 in the Athens News, senior writer Jim Phillips describes a typical trip to a ‘psychic’.

First of all, the evidence tells us that there is no such thing as psychic powers. Also, magicians and mentalists can describe exactly what psychics do as a technique. As described in the article, psychics say things are extremely generic and relevant to a very large percentage of the population. Granted, this is a technique that takes time to develop well and is aided by some basic intuition into human behavior. It is very easy to sum someone up in a superficial way upon meeting them (i.e. – approximate age, wedding ring, mood, etc), and then from this follows some very broad statements that apply to most people. Psychics do, however, really make themselves look foolish when they say things like ‘don’t trust shady contractors’ because this is incredibly obvious (for those who haven't read the article, she does in fact say this).

If you wish to investigate how psychics do what they do I suggest looking into mentalist tricks, cold and hot readings, and other materials published by magicians. This is information available to anyone, so I will not get into it (maybe another blog another time).

I would also like to point out that some people go to psychics knowing it probably is not legit and treat it as a novelty. This is fine, but still, the psychic in the article is claiming to offer a legit service and not a novelty.



Jesus and Satan on a single plank of wood? Score!

Greetings all,

We have yet another example of paredolia for you today. This guy REALLY wants to see Jesus in this plank. He calls the holes in the wood the eyes and the hair just looks like a natural flaw . But wait! Turn it upside down and Jesus morphs into Satan(Fuck ya! Mighty morphin' Satan rangers)! WTF??? Why the hell would this ever be a good thing for a Christian? Also, why the hell don't these dudes show their images on something cooler than a damn plank of wood or a pizza pan? Shit, if I were Jesus I would show up on the White house. Check out this dudes video. Thanks for readin'


Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Prince Charles is obviously an agricultural expert

Proponent of 'natural' ideologies such as homeopathy, Prince Charles is speaking out against Genetically Modified (GM) foods. He truly thinks that it will be the end of the food supply and basically have apocalyptic ramifications. His ranting can be seen here. However, it is important to address the real concerns with GM foods as we eat them virtually everyday.

  • One concern is that GM foods will lead to more allergens.
    • As with any consumer product, especially with products involving food and pharmaceuticals, the producers/manufacturers put whatever they are planning on selling through rigorous testing. No sane manufacturer would (or really could with ease due to regulation) put a product on the market that will set off allergies in such a way that they are dangerous. Also, GM engineers can design the food in such a way to reduce allergens.
  • Another concern is that GM foods could inadvertently become an invasive species that would destroy the natural plant life.
    • This is a legitimate concern, especially given the current situation with invasive species. However, at this time there are not any cases of this happening and thus no need for alarm.
  • Health ramifications.
    • Current GM foods have been deemed safe to consume, and no adverse side effects have been recorded. Also, GM foods are generally more resistant to parasites and disease thus able to be grown with lesser amounts of chemicals and pesticides.

Besides, not a single fruit, grain, or animal we eat looks anything like they did over 10,000 years ago around the beginning of the agricultural revolution. We have been selectively breeding plants and animals to meet our needs for thousands of years thus leading to genetic modification. Unfortunately it has taken forever, but now we have the capabilities to speed this process up and allows engineers to control for various problems that arise. One such problem in the future may be a lack of genetic diversity which could lead to an entire crop getting wiped out. Still this is already a foreseen possibility and thus can be controlled for. The idea of 'natural food' is a silly one, and all to often leads many health and environment conscience people to making the naturalistic fallacy by thinking that anything 'natural' is better simply for that reason. However, all of our food has been derived from its less than desirable ancestors over time and are thus not natural.


David Plumb

Montauk Monster a Hoax? No Way!

Greetings all,

Well unfortunately for you crazy/nonexistent monster lovers the Montauk monster has been declared a hoax. The "Monster" was really a movie prop used to promote small time horror film maker Darren Goldberg's film "Splinterheads". The first woman to allegedly report the Montauk monster was no other than his sister Rachel Goldberg!!!! What great publicity for good old Darren and he didn't have to pay a dime. Good work Darren keep 'em commin'! Here is a link to an article explaining the whole thing. (Check out the website as a whole also its pretty awesome!)



Monday, August 18, 2008

A litte about our officers!

Greetings everyone,

The OUSS has been enjoying a lot of local media coverage over the last week with a newspaper article and a radio interview. The purpose of this post is just to introduce our officers because as a member you will hopefully be seeing a lot of us!

David Plumb- President of OUSS is studying Economics and Math
Adam Lane- Vice President is studying Psychology.
Sam Greene-Director/Crusher of Pseudo History is a senior at OU studying History and Spanish.
Amanda Apling- Secretary is also a senior and is studying Accounting and Management Information Systems .

(Sam, Amanda, David, Adam)

We really look forward to interacting with you all this year! Start sending us some ideas!


The OUSS Crew