Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Science Week February 5 through 11

One of my pet peeves is that science bloggers spend an inordinate amount of time blogging about other things than science. Of course that doesn't apply to my blog which is of course not a science blog. But the host of Just Science has just issued a challenge to all science oriented blogs to publish only about science starting next Monday. The challenge can be found at:

Just science observes that science blogs spend an inordinate amount of energy fighting against anti science-creationism, anti global warming and other such non this a week for NOT doing that. Here are the rules:

Bloggers who self-identify as scientists and science writers should post on:

  1. Published, peer-reviewed research and their own research.
  2. Their expert opinion on actual scientific debates - think review articles.
  3. Descriptions of natural phenomena (e.g., why slugs dissolve when you put salt on them, or what causes sun flares; scientific knowledge that has reached the level of fact)

Bloggers who claim to be philosophers of science (or have been accused of so much) should post on issues, ideas, and debates in philosophy of science that are not frequently used or dictated by anti-scientific groups. The demarcation problem, for example, should be avoided unless it\n can be discussed without reference to anti-science movements.

And bloggers who are not scientists – focusing mainly on public and policy debates on scientific issues – should post on issues that are legitimately controversial for scientific reasons. Topics that are controversial simply because of anti-science movements should be avoided.

Ooops since Monday is when Kansas Guild of Bloggers comes out which is non science I guess technically I won't be able to meet the challenge...but since it is a scheduled carnival maybe I can find some way around that...hmmm.

All the feeds from participants are supposed to be fed into an aggregator for subscription but it looks the details are yet to come. Should be fun.

Update the feeds are up! Here is the feedlink: for subscription or you can go to the just science website at this link:

The site and feed are updated about once per minute. My first entry hasn't hit yet but you can view it here.

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HPV virus, ethics and parental rights.

Kansas has a new controversy. A bill has been introduced in the Kansas State House which would require all 6th grade girls to be vaccinated against the HPV virus using a newly approved vaccine called Gardasil produced by Merck. Of course the religious right is opposed to this bill claiming that it usurps parental rights and promotes sexual promiscuity. The significance of this vaccine is that is 20 million people are infected with this virus in the United States and the virus is a leading cause of cervical cancer.

Personally both these arguments are wearing a bit thin. Having a vaccine is not really going to contribute to sexual promiscuity as far as I can tell; teens are already sexually active today even in the absence of this sort of vaccine. The way the opponents of this vaccine really think should be obvious from this statement by a Texas Parent quoted in the Journal World:

“What they are proposing is vaccinating a bunch of healthy girls that are responsible and that do come from good homes for the benefit of irresponsible people,” said Dawn Richardson, a co-founder of Parents Requesting Open Vaccine Education.

Uh huh...good Christian homes and probably the right kind of Christian too. Further the benefit is for the kids. Sooner or later that 'responsible' girl may want to have kids and that generally requires having sex with a man who may or may not have been 'responsible'. The kicker is that men can transmit the virus and then it is too late to take the vaccine.

In fact one might ask why the vaccine is not being required for 6th grade boys as well. Not only can boys carry the virus but it turns out, and this was news to me, that the same HPV viral strains that cause cervical cancer are a leading cause of anal cancer in gay men. So requiring the vaccine for 6th grade boys would serve an double function. Of course the right would say no responsible person would be gay...but I suspect my readers know what I think about that argument.

I note that the Kansas Bill has an opt out provision to accommodate parent's who have "medical, moral or philosophical" objections. This is in line with provisions for other sorts of medical procedures. But you know that argument is wearing thin as well. We are letting parents put their kids at long term risk on a philosophical whim?

OK maybe that isn't fair..but in my more ornery moments I wonder if it is right for parents to force the consequences of their philosophies on their kids in matters of health and education. It's one thing to tell your kids what you believe and teach them your values and how you hope they would grow up. But when it comes to something that is harmful to them, opting out of medical procedures that are beneficial to the children puts them on the line for YOUR beliefs. That sounds uncomfortably like child endangerment to me.

**Ornery alert**

The latest wrinkle is that Merck is allegedly is funding a push in state legislatures to require vaccinations for HPV. I am more than a little uneasy about this and agree with conservatives who wonder if the relationship between Merck and an organization called Women in Government is a bit 'too cozy'. Of course Merck is only following the lead of other businesses that have injected themselves into other debates by funding front organizations. These same Conservatives get upset about Merck but ignore big oil's funding of front groups skeptical of global warming. Seems there is good coziness (opposed to hard line toward global warming) versus bad coziness (protecting kids).

Other links:

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Kansas Guild of Bloggers current and upcoming

This week's KGB is at Josh Rosenau's blog, Thoughts from Kansas, and next Monday the Guild will be here at The Force, so if you blog about Kansas, even if you are, as I am, from so far East you think the capital of Kansas is Tapioca, submit your entries to the KGB carnival page or e-mail them to me directly at Oh and be sure to check out this week's KGB at Thoughts from Kansas.

Backyard Scene in Winter

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Lucifer's Moon

When Antares blows, the world will die-

All creatures great and small stuck

With poison darts flung

As its horizon collapses on itself.

And maybe it is done nine hundred

Years ago and we will not awake,

Not birds, coral or paramecia-

Just a few cells left to start again.

The power that we have is not in tasks

But rests in our relationships

Even with you black and white friend

When the vet confirmed the bloat

And we had to make you sleep;

Nothing to do for an old dog's

Twisted gut.

Driving home I hold my wife's hand

And watch your moon

Half black, half white,

Turn into the red shield

Of Mars against Antares' darts.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Why is this person smiling?

This is my car pool mate Lynn and she's probably smiling because she doesn't have to put up with my bad driving and rather than riding in a small vehicle in a large stream of gas guzzling SUV's, both she and I are riding the new bus service between Lawrence and Overland Park Kansas, about 30 miles away.

We pick up the the bus at Haskell Indian Nation's University in Lawrence and get dropped off right at the Carlsen Center at JCCC. And as an added bonus the coffee bar is right on the way to my office. Each ride is $2.50 each way but one will be able to buy 10 rides for $15.00 so the cost then will run $3.00/day.

Less stress, we get to ride the biggest thing on the road instead of her hybrid and my Subaru, and if this pans out less wear on the cars and reduced insurance cost. What a deal!

Monday, January 15, 2007

Kansas Guild of Bloggers

That's right, time again to sample the best in Kansas Blogging. So though it be dreary outside, stay by the fire with your laptop on your lap, or a cat on your lap and enjoy.

Some bloggers were lucky enough to travel. AJ at Bittersweet Life just returned from Louisiana including a brief foray into New Orleans. He also has links to New Orleans pictures from an earlier trip. On the other hand, the Prince of Thrift in Topeka is journeying to new frontiers of frugality, hoping to survive on one dollar a day for food and still eat healthy. Wisely he is limiting the experiment to 90 days. No mooching Kevin! In contrast, poor Happy in Bag is getting some bad service from an area Denny's. I wonder if Grand Slams trans fat.

While prowling around Lady Gunn's I found the Laws of Cat Physics. Finally cats explained. It is not from this week and posted from another blog, but I couldn't resist the chuckle. I also can't resist yet another in John B. 's rants about "collage students". Yes that is "collage students" and if you don't get it you need to visit his first rant about "collage students".

Of course no KGB is complete without political blogging and Red State Rabble is all over the antics of Phill Kline, the new Johnson County Prosecutor. With friends like Phill, who needs enemies? Red State Rabble does manage to find a bright side of sorts for having Phill in Johnson County.

On a more serious note Josh at Thoughts from Kansas posts a sermon by Martin Luther King Jr. that seems appropriate to me, given the current state of our nation.

In his sermon King says:

"As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask -- and rightly so -- what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted."

Not much posting about the weather we have had in Kansas this week, though Gwynne at The Shallow End seems to have made out OK, getting to work at home. By the way, just in case you expect to find yourself at home EMAWKC has a prediction about which format HD DVD or Blu-Ray is going to win the video format war. I think you find his argument quite compelling.

And while we are on the subject of visuals, Bruce over at his blog reflects on Bible translation and I find that he and I have a fondness for the same translation of the Bible. Biblical meanings and what what science can or cannot know about God is a common theme for Josh over at Thoughts from Kansas and he accuses Intelligent Design proponents of making a mockery of traditional religion.

Finally my own contribution this week is a poem written as part of Poetry Thursday that has nothing to do with Kansas per say but is reminder that summer will come again, to which I will also link a very subtly related posting over at Blogmeridian about writing rubrics related to aesthetic appreciation- and we thought writing rubrics relating to diversity was hard.

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Poetry Thursday

This week's Poetry Thursday was all about cliche's and thinking about them in a new way. Well I had to jump start my juices by googling cliche and looking for one that struck me. The first site that came up is called Cliche' Finder and it had a page that generated random sets of 10 cliche's from a data base. One that struck me was "There are ears in the corn field", a cliche I have never heard before. I am not even sure what it means aside from the literal interpretation, but it brought to my inner ear an incident that happened during summer 1970 when I had a job as a research aide at Cornell in the Agronomy Department doing marathon data gathering sessions in a hot corn field. How many types of ears are in this poem?

Ears in the Field

In the day's last warm breath
The leaves of the corn wave
And scrape each other
Like grasshopper legs drawn
Against the wings
That whinny and neigh.
As I walk and mouth my data
Into the recorder, band wings snap
Flashing their wings yellow and orange.
I comment how many there are,
Take some readings and note
How the wind makes hard
Measurement of light deep
In the corn.
This is what you asked of me
Collect impressions
Along with light and transpiration.
So I listened to the field.
The voices behind my ear lulled me to sit
In the shade among the stalks,
And I did not remember
The data gap even
When you called me
To your office to listen to what
The transcriptionist found,
Hear my soft sleeping song
Among the neighing grasshoppers
After recording my anumeration
On light.
But you laughed with joy
That your models finally
Worked in the real world
Because I listened to the field.

For Dr. Lemon.

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Monday, January 08, 2007

I've been tagged... one of those pesky memes which has manipulated Jon Voisey (No wonder he's the Angry Astronomer) to tag me. Seems I am supposed to grab the nearest book, go to page 123. This part would be hard to do were George Bush tagged. Then go to the fifth sentence and write down the next three sentences and then tag three other unsuspecting bloggers. Jon had a really good book closest to him and it's too bad I got tagged while I am sitting in my living room with my laptop...hmmm wonder if a pdf of Origin of the Species counts? Quick download one!

But OK no cheating and no digressions about just what is a book these days anyway and what do you mean by nearest book? The Nearest book happens to be Circle of the Moon by Barbara Hambly. The jacket says:

"Returning to the wondrous world of Sisters of the Raven, Barbara Hambly presents a suspenseful new story of a fledgling group of women who must develop their own magical properties before the demons of the past return to kill again."

I take this to mean the ID people aren't done with Kansas yet. On to page 123:
OK...fifth sentence and write down the next three...write them where? Oh type them into the computer!!!

Here we are:

"I don't understand." Shaldis moved her shoulders into the powerful massage of the bath woman's hands. She and Summerfield had passed through the soaping and rinsing, the bubbling hot pools and the steam in small talk and silence; now they lay on towels and warmed marble in the delicious afterglow stage that made actual baths-as opposed to the pan and pitcher scrubs with which most people started their mornings-such addictive pleasure. The royal bath women were the best in the realm and had hands like blacksmiths."

Ohh those hands! Well at least Jon knows I didn't run to the computer in my study. It's on and close to lots of really cool books. My only defense of this book is that anything supernatural in clearly intended to be fiction.

Now who to tag...ah I know. I am going to tag John at Blogmeridian. He always has cool books. Next I think I will go down South and tag Elissa Malcohn over at Chronicles from Hurricane Country. She's been real busy getting her own book out but this is a sneaky way of maybe getting a taste. **eg** Finally it's back to Kansas to tag J.D. over at Evolution-take the next step. He's a mathematics type which means he's got lots of cool books even if they don't make much sense to the rest of us.

Now I guess I am not supposed to tell them they have been tagged but let them discover it themselves.

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Friday, January 05, 2007

Maybe the final word on the Grand Canyon Controversy?

From Kurt at the National Park's Traveler comes this discussion of the Grand Canyon issue. This seems in rough agreement with Ranger X's comments reported and commented by me earlier. Also one of the commenters gives directions for finding the geological information on the NPS Canyon website. Indeed if you go here you do find a brief mention of the age of the rocks in the park...very brief. Kurt also has some insight as to the justification for allowing the Creationist text in the museum..after all they DO sell books that discuss Native American creation stories.

Clearly the issue is more complex than what PEER presented but why do I find myself a bit skeptical of all these explanations? PEER apparently stands by its statement.

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Weasel Sex Trade.

Visitor number 7420 today did this Google search:

which led them to this entry:
Otters and the Weasel Sex Trade.

Hope my reader got a chuckle out of it.

PETA and Gay Sheep revisited.

Those gay sheep just won't go away.

Emptypockets has a couple of good articles on this controversy. In the first article from the Next Hurrah, Pockets discusses how science information gets disseminated and how that relates to the problem of correcting misinformation especially in the blogosphere. Turns out that it was actually fairly easy to edisseminate corrected information about the Sheep study.

Pockets notes:

"The point I want to make here is that it turned out to be easy to expose PETA's lies. It did not take tremendous back-and-forth link wars. It just took a note saying "think a little harder about this before you believe it." And from there we were off to an honest discussion.

Was it easy because PETA's lies are so transparent, or because I was talking to an audience already receptive to critical thought or a pro-science message? Would the debunking penetrate the rest of the blogosphere, or stop at the walls of the political left? Once a lie has spread into the hive mind of the web, can you unspread it?"

Pockets then gives a rough history of what happened including the role of science bloggers.

But good sounding myths take a while to die and the alleged research using gay sheep rose again. This time bloggers such as myself picked up on a Times of London article claiming again that scientists were studying gay sheep and that "experts" were claiming that this could serve as a basis for screening out gays or providing a cure for homosexuality.

Pockets fortunately is on the case and has a lengthy investigative report in today's Daily Kos:

Pockets states:

"The Times repeats and amplifies lies made by PETA in August claiming that Dr. Charles Roselli is experimenting on gay sheep to try to cure homosexuality -- total nonsense, but PETA saw that by targeting Roselli's work they could exploit the gay rights community and promote their anti-research agenda. At the time, I spoke out against PETA and talked with many bloggers who had been duped to set the record straight -- the story then died down, until it re-emerged, almost unchanged, in the Sunday Times last weekend. The question is, who's pulling the gay sheep fleece this time? And why?"

Pocket's research reveals the following:

1. The investigators have not been able to 'significantly alter' the sheep's sexual orientation.

2. The injection of hormones into the brain technique is pure fabrication (I wondered about that one myself)

3. The reports claim to have talked to some experts yet they ignored most of the recent literature on sexual orientation.

Why did the reporters, Isabel Oakeshott and Chris Gourlay, write this article and what was the role of PETA in getting this article written remain a mystery. Pockets notes that there are important ethical issues in research but these debates can't be had honestly if they are based on lies.

One thing that strikes me as interesting is that according to Pockets, Oakeshott is responsible for various disinformatative articles related to fetus's allegedly smiling and also the controversial plan B morning after pill. So the motivation might be to try to link PETA with the antiabortion crowd. See this link provided by pockets to my old "friends" at Concerned Women for America. Allegedly Oakeshott has gotten into other trouble as well as a quick google search showed.

But read emptypockets for yourself.

Seems to me that PETA and the Times reporter have done a great deal of harm not only to the research community but also to the credibility of the Times. I know I took the article as a springboard to talk about other issues.

I wrote for example:

"Obviously the research raises some ethical questions. Assume we can determine the possible sexual orientation of a child in utero and can intervene to modify this orientation. Should parents have the right to intervene to either abort or hormonally modify their offspring? On the one hand, reproductive rights are something many people have fought for over the last 50 years. How is letting women do this sort of thing any different? On the other hand, what are we doing to ourselves as a society if we allow people to do things that reduce the diversity of human experience for the sake of what we as parents want. If fetuses have some rights, is this sort of hormonal manipulation, merely another type of medical intervention such as prenatal surgery, or is it an immoral intervention insulting to the dignity of the person? I hope you see how this sort of issue has the potential of redefining many of the fault lines that divide us today."

And I think these are important questions, but they can't be meaningfully dealt with either if the information we have to go on is faulty.

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A Bit of Genetics Humor

Courtesy of Hsien over at Genetics and Health...

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Go to MIT for Free! A brief look at biology offerings.

There is an interesting article in the January 4 2007 Christian Science Monitor about MIT and other schools making their courses available online with unrestricted access. This part of an effort called the Open Course Ware Consortium whose slogan is Open Sharing, Global Benefits. The consortium is an international effort and has universities from China, Japan, Europe as well as a number from the United States.

This material is not meant to replace real online or face to face courses but is useful for several groups. So for instance, since I teach genetics naturally I am interested in how MIT approaches genetics and what I can get from it to incorporate into my course. I am pleased to see lots of the same material but approached in a slightly different way at times and I have already gotten some good ideas for my students.

The types of material available is quite variable in completeness. Some of the MIT courses have fairly complete set of lecture notes, while others just have a series of readings and assignments. Audio and video lectures are also available for some. This is useful material both for other teachers but also for independent students and a few courses have discussion forums for OCW users, but I assume the course professors would not participate in these forums.

The OCW movement started at MIT but has grown to the point where according to the Christian Science Monitor article, the MIT site alone gets 1.4 million visitors a month! I think I will spend some time this semester going through MIT's Teaching College Level Science course.

Other interesting courses:

Calculus with Applications: Includes full set of lectures and textbook and Java applets.

Differential Equations: Video lectures and lots of cool graphics and a recitation section with applications in pdf format.

Introductory Biology: This course is the similar to the Cell and Molecular Biology course we offer at JCCC.

Genetics (Of course): This is team taught and I like the pdf lecture presentations.

Darwin and Design: This is in the literature department...too bad I hope the biologists take this as well since the readings look very nice. I notice there is no coverage of the modern intelligent design movement. That makes perfect sense since intelligent design is just a rehash of old ideas anyway.

At the graduate level:

Systems Biology: This requires Matlab and is oriented toward cellular and developmental systems biology.

Computational Functional Genomics: This looks really good...wonder if Sandra Porter has seen this course?

Stay tuned...

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

ExxonMobile and Global Warming

The Union of Concerned Scientists has produced a report on big business's role in the debate over global warming. The report alleges that ExxonMobile funded proxy organizations and global warming skeptics to misinform the public on global warming. The report called Smoke, Mirrors and Hot Air can be accessed as a pdf file here.

Some of the charges from the introduction are that ExxonMobile:

Manufactured uncertainty by raising doubts
about even the most indisputable scientific

Adopted a strategy of information laundering
by using seemingly independent front organizations
to publicly further its desired message
and thereby confuse the public.

Promoted scientific spokespeople who misrepresent
peer-reviewed scientific findings or
cherry-pick facts in their attempts to persuade
the media and the public that there is still
serious debate among scientists that burning
fossil fuels has contributed to global warming
and that human-caused warming will have
serious consequences.

Attempted to shift the focus away from meaningful
action on global warming with misleading
charges about the need for “sound science.”

Used its extraordinary access to the Bush
administration to block federal policies and
shape government communications on global
warming. (Emphasis mine)

The report makes an analogy with the Tobacco Industry and also charges that some of the same people involved in the disinformation campaign about the link between cancer and lung cancer were also involved in the global warming disinformation campaign. For here's what the report alleges about one group funded by ExxonMobile:

"It is also no surprise that the DCI Group'’s own
literature boasts that it specializes in what it calls
'“corporate grassroots campaigns'” and '“third party
support' for corporate clients, both code words
for the establishment and use of front organizations
to disseminate a company'’s message. The
group'’s managing partners, Tom Synhorst, Doug
Goodyear, and Tim Hyde, each honed their skills
in this area over the course of nearly a decade
working for the tobacco firm R.J. Reynolds.
Synhorst was a 'field coordinator' for R.J. Reynolds,
heading up work for the company on issues
such as state, local, and workplace smoking bans.
Goodyear worked for a PR firm called Walt Klein
and Associates that helped set up a fake grassroots
operations on behalf of R.J. Reynolds. And Hyde
served as senior director of public issues at R.J.
Reynolds from 1988 to 1997, overseeing all of
the company'’s PR campaigns."

More on DCI is here.

Again note the tie in with the Bush administration...but we have to ask...and this is news? It will be interesting to see how ExxonMobile and the Bush administration respond to this one.

Another View of the Grand Canyon Controversy

The other day I posted this entry about the apparent catering to creationists by the National Park service, including the sale of Creationist books in the Grand Canyon bookstore and the suppression of discussion of the age of the Canyon. One of my readers, Park Ranger X, cautions us not to believe everything you read in the blog Without a Park to Range.

Ranger X says:

"I was skeptical, and after reading PEER's press release, I called the contact listed on the release. On January 3, I spoke with Executive Director Jeff Ruch who told me he talked with unnamed interpretive staff and park rangers. His complained mainly about lack of guidance for rangers on what to say when asked about the canyon's age. Ruch's comments seemed random and unfocused and his claims unsubstantiated. He focused on a book, Grand Canyon: A Different View, sold in the GRCA bookstore that offers a creationist view of the canyon's formation. Ruch stated that since 2003, GRCA has avoided releasing a draft from the geologic services division (I'm not aware of such a division) that gives guidance to park rangers. Incidentally, GRCA started selling the aforementioned book in 2003."

Later on Ranger X notes the following from the official NPS response:

"If asked the age of the Grand Canyon, our rangers use the following answer. The principal consensus among geologists is that the Colorado River basin has developed in the past 40 million years and that the Grand Canyon itself is probably less than five to six million years old. The result of all this erosion is one of the most complete geologic columns on the planet. The major geologic exposures in Grand Canyon range in age from the 2 billion year old Vishnu Schist at the bottom of the Inner Gorge to the 230 million year old Kaibab Limestone on the Rim."

Further Ranger X supports the sale of the creationist book in question, claiming correctly that it is in the inspirational section of the bookstore and that the bookstore is not run by the NPS but by a private entity.

Which leads me to a couple of comments. Sounds like the rangers only volunteer the information about the age of the Canyon when asked just as you can't find direct reference on the Canyon website to the Canyon's geology and age. Next, the bookstore may be run by a private agency, but presumably on Park Land. Also, I suspect the distinction between the Park Service and a private contractor is lost on the general public. Sorry Ranger X, I am not convinced by your arguments any more than I was by the Kansas Board of Education saying they weren't interested in having intelligent design taught in Kansas school rooms when all the evidence points in the opposite direction.

I for one hope that the new Congress takes a close look at this issue along with other encroachments on science by the Bush administration.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

You're on Notice!

Especially if you are a Steven Colbert fan. Go here and make your own notice!

Thanks to PZ Myers for spotting this.

What will the fundies make of this?

Apparently Rudi Giuliani has been stepping out lately. I have to admit she looks pretty good in the picture, but she really needs to work on her walk.

The handsome fellow she's with is of course Donald Trump.

Here is a link to the video.

She also uses waaay to much perfume.

A tip of the antennae to Pam at Pam's House Blend for this gem.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Sheep PETA and Ethics...

A commenter on my recent post about the gay sheep research sent me ths very interesting link about PETA's involvement in this whole check out this link from thenexthurrah:

The author, one empty pockets on reading PETA's claims about this research went and interviewed Dr. Proselli abut PETA's claim that the research is designed to help cure homosexuality in humans.

Emptypockets concludes:

"PETA has joined the company of intelligent designists and global warming deniers, those who misreport scientific research, cherry-pick results, and flat-out lie to further their political agenda. PETA picked Dr. Roselli because sheep are adorable, unlike mice or flies, and because gay rights is a hot-button issue. They lied about his work and his intention because they want to turn as much of the public as they can against scientists who use animals. Lying about and distorting science in a campaign against biology research is something I've come to expect from the right, from Kansas school boards and Sen. Santorum. We should not allow it to take root on the left."
Very true and I hope my readers will check this post out for themselves.

A tip of the antennae to Jim Newman for the link.

Update 1/4/07 also from Jim Newman is this article from the Daily Kos:
A wolf in gay sheep's clothing: Corruption at the London Times

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'Gay' sheep, Science and Ethics

Scientists are currently looking for ways to reduce homosexual behavior in sheep. Roughly 8% of rams prefer mating with other rams rather the ewes and this behavior appears to be a matter of biology. Now a endocrinological study attempting to modify this same sex behavior has come under fire as being perhaps unethical. According to an article in the Sunday Times of London (December 31 2006) scientists have been able to reduce the amount of homosexual behavior in sheep by modifying hormone levels in the sheep's brain.

This sort of thing ought to be good news for LBGT advocates because the sheep research strongly suggests an innate basis for sexual orientation. But as the article notes, the research has raised the ire of both animal rights activists and gay activists as well. Martina Navratilova defended what she sees as the sheep's 'right to be gay' and asserted that gays and lesbians would be "deeply offended" by the implications of this homophobic and cruel research. The article claims that the research could lead to ways that women could screen for and reduce the chance of having a child with same sex attractions. But see my next entry for an update on this claim and it's origin.

From my perspective as an LGBT person and a scientist, the research is important research in terms of getting at a fundamental understanding of sexual orientation. If some one is going to argue that sexual orientation is more than a matter of choice then this research ought to be supported. It is not after all sufficient to argue that same sex attraction is not a matter of choice and stop there. That sort of strategy is much like the intelligent design strategy of inferring the existence of an intelligent designer and stopping there, saying that the nature of the designer is outside the realm of science: bad strategy.

Obviously the research raises some ethical questions. Assume we can determine the possible sexual orientation of a child in utero and can intervene to modify this orientation. Should parents have the right to intervene to either abort or hormonally modify their offspring? On the one hand, reproductive rights are something many people have fought for over the last 50 years. How is letting women do this sort of thing any different? On the other hand, what are we doing to ourselves as a society if we allow people to do things that reduce the diversity of human experience for the sake of what we as parents want. If fetuses have some rights, is this sort of hormonal manipulation, merely another type of medical intervention such as prenatal surgery, or is it an immoral intervention insulting to the dignity of the person? I hope you see how this sort of issue has the potential of redefining many of the fault lines that divide us today.

I am not going to weigh in here (OK maybe a little)except to say that my tendency is to let these things be between the Doctor and the mother and let the social issues sort themselves out. I don't know what other option is really workable in a pluralistic society. I suppose we could draw a line and say no interventions into fetal development are allowed unless it is to prevent a very proscribed list of life threatening problems. In my mind the possible applications of the research sets up a conflict between several different principles that I deem important:

  • The right to individual self determination is important and needs to be defended against the State.
  • Social diversity is valuable and steps need to be taken to prevent excess homogenation of our society.
  • We need to consider what we as a civilization want for the future of our species.

Regardless of the ethical implications for humans, it seems the research is important and trying to stop the research is definitely the wrong thing to do. But we do need to get beyond some of the social issues that excise us and start having a meaningful social dialogue about some of these highly disruptive technologies that are in the pipe line. I think the dialogue we need is related to the following questions asked by Richard Dawkins in a short article which has been highly misinterpreted as being advocacy for eugenics:
"I wonder whether, some 60 years after Hitler'’s death, we might at least venture to ask what the moral difference is between breeding for musical ability and forcing a child to take music lessons. Or why it is acceptable to train fast runners and high jumpers but not to breed them. I can think of some answers, and they are good ones, which would probably end up persuading me. But hasn'’t the time come when we should stop being frightened even to put the question?"
Good but disturbing questions and as our scientific understanding of the interplay between genetics and environment continues to deepen, we are going to find ourselves less and less able to avoid them.

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More George Bush Science

My gentle readers know various Kansas bloggers have been railing against George Bush letting politics dictate science policy and the Angry Astronomer provides a good set of links to yet another example. Apparently the National Park Service's political hacks have bought into the teach the controversy issue and have not only allowed creationist texts about the Grand Canyon into the park bookstore but also forbid park rangers from telling visitors about the age of the Grand Canyon.

According to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the Park Service has been told to avoid offending fundamentalists and not mention what SCIENCE says about the age of the Canyon(Hint: It's more than 6,000 years old). Worse yet a 2002 memo providing guidelines to park interpreters and rangers for dealing with science versus religion has been suppressed.

Worse yet from a social point of view is this report from the PEER web site:

To quote:

"In a series of recent decisions, the National Park Service has approved the display of religious symbols and Bible verses, as well as the sale of creationist books giving a biblical explanation for the Grand Canyon and other natural wonders.

These moves all emanate from top Park Service political appointees over the objections of park superintendents, agency lawyers and scientists. A number of fundamentalist Christian and socially conservative groups are claiming credit for these actions and touting their new direct and personal access to Bush Administration officials."

There is a link to a petition to fight this sort of mixing of government and religion so please hop on over to the petition site and sign on. The site also has a way to pass on an e-mail message to your friends to alert them to this as well.

What's next? NSF funding for intelligent design "research"?

By the way you cannot find information on the Geology of the Grand Canyon on the National Park Service's Grand Canyon site...unless you search the archives. Then you can find this link. Look quickly before it too is suppressed.

Update! See an alternate view and my response here.

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