February 27, 2015

The changes in language describing changing gender

Filed under: Health,USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Charlotte Allen discusses how quickly the language has changed when talking about transsexuality over a very short time:

In 2012 the board of trustees of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) approved a set of proposed revisions to its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the new version is the DSM-5), designed to remove the stigma of mental illness from the transgender classification. Earlier versions of the DSM had defined transgenderism as “gender identity disorder,” which seemed to imply illness. The DSM-5 changed that term to “gender dysphoria.” The change paralleled the association’s removal of homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973. It signaled that whatever problems transgenders might experience were not due to a pathological misconception that their bodies and gender identities were mismatched but to the fact that their bodies and gender identities were mismatched. Hormones, surgery, cosmetics, and different clothes might still be the “cure” (enabling transgenders to qualify for medical reimbursement for a variety of procedures), but the APA was making it clear, as far as it was concerned, that the problem was not inside the transgender’s head.

The medical evidence for a mismatch between brains and bodies is ambiguous. The two studies cited most frequently by transgender activists, published in 1995 and 2000, examined the brains of a total of seven male-to-female transgenders and found that a region of the hypothalamus, an almond-shaped area of the brain that controls the release of hormones by the pituitary gland, was female-typical in those brains. But those studies have been criticized for not controlling for the estrogen​—​which affects the size of the hypothalamus​—​that most male-to-female transgenders take daily in order to maintain their feminine appearance.

Accompanying the APA’s change of classification was a change of vocabulary. Ever since the days of Christine Jorgensen (1926-1989), the World War II serviceman whose surgery in Denmark during the early 1950s brought transgenderism under the media spotlight for the first time, the procedure was known in popular parlance as a “sex change operation.” Then in the 1990s, when the idea of one’s “gender” as something distinct from one’s biological sex began to take hold (thanks to the efforts of academic feminists and other postmodernists, who argued that gender is “socially constructed”), the preferred term became “gender reassignment surgery.” Now the preferred phrase seems to be “gender confirmation surgery.” The change in terminology renders more credible transpeople’s claims to have always belonged to the gender to which they have transitioned.

The once commonly used word “transsexual” has thus become passé ​—​ even verboten in the most sensitive circles —​ just during the past decade. For example, Washington Post reporter Abby Ohlheiser issued a severe scolding to news media for using the word “transsexual” in reference to a 27-year-old male-to-female victim of a grisly murder and dismemberment at the hands of her 28-year-old male lover (who subsequently committed suicide) in Brisbane, Australia, in October 2014. “Although some individuals do identify as ‘transsexual,’ the term is often viewed as old-fashioned and not an appropriate umbrella word,” Ohlheiser wrote in a column deriding the coverage of the crime as “transphobic.” Ohlheiser also objected to media describing the victim, Mayang Prasetyo, as a “prostitute” (Prasetyo had been working as an escort before her death) and reproducing photos of Prasetyo’s busty self clad in a tiny swimsuit that she had posted on the Internet. “Many of the articles covering the murder are laden with provocative photographs of the victim in a bikini, as if any story about a trans person is an excuse to view and scrutinize trans bodies,” Ohlheiser wrote.

QotD: Decades of official dietary guidance … “Oops, our bad!”

Filed under: Bureaucracy,Government,Health,Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Americans, prepare to feel angry: After years of watching our cholesterol, sacrificing shellfish and egg yolks and gloriously fatty pork and beef, and enduring day-glow yellow and too-soft tubs of butter substitute, Americans are about to be told by our government diet experts, “Oops … we had it all wrong.”

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which is charged with reviewing the government-issued dietary guidelines every five years, is preparing to release its “new and improved” guidelines any day now, and leaks from the deliberations hint at a reversal in the committee’s decades-long guidance that Americans should eat a diet low in cholesterol.

What are Americans to think of this new guidance that says cholesterol doesn’t really matter after all, that it is no longer a “nutrient of concern,” that eating food high in cholesterol may not be connected to heart disease?

Devotees of protein-rich, low-carb diets may see this as validation and reason to celebrate. Others will no doubt feel deflated, confused, and just plain bitter that for years they’ve been fed a lie that cost them, quite literally, the joy of eating delicious food, and possibly better health. Still others will misunderstand this new guidance and think butter and other high-cholesterol foods are now in the healthy column. In reality, those foods still ought to be consumed in moderation — particularly by people with preexisting conditions such as diabetes.

Yet there’s a bigger story here. Government really ought not be in the business of providing nutrition advice in the first place. Nutrition is a personal issue, and what’s best for one person may not be best for another. Moreover, Americans have ample access to information in the private sector on health and nutrition. In other words, Uncle Sam, we don’t need you anymore.

Julie Gunlock, “Government Dieticians Tell Us, Never Mind Our Decades of Bad Advice”, National Review, 2015-02-13.

February 26, 2015

Humanity’s not-so-distant cousins

Filed under: History,Science — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Real Clear Science has an excerpt from Yuval Harari’s recent book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind:

Scientists also agree that about 70,000 years ago, Sapiens from East Africa spread into the Arabian peninsula, and from there they quickly overran the entire Eurasian landmass.

When Homo sapiens landed in Arabia, most of Eurasia was already settled by other humans. What happened to them? There are two conflicting theories. The ‘Interbreeding Theory’ tells a story of attraction, sex and mingling. As the African immigrants spread around the world, they bred with other human populations, and people today are the outcome of this interbreeding.

For example, when Sapiens reached the Middle East and Europe, they encountered the Neanderthals. These humans were more muscular than Sapiens, had larger brains, and were better adapted to cold climes. They used tools and fire, were good hunters, and apparently took care of their sick and infirm. (Archaeologists have discovered the bones of Neanderthals who lived for many years with severe physical handicaps, evidence that they were cared for by their relatives.) Neanderthals are often depicted in caricatures as the archetypical brutish and stupid ‘cave people’, but recent evidence has changed their image.

According to the Interbreeding Theory, when Sapiens spread into Neanderthal lands, Sapiens bred with Neanderthals until the two populations merged. If this is the case, then today’s Eurasians are not pure Sapiens. They are a mixture of Sapiens and Neanderthals. Similarly, when Sapiens reached East Asia, they interbred with the local Erectus, so the Chinese and Koreans are a mixture of Sapiens and Erectus.

The opposing view, called the ‘Replacement Theory’ tells a very different story – one of incompatibility, revulsion, and perhaps even genocide. According to this theory, Sapiens and other humans had different anatomies, and most likely different mating habits and even body odours. They would have had little sexual interest in one another. And even if a Neanderthal Romeo and a Sapiens Juliet fell in love, they could not produce fertile children, because the genetic gulf separating the two populations was already unbridgeable. The two populations remained completely distinct, and when the Neanderthals died out, or were killed off, their genes died with them. According to this view, Sapiens replaced all the previous human populations without merging with them. If that is the case, the lineages of all contemporary humans can be traced back, exclusively, to East Africa, 70,000 years ago. We are all ‘pure Sapiens’.

A lot hinges on this debate. From an evolutionary perspective, 70,000 years is a relatively short interval. If the Replacement Theory is correct, all living humans have roughly the same genetic baggage, and racial distinctions among them are negligible. But if the Interbreeding Theory is right, there might well be genetic differences between Africans, Europeans and Asians that go back hundreds of thousands of years. This is political dynamite, which could provide material for explosive racial theories.

In recent decades the Replacement Theory has been the common wisdom in the field. It had firmer archaeological backing, and was more politically correct (scientists had no desire to open up the Pandora’s box of racism by claiming significant genetic diversity among modern human populations). But that ended in 2010, when the results of a four-year effort to map the Neanderthal genome were published. Geneticists were able to collect enough intact Neanderthal DNA from fossils to make a broad comparison between it and the DNA of contemporary humans. The results stunned the scientific community.

It turned out that 1-4 per cent of the unique human DNA of modern populations in the Middle East and Europe is Neanderthal DNA. That’s not a huge amount, but it’s significant. A second shock came several months later, when DNA extracted from the fossilised finger from Denisova was mapped. The results proved that up to 6 per cent of the unique human DNA of modern Melanesians and Aboriginal Australians is Denisovan DNA.

February 25, 2015

Dealing with “dark tetrad” personalities

Filed under: Health — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Bobby Stein linked to this column in Psychology Today from last summer, talking about how to deal with sadists, psychopaths, narcissists, and Machiavellians:

There are several personality types that are more likely to harm another than the average person would. Sadists possess an intrinsic motivation to inflict suffering on innocent others, even when this comes at a personal cost. This is because for sadistic personalities, cruelty is pleasurable, generally exciting, and can be sexually stimulating.

In a recent study, Buckels and colleagues examined examples of everyday sadism as part of what they refer to as the “Dark Tetrad,” sadism plus the original members of the “Dark Triad”—psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. These personalities have some overlap and are characterized by callous manipulation, self-centeredness, disagreeableness, and exploitation. In their research, the team sought to determine whether everyday sadism could be captured in the laboratory, as well as whether measures of sadistic personality would predict these behaviors beyond already established measures of the Dark Triad. Among the findings were that sadistic personalities were the most likely members of the Dark Tetrad to select the task involving killing from an array of unpleasant tasks. Those sadists who killed more bugs derived greater pleasure from the act than those who killed fewer bugs.

In a second, related study, those high in sadism, psychopathy, and/or narcissism, as well as those low in empathy and perspective-taking, were willing to aggress against an innocent person when aggression was easy. Only sadists increased the intensity of their attack once they realized the person would not fight back, however. Furthermore, sadists, unlike the other “dark personalities,” were the only ones willing to expend additional time and energy (in this case, first completing a boring task) in order to have the opportunity to hurt an innocent person.

Previous research has found that although psychopaths have no qualms about hurting others, they are more likely to do so when it serves a specific purpose. Narcissists are less likely to aggress upon another unless their ego is threatened. Machiavellians will usually aggress upon others only if there are sufficient perceived benefits and the risk to themselves is acceptably low.

February 24, 2015

The bitter war between men and women

Filed under: Health,History,Religion — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Sarah Hoyt recently reposted her rant (in her words) about the ongoing struggle between men and women:

I know this goes completely against everything you’ve ever heard and learned. History — and SF — is full of dreamers who are convinced that if women ruled the world it would all be beauty flowers and non aggression. (To these dreamers I say spend a week as a girl in an all-girl school. It will be a rude awakening.)

Dreamers of the Dan Brown stripe posit a peaceful female worship, with yet more beauty and flowers and non-aggression. They ignore the fact that 99% of the goddess-worshiping religions were scary. And don’t tell me that’s patriarchal slander — it’s not. The baby-killing of Astoreth worship has been documented extensively. (Of course, the Phoenicians were equal-opportunity baby killers.) The castrations of Cybele worship were also well documented. Now, I can hardly imagine a female divinity without imagining hormonal episodes requiring appeasement — but that’s because I’m a woman of a certain age, and that’s fodder for another altogether different discussion. Suffice it to say that the maiden and mother usually also had a crone persona who was … er… “not a nice person.”

Anyway — all this to say since I joined the MOB (Mothers Of Boys) the scales about such things as the inherent equality of men and women as far as their brain structure and basic behavior have fallen from my eyes. (Well, the scales that remained. My experience in school notwithstanding, I’d been TAUGHT that females were getting the short end of the stick and that’s a hard thing to overcome. Learned wisdom is so much more coherent than lived wisdom, after all.)

Again — indulge me — I’m going to make a lot of statements I can too back up, but which would take very, very, very long to document — so it will seem like I’m ranting mid air. Stay with it. If I feel up to it later, I’ll post some references.

Yes, women have been horribly oppressed throughout history including the rather disgusting Victorian period that most Americans seem to believe is how ALL of history went. I contend, though, that women were not oppressed by some international conspiracy of males — yes, I know what Women’s Studies professors say. I would however remind you we’re talking of a group of people — men — who a) have issues finding their own socks in the dresser they’ve used for ten years. b) Are so good at communicating as a group that they couldn’t coordinate their way out of a wet paper bag, or to quote my friend Kate, couldn’t organize a bonk in a brothel. (In most large organizations the “social/coordinating” function is performed by females at various levels.) c) That women being oppressed by a patriarchy so thorough it altered history and changed all records of peaceful female religion would require a conspiracy lasting thousands of years and involving almost every male on Earth. If you believe that, I have this bridge in NY that I would like to sell you. — Women were oppressed by their own bodies.

Throughout most of history women had no safe and effective means of stopping pregnancy. — please, spare me the “herbal” remedies. I grew up in a village that had little access to medicine. If there had been an effective means of preventing pregnancy we’d have known it. TRUST me. There are abortificients, but they endanger the mother as well. However, until the pill there was no safe contraceptive. The herbal contraceptive is a plot device dreamed up by fantasy writers. Also, btw, the People’s Republic of China TESTED all these methods (including swallowing live tadpoles at the full moon.) NONE of them worked. SERIOUSLY.

What this meant in practical fact is that most women were pregnant from menarche to menopause, if they were lucky to live that long. I’ve been pregnant. If you haven’t, take it from me it’s not a condition conducive to brilliant discourse or reasoned logic. On top of that, of course, women would suffer the evils of repeated child bearing with no rest. In effect this DID make women frail and not the intellectual equals of men. And it encouraged any male around to “oppress” them. I.e., when the majority of females around you need a minder, you’re going to assume ALL females need a minder. It’s human nature. Note that beyond suffrage, the greatest advance in women’s equality came from the pill. Not a coincidence, that.

However, the people who think that women were oppressed by an international historical cabal rule the establishment. Including the educational establishment. I find it hilarious that in their minds men/boys are so powerful that they must be kept back and are suspected of being criminals just because they have a penis. This is attributing to them god-like powers to rival what any Victorian housewife would believe.

Anyway — these people have decided all efforts must be made to equal male and female performance in school. Since, in practical fact, this is impossible because males and females develop at different paces and favor different areas, they’ve settled for hobbling the all-powerful males.

You see this everywhere from Saturday morning cartoons to kindergarten to all the grades beyond. In cartoons these days, the girls ALWAYS rescue the boys. (They do it while keeping impeccably groomed hair, too. Impressive, that.) And in school all the girls are assumed to be right and all the boys are assumed to be wrong.

February 22, 2015

Obamacare’s externalities

Filed under: Economics,Health,USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Megan McArdle on just what externalities are and why we pay attention to them:

For those who might not know the term, “externality” is economist-speak, and it means about what it sounds like: an effect that your action has on others. An externality can be positive or negative, and obviously, we as a society would like to have as many as possible of the former and as few as possible of the latter. In other words, “Your right to swing your fist stops at the end of my nose.”

I’m a libertarian, and libertarians love talking about externalities. They give us a (relatively) clear way to define what are and are not legitimate scopes of public action. Whatever you’re doing in the privacy of your own bedroom with another consenting adult is really none of my business, even if I think you oughtn’t to be doing it. On the other hand, if you’re breeding rats and cockroaches in there, and they’re coming through the shared wall of our respective row houses, then I have the right to get the law involved.

Framing things as “externalities” is therefore a good way to get a libertarian, or someone who leans that way, on your side. And such frames have come up over and over in the debate over Obamacare, which has been variously justified by the cost to the state of emergency room care; the cost to society of free-riding young folks who don’t buy insurance until they get sick; the public health cost of people who don’t go to the doctor and get really, expensively sick; an unhealthy workforce that is less productive; and the cost to friends and relatives who have to chip in to cover uninsured medical expenses.

I didn’t find any of those arguments particularly convincing. The third can just be dispensed with on the grounds of accuracy: In general, preventive medicine does not save money. Oh, it may save money in the particular case of someone whose diabetes or cancer went long undiagnosed. The problem is, you can’t just look at the cost of sick folks who would have been a lot cheaper to treat if their conditions had been caught earlier. You also have to include the cost of all the healthy people you had to screen in order to catch that one case of disease. And with limited exceptions, the cost of screening the healthy generally outweighs the cost of treating the chronically ill. Now, you can certainly argue for preventive care on other grounds — for example, that it makes people healthier (though even then you have to add the cost of unnecessary medical procedures, such as biopsies following a false positive on a blood test, which is why we do not, say, give annual mammograms to every American woman). But it’s not generally a money saver, so this particular externality doesn’t exist.

The rest of the arguments have some weight, but in the end, I don’t think they’re weighty enough. Let me explain.

February 21, 2015

Ace unloads on the media over their “coverage” of the Ebola outbreak

Filed under: Health,Media,Science,USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

At Ace of Spades H.Q., Ace is underwhelmed by the Washington Post‘s belated acknowledgement that they aided and abetted the CDC in downplaying the seriousness of the Ebola outbreak last year:

Scientists: “There Was Almost a Rush to Assure the Public That We Knew A Lot More Than We Did” About Ebola; Experts Now Concede Ebola May Be Transmitted by Purely Airborne Route

Incidentally, the Washington Post, which is itself an Expert at Writing to whom you should bow and scrape, reported his words as “there was a rush to ensure the public,” which is not what he said, because it’s stupid. And if he did say it, you throw a “(sic)” after it to indicate the error is in the quoted material, not in your own writing.


I assume he is speaking here of a proper airborne transmission, and not the layman’s “airborne” transmission; either way, the experts who so ensuredly ensured us that there was no way to get ebola from the air were wrong.

Not just wrong. Arrogantly and loudly wrong.

See, the media is not particularly bright but they are Bossy and they like pretending they Love Science. So when they see an opportunity to Pretend to Be Scientists and Yell At Their Dumb Readers, they seize upon it, even if they don’t have any idea about what the fuck they are talking. (Note preposition smartly undangled, all expert-like.)

The media were always wrong on this, and the CDC was always deliberately deceptive. This new information about an actual airborne route of transmission is new (ish), but even before, the CDC was falsely suggesting that “no airborne transmission” meant that you could not catch ebola except by direct contact with an infected person or his fluids, like his blood and stool.

They sort of forgot that his “spit” and vapor in his breath counted as “liquids,” so you could in fact catch ebola by what the layman would call an airborne route. (Scientists do not call this path of transmission “airborne” transmission, but rather “spray” transmission or “droplet transmission.”)

The CDC deliberately lied to people, and the demented little Apple Polishers of the media rushed to scream at the rest of the class that you could not possibly get ebola by anything other than direct contact.

February 20, 2015

This is why you can’t find a good washer (or dishwasher, or toilet, or…)

Filed under: Business,Environment,Government — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Sarah Hoyt recently bought a new washer, and realized something while being lectured about her choice by the salesperson:

Which is when I realized I was in the presence of a true believer whose mind would not be dented by facts. I let Dan lead her to the computer and make up the order, and older son has nicknamed me “She who makes washer saleswomen cry.”

So, what is the point of this? If it were just a funny story about buying a washer, I might still tell it, but it’s not.

Look, the problem is that we are being ruled (and yep, ruled, not governed) by a group of people who, like the saleswoman, think the intention is the thing.

We’ll leave aside for a moment the need or wisdom for water/electricity/etc. saving. First, in Colorado water is expensive so saving it is always a good idea. Second, that is not what their measures are achieving.

Take our first exposure to water saving toilets, twenty some years ago. We built a new bathroom and needed a toilet and the only ones for sale were “water saving.” What this meant in practical fact was that I acquired a new hobby: flushing the toilet.

The toilet worked (supposedly) with half the water, but it took four flushes to get anything, even a little bit of toilet paper, down. Do the math. I was expending twice as much water, and a lot of time and frustration. (We quickly switched to air assist. After the experience.)

In the same way, our current dishwasher complies with water and electricity saving measures. This means to achieve the same temperature, it has a thick coat of insulation ALL around. Which means it takes half the dishes at a time. Again, do the math. I have to run it for twice as long, which means no savings.

It has an additional unamusing quirk. Every time you wash, you have to select hot wash and sanitizing. Otherwise it just sloshes some water at the dishes and calls it done. We didn’t figure this out for five years which means for five years we conducted a study in epidemiology. I mean, guys, even in the village, when we were poor as Job, grandma boiled water for the final dish rinse to be as hot as possible. Otherwise you not only get not really clean dishes, you get to share the germs of everyone whose dishes go in the same water.

Then there’s the washer. The first we bought was the Neptune, years and years ago, which was so water saving it developed mold and mildew.

The current one recycles the water, so it washes better, but the rinses must happen, and the rinses, again, make it use the same water as anything else. All the low-water washers need a lot of rinses.

“But Sarah, you have a condition that makes you sensitive to detergent. Other people don’t.”

Granted. Which is why there hasn’t been an uprising with pitchforks, or at least washing mangles, yet. Because for the last five years I’ve been a slave to that washer and I’ve always been behind in the wash to the point that we ended up buying four times the clothes we needed, because the wash was bound to be backed up. When each load takes a minimum of two hours (the boys also react to detergent) and you have 14 or so loads a week (not counting cats peeing on Robert’s bed – yes, always his bed. Don’t know why) things slow to a crawl.

And the answer “Oh, you need to use less detergent.” BUT the cleaning went down in proportion to the detergent going down.

I’m not going to talk to other “eco friendly” measures or not extensively. I don’t have the personal experience to.

I do, however, know that the curly lightbulbs were a fiasco. I know that attempts to wish into existence energy by means other than fossil fuels are either failures or scams (Solyndra) and I know that the “enhanced” with “fillers” gas destroys cars, so that they have to be replaced sooner. Now, I’m not an expert, but I’d guess the manufacturing process causes more pollution than just burning regular gas.

So why do they keep passing ever more and more restrictive laws, demanding the thing we use for everyday living meet THEIR standards which as far as I can tell they pull from air?

I think it’s the arrogant certainty that if they keep whipping the dead horse it will get up and pull the load. Or in other words, they’re sure that the only reason they’re not getting what they want is that some mean person is holding it back from them, and if they demand it loud enough and now with more laws, it will eventually be given.

Think of them as the kid throwing himself to the floor in the candy isle and screaming for candy, refusing to hear his mother’s answer that she has no money. That’s about what they are: tyrannical, demanding, infantile and blind to reality.

And of course, when reality fails to comply with their dreams, they just scream louder. Or in this case, they pass laws which distort the simplest facts of daily living for the rest of us.

How long are we going to be hostage to brats who are unable to realize laws don’t cause reality to happen and words have no force to change facts of life?

How long till we get tired of being forced to do household chores inefficiently and paying for it in both time and money, without any appreciable benefit to anyone.

Eric Scheie over at Classical values, when I blogged there, had a post about there being a war on things that work.

He was right, though the intent is “creating a world where things work the way bureaucrats want them to” – which mostly means in defiance of scientific fact.

It is time to take back science, and common sense too.

And in the meantime, we can make washer saleswomen cry!

The not-so-binary nature of sex

Filed under: Health,Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In Nature, Claire Ainsworth explains why it’s becoming more difficult to discuss sex as a binary:

Sex can be much more complicated than it at first seems. According to the simple scenario, the presence or absence of a Y chromosome is what counts: with it, you are male, and without it, you are female. But doctors have long known that some people straddle the boundary — their sex chromosomes say one thing, but their gonads (ovaries or testes) or sexual anatomy say another. Parents of children with these kinds of conditions — known as intersex conditions, or differences or disorders of sex development (DSDs) — often face difficult decisions about whether to bring up their child as a boy or a girl. Some researchers now say that as many as 1 person in 100 has some form of DSD.

When genetics is taken into consideration, the boundary between the sexes becomes even blurrier. Scientists have identified many of the genes involved in the main forms of DSD, and have uncovered variations in these genes that have subtle effects on a person’s anatomical or physiological sex. What’s more, new technologies in DNA sequencing and cell biology are revealing that almost everyone is, to varying degrees, a patchwork of genetically distinct cells, some with a sex that might not match that of the rest of their body. Some studies even suggest that the sex of each cell drives its behaviour, through a complicated network of molecular interactions. “I think there’s much greater diversity within male or female, and there is certainly an area of overlap where some people can’t easily define themselves within the binary structure,” says John Achermann, who studies sex development and endocrinology at University College London’s Institute of Child Health.

These discoveries do not sit well in a world in which sex is still defined in binary terms. Few legal systems allow for any ambiguity in biological sex, and a person’s legal rights and social status can be heavily influenced by whether their birth certificate says male or female.

“The main problem with a strong dichotomy is that there are intermediate cases that push the limits and ask us to figure out exactly where the dividing line is between males and females,” says Arthur Arnold at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies biological sex differences. “And that’s often a very difficult problem, because sex can be defined a number of ways.”

February 19, 2015

Epigenome: The symphony in your cells

Filed under: Health,Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Published on 18 Feb 2015

Almost every cell in your body has the same DNA sequence. So how come a heart cell is different from a brain cell? Cells use their DNA code in different ways, depending on their jobs. Just like orchestras can perform one piece of music in many different ways. A cell’s combined set of changes in gene expression is called its epigenome. This week Nature publishes a slew of new data on the epigenomic landscape in lots of different cells. Learn how epigenomics works in this video.

When you “believe” in science

Filed under: Media,Religion,Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

In last week’s Goldberg File newsletter, Jonah Goldberg looked at the odd situation of people who “believe in” science:

When I hear people talk about science as if it’s something to “believe in,” particularly people who reject all sorts of science-y things (vaccines, nuclear power, etc. as discussed above), I immediately think of one of my favorite lines from Eric Voegelin: “When God is invisible behind the world, the contents of the world will become new gods; when the symbols of transcendent religiosity are banned, new symbols develop from the inner-worldly language of science to take their place.” This will be true, he added, even when “the new apocalyptics insist that the symbols they create are scientific.”

In other words, the “Don’t you believe in evolution!?!” people don’t really believe in science qua science, what they’re really after is dethroning God in favor of their own gods of the material world (though I suspect many don’t even realize why they’re so obsessed with this one facet of the disco ball called “science”). “Criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticisms,” quoth Karl Marx, who then proceeded to create his own secular religion.

This is nothing new of course. This tendency is one of the reasons why every time Moses turned his back on the Hebrews they started worshipping golden calves and whatnot.

At least Auguste Comte, the French philosopher who coined the phrase “sociology,” was open about what he was really up to when he created his “Religion of Humanity,” in which scientists, statesmen, and engineers were elevated to Saints. As I say in my column, the fight over evolution is really a fight over the moral status of man. And, if we are nothing but a few bucks worth of chemicals connected by water and electricity, than there’s really nothing holding us back from elevating “science” to divine status and in turn anointing those who claim to be its champions as our priests. It’s no coincidence that Herbert Croly was literally — not figuratively, the way Joe Biden means literally — baptized into Comte’s Religion of Humanity.

Personally, I think the effort to overthrow Darwin along with Marx and Freud is misguided. I have friends invested in that project and I agree that all sorts of terrible Malthusian and materialist crap is bound up in Darwinism. But that’s an argument for ranking out the manure, not burning down the stable.

February 17, 2015

QotD: Psychology as the modern civic religion

Filed under: Quotations,Religion,Science,USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

There’s a certain sense in which psychology has taken the place of religious faith for many in the western world. When people seek answers for the bad that we do, how we can deal with our faults, motivation for a better life, and deeper questions of meaning and purpose, psychologists and psychology are where modern westerners tend to turn.

Where previous cultures saw acts of evil as evidence of internal sin against an external code of righteousness, psychologists tend to explain this as the product of environment and upbringing, external pressures causing improper behavior.

Even many otherwise religious people have so embraced this system of understanding. Many mainstream churches every Sunday have content very similar to the latest psychological teachings and popular psychology with a few religious themes thrown in. Popular teachers and writers such as Rick Warren are less minister of the gospel than motivational speaker, with more in common with Dr Phil than Jesus Christ.

Christopher Taylor, “COMMON KNOWLEDGE: Psychological myths”, Word Around the Net, 2014-05-28

February 13, 2015

QotD: The Nazi leadership, Aleister Crowley and the occult

Filed under: History,Media,Quotations,Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

During the past four centuries, we have seen the world in semi-Epicurean terms as a great and internally consistent machine. To understand it, we observe, we question, we form hypotheses, we test, we measure, we record, we think again. The results have long since been plain. In every generation, we have added vast provinces to the empire of science. We do not yet perfectly understand the world. But the understanding we have has given us a growing dominion over the world; and there is no reason to think the growth of our understanding and dominion will not continue indefinitely.

We reject supernatural explanations partly because we have no need of them. The world is a machine. Nothing that happens appears to be an intervention into the chains of natural cause and effect. We know that things once ascribed to the direct influence of God, or the workings of less powerful invisible beings have natural causes. Where a natural cause cannot be found, we assume, on the grounds of our experience so far, that one will eventually be found. In part, however, we reject the supernatural because there is no good evidence that it exists.

[…] It seems that Hitler was a convinced believer in the occult. He took many of his decisions on astrological advice. It did him no visible good. He misjudged the British response to his invasion of Poland. He was unable to conquer Britain or to make peace. His invasion of Russia, while still fighting Britain, turned his eastern frontier from a net contributor of resources to a catastrophic drain on them. He then mishandled his relations with America. So far as he was guided by the astrologers, I hope, before he shot himself, that he thought of asking for a refund. It was the same with Himmler. Despite his trust in witchcraft, he only escaped trial and execution by crunching on a cyanide capsule made by the German pharmaceutical industry.

Turning to practitioners of the occult, I see no evidence of special success. They do not live longer than the rest of us. However they begin, they do not stay better looking. Any success they have with money, or in bed, is better explained by the gullibility of their followers than by their own magical powers.

So it was with Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) — the “Great Beast 666,” or “the wickedest man alive.” He quickly ran through the fortune his parents had left him. He spent his last years in poverty. Long before he died, he had begun to resemble the mug shot of a child murderer. Whether his claims were simply a fraud on others, or a fraud on himself as well, I see no essential difference between him and the beggar woman who cursed me in the street. He had advantages over her of birth and education. But he was still a parasite on the credulity of others.

Sean Gabb, “[Review of] Crowley: Thoughts and Perspectives, Volume Two“, Libertarian Enterprise, 2014-05-18.

February 11, 2015

Everything the government has told about “healthy diets” is wrong

Filed under: Government,Health,Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 07:01

Well, maybe not everything, but a lot of government advice — which may well have been a major factor in the rise of obesity — was based on very little empirical evidence:

Whenever standard nutritional advice is overturned — as it has been this week by a study which effectively rubbished government guidelines limiting the intake of dietary fat — I am instantly reminded of a scene in the Woody Allen film Sleeper, first released when I was 10. I expect a lot of people my age are.

In the film Allen plays Miles, a cryogenically frozen health food store owner who is revived 200 years later. Two scientists are puzzling over his old-fashioned dietary requirements, unable to comprehend what passed for health food back in 1973. “You mean there was no deep fat?” says one. “No steak or cream pies, or hot fudge?”

“Those were thought to be unhealthy,” says the other scientist. “Precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.”

This was meant to be a joke rather than a prediction, but it’s beginning to look as if we may not have to wait until 2173 to see it validated.


Of course the new study isn’t comprehensively refuting the association between high saturated fat intake and heart disease; it’s just pointing out that dietary guidelines first adopted in the mid-1970s were not, on reflection, based on any real evidence. In terms of what one should and shouldn’t be eating, I sometimes feel as if I’ve spent the past 30 years in a freezer.

February 9, 2015

Paradoxically, rising cancer deaths are a form of good news

Filed under: Britain,Health,Science — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Last month, in his Times column, Matt Ridley explained why — until we discover a treatment for aging itself — rising cancer rates are a weird form of good news:

If we could prevent or cure all cancer, what would we die of? The new year has begun with a war of words over whether cancer is mostly bad luck, as suggested by a new study from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and over whether it’s a good way to die, compared with the alternatives, as suggested by Dr Richard Smith, a former editor of the BMJ.

It is certainly bad luck to be British and get cancer, relatively speaking. As The Sunday Times reported yesterday, survival rates after cancer diagnosis are lower here than in most developed and some developing countries, reflecting the National Health Service’s chronic problems with rationing treatment by delay. In Japan, survival rates for lung and liver cancer are three times higher than here.

Cancer is now the leading cause of death in Britain even though it is ever more survivable, with roughly half of people who contract it living long enough to die of something else. But what else? Often another cancer.

In the western world we’ve conquered most of the causes of premature death that used to kill our ancestors. War, smallpox, homicide, measles, scurvy, pneumonia, gangrene, tuberculosis, stroke, typhoid, heart disease and cholera are all much rarer, strike much later in life or are more survivable than they were fifty or a hundred years ago.

The mortality rate in men from coronary heart disease, for instance, has fallen by an amazing 80 per cent since 1968 — for all age groups. Mortality rates from stroke in both sexes have halved in 20 years. Cancer’s growing dominance of the mortality tables is not because it’s getting worse but because we are avoiding other causes of death and living longer.

It is worth remembering that some scientists and anti-pesticide campaigners in the 1960s were convinced that by now lifespans would be much shorter because of cancer caused by pesticides and other chemicals in the environment.

In the 1950s Wilhelm Hueper — a director of the US National Cancer Institute and mentor to Rachel Carson, the environmentalist author of Silent Spring — was so concerned that pesticides were causing cancer that he thought the theory that lung cancer was caused by smoking was a plot by the chemical industry to divert attention from its own culpability: “Cigarette smoking is not a major factor in the causation of lung cancer,” he insisted.

In fact it turns out that pollution causes very little cancer and cigarettes cause a lot. But aside from smoking, most cancers are indeed bad luck. The Johns Hopkins researchers found that tissues that replicate their stem cells most run the highest risk of cancer: basal skin cells do ten trillion cell divisions in a lifetime and have a million times more cancer risk than pelvic bone cells which do about a million cell divisions. Random DNA copying mistakes during cell division are “the major contributors to cancer overall, often more important than either hereditary or external environmental factors”, say the US researchers.

(Emphasis mine.)

To sum it up, until or unless medical research finds a way to stop the bodily effects of aging, cancer becomes the most likely way for all of us to die. Cancer is a generic rather than a specific term — it’s what we use to describe the inevitable breakdown of the cellular division process that happens millions or even trillions of times over our lifetime. As Ridley puts it, “even if everybody lived in the healthiest possible way, we would still get a lot of cancer.” I’m not a scientist and I don’t even play one on TV, but I suspect that the solution to cancers of all kinds are to boost our immune systems to more quickly identify aberrant cells in our bodies before they start reproducing beyond the capability of the immune system to handle. The short- to medium-term solution to cancer may be to make us all a little bit cyborg…

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