A belated Darwin Day post

This article appeared in Science last week, regarding evolution (and it’s “challengers”) on college campuses:

For decades, polls have indicated that close to half of the U.S. adult population is skeptical of the basic tenets of Darwinian evolution. Although more educated people are more likely to endorse evolution, a college degree is no guarantee that the graduate agrees with Darwin.

Provine himself has been surveying his Cornell students since 1986, when he started teaching an evolution course for nonbiology majors. He says that for many years, about 70% of students held views somewhere along the creationist spectrum, from biblical literalism about the sudden appearance of Adam and Eve to the belief that human existence could not have come about without divine intervention. The percentage holding those views declined after agriculture and business students were no longer required to take the course, he says, but not enough to make them stand out from the general population. “Human evolution is a flash point; that’s where the rubber meets the road,” says biologist James Colbert of Iowa State University, Ames. “It’s very common to see students who simply can’t believe humans evolved from apes.”

For the past 3 years, Colbert has surveyed students in his introductory biology class, asking them if they believe God created humans within the past 10,000 years. Last fall, 32% of the 150-member class said they did. Colbert says he finds this percentage particularly unsettling “when one considers that these students are academically among the upper half of high school graduates, and they are students choosing to major in a life science”–often to become doctors or veterinarians.

Sometimes it’s nice being a professor in a graduate school. Though I know those beliefs are there, I have much less dealings with them teaching the courses that I do.

Joe Meert, a geologist, notes that it isn’t just biology:

Most geologists agree with Meert when he says that “it’s time to stop pussyfooting around. … Young-Earth creationism and the ID movement are challenging the foundations of not just biology but also geology, physics, chemistry, astronomy, and anthropology.”

…a point Phil Plait over at the Bad Astronomy blog has also made recently.

I should have known…

So, yesterday morning I had to spend an hour in employee health, having my lungs checked out and my blood banked just in case I end up needing to work in a BSL-3 lab sometime in the future (due to a grant we’re pursuing). Stupid me didn’t realize I’d have to wait so long and went there empty-handed, and my choices of reading material consisted of either hunting magazines or a really old People magazine (I swear, this week is a conspiracy to get me to obsess about pop culture). In the midst of all the celeb stories, though, was an article on chickenpox parties. Where people take their kids to get them purposely infected with varicella. Probably would have done my mental state better to just read about Tom Cruise…

Like I said, I should have known this was probably still going on. I remember when I had chicken pox in first grade, and my cousin brought her three kids (who were my age–tangled family tree and long story) over to our house with the purpose of infecting them. It worked, and within a few days there were 6 of us spotted kids. But–this was in 1982, long before the introduction of the varicella vaccine here in the United States. Chickenpox “parties” were deemed a better alternative to potentially encountering the disease as an adult–when the frequency of serious complications is higher. Today, however, that just ain’t so.

I know that many people still view chickenpox as “just a harmless childhood illness.” Sure, for many of us, that’s the case. So far, I’ve escaped with little more than a few scars on my forehead (I admit, I was a scratcher) and the ugliest childhood picture *ever*, since I decided to do some surgery on my bangs while I was pocked–resulting in about quarter-inch long, very crooked bangs. Did I mention I also had giant pink glasses and a few missing teeth at the time as well? Anyhoo, other than that, so far, so good. However, there’s a very real possibility that I could develop shingles later in my life. Additionally, the wild virus just ain’t as benign as we’d like to think. It can cause severe pneumonia or encephalitis. Additionally, I mentioned here that deadly infections with the group A streptococcus are becoming more common. Guess what’s a major risk factor for these infections? Yep–chicken pox. Check out, for example, this manuscript on invasive group A strep disease in Alberta, Canada, which notes that “varicella virus infection preceded invasive GAS disease in 25% of children 8 years of age and under.” It has the potential to be much more than just an inconvenient itch.

What about the vaccine? Though it’s only been on the market in the US for about 10 years, it was initially developed in the 1970s and was used in Japan and Korea since the 1980s. It’s a live attenuated vaccine, so it doesn’t completely eliminate the risk for shingles later in life, but several studies suggest shingles is less common and less severe in those who received the vaccine than those who acquired chickenpox naturally.

What about thimerosal? Even if you were a parent who was worried about the potential connection between thimerosal and autism (one I disagree with, I might add), the chickenpox shot (“Varivax”) doesn’t even contain thimerosal. I just don’t get it.

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Lab coat idol

I’ve written before that teaching good science is really my utmost concern. This gets to the heart of the anti-evolution movement, the AIDS denialists, the vaccine/autism “controversy”, the abortion-breast cancer “connection”, and probably a dozen other topics in science that are largely misunderstood by the general public. Having a population better educated in science, who understand the scientific method, evidence, hypothesis generation and testing, and theory formulation would be a nice start.

When I wrote about this Time article, I missed this one in the same issue, discussing the way we teach science to our students–and what can be done about it.

Many of this country’s naturally gifted scientists–its most inquisitive, observant, persistent citizens–share a handicap: they can’t read yet. They also can’t play with matches, focus microscopes or see over lab tables. “Children love to explore the natural world. They love to make sense out of it,” says Carlo Parravano, director of the Merck Institute for Science Education, which trains teachers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. “By fourth grade, we squash that curiosity with the way we teach science.”

The science role models most students know best are their teachers. But science teachers who are both passionate and prepared are scarce. U.S. high school students have just a 40% chance of studying chemistry with a teacher who majored in the subject, according to a 2005 report from the National Academy of Sciences. By contrast, they have a 70% likelihood of studying English with an English major. Often, educators at the elementary level never liked science in the first place. That’s in part because science enthusiasts, who start at about $32,000 in a public school teaching job, are lured to careers in the business world. “Corporate America is eating its feed corn,” says Wheeler. Women who excel in science today, he says, have career options that weren’t open to them in the Sputnik era, a victory for equality but a loss for schools. “Teachers are so frightened of these subjects that they transmit the fear to the children,” says former Merck CEO P. Roy Vagelos. “These kids are afraid of science.”

The article isn’t just criticizing teachers–there are some highlights showing what some innovative teachers have done to get kids interested in science as well. I’d also be interested in hearing from grade or high school teachers out there too. I’ve been thinking about maybe setting up a summer program to get kids into my lab–maybe freshmen or sophomores in high school. Have a week-long intensive course in microbiology and molecular biology–they’d learn to grow the microbes, do some DNA extractions, PCR, gene sequencing, and phylogenetic analysis (with lectures describing all this stuff to go along with the lab work), just so they get an idea of how to do these things, and what they mean in the big picture. I know this sounds kind of dry, but that’s just the outline–I’d have more fun stuff planned that take the lab work and show how it applies to the “real world”. Too boring? Too much for kids that young? Think it would spark any interest? I’ve never taught kids that age and I wasn’t exactly normal myself at 14-15ish, so I never know if what appeals to me would actually be interesting to anyone else or not.

Man, what you Brits have stashed in your cupboards…

Like, gee, 17th Century manuscripts from the Royal Society, written by Robert Hooke?

A long-lost 17th century manuscript charting the birth of modern science has been found gathering dust in a cupboard in a Hampshire home. Filled with crabby italics and acerbic asides, the 520 or so yellowing and stained pages are the handwritten minutes of the Royal Society as recorded by the brilliant scientist Robert Hooke, one of the society’s original fellows and curator of experiments.

The notes describe in detail some of the most astounding and outlandish scientific thinking from meetings of the society between 1661 to 1682. There is the very earliest work with microscopes, confirming the first sightings of sperm and micro-organisms. There is correspondence with Sir Isaac Newton and Sir Christopher Wren over the nature of gravity, with the latter’s proposal to fire bullets into the air to see where they might drop. And there is a page that lays to rest the bitter controversy over who designed the watch that would eventually lead to the first measurements of longitude.

Sheesh. All I ever find in long-unopened cupboards are mouse droppings.

Happy Darwin Day!

As PZ mentioned, today would be Charles Darwin’s 197th birthday. To celebrate, Mike over at The Questionable Authority is putting together a mini-carnival of posts on evolution. Specifically, he asked how those of us who are scientists use evolutionary theory in our work.

Personally, I’m a bit of a hybrid. I’m a microbiologist by training (my PhD is in microbial pathogenesis and gene regulation), but I loved epidemiology as an undergrad, and so did post-doctoral work in that area–and now am officially titled and “infectious disease epidemiologist”. But, I’m still a lab rat rather than an epidemic-chaser, and so my bench work is actually pretty closely aligned with the work I did as a graduate student–trying to figure out what makes a specific pathogen cause disease.

Specifically, my central project involves about 200 isolates of the group B streptococcus (Streptococcus agalactiae, GBS). This is a bacterium that’s one of the leading causes of death in newborns. It’s also a frequent cause of disease in the elderly and people with diabetes, and has been increasingly found to cause severe disease in healthy young adults as well. In my collection, about half of these are from invasive disease (blood infections, meningitis, etc.) and half are strains that were just hangin’ around in people’s vaginas or rectum (we call these “colonizing” isolates). The idea is that, sometimes, there are factors present in the invasive isolates that are less frequently found in the colonizing isolates that give them the ability to invade and subvert the host’s defenses–and one thing I work on is trying to identify these differences.

Why do we think that there might be differences in the first place?
Continue reading “Happy Darwin Day!”

Speaking of AIDS denial…

I was the guest on The Skeptics Guide to the Universe last week, a podcast of the New England Skeptical Society. The main topic of the discussion was HIV denial (specifically focusing on Christine Maggiore’s story), but we also talked about antibiotic resistance (inculding peptide antibiotics) and skepticism in general. The host was Dr. Steven Novella:

Dr. Novella is an academic neurologist on full-time faculty at Yale University School of Medicine. He is the Author of Weird Science, a monthly column featured in the New Haven Advocate. He is the co-founder and President of the New England Skeptical Society, Associate Editor of the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine , and a contributing editor of Quackwatch, a consumer advocacy website dealing with all types of health fraud.

It was a fun group and interview. The mp3 is here; my part starts about 1/3 of the way through. I said “um” and “y’know” too much, though…something I remind myself about when I’m doing lectures but wasn’t thinking about too much here. Just a warning in case that’s a pet peeve of yours.

About that drop in cancer deaths…

You’ve probably seen this announcment trumpeted somewhere: “Cancer deaths fall for first time.” I just wanted to post a very brief note on this. First, let’s look at their numbers:

The number of cancer deaths dropped to 556,902 in 2003, down from 557,271 the year before, according to a recently completed review of U.S. death certificates by the National Center for Health Statistics.

It’s the first annual decrease in total cancer deaths since 1930, when nationwide data began to be compiled.

Now, a decrease in cancer deaths is always a good thing, but talk about making a mountain out of a molehill. That’s 369 cases out of well over half a million deaths. So let’s look at some more numbers.

In 2003, there were a total of 2,448,288 deaths in the US. WIth 556,902 of them due to cancer, that’s 22.7466% of the deaths caused by this disease. In 2002, there were 2,443,387 deaths, with 557,271 due to cancer–22.8073% of them due to cancer. So the difference is .0607%. With such a negligible number, what will happen if they find these deaths rose in 2004?

The CNN article at least noted this in the second-to-last paragraph:

With such a small drop in deaths, it’s possible they will rise again when 2004 data is tabulated, said Jack Mandel, chairman of epidemiology at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health.

Now, in fairness, I’ll note that I’m not a cancer epidemiologist, and according to this, there is reason to think this trend is real:

But the American Cancer Society, which conducted the analysis, believes the downward trend is solid, and it is projecting a substantially larger decrease this year.

They also note that while this is the first time the overall number of deaths has gone down, the rate of cancer deaths has been declining for over a decade. So, I’ll hope that this trend continues, but you won’t see me jumping up and down over a decrease of .06%.

Tom Bethell on AIDS–the breakdown

Chris has been excoriating Tom Bethell (author of “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science”) over on The Intersection and elsewhere (see, for example, here, here, and several posts here). However, since he’s not yet done a takedown on Bethell’s chaper on AIDS (titled “African AIDS: a Political Epidemic”), he suggested I have a go at it. Man, I knew the book would be bad, but it reaches a whole new level of terrible.

Bethell’s central thesis will be familiar to anyone who’s read the anti-HIV arguments by Peter Duesberg and others. As the chapter title suggests, Bethell claims that AIDS in Africa is a made-up epidemic; AIDS is really due to simple malnutrition and dirty water supplies, rather than a virus. Government officials, scientists, and journalists are either too brainwashed or too scared to speak against the “AIDS orthodoxy.” The evil liberals aren’t concerned about AIDS because the real concern of the left, according to Bethell, is overpopulation in Africa (and hence the emphasis on condom use to prevent AIDS). Public health officials aren’t actually concerned about disease in Africa–just overpopulation. Little did I know.

However, Bethell’s story is long on emotion and hyperbole, and short on facts. His references read like a report I wrote in my 9th grade English class: newspapers, a few books, magazines (heavy-hitters like Rolling Stone and SPIN), and a grand total of 2 references from science journals. Really, he should leave off the “Politically” portion of the title–the Incorrect Guide to Science is much more apt.

Okay, okay. Enough snark. (C’mon, reading this was 20 minutes of my life I’ll never get back–I think I’m entitled to some seething). So, on to address Bethell’s claims.

The “invention” of the AIDS epidemic in Africa

First, his suggestion that HIV was “invented.” Bethell claims that, following a 1985 meeting in the Central African Republic, “overnight there were millions of Africans who had AIDS,” and that HIV was not required for this diagnosis. Well, kind of. As Bethell notes but then subsequently ignores, well-equipped laboratories in Africa are few and far between. That was the whole point of the 1985 meeting: to try and figure out a clinical spectrum of AIDS that could be used to diagnose patients when viral confirmatory tests were lacking. By both necessity and practicality, then, the clinical definition did not include a positive HIV test–what use would that be when there was no clinical laboratory to carry out the testing, and no money to pay for it? Doctors basing their diagnosis on symptoms rather than a positive identification of a particular pathogen is nothing new, and it happens here in the U.S. every day as well. But as you’ll see, Bethell (and other AIDS-deniers) hold that illness to a much more rigorous standard than they do the rest of infectious disease agents.
Continue reading “Tom Bethell on AIDS–the breakdown”