Archive for February, 2013

Of species and kinds

he_who_is_nobody
he_who_is_nobody
Mon Feb 25, 2013 5:30 pm by he_who_is_nobody

 

One familiar argument an evolutionary proponent will encounter when dealing with creationists is the “species problem”. Essentially the argument is that there is not a definitive definition for a species. This almost inevitable argument comes up because the evolutionary proponent asks the creationist if they could define kind. Creationists believe that since biologists cannot come up with a consensus on species that applies to every organism, it gives them a free pass to not define kind.

 

The problem with this argument and the reason we have a “species problem” in biology is that different forms of life reproduce differently. For example, a definition for bacteria will not work for a population of mammals because they reproduce in a different manner. Thus, one is able to produce a robust definition of a species for organisms that reproduce sexually (i.e. reproductive isolation), but have a more fluid definition for species when it comes to asexually reproducing populations.

 

However, this is all beside the point and can be considered a red herring, thus one does not even have to address it. The main issue with this creationist argument is that the definition for kind should be vastly more robust than any definition of species. Young Earth Creationists believe that their God came to Earth, seeded all life on this planet, and made sure that each kind would reproduce after its kind. Thus, if a god(s) truly wanted to do this we would be able to see distinct genetics unique to certain kinds, which are not shared with any other animal outside of their kind. That is, there should be genetics shared only between the cat kind or dog kind that are not found in other organisms and we should not be able to find shared genetics between the two kinds.

 

Nevertheless, this is not what we see when we look into the genetics of life. Every time we look into the genome of an organism, we can see its shared life history with every other living organism on Earth. To date, we have not found a gene sequence unique to a group of organisms except at the species level, and those unique genes are what make that species different. It is this fact that is the real reason creationists refuse to define kind and would rather hide behind the “species problem” when asked to define kind. If the creationists were correct, and god(s) created different kinds then geneticists would be unable to create phylogenetic trees linking all organisms into clades based on their evolutionary history. To make this problem worse, other phylogenetic trees, based on morphology, embryology, etc…, should not be able to produce similar (statistically the same) trees. One would think that their genetics would be different, since all the kinds were created separately with no relation to the other.

 

Thus, the next time a creationist refuses to define kind, kindly remind him that comparative genetics has definitively proven universal common descent and that there have been no genetic markers to indicate that there ever were unique kinds. The “species problem” is not equivalent to the lack of a definition of kind.

Edited by Dean, 25/02/2013
Reason for edit: Minor corrections of grammar & punctuation.

What is a …

he_who_is_nobody
he_who_is_nobody
Tue Feb 19, 2013 9:48 pm by he_who_is_nobody

I would like to answer a frequent question I hear while volunteering at the natural history museum. That question is “what is a paleontologist?” I will also throw in archeologist and anthropologist for good measure.

To answer the first question, a paleontologist is a person who studies the history of life on Earth. They are the people that dig up dinosaur fossils and other amazing plants and animals that once lived on our planet. The excavation and curation of the fossils they discover is what gives us our understanding of Earth’s past. There are several subfields of paleontology, which include paleobotany (plant fossils), invertebrate paleontology, and vertebrate paleontology. All of those can also be broken down into more fields.

So what is an archeologist?

An archeologist is a person that studies human prehistory. Archeologists are the people that dig up human remains, artifacts, and animals once preyed upon by humans. Since most of human history happened before anything was written down, archeology is our only look into the vast majority of our history on Earth. There are several subfields of this as well, such as bio-archeology (human remains), zoo-archeology (animal remains), lithic analysis, ceramic analysis. From there the fields are usually broken up into the area of the world you study and the time period you are investigating.

So what is an anthropologist?

An anthropologist is a person that studies primates, everything from lemurs to humans. In fact, in the U.S. archeology is considered a subfield of anthropology (most European countries place archeology into history). The other subfields are biological anthropology (anatomy of mainly humans), ethnology (or cultural anthropology), and human evolutionary ecology.

Now, there is some overlap in all three, but major distinctions between the three as well. for example if you found something you thought might be a fossil, you probably would not want to ask your local archeologist what it is, on that same note, if you discovered a arrowhead, a paleontologist would not know much more than you already know.

However, an example of the overlap is the subfield of anthropology I someday hope to become a part of. That subfield is called paleoanthropology and that is the field that studies the hominins and other ancient primate species. This subfield deals with primates (thus anthropology), which are very old and mostly extinct (thus paleontology) and some of the specimens can be classified as human and were creating lithics (thus archeology).

I hope this short overview of these three scientific fields was helpful and may have cleared up any questions you might have had. If anyone has any questions about any of the three fields, please ask away. I will be more than happy to address any questions.

Me me me, it’s all about me.

Frenger
Frenger
Tue Feb 19, 2013 6:52 pm by Frenger

Not wanting to be the chap to rock the boat, I thought I would follow in the footsteps of my fellow contributors and introduce myself.

My name is Rob, I’m 26 and 3/4 years old and I’m in training to become a teacher. Here I am playing the drums dressed as a shark.

I’m currently studying for my BSc degree in Natural Sciences (high five Laurens) and will be teaching a short Introduction to Evolutionary Biology course in Spring. Other than Biology I have a healthy interest in Religion and Philosophy and was even lucky enough to teach this at A-level for 6 months last year.

Other than my academic pursuits, I play the drums for a nautical themed ska-punk-folk-anti folk-bugle blowing outfit known to few as the seas of mirth, and I also do a fair amount of writing, involving reviews, promotional features and a book. My book is about how I’m joining 12 religions over 12 months. I have only just started. It’s terrifying.

The reason for me wanting to blog here, is that I want to do better at knowing things. I have always found that being shown to be wrong is an entirely wonderful way of learning, so putting my thoughts down and having you chaps show my errors and expand on certain areas was too good an opportunity to miss. Saying that however, I hope I can provide you all with something with at least a smattering of interest.

The topics I will most likely babble about will be science and the love of science, philosophy, psychology, politics and a whole plethora of other such things. I can be quite faddy so best not to set too much in stone now.

Can’t wait.

What’s the harm?

Inferno
Inferno
Mon Feb 18, 2013 5:47 pm by Inferno

This will be my first post on alternative medicine. In it, I will try to cover the prominent excuse people give when taking things like homeopathy: “If it doesn’t help me, at least it won’t hurt me”, otherwise known as “what’s the harm?”.

Edzard Ernst, the first Professor of Complementary Medicine (University of Exter) to ever exist, defined complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) as “health care which lies for the most part outside the mainstream of conventional medicine”. Alternative medicine, as defined by nsf.gov, refers to “all treatments that have not been proven effective using scientific methods”.

The opposite of the above two is “evidence-based medicine”, defined as “the conscientious, explicit and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients”. (I’ll take a look at THAT much, much later.)

With the definitions out of the way, let’s look at what proponents of alternative medicine propose, using homeopathy as an example: Proponents of homeopathy are often heard to say that homeopathy has no side effects.*

So, the reasoning goes, if it can’t harm you, you can just take it anyway. (I’ll assume, for the sake of this post, that alternative medicine has no beneficial effects what so ever. I’ll explore this in later posts.)

There are two rebuttals to this:

1) Spending money on alternative treatments can result in you not having money for proper medication. Approximately $34 billion are spent on CAM in the US alone. A direct comparison of a homeopathic fever remedy and ibuprofen showed that the homeopathic remedy cost $7.05, while ibuprofen cost $6.98. That’s not a huge difference and it also doesn’t address whether the homeopathic remedy will actually help against the fever. The difference, $0.07, is negligible, but in favour of the evidence-based treatment.

I might make a later post detailing the cost of the alternative treatment vs the evidence-based treatment, but for now even a cursory look at common treatments shows that “alternative medicine is less expensive than evidence-based medicine” is, at best, misleading.

2) Spending time on alternative treatments can delay access to real treatment.

Bob Marley didn’t allow the amputation of his cancerous toe due to religious reasons and sought out alternative treatments. He died. Former President Warren G. Harding died after his homeopathic practitioner did some weird stuff on him.

In total, What’s the harm? documents around 370,000 deaths, 305,000 injured and nearly $3 billion in economic damages due to pseudo-science, of which surely more than half can be traced back to CAM.

So the next time someone tells you to go to a practitioner of CAM, politely decline, show them the above website and go to a real, licensed doctor. They’re far from perfect, but at least they can do some things right.

 

*It must be noted at this point that any and every remedy, be it a placebo or a real remedy, can have side effects due to the nocebo effect. What is meant is “no side effect due to the active ingredient”.

Future projects on the topic:

In my next post, I’ll look at why studies in medicine are important.
My third post will deal with a few alternative treatments and look at their benefits.
A series of posts sometime in the future will look at evidence-based medicine, what it is and how much evidence there really is.

Belated Introduction

Laurens
Laurens
Mon Feb 18, 2013 1:53 pm by Laurens

Just a brief pause from my series on critical thinking, to follow in the footsteps of my fellow League of Reason bloggers and post a brief introduction to myself, my interests and this blog.

As you can tell from my rather unimaginative username, my name is Laurens. I am a 25-year-old male from the UK. I have recently completed an Access to HE Diploma in Natural Sciences which covered Chemistry, Biology and Ecology. I hope at some point in the future to pursue a degree in a scientific area, although this dream has been halted by finance issues. My main scientific interest lies in evolution, and I wrote a dissertation on the evolution of bipedalism in hominins (I may post this here at some point, if you’re interested?). I find the natural history of our planet, and the diversity of life extremely fascinating, so expect some future posts on this topic.

I am also quite a creative person. I studied art previously, and I enjoy painting and drawing. I am a guitarist/singer and post covers and original songs on my youtube channel. And am also in the process of learning card magic—which I feel ties in strongly with some principles of scepticism; mainly through providing insight into how our minds can be fooled. I am toying with the idea of elucidating this further in a series of blog posts here, depending on whether you guys think that would be interesting or not.

If you have any questions about me, or this blog let me know in the discussion thread.

Cheers,

Laurens

This is me!

Inferno
Inferno
Sun Feb 17, 2013 8:58 pm by Inferno

He_Who_Is_Nobody will hopefully have started a trend: He talked about himself. And his goals on this blog. And he gave us some insight into his future blog plans.

I’ll follow suit.

This is me.

Just so you can put a face to the name.

Right, so where do I come from? Well, I’m a 22 year old student at the Pedagogical Highschool of Vienna, studying “English as a foreign language” and “Geography and Economics” (G&E). I studied “History and Political Sciences” and G&E for 2.5 years at the University of Vienna. I’m training to become a teacher and should be finished next year. Hopefully.
I also take some courses (both online and IRL) on biology.

Currently, I have five post series in mind:
1) Making education a priority. I’ll talk about why schools/Unis/kindergarten/etc. are the way they are and what we should do to improve them.
2) Politics. I already started on that here. Basically, I know a lot of politicians, especially in the EU, so I have a bit of insight. I’ll counter Euro-sceptics and lash out at idiot politicians.
3) Medicine. My flatmate studies medicine and I like to read about it, so between us we’ve got quite a bit covered. I also have a few doctors in the family: My Aunt and Uncle, plus their son who’s about to start studying it, my other Aunt and Uncle, her Father, plus her mother’s a pharmacist. The intent here is to look at some alternative medicine, at some good medicine and at the business and politics of medicine.
4) Science in the news. I’m not sure if I’ll get to that, but it’s one of my pet peeves. Idiot journalists who butcher real science. Gah, hate.
5) Biology. I’ll say upfront that I have no degree in biology, but I’ve got some people who will look through these particular posts. Here, I mainly want to talk about some obscure creationist claims and I may post monthly paper reviews, depending on the time I have.

I’ll also be in the show, I hope, so see you there!

I hope you’ll enjoy my posts. If there’s anything else you want me to post about, any questions you might have: PM me and I’ll (probably) be happy to comply.

Dissecting an Argument

Laurens
Laurens
Sun Feb 17, 2013 8:04 pm by Laurens

In my last post I spoke about issues and how to spot them in an argument. This post will follow in a similar fashion, about how to spot conclusions and premises in an argument.

Conclusions

I spoke briefly about how to find conclusions in my previous post. In a sound argument the conclusion should be a statement that follows logically or can be inferred or deducted from the premise(s). Generally these tend to follow what I’d term indicator words such as the following:

  • Therefore
  • Ergo
  • Consequently
  • Thus

Generally the sentences that follow these words are a conclusion to part of, or the entire argument. Of course these words aren’t always used, one might conclude their argument by saying ‘so in conclusion…’ or ‘this shows that…’. With a little practise you should have no problem being able to find the conclusions in someone’s argument.

Premises

Premises are the bulk of an argument, they are the reasoning that supports the conclusion(s) that you make. These can be statistics, facts, examples, logic, refutations of counter arguments, and so on. These are essentially the pieces of information that you wish to use to convince someone that the conclusion(s) you are drawing are valid.

Examples

Here are some example arguments, with the premises in yellow, and the conclusions in red:

In 2011 there were 8,748 alcohol-related deaths in the UK, heavy drinkers increase their risk of liver problems, cancer and other health issues, therefore alcohol should be more strictly controlled by the government.

[sources used: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/subnational-health4/alcohol-related-deaths-in-the-united-kingdom/2011/alcohol-related-deaths-in-the-uk–2011.html and http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/alcohol/Pages/Effectsofalcohol.aspx]

46% of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form, this calls for a great effort to improve science education in the United States

[source used: http://www.gallup.com/poll/21814/evolution-creationism-intelligent-design.aspx]

[NOTE: These arguments do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the author, they merely serve as examples for education purposes]

Non-sequiturs

Sometimes a conclusion will not follow from a particular premise, or series of premises. This is called a non-sequitur (literally meaning ‘it does not follow’). Here’s an example that many of you will be familiar with:

There is no evidence for evolution, therefore creationism is true.

The conclusion does not follow because it excludes the possibility of both evolution and creationism being false.

In order to spot non-sequiturs, it is advisable to read through the premises of an argument, and think about what kind of conclusions could logically be drawn from them (assuming that all the premises are true). If the conclusion differs greatly from the conclusions that you think are reasonable to have drawn from the premises, then it’s likely that this person has made a non-sequitur.

General tips when making arguments

In order to make your argument as sound as possible, there are some important things to consider when coming up with your premises and conclusions. These are: does my conclusion follow from my premise(s)? Are there any logical flaws in my premise(s)? Is there any research/facts that counters my conclusion(s)? Have I cited references for my argument? Are these references trustworthy? What are the counter arguments to my position?

If you continually scrutinize your arguments in such a way, you will inevitably come up with stronger ones. If you find that your argument is flawed in any way, the most honest thing you can do is discard it. That doesn’t necessarily mean changing your position, it might just mean finding better arguments. However, if you find that no arguments tend to support your position, then the most humble thing you can do is change your position, rather than defending it with bad arguments just to maintain your bias.

In my next post I shall look into some ways in which premises can be flawed, misleading or plain wrong.

Any comments, questions, suggestions etc. about this post are welcome in the discussion thread.

First blog post

he_who_is_nobody
he_who_is_nobody
Sun Feb 17, 2013 12:33 pm by he_who_is_nobody

Seeing as how this will be my first blog post, I thought I would start by giving my CV.

I am currently a contract archaeologist; my specialty is human and faunal remains (I am not using that much today). I have been on excavations in Hawaii, Spain, and in my great state of New Mexico. I obtained my Bachelor of Science with honors in Biological Anthropology from the University of New Mexico in 2010. My senior thesis was about dental microwear on extant primate populations (it can also be used to reconstruct paleo-environments). I one day hope to return to school and continue studying skeletal anatomy, paleoecology, and cladistics. I also volunteer at my local natural history museum, which I also hope to obtain a larger role in soon (hopefully specimen preparation work and excavations). To sum it up, I like bones and fossils.

My main Ethernet hobby, as many of you already know from practically all my forum posts, is debunking creationism. With part of this blog, I am hoping to add just a little more firepower to the pro-science side of this argument, not only in biology, but also in all fields that creationism tries to distort and tamper with.

The other part of this blog I am hoping to answer general questions people have about archaeology, anthropology, and paleontology; a basic “ask an archaeologist/anthropologist/paleontologist” blog. I would welcome all questions; the main thrust of my volunteer work is answering questions from the public. Thus, any questions are welcome and will be answered by me (hopefully).

For the most part that is what I would like to blog about; I may blog about other things, such as how great New Mexico is, but look forward to creationism debunking and archeo-babble.

I guess this is enough for my first post. I hope everyone will enjoy my blog as much as I enjoy writing it.

Have a nice day. :)

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