The IgNobel prizes were announced! Here’s the full list. Some thoughts: The dead salmon experiment is actually an important bit of neuroscience as far as urging caution about a technique. The Eiffel Tower experiment… I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve highlighted it to be as an example of the problems in psychology that I write about. And also: delighted to see Frans de Waal win an IgNobel. Lovely guy.
These stem cells go up to 11: Human embryonic stem cells restore gerbil hearing. Also, this is the “1st proof that stem cells can reconnect inner ear to brain.” An ear-brain connection would be really useful for some people I know.
The ENCODE project has definitely dominated the news this week. I’ve had various reactions to my mega-post from “one of your best” to “you blew it”. I do want to note, as in this set of tweets, that getting in all the nuances and caveats, capturing both the enthusiasm and scepticism about the project, and making it all make sense for both a general and scientific audience, to a deadline, was not easy. It was more like the opposite of easy.
I’ve mulled over the post in the ensuing days. I knew not to use the “long dismissed as junk” trope. I mentioned that the types of elements that were identified were not a surprise, and ENCODE’s value was as a comprehensive catalogue. I tried to point out where the 80% figure came from, the uncertainty around it, and what “functional” meant. One of the hardest things about a story like this is that even if you have a mental list of points and caveats to tick off, and even if you think you get them in the piece, you never know if readers will pick up on them, or what message they’ll end up taking away. Are those points visible, or just there?
Anyway, I eventually decided that what was in the post was reasonable, but it needed more. I still think it’s important to get across what the ENCODE researchers think about their work, it is an exciting project, and it’s a lot more than junk-or-no-junk. But given the widespread commentary – critical, sceptical and thoughtful – it needed an update. You’ll find that update in the main post itself, time- and date-stamped, and an explanation about why I decided to edit rather than post a follow-up.
I’ve also been collecting links to other commentary, specifically about the science of the project. They’re there in the post itself, but repeated here to draw attention to them. The list in the post will continue to be updated. This list will not.
Recently, I committed on Twitter to stop using words like “crazy”, “insane”, “deranged” — or other terms to do with a person’s mental health – in a perjorative way. I think it exacerbates stigma against mental illness by associating such conditions with behaviour that’s variously incorrect, irrational, ridiculous, or just plain hard-to-understand. This post, by David Steele, on the language of mental illness stigma, perfectly explains why I’m doing this.
Deaf man hears music for the first time. It’s Mozart’s Lachrimosa. He cries. Then he asks Reddit for recommendations and goes on a music binge. An AMAZING piece by Rebecca Rosen. I won’t spoil the ending but read it.
God this is beautiful. Megan Garber on the end of the humble hero and what we lost when Neil Armstrong died.
Op/eds are the Wild West of the media, where facts die in gun battles. But Emily Willingham has a sheriff’s badge. Here she is demolishing an NYT op/ed on autism and whipworms.
The Denisovan genome has been sequenced to really high quality. The fact that we can do this from a single bone (to a better extent than we did for Neanderthals, with hundreds of fossils), is astounding. Katherine Harmon gives you the low-down at Scientific American. And John Hawks has a typically fascinating take. “How did Asians end up lacking any evidence of Denisovan ancestry, when the peoples of Sahul have 6%? It’s nutty!”
Earlier this week, I regretfully mansplained Brave on Twitter. Here is a VERY good review of the film that completely changed my views of it.
The Neuroscience of Twenty-Somethings. Infinitely better than most “Neuroscience of… ” articles.
Debunking the evolutionary “basis” of the Palaeo Diet. (Although note that the comments here are a classic example of why jargon confuses people (despite attempt to clarify it; needed to explicitly contrast the evolutionary and lay definitions of “fitness”)
Neil Armstrong took his final small step, and the world mourns the loss of that rarest of creatures: the humble hero. That a man can walk on the Moon and stay down-to-Earth reassures me greatly about humanity.
Here’s a special edition of “missing links” to commemorate Neil Armstrong’s death, because I’m rather emotional about it, I don’t want to wait till next Saturday, and there is some incredible stuff out there. This list is completely free of any cheap masturbatory attempts to use his death to talk about space exploration. There will be plenty of time for that. Today, I’d like to celebrate history.
A beautiful statement from Armstrong’s family. “For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”
“”We copy you on the ground. You’ve got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again.” That was the moment a hundred million people around the world also started breathing again.” The great Tim Radford beautifully explains what it was like to witness the Moon landings and what it meant for the world.
Here’s what happens when a big event happens at the end of August on a Saturday night. NBC says that astronaut Neil Young died. Telegraph: 1st US woman in space. Dutch paper: 1st man on Earth. Clearly, there was a lot about Armstrong we didn’t know.
And finally… Here’s Buzz Aldrin hitting a moon landing nut in the face. I like to picture that somewhere, out there, thousands of people are mouthing off about Armstrong’s death. And somewhere, else, driving towards them, knuckles white and countenance grim, is Buzz.
US politician Todd Akin, who sits on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, thinks that women have magical wilfully-deployed vagina venom that can stop them being pregnant if they’re raped. This horror, and the ensuing discussion, threw up a lot of excellent, but hard-going, material that’s well worth your time. Do read it: This is a very important issue. Trigger warnings, obviously.
An amazing list of other facts you may not have known about the uterus: “No uterus can bear the touch of salt, or the smell of the sea.”
Can men be feminists? Of course, and they have to be, but it can be a tricky balancing act. Good piece by Caroline Criado-Perez
The news that fathers pass on more genetic mutations to their children as they age was widely reported, but a tough story. The problem is that there are 3 separate issues here that almost everyone mushed together, but needed to be parsed out. 1) What’s the risk of passing mutations to child? 2) What’s the risk that those mutations would lead to conditions like autism? 3) What’s the connection to the incidence of said conditions? Absolute numbers and comparisons to other sources of genetic variation would be helpful. Otherwise, you get panicked middle-aged men worrying that they’ve shot their partners up with autism sperm. Or something. Ewen Callaway’s coverage at Nature was good, and Virginia Hughes totally nailed it: we have no clue how much autism this explains. The BBC, meanwhile, flubbed it with the headline “Older dads linked to rise in mental illness”, which was then changed to the less offensive but no less dodgy “Older dads linked to rise in genetic disorders”
The Brainmaker: profile of Yoshiki Sasai, a tissue engineer who has grown parts of an eye and a brain in a dish
George Church creates a 70-million-strong print run of his new book… in DNA. Because he’s George Church and he can.
Massive congrats to Seth Mnookin, who won an NASW Science in Society Journalism award for his book on the autism-vaccination scare: The Panic Virus. Read it, if you haven’t already. Some superb journalism, right there.
Peer review is a cinch when your peer reviewers are you under sockpuppet accounts!! Possibly the craziest Retraction Watch story yet!
This week: we parked a science lab with a nuclear heart on a Martian crater, and I talked to friends on the other side of the world about it using my hand-held computer. It was amazing. Here’s a round-up of Mars Curiosity coverage, chosen to highlight different aspects of the cool main story.
Ross Andersen captured a collection of tweets, depicting Curiosity’s landing as it happened. It’s beautiful, and still gives me chills.
Spot-on piece from Skepchick about the skeptic community’s knee-jerk response to anecdotes. “Much of skeptic community values quantitative data over qualitative data regardless of the research question being asked.”
Cancer stem cells have been tracked. This is nothing less than watching tumours being born. I wonder what the cancer stem cell skeptics will think.
The sad downfall of Jonah Lehrer deepens, beginning with the revelation that he fabricated Bob Dylan quotes for his new book, leading to his resignation from the New Yorker, the pulling of his book, and more. I’ve promoted much of Jonah’s work on this blog, but this clearly violates the “don’t make stuff up” and the “make your thesis fit the evidence, not the other way round” rules of science writing. Amid the burst of shallow, reactionary, almost-gleeful pieces (summed up here), there were also gems. This piece by Bradley Voytek on “the deception ratchet”, this interview with Michael Moynihan who started things off, Alexis Madrigal’s short, punchy meta-take on the ideas culture (“When everyone makes media, everything is a news peg.”), Mark Liberman’s take on fabrication in the media, and Daniel Bor’s neuroscientist perspective on what this means for pop science writing, are all worth reading. That last piece is notable for relating how Jonah covered up an error by shunting the blame to his editor, before wilfully re-making that error. It’s awful to see someone being publicly pilloried, but that marks a point where my sympathy starts evaporating.
Science of history? “Cliodynamics” claims cyclical patterns in world history but some doubt whether it’s good science. Good Nature feature exploring the debate.
Superb piece on journalism’s failure to expose its own flaws. “Those who get it wrong spend a few days in the spanking machine and then it is back to business as usual…. Journalists assign a nobility to the profession that obscures the flaws within it…. The public isn’t buying.”