Genetically modified crops

As someone who has a high number of liberal friends on his social media outlets, I frequently see anti-Monsanto and anti-genetically modified food posts and pictures. Just this weekend there were all sorts of protests, including in my home state. Now here’s the thing: I don’t get it.

I’m not one to defend large corporations (which, incidentally, are not people but rather government-defined entities), but I’ve never considered myself part of the anti-Monsanto crusade that’s out there. I understand the desire to label food as a matter of general principle, but I’ve seen scant evidence that GM food holds any characteristics that should cause alarm. Indeed, I once saw a poll where one of the major reasons people were weary of such food was because it had DNA in it. Come on. That small family-owned farm with the kindly old couple that’s been growing organic potatoes for the community for decades is serving up a big healthy dose of DNA every season.

I also understand the misgivings people have about some of the lawsuits Monsanto has out there, but from what I’ve read, it’s all been greatly exaggerated. They certainly have a huge advantage in the market place by virtue of their size and wealth, but I’m not convinced they’ve been particularly unfair to other farmers. (Though I do worry about legislation for which they lobby. But that’s a feeling I have regarding every corporation.)

I’d be interested to learn what all this fuss is really about. I don’t think anyone has nothing but ulterior motives here, but I do wonder how much of the outrage is based upon legitimate concerns and how much is based upon the dissemination of false information.

How should we treat cloned Neanderthals?

Harvard geneticist George Church was recently interviewed by a German magazine where he said that we need to start talking about the ethical and other implications of cloning a Neanderthal. He said that, whereas the technological possibility is foreseeable in the relatively near future, we need to start the conversation today. Unfortunately, English-based media sensationalized his comments and falsely claimed that he was looking for a surrogate mother:

Harvard geneticist George M. Church was quoted in the Daily Mail as looking for an “adventurous woman” to serve as a surrogate for a “cloned cave baby.” The shocking headline spread quickly across the media with no small amount of help from major news aggregators like the Drudge Report…

“I’m certainly not advocating it,” Church told the Herald. “I’m saying, if it is technically possible someday, we need to start talking about it today.”…

Church added that he wasn’t even involved in the particular aspects of the Human Genome Project focused on Neanderthals. Nonetheless, he hopes to use the mistake made by the media for the greater good. “I want to use it as an educational moment to talk about journalism and technology,” he said.

To compound the mistake made by the media, people like Arthur Caplan, writing for CNN, continues to spread falsehoods even after the correction has been made:

Despite a lot of frenzied attention to the intentionally provocative suggestion by a renowned Harvard scientist that new genetic technology makes it possible to splice together a complete set of Neanderthal genes, find an adventurous surrogate mother and use cloning to gin up a Neanderthal baby — it ain’t gonna happen anytime soon.

My beef is with the baseless accusation that Church was being intentionally provocative. Here is what he actually said:

SPIEGEL: Mr. Church, you predict that it will soon be possible to clone Neanderthals. What do you mean by “soon”? Will you witness the birth of a Neanderthal baby in your lifetime?…

SPIEGEL: Would cloning a Neanderthal be a desirable thing to do?

Church: Well, that’s another thing. I tend to decide on what is desirable based on societal consensus. My role is to determine what’s technologically feasible. All I can do is reduce the risk and increase the benefits.

In other words, the magazine asked him all these things. He gave pretty uncontroversial answers, even choosing to take a rather neutral stance when asked if we should clone a Neanderthal. I think the evidence is clear that not only was Church not being intentionally provocative, he was actually attempting to give benign answers.

At any rate, this all does raise the interesting question of how we would treat Neanderthals if we did clone them. Would we give them the same rights and protections? Would we develop a new application for the old scourge of apartheid? I’m not sure the answers to these questions, but I do have some input on how we should go about considering them.

Humans are awfully fond of talking about our special status in the animal kingdom. Indeed, many of us refuse to even consider ourselves animals, disregarding the affront to biology such a stance is. Of course, we have some good reasons for separating ourselves, at least in the context of morality and ethics. Though such practices, common across many taxa, are little more than game theory working itself out amongst genes and individuals, humans take it to another level. So while, for example, our ape cousins will show rudimentary understandings of right and wrong, we have far more complex rules for our society, rules that we can reason out and justify by way of our higher level of intelligence. We are different and that’s important.

How different, though, are Neanderthals? We know a fair amount about them, but they haven’t been around for 20 or 30 thousand years. No one has interacted with them, so a cloned baby would be an experiment in every sense of its life. How different would it be? Would we have criteria established that said, ‘If the Neanderthal is different in these certain ways, it will not enjoy the same rights afforded everyone else under our laws’? I don’t know, but the concern is an interesting one because it raises the issue of why we think we’re so special.

Evolution is a continuous process. We are descended from species which were not human, but at no point did one species give birth to a brand new one. Every mother gives birth to offspring that are categorized in the same way she is. However, when enough time has passed, we’re given the luxury of defining different groups as species within this or that Genus under one or another Family. But look over the tape of evolution and everything eventually converges and lines blur. Just think about human evolutionary history: Back things up 100,000 years and we’re largely the same. How about 150,000? 300,000? 1,000,000? At some arbitrary point we pick, we’re going to start defining significant differences, but if we continually shrink the window of time, the differences start to disappear. (This is all a huge problem, in my view, for the Catholic or other theistic evolutionist who believes only humans have souls.) So from 500,000 years ago to 100,000 years ago, there will be notable change, but that change will be smaller between 400,000 and 200,000 years ago. And the differences become less when we look at our history from 300,000 to 200,000. Keep going and we may be talking about how different our ancestors from 272,000 years ago were from our ancestors living 271,000 years ago. Forget that our investigations into the history of life can’t get that specific. What’s important is that we have to realize there is no line in the sand that says “Species A ends there and Species B begins here”.

So if we do decide that Neanderthals are less deserving of the rights given to humans, we have to admit that humans, at some point in our lineage, were also not deserving. That is, our intelligence and consciousness become more and more comparable to our cousin apes (and now extinct man-like cousins) as we go back in time; we eventually arrive to a point where we would not give our ancestors the same rights that we enjoy. That means we are not inherently special, and I think that’s a major blow to a lot of our assumptions. The supposedly humble Neanderthal shines light on our human arrogance.

Should we ask our politicians specific science questions?

Every time a politician is asked if he believes in evolution or how old he thinks Earth is, there is the inevitable complaint from the right: “It’s a gotcha question!” It’s as if to say the whole point is to make certain people, usually Republicans, look stupid during their run for public office. I’ve got to disagree, though.

I find these sort of questions to be valid for at least two reasons. First, it gives us a very general idea of the background of the person. Someone who says he rejects the fact of evolution is almost certainly a young Earth creationist, and I think that’s important to know. (It’s important even if he’s an old Earth creationist.) We expect just about every politician in the U.S. to express some religious piety (unfortunately), but it’s hard to believe at least a few them aren’t mailing it in. The ones who actively reject significant fields of science, though, are probably sincere. I want to know that so I can be confident in my vote against them.

Second, this can give us a general gauge on intelligence. Now, I’m not saying people who reject evolution or global warming or any other scientific fact are stupid. I wouldn’t be so clumsy as to play into such an elitist caricature. What I’m saying is we can get a grip on the scientific literacy of a person based upon some of these questions. Of course, this is sort of a one-way street: A person who reject science can be deemed to have low literacy, but a person who accepts the facts of a few key issues is not necessarily engrossed in science. Regardless, these questions do often correlate with other facts in a useful way. For a prime example, look up anything the likes of Sarah Palin has said about fruit fly research and funding.

I think people should have a pretty good idea about a lot of theses issues, such as evolution or the age of Earth, but even if they’re ignorant, that’s no crime. If someone running for office is asked how old the world is and he doesn’t know the exact number, it would suffice to say something like, “Millions or even billions. I’m not sure.” He would get corrected, but no one would make that big of a stink about it. The stink only arises when a politician starts spouting off things about 6,000 years and ‘no missing lin’k. There’s just no excuse for that sort of stuff.

One way to help developing nations

The ways in which a person can make a difference in a developing nation are seemingly endless. Peace Corps, donating, fund-raising, awareness-raising, volunteering, and on and on it goes. But one of the best ideas I’ve heard has to do with cookware.

Quality nutrition is one of the biggest problems facing any developing nation. Every year people die from malnutrition, especially children. Others go blind from things such as vitamin A deficiency – something which can be remedied quickly and easily, if caught early enough, with a single shot that lasts years (because vitamin A is stable in the human body, and thus we are able to store it). And then others suffer from iron deficiency, something many of us avoid without even realizing it every time we eat our Wheaties in the morning. This last point is where the cookware enters the picture.

It was once common for pots and pans to be made of heavy iron, but soon after the industrial revolution took hold and steel and other metals became cheap, manufacturers began putting out lighter, and often more aesthetically pleasing, cookware. One effect of this was the need for greater iron in the diets of some people because the iron from their pots was no longer making its way into their spaghetti and potatoes and whatever else they were cooking. I think the next step here is obvious: Encourage greater use of iron cookware in developing nations. Of course, there is a cost associated with this, but the great thing is that this is a long-term solution for some people. Iron pots and pans tend to last a long time, after all.

Now, this is just one idea for one issue. There are plenty of more ways to address the poverty and problems of developing nations – for instance, more infrastructure – but a good place to start is by taking a look at the Millennium Development Goals set forth by the U.N. There really is so much to be done.

HPV vaccines do not lead to greater sexual activity

For quite some time now we have been hearing counter-common sense arguments that claim the administration of HPV vaccines will make young girls more likely to engage in sexual activity. One recent study shows those arguments to be bogus:

Adolescent girls who get the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine are no more likely to show signs they may be engaging in sexual activity than girls who do not get the vaccine, according to a new study that challenges a widely held belief…

Researchers from Emory University in Atlanta followed electronic data of nearly 1,400 girls aged 11 and 12 between July 2006 and December 2010 to see whether they received at least one dose of the vaccine within the first year and whether they were later counseled about contraception, acquired a sexually transmitted disease or became pregnant.

More than a quarter of girls ages 15 to 17 report being sexually active, according to the CDC.

The study followed the girls to the age range where sexual activity would have been initiated, according to the researchers.

The nearly 500 girls who received at least one dose of the vaccine were no more likely to be diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease, discuss contraception or become pregnant than the nearly 900 girls who did not get the vaccine, the study found.

“We couldn’t directly look at sexual activity, so we looked at external outcomes that would suggest sexual activity,” said Dr. Robert Bednarczyk, clinical investigator with the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research Southeast, and lead author of the study.

The sort of arguments that inspired the above study are of the same sort that inspire studies which show that abstinence-only education is an abysmal failure. Again and again, social conservatives and overly worried parents will claim or wonder if the exposure to greater information will cause their children to become sexually active at a young age. Only the wonder is justified; over and over we are seeing that access to proper information and sound medical protections are the correct path to take.

Colloidal silver and naturopaths

If someone randomly asked me what I thought of the idea of injecting silver into the body, I would say I presume it’s toxic, but I don’t know. I would then do a 30 second search on the effects of the stuff and discover that it offers no medical benefits and, in fact, can lead to the condition known as argyria. This is when the skin turns a grey/blue color for life. Apparently it’s only cosmetic, but so are many other disfigurements:

Now, if someone asked the same question to a naturopath or any other quack, the result might be this, especially in Vermont: “Oh, sure, it’s great stuff. Really great stuff. Do you want an injection? I’m legally allowed to put this poison into your body, after all.” They would say this because Vermont, like several other states, allows naturopaths to prescribe certain things for ‘patients’. One of these things is colloidal silver, which is just silver suspended in a solution. My hope is the Green Mountain State is unique in its allowance to naturopaths to poison people, but I’m not sure.

Check out the anger of one person afflicted with argyria:

If NDs had known as much about medicine as I, an educated consumer, do, they would have searched the medical literature before including anything in their formulary. If they had done that, they would have seen that: there are no studies showing that ingesting silver in any form or amount offers benefits; colloidal silver does not treat eye infections; taking silver internally or putting it in your eye can result in permanent discoloration.

If NDs had checked common toxicology reference books, they would have seen that silver causes argyria. If they had looked at old pharmacology books, they would have found warnings about the uselessness and danger of taking it internally. If they had checked current ones, they would have discovered that those practicing scientific medicine discarded silver long ago.

If NDs followed notices published by NCCAM, the National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine, or the FDA, they would have seen consumer warnings as well as the FDA rule in the Federal Register stating that silver cannot be used as a drug because ingesting it offers no benefits and is dangerous.

If NDs had googled “silver” or “colloidal silver”, they would have learned all of the above.

If they followed the mainstream media, they would have seen Paul Karason or me. The local, national and international media has covered our stories extensively. Paul was on Oprah. Consumers Reports listed “colloidal silver” among its latest list of “dirty dozen” supplements to be avoided. The Wall Street Journal said, “federal regulators say it a total scam”.

(Paul Karason is the guy pictured above.)

I find it just deplorable that we license these people at all, but to allow them prescription rights is actively dangerous. Even if they manage to not prescribe contraindicated drugs – something I doubt most of them are even aware should be a concern – they still have the right to effectively give people poison. It’s awful.

via SBM

Even more abuse of science

Roxeanne de Luca is an annoying little creature. Without even being a creationist or a Christian she manages to engage in their style of argumentation: Make a positive claim, but pretend like the burden of proof is on the opposition. Even more annoying, she attempts to claim the mantle of science (in fields in which she has no significant experience), even though the specific topic will be a subjective one that cannot be defined scientifically. I’ve written about her antics in the past.

What I’ve also written about in the past is the abuse of science. People will commonly read a study which supports something they believe, but then they will inappropriately extrapolate the evidence. For instance, Christian and other far right bigots will find studies which show that it is categorically better for children to have two parents rather than just one parent. They will then extrapolate that gay parents aren’t good for children. That is wildly inappropriate and an obvious abuse of the far more limited evidence.

But this post is about another favorite topic of the far right: abstinence. They have this cockamamie idea that teenagers can be widely prevented from having sex with each other, therefore it’s okay to keep them ignorant about birth control. We’ve been seeing the deadly effects of this thinking in Africa and to a lesser extent South America thanks to the Catholic Church concerning condoms. Unfortunately, Roxeanne reflects this sort of backward thinking. Responding to a CNN article about the worth of casual sex, she says this:

Later in the CNN article, we are told – brace yourselves, conservatives, this is a shocker – that ‘protection’ is not all its is said to be: “[T]he rate of increased use of a condom does not seem great enough to offset the higher risks of infection.”

The above quote actually has nothing to do with the effectiveness of condoms. What it is saying, just after the article points out that increased sexual partners means increased STD risk, is that more people are using condoms, but they are not using them at a high enough rate in order to combat the frequency of infection. Roxeanne not only got this one dead wrong, but she did some very minor quote-mining. Here is the full excerpt:

“The more partners an individual has,” according to “Sex in America,” “the more likely he or she is to have sex with people who themselves have many partners, the more likely he or she is to have sex with virtual strangers, the more likely she or he is to have been under the influence of drugs or alcohol during some sexual encounters, and while it is more likely that a condom was used, the rate of increased use of a condom does not seem great enough to offset the higher risks of infection.”

The obvious solution here is to encourage greater condom use while educating teens and others about their effectiveness. Abstinence is not the answer, nor has it ever been effective on a large social scale.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I work with troubled teens. It isn’t uncommon that some of them will have kids of their own – sometimes multiple kids – even though they may only be Freshmen or Sophomores in high school. One of the reasons for this is their ignorance about condom usage. During an educational group not too long ago they were being told about the need for such protection and their reactions were along the lines of, “Oh, I never knew that. I’ll start using condoms more often now.” I actually doubt many of them will unless forced by their partner, but the fact that they genuinely didn’t have this basic knowledge is indicative of the need for broad-based educational programs and protection promotion. No one can stop kids from having sex, but we can stop them from being ignorant.

But back to Roxeanne’s inappropriate and embarrassing extrapolation. The article clearly states that the increased rate of condom use is not high enough to combat the higher risks of infection. In other words, while condoms are effective when used properly, they are not being used frequently enough. More common usage can dramatically cut down on the rates of infection, but this will only be achieved through education and safe-sex promotion. At no point is it said that condom protection “is not all its (sic) is said to be”. No one doubts the effectiveness of condoms. The problem is with the effectiveness of educational campaigns and the spread of needed knowledge. People like Roxeanne who, in a willing abuse of science, put out misleading and false information are part of the problem; their promotion of ignorance contributes to increased rates of infection and even death.

A third of babies are fat

And not just in that cute, chubby sort of way.

Almost one-third of 9-month-olds are obese or overweight, as are 34 percent of 2-year-olds, according to the research, which looked at a nationally representative sample of children born in 2001. The study is one of the first to measure weight in the same group of very young children over time, said lead researcher Brian Moss, a sociologist at Wayne State University in Detroit. The results showed that starting out heavy puts kids on a trajectory to stay that way.

“If you were overweight at nine months old, it really kind of sets the stage for you to remain overweight at two years,” Moss told LiveScience.

Michelle Obama’s child nutrition act looks better and better every single day. But maybe we should be listening to the conservatives, no? Perhaps for the WIC program, we could allow mother’s to buy their kids soda and candy. It’s all about liberty! after all, right?

GE Salmon may gain FDA approval

The FDA is considering allowing a company to market a fish that has been genetically engineered.

If the FDA approves the sale of the salmon, it will be the first time the U.S. government allows such modified animals to be marketed for human consumption. The panel was convened by the agency to look at the science of the fish and make recommendations on its safety and environmental impact.

Ron Stotish, chief executive of the Massachusetts company that created the salmon, AquaBounty, said at Monday’s hearing that his company’s fish product is safe and environmentally sustainable.

FDA officials have largely agreed with him, saying that the salmon, which grows twice as fast as its conventional “sisters,” is as safe to eat as the traditional variety. But they have not yet decided whether to approve the request, saying there is no timeline for a decision.

One of the chief concerns most people have about genetically altered food is that it contains DNA. I kid you not. That concern is more prevalent where cloned animals are in question, but it’s just as incoherent.

But there are more reasonable concerns.

Critics have two main concerns: The safety of the food to humans and the salmon’s effect on the environment.

Because the altered fish has never been eaten before, they say, it could include dangerous allergens, especially because seafood is highly allergenic. They also worry that the fish will escape and intermingle with the wild salmon population, which is already endangered.They would grow fast and consume more food to the detriment of the conventional wild salmon, the critics fear.

There’s really no reason to suspect any extra allergies. These fish are being caused to grow faster through the use of hormones they already regularly produce; they’re just producing more hormones than they would without the inserted gene and regulator. If someone doesn’t have an allergy as a result of these hormones now, they won’t have an allergy to these new salmon.

As far as contamination is concerned, I doubt there will be any intermingling, but if it does happen, it seems unlikely the new fish will out-compete the current wild population. Natural selection could act to increase the frequency of hormone production relatively easily. It hasn’t. It’s unlikely the new population would be more fit in the given wild population’s environment.

I foresee this getting approval, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the FDA acquiesced to critic’s demands and forced a ‘warning’ to be placed on the fish listing it as genetically altered. This would be unfortunate since there is no effective difference between eating a wild population salmon and a genetically altered salmon. But it’s the FDA. There will be an unnecessary warning added; it’ll probably be removed in 5-10 years when it becomes even more clear that this fish is very safe to eat.

BMA: Gay conversion therapies are harmful

No surprise here.

Following a year-long undercover investigation by a reporter, the British Medical Association has determined that “gay conversion therapy” is not therapy, is more harmful to patients than helpful, and should be banned.

Journalist Patrick Strudwick posed as a patient seeking “gay conversion therapy” or “reparative therapy” for a year. In his report on his experience, he described what amounted to psychological torture; Strudwick went to two conversion therapists. One, a Christian, focused on turning him to focus on her god and tried hard to convince Strudwick he’d been sexually abused. The other focused on explaining to Strudwick that he was somehow “wounded”, and that he had to find the source of those “wounds” to discover the roots of his sexuality.

This is merely anecdotal, but I’ve had discussions about sexual orientation with one youth minister where it was an ingrained assumption that the only reason anyone is gay is due to sexual abuse. Of course, he had no relevant training for anything that didn’t involve the narrow literary criticism that is the uselessness of theology, but that didn’t stop him from having full faith in what he believed. Evidence be damned, right?

The British Medical Association has determined that such “therapies” have been discredited, are damaging to patient, and should be banned. The Association’s membership further agreed that the NHS should investigate any cases of such conversion therapies, and terminate any public funding to such practices.