Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Intelligent Design has a new party line

In a lot of respects the ID advocates remind me of a train of clowns headed towards disaster as soon as their 'experts' ended up deposed in court. Once that event happend at Dover, their train derailed and you can't help but watch the leading ID proponents as they continue to furiously pedal on their unicycles sailing through the air to their end. So tragic and yet so hillarious at the same time. Not the least of the casualties suffered by the ID movement was the blog of William A. Dembski, namely uncommon descent. Originally Dembski was just going to throw in the towel and shut the blog down but he's decided to reopen it, now run by some of the former contributors like Davescot.

Known for being a general collection area for various sycophants, it turns out that the ID movement is picking up a new party line by accepting common descent. Apparently ID now doesn't have any particular issue with common descent anymore, which has prompted Davescot to post the following over at Uncommon descent:
You certainly don’t have to agree here with descent with modification from a common ancestor but I’m going to start clamping down on anyone positively arguing against it. It’s simply counter-productive to our goals and reinforces the idea that ID is religion because nothing but religion argues against descent with modification from a common ancestor.
Which is quite sternly worded. Of course, the comments section of the blog is the most hillarious with numerous posters pointing out quotes from leading ID advocates rejecting common descent such as Dembski (who owns the blog in question). From ten questions to ask your biology teacher, it's important to remember Dembski advocating this position:

“Common design, perhaps expressed through evolutionary convergence, accounts for the repetitions of many biological structures (like the camera eye in humans and squids) far better than common descent or blind evolutionary convergence.”

This is obviously counter to the new strategy of accepting common descent, but I have to wonder now at what point is ID anything more than evolution with mandated God thrown in for good measure. It's looking more and more just like theistic evolution, just with the occasional waffle thrown in for good measure and the odd attempt to force teaching of it on American high-school children. It doesn't actually seem that ID, assuming it drops a lot of the former obvious former creationist 'dead horse' arguments like denying common descent, will actually have any content left that isn't actually just from evolution anyway.

The whole ID movement now seems to be completely pointless as they retreat more and more ground until they find they haven't got anything left to stand on. More on this can be found at the Pandas Thumb (of course) and also over at Thoughts from Kansas (which has a really good collection of quotes).

Update: The original thread over on uncommondescent has disappeared! What a shame...

Update II: It turns out that the internet, glorious as it is, has preserved the thread of shame online for all to see at an archive site here. For what it is worth, William Dembski has tried to haul back some of the credibility he lost with this follow up post.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Evolution proving its worth again

When advocates of Intelligent Design/Creationism try and tell you that evolution isn't a useful theory for the 'real world', remind them of examples such as this:

Two University of Canterbury biologists are part of a team whose evolutionary informed approach to conservation is aiding the recovery of New Zealand’s critically endangered parrot, the kakapo.

Dr Bruce Robertson and Associate Professor Neil Gemmell (Biological Sciences) are members of a research team that has just had a paper published in the Royal Society of London’s prestigious journal Biology Letters. The manuscript outlines how the team, led by Dr Robertson, used sex allocation theory to remedy a conservation dilemma.

It's also interesting on this point to counter by asking what use in terms of the 'real world' an 'Intelligent design' approach would actually have to basically anything.

Bill Gates is awesome

Apparently, he has decided to give $900 million dollars US for research into tuberculosis. Although many in the developed world would probably scratch their heads in wonder, tuberculosis is actually a massive killer in the developing world. Aside from infecting roughly 1/3 people in the world, it forms an 'axis of death' with two other microbes, namely HIV and malaria. Additionally, tuberculosis is also a problem with farmed animals, such as cattle and deer. There, Mycobacterium bovis, which is a close relative of the human form of tuberculosis (Mycobacterium tuberculosis) can thin herds and make animals very sick. Additionally, M. bovis is having a devastating effect on lion populations as it spreads from wild buffalo.

Tuberculosis is serious buisness and it's good to see that Bill Gates is making such a gesture.

Friday, January 27, 2006

NCEA results

Oooh it's that time of the year again when the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) results are handed out. As always, there is some degree of consternation surrounding the results and this time concerning how they are displayed.

"Some people want it there because they feel as employers they are entitled to know what students couldn't do as well as what they can do," Sewell says.

But some think it's good to keep the fail marks separate.

"As a parent I hope they don't, as a parent we should be applauding the positive things of what our children know," says Pat Newman from the New Zealand Principal's Federation.

Yeah, I'm sure that not being told what you can and cannot actually do is something that is really positive indeed. They might as well put little smiley face stickers on the results and hand everyone out a gold star for participation.

The irony of democracy

Well, it seems that Hamas has won the Palestinian elections and by a huge margin as well:
"Sixty seats makes a winner, but winning by this large majority means the Palestinian people have given us a high level of confidence and put a heavy responsibility in our hands."

A militant group formally sworn to the destruction of Israel, Hamas swept to victory over the long-dominant Fatah movement in Wednesday's polls, a political earthquake that may bury any hope for peace talks with Israel soon.
Yep, so much for any chance of continuing middle eastern peace talks. I certainly hope the average Palestinian knows what they are potentially in for now that they've decided to do this. The response from the international community should be very interesting indeed. I know that Kofi Annan was certainly not impressed from what footage I saw of him on the BBC.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Dembski flops in...Kansas!

This is just great to read:

Dembski, who was both expansive and patient early in the question and answer period -- even allowing follow up questions -- became more combative, frequently interrupting questioners to ask them to get more quickly to the point, as it became clear that many in the audience, perhaps a majority, remained unconvinced.

One young woman, apparently frustrated by the apparent sophistry of Dembski's demand that evolution explain every single step in the evolution of bacterial flagella, while refusing to provide a similar step by step explanation of how intelligent design might have acted to create biological structures, repeatedly asked Dembski to cite physical data or observations that support intelligent design.

Looks like there is hope for Kansas after all! It must really sting for Dembski to go to a place like Kansas, where creationists are running rampant all over the school boards and is looking like the next place where a "Dover" ID trial will be had, to basically get hammered by the audience. Naturally, Red State Rabble has much more on this event.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Viral outbreaks

Come to Christchurch the garden city, for the sights, the sounds and stay for the sporadic viral outbreaks! Not to be out-done by hepatitis A, another virus has followed up that outbreak with a small one of its own:

Community and Public Health says Christchurch food premises have been involved in a series of norovirus outbreaks in the past week.

Although nothing particularly serious, it's an interesting pathogen as it's a virus that we didn't even know existed until relatively recently. Typically the virus just gives you one bad case of indegestion and diarrohea among other things. At the moment it appears that Christchurch has a knack for picking up outbreaks of various bugs.

[Note, the short posts at the moment are just because I'm writing something more substantial, so these are just me looking for quick fire tid-bits for something to post].

DNA justice

You know, I don't think that many people probably realise just how great for courts in upholding proper justice that DNA testing really is. In this particular case, a man called Crotzer has been declared innocent after DNA tests showed he could not have committed the crime in question:
His lawyers had filed a motion to have the sentence and charges against him dismissed in February 2004, after California forensics expert Edward Blake confirmed that DNA evidence excluded Crotzer as the rapist.

Crotzer, who is black, was convicted by an all-white jury that took only one hour to reach its verdict, according to Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, a local advocacy group.
I wonder if the "all white jury" part and the fact Crotzer was black had more to do with his conviction than any of the other evidence present (sarcasm). Of course, now that he has been proven innocent, I wonder how someone can compensate for the twenty-four years of his life that have been (arguably) stolen from him? Even further, I have to wonder if people will still treat him as if he hadn't committed a crime or still regard him with suspicion? Further, the stigma of having the rape of a 12 year old girl attached to oneself, even if you didn't commit the crime to begin with isn't one that is just going to go away any time soon. I imagine even with the DNA exoneration there will be people who still think he did the acts in question.

Makes me wonder sometimes what the "Justice" in "Justice system" is supposed to mean.

Creationist Fabrication

Looks like Answers in Genesis has a large team for their museum responsible for 'fabricating' things.
As you have seen over the last several months, the fabrication team has been working hard on the different exhibit spaces throughout the museum.
Although the irony is probably unintentional, the statement is quite true in both of the senses of the word 'fabrication'.

[Spotted at Ed Braytons blog, Dispatches from the Culture Wars]

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Sledgehammer.

Although this is probably getting late to the party, I managed to find some time to go and see Narnia: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. As can be expected, the following post is likely to contain quite a few spoilers so if you haven’t seen the movie as of yet I would suggest not reading any further.

Ok we’re all good then?

Let’s continue. Firstly, I have to give credit to the CGI and cinematography of the movie, which were both extremely well done and secondly because we get to see more New Zealand scenery (yay GO NZ!). Unfortunately for the movie, it suffered a lot from the sledge hammer manner that C.S. Lewis adds Christian imagery into Narnias fantasy. Additionally, Lewis relies on an almost dues ex machina like resurrection, which comes off as highly contrived and serves merely as part of his allegorical sledge hammer.

My problems with the movie are many, but my first comes from the scene that begins the movie and establishes the backdrop to which Narnia is set. It opens in World War 2 with the battle of Britain, where German bombers were carrying out their campaign to bury London under a storm of bombs. This scene is the most remarkable in the entire movie and actually does have a considerable emotional impact. It also set up an extreme feeling of irony for me, where four kids go into a magical closet to fight imaginary creatures all the while the greatest conflict in known human history rages in the background. Most unfortunately about this opening scene, is no other scene in the film manages to attain the same intensity or emotional significance as the opening.

After this particular scene we are treated to the four children (Peter, Edward, Susan and Lucy) being taken into the country to stay at the professors house. Here, we are treated to possibly some of the most incredibly generic stereotype characters that are going to have to carry the movie. Firstly, we have Peter who is the generic strong leader style character, Edmund who is the generic selfish fellow, Susan who is the logical one (that gets constantly derided throughout the film incidentally) and Lucy who is the small innocent child type. None of these characters comes off as being likable what-so-ever, in fact had the wolves got them early in the film I don’t think I would have blinked an eye.

Eventually, through a game of hide and seek we find the children entering the world of Narnia and generally exploring around. Turns out, surprise surprise, they are a part of some prophecy where two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve would return to Narnia and depose the evil White Witch. Now, the White Witch is basically the big evil Satan figure of the movie in keeping with C.S. Lewis’ decision to make his allegory to Christianity as obvious as possible. She is the one that keeps the world in an eternal winter, has a thing for having a secret police consisting of vicious wolves and bribes Edmund (the selfish kid) to betray the others with promises of Turkish delights.

Coincidentally the White Witch, wonderfully performed by Tilda Swinton, is by far the most convincing character in the movie and ironically comes off as the most likable. It’s a good thing for the movie that she gets a considerable amount of screen time as a result. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the remaining talking animals and the other human actors, which just come off as extremely unconvincing. In two scenes for example, one of the wolves (secret police) manages to get a solid hold on some of the kids various talking animal friends and then immediately after being let go the attacked animal reacts as if nothing has happened. This was rather jarring and just lessoned any impact the attack scene had to begin with.

When Santa Clause turned up and handed Peter, Susan and Lucy various weapons I was really beginning to wonder why I was still in the theatre. Inevitably, the ‘good guys’ manage to get to Aslan, who is assembling an army of good mythical beasties to fight the White Witches army of evil mythical beasties and they manage to get Edmund back along the way. Edmund has a stern talking to from Aslan, which of course solves the entire problem of him nearly getting them killed several times and then we have the thing that utterly demolished Narnia for me.

As I mentioned earlier, C.S. Lewis uses a heavy handed allegorical sledge hammer to bring across Christian principals in his writing. As the White Witch represents the devil, Aslan the lion is meant to represent a “Christ” figure by sacrificing himself in place of Edmund. Now he does this because the White Witch has rights to execute ‘traitors’ as is her right according to the ‘deep magic’ (or so). As a result, she wants to execute Edmund because he’s a general git and to stop the prophecy. Aslan, cunningly decides to put himself in Edmunds place as a sacrifice and is then shaved and killed. This scene would have probably had some impact, if it wasn’t for the fact Aslan just resurrects with a contrived ‘excuse’ and then runs off to basically kill the White Witch.

Here is where I take exception to both the dues ex machina nature of Aslans resurrection, which seems contrived as a way of getting back the character powerful enough to kill the White Witch and Aslan the lion as a “Christ” figure. Firstly, Jesus was no where near equivalent to the Aslan. Aslan is a massive, powerful animal that easily shreds his enemies to bits. Jesus as he came to us, was a man and God, but he was more of a lamb and not a lion. When he sacrificed his life for us, he did so not as a trick with the knowledge he would simply come back (see Aslans explanation to Susan and Lucy in the film) to whoop some Pontius Pilate arse.

The connection as a result is not just a bad comparison but rather is a terrible literary device on Lewis’ part. Essentially, the resurrection comes off as nothing more than a convenient way of killing the White Witch without needing to think of a way for the other characters, Peter and such, to do it themselves. Finally, the four children are then crowned as the new Kings and Queens of Narnia, which just ultimately seemed to cap off an overly silly series of events. At no point in the movie did I get an impression that the kids were under any real threat, because of the contrived nature of the way the movie sets up its various events and resolves them.

In all, I can say that I most definitely didn’t care for Narnia either as a form of allegory- as it is far too unsubtle like a sledge hammer beating the audience over the head- and as a piece of cinema on its own merits. Wooden performances from most of the cast with Susan and Peter in particular being notably tree like also did not help things much either. The saving performance of the movie was by far Tilda Swinton however, proving that every cloud has its silver lining. Perhaps if I was a lot younger, and didn’t think so much about the way the movie is constructed and why characters/events are portrayed I may have enjoyed it more. As it is, it seems contrived, overly ridiculous and too heavy handed in its allegory for me to have enjoyed.

Update: It turns out that in my utter disregard for the human characters in the film, I seem to have thought Edmund was Edward for some reason. Oh well, this most grevious error has now been fixed.

Over hyping H5N1 part II

To add from my previous post on the South Otago mayor who thinks that avian flu is nothing more than media hype, I'd like to direct the curious to this excellent series of posts (Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV) at effect measure discussing the recent mutations detected in the turkey H5N1 strains. This summary is wonderful, firstly explaining what a virus is seeing when it is looking at one of your cells and then what specific structure the influenza virus is looking for. Each part explains in a lot of detail (but in still understandable terms) exactly why many scientists are starting to get distinctly worried about bird flu.

Also, in the fourth part of their series, Revere points out that a mutation found in the viruses polymerase (PB2) gene was found and that it determines the enzymes ability to function in colder temperatures. The cite for the study that looked at the ability of influenza to grow at lower temperatures is here (and it's free!), with the most interesting point is the authors almost psychic prediction:
Our results suggest that a reduced ability of the polymerase complex of avian viruses to ensure replication of the viral genome at 33°C could contribute to their inability to grow efficiently in humans.
Interestingly enough the study is from 2001 and it appears this is exactly what the virus has done fairly recently. Unlike the previous encounter with SARS, which fizzled into nothing as it didn't mutate very often, it's the ability of H5N1 and other influenza viruses to rapidly develop new mutations like those in the turkey strains that makes a pandemic a real threat and not just 'media hype'.

Friday, January 20, 2006

26th Skeptics circle

The 26th Skeptics circle has been posted over at Skeptic Rant and I must say that it has been done in a very clever manner this week. I highly suggest a look for not just more great skeptical blogging but also to marvel at the sheer cleverness of it.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Jonathan the Impaler

I wonder why we don't have many more politicians like the fantastic Jonathan the Impaler.
Honesty is very seldom heard nowadays, especially from a politician. So, I am going to break from political tradition. My name is Jonathon “The Impaler” Sharkey, Ph.D., L.D.D.D. I am a Satanic Dark Priest, Sanguinarian Vampyre and a Hecate Witch. My Magikal Path name is: Lord Ares.
Well if that isn't disturbing enough, look at his political platform that he's going to run, which seems innocent enough at first..
As Governor I will introduce stronger laws to punish those who drive impaired by drugs and/or alcohol. These criminals will do jail time, from their very first offense.
I will introduce extremely harsh punishment for those who not only use illegal drugs, I will fight to make dealers serve life in prison, or better yet, Impalement.

Any Terrorist who is caught in Minnesota while I am Governor, will find out what the true meaning of my nickname 'The Impaler' means. Right in front of our State Capital. Then Fed’s can take the terrorist’s body from the impaling stake.
...which is most certainly taking things to the absolute extreme. To be honest, I have to wonder if how he will do and if our dear Professor Myers can be won over by Jonathans charm and desire to impale various individuals. If he fails to get to governor though, I'm sure he can try and run for the presidency in 2008, probably for the Republican Party due to his tough stance on drugs and his support of public execution by impalation. If he fails there, at least he'll end up with public attention and (I estimate) numerous speaking engagements!

A sad part about this however is that apparently his wife was fired from her school bus driving job for being a 'bad role model'. I'm not sure if the school and bus company can really get away with that, because dismissing someone for their religious beliefs and their fact their husband is probably a little crazy doesn't seem justified.

Fradulent meet plain nuts

It looks like disgraced Korean stem cell scientist Hwang Woo-Suk may have job opportunities after all despite the massive fallout from his former research falling over. It turns out that the bizzaire Raelian sponsored company Clonaid has decided to offer Hwang a post at one of their laboratories. Well, at least he'll have a good resume because the Clonaid fellows claimed they had cloned a human being in 2002. Of course, that Clonaid has failed to actually produce said cloned human after three years is probably an indication that they failed rather miserably. At least Hwang will be in good company with them though.

[Disclaimer: I take no responsibility for damage caused to irony meters, sanity or otherwise from the result of visiting either the Raelian or Clonaid webpages.]

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Is avian influenza being over hyped?

According to a south Otago mayor Malcom Macpherson, bird flu is being over hyped and we really should be spending our money on other things.

"There's no evidence anywhere in the world that I've seen yet that this thing has transferred person to person," says MacPherson.

"It's really difficult to catch it from a bird, you've got to be in Turkey or China or somewhere like that and bite the head off the chicken frankly to catch this," he says.

Now while Malcom MacPherson makes a valid point- as at the moment it's quite hard to get bird flu because it is in a geographical region that's pretty far away from us- the problem with this sort of logic is it is being far too complacent. Bird flu has been mutating and in fact the recent turkey strains of H5N1 are in fact showing variation from those detected from China and Vietnam for instance. A virus that will be capable of transmission from human to human will emerge from a small number of (most likely) sub-clinical cases in people that nobody even realises were infected originally. Alternatively, the virus could pick up the ability to transfer from another host that can take both human and bird flu viruses such as pigs.

Just because the virus hasn't successfully mutated as of today, doesn't mean that it is incapable of doing so in the future. While many may regard the current 'flu frenzy' to be over hyping something that will turn into nothing, much like the previous epidemic from SARS, it's a very different situation with this virus. Influenza has in the past caused devastating outbreaks such as in 1918 and several times again, such as in 1957 and 1968. While I would normally pass off a lot of the current concern about H5N1 as the media just hyping something up for the 'story of the moment' affair, this particular virus has a bad history. That combined with influenzas capabilities to rapidly evolve under pressure make bird flu a serious concern however far away it currently is.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

ACLU defending Christians

Although it is widely demonised by Americas religious right, the ACLU have often defended Christian interests in the US rather than supposedly 'attacking' Christianity (such as by getting rid of Intelligent Design from Dover schools). Some of the cases that the ACLU has taken in this vein can be seen on this website. One case in particular caught my eye because it was the ACLU defending the right of a Christian protestor to hold up a sign of an aborted fetus. He was arrested and his sign confiscated (temporarily) and now the ACLU are helping him take the officer in question to court. The most interesting comment in the piece was the final one from the ACLU legal director for the area:
"We may disagree with the sort of society Mr. Tatton would construct, but we support his right to say what he wants," Vasvari said.
I guess the ACLU isn't so oppressive after all (warning sarcasm detectors may be required).

[Originally spotted the link over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars]

New Zealands justice system does it again!

One law for some, another law for others and tiny hypocritical flags for everyone!

An email from Ron Law!

I think Evidentally, my comments have managed to strike a nerve and I've recieved an email from someone 'claiming' to be Ron Law. I'm not sure if it's the real Ron Law however, because normally he seems to use a different email address (not a gmail one) but none the less, I am prompted to make a response. If it isn't the real Ron Law then I would encourage him to contact me (my email is aegeri AT hotmail DOT com) so I can make a clarification.

The email is (in its entirety):
Your ignorance shows... the MeNZB vaccine does not have a herd effect... I don't mind ignoramuses sledging my comment as all will be revealed in time... it exposes critics underbellies...

You say, "This is not an unreasonable or unexpected thing to have occured for two primary reasons. As the rates of vaccination go up, the only people that can potentially be infected with the organism coincidentally end up being those who are vaccinated. No vaccine can be 100% effective and instead the reliance of how a vaccine works is by herd immunity, where a virulent organism 'burns' itself out of susceptible hosts until it no longer encounters anyone it can infect."

By the way, I have never been anti-vaccination... I've never bagged other vaccines... the fact that MeNZb is a vaccine is immaterial... what is material is the scientific sleight of hand.

Take a look at the following graph... this was the vaccine that was going to "stop the epidemic."

The information parents and the public are being provided with regarding meningococcal disease and the MeNZB(tm) vaccine is seriously deficient. The Ministry of Health has developed policy and process with the transparency of a black box.

Have you analysed the gp letter you refer to? You should... at least before you write your best seller and do your PhD. You might develop some critical analysis skills.

Ron Law
Risk & Policy Analysis
Quite strongly worded but it's all air without any substance from Mr. Law. Firstly, he comments that MeNZB does not protect individuals through 'herd immunity', but rather than actually rebut my comment he simply quotes what I write and then adds no actual rebuttal. As I've mentioned in the past, vaccines function through an effect called herd immunity. As diseases tend to spread between individuals who are immune naive, they start to 'select' for members of the population that survive over those that are susceptible. Inevitably, over the course of the organisms spread it slowly grinds itself out of hosts that have never seen the organism before. Eventually, it can only spread between individuals who have seen the organism and it runs into a brick wall, unable to spread any further. This is 'herd immunity' and is the principal that is being used for all vaccinations. A rate of 80%+ immunity to an organism is still sufficient to confer this immunity and offer protection. This does not mean the organism can't 'break-through' the immunity however, but generally once enough individuals are vaccinated the spread will peter out.

Ron Law then moves on to claiming that he is not 'anti-vaccination'. Unfortunately, when you use the same arguments and the same kinds of misrepresentations, that does firmly stick you in the 'anti-vaccination' camp. He then tries to claim that there is some sinister 'sleight of hand' going on from the scientific community, which he evidentally didn't care to support in his email. Perhaps this is the same sleight of hand as him misrepresenting why MeNZB hasn't had a phase III clinical trial? Why doesn't Mr. Law protest against each new flu shot that doesn't go through such a trial either?

Ron Law then presented a graph taken from data collated from data released for the ministry of health for the Counties Manakau region here. Although I'm certain he's trying to make another variation on the 'THE DISEASE WAS ALREADY IN DECLINE, INEFFECTIVE!!!!!!" argument I've heard so often before, I think it's a good time to compare the non-vaccinated years with those that have been vaccinated from 2002 to 2005 to see how the argument stacks up.

Firstly, this data is taken from the site referenced above so you can follow what I am doing for yourselves. Bear in mind that not all of the cases reported are going to be from the epidemic strain, as meningococcal disease can be caused by several strains and by several viruses.

In 2002:

The very preliminary total number of notified cases for the year 2002 is 550 with 17 deaths. At the same time in 2001, 649 cases and 26 deaths had occurred.
In 2003:
The tentative total number of notified cases for the 2003 year is 549 with 13 deaths. At the same time in 2002, 555 cases and 18 deaths had occurred.
In 2004:
The current total number of notified cases for 2004 so far is 346 with eight deaths. Not all of the cases reported in 2004 so far are due to the same strain that the vaccine is designed to protect against. The average number of cases per year for the last five years over the same time period is 546.

The total number of cases of meningococcal disease for the calendar year 2003 was 541 (a rate of 14.5 per 100 000) including 13 deaths (a case fatality rate of 2.4%). In 2003, 71.5% of laboratory confirmed cases were caused by the strain that the vaccine is designed to protect against.
in 2005:
The provisional total number of notified cases for 2005 is 229 with 14 deaths. Not all of the cases reported in 2005 are due to the same strain that the vaccine is designed to protect against. The average number of cases per year for the last five years over the same time period is 463.

The total number of cases of meningococcal disease for the calendar year 2004 was 342 (a rate of 9.2 per 100 000) including eight deaths (a case fatality rate of 2.3%). In 2004, 73.0% of laboratory confirmed cases were caused by the strain that the vaccine is designed to protect against.
So we see from this data a more complete picture than attempting to take one isolated region and demean the whole campaign on it with an obvious strawman. From the vaccines introduction in 2004, we see a marked drop in the number of cases from 550 in 2002/2003 to 346 from merely introducing the vaccine. This is even more impressive when it is considered that the vaccine was initially introduced to Counties Manakau and Auckland on the 19th of July 2004, not over the whole country. As we move from 2004 to 2005 the vaccine still hasn't been introduced to the whole country yet (The Christchurch area is next IIRC) and has *still* had a remarkable drop in cases over a mere two years. Ron Law would like people to believe that has nothing to do with the vaccine and that this is just following the organisms normal 'decline'. Sorry Ron, myself and the public you're trying to mislead are not going to buy that without much more convincing evidence.

After this, Ron Law then goes on to make some interesting new claims such as the Ministry of Health lacking 'transparency'. This is a rather curious claim, because Mr. Law has the same access to the same figures and data that everyone else does. In fact, this vaccine has been the most closely monitored vaccination trial in history, as it has been followed up immensely aggressively by health monitors and by the ministry of health itself. If this is apparently being non-transparent then I would have to wonder what exactly he thinks is being transparent. Also, it's a great understatement to claim that the information about Meningococcal disease has been poor, because numerous advertising and education campaigns have been aimed at aiding parents and caregivers to spot the early signs. Unfortunately, that's not sufficient to prevent an epidemic and now the authorities have appropriately and responsibly acted by introducing a vaccine. There is only one group here being irresponsible and it's not the ministry or scientific community.

Finally, Ron Law tries to take a shot at my critical reading ability. Unfortunately, I should suggest that he reads my previous rebuttal to his points (linked above). Only an extremely biased and skewed reading of the Ministries letter to GPs would be required to claim the MeNZB campaign has failed. Of course, that Mr. Law makes another baseless assertion without bothering to actually respond to any of my points only underscores the lack of solid arguments he has.

Edit: Also to add, going back to the first point that Ron Law made in his email, if time does prove that I am wrong I will be one of the first to admit that. Can the public of New Zealand expect the same from Mr. Law, especially those who believed what he was saying?

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Giant Australian spiders are invading

Australia, ever our loving neighbours from across the ditch have sent their latest wave of attackers: Giant huntsmen!
"We pride ourselves on not having any large and horrible spiders in this country. Secondly they also eat native invertebrates and other insects and so there is the potential to have impacts on those populations," says Bissmire.
These spiders look viscious, after all they grow to the size of a human handspan and have particularly aggressive looking fangs, but are actually harmless to human beings. The problem is that such a large and aggressive animal is more than capable of having a go at our native invertebrates, like giant Weta. It's important that people keep at eye out for these spiders (obviously, I'm speaking to my fellow New Zealanders ;)) and report the creatures if you spot one. That's really important too, don't just turn the little invader into a small pile of paste and think "I've done my part for Queen and country", but to contact authorities about how many you saw and so they can recover the corpse (alive is preferable however).

The reason for that is so they can monitor the spread of the population and map where the spiders are. This will help the authorities in being able to determine how big the problem is and in tracking down and exterminating these spiders. Remember however cute they may be, they are invaders and could do immense damage to New Zealands native invertebrates.

Also remember who your enemy is, this fellow below is a good guy.

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

That's an avondale spider and it definitely has a right to be here. It's also the spider that was used in the movie Arachnophobia and the Australian invader is pretty similar to the way it looks (but bigger).

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

So pay attention to the animals colouration, size (the Australian spiders can grow considerably larger) and pattern. Also be aware you typically encounter avondales around the North Island (Eg. Auckland) and not so much in the South. If you see the invader, capture the animal (just put a little lid or similar on it, the spider won't be strong enough to escape) and contact someone who can do something about it, such as Landcare research.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Updated links

Some of the sites in my blogroll on the left have gone to some new fangled "science blogs" site and so I've updated all of the links. If any are incorrect and don't take you to the new site please let me know so I can fix it ASAP.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Snuppy has been verified

Of all the travesty about the whole 'faking' thing that I've had this obsession with lately, it turns out that Snuppy, the worlds first cloned dog is in fact real.

We also carried out DNA fingerprinting analyses on the cloned dog Snuppy whose generation has been published in Nature in 2005 (Lee BC, Kim MK, Jang G, Oh HJ, Yuda F, et al. 2005.

Dogs cloned from adult somatic cells. Nature 436: 641). We obtained somatic tissue from the egg donor, blood samples from Snuppy, from Tie, the dog that provided somatic cells, and from the surrogate mother and engaged three independent test centers for the analyses. Results from analyses of 27 markers that allow distinguishing amongst extremely-inbred animals and of mitochondrial DNA sequencing indicate that Snuppy is a somatic cell clone of Tie.

Well, at least the complete report filed on Hwang has a ray of sunshine in a sea of darkness, or whatever. I never was very good at that whole poetry and metaphore stuff, so here is the link to the full report (at Aljazeera in fact) if you are wanting to read more scientific drama.

[Spotted the link over at the editors blog for the American journal of Bioethics].

Monday, January 09, 2006

Resistance to vaccines

Nature has this report on the development of resistance among many parents to vaccines and focuses particularly on the MMR vaccine.

Nostradamus we are not, but a safe prediction for 2006 is that initiatives promoting public engagement in science and technology policy-making will proliferate. There will, of course, be devils in the details, and critical assessments will be required. But Nature, having consistently championed public engagement, can nevertheless only welcome its development.

But there are times when no amount of explanation and consultation can counter the resistance of some sectors of the public, often representing a strong current in society, to the most carefully crafted science-based advice. Because the stakes for people's quality of life, economic development and the rights of individuals can be high, governments and the rest of us need to understand how and why such resistance to science develops.

Studies by social scientists have a major role to play in providing an understanding of how such resistance develops. A notable example is British research led by Melissa Leach at the University of Sussex into strong resistance by parents to their children receiving a freely available vaccination against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR). The relevance of this research extends well beyond the particular circumstances and region studied.

The research, of which an unreferenced report has been released that can be found here, seems to be fairly comprehensive in its detail over how opposition to vaccines seems to start with parents. Not surprisingly a wide range of attributes plays an important part and the report analyses the effects of information aquired over the internet. Additionally was the finding that many of those opposed to vaccines were more likely to have histories of illness or were into 'alternative' medical treatments such as homeopathy. Interestingly for me, was one of the studies findings summarised by Nature:
Confounding stereotypes, the parents ranged across the social classes and in many cases displayed a sophisticated understanding of the issues.
Which is true in many respects, often the understanding is actually fairly high but the problem is that the knowledge is being misapplied or hasn't been thought through correctly. For example, Ron Law our resident anti-vaccination proponent, probably understands what the point of clinical trials are, he just doesn't know what each stage in a clinical trial is actually supposed to achieve. As a result, he misrepresents the fact MeNZB has not undergone phase III trials as something significant when it isn't.

Unfortunately, when the initial reports from the horrific Lancet MMR paper came out that supposedly linked the vaccine with autism the publics confidence was lost very rapidly. Although the study was shown to be statistically flawed as with several other studies attempting to link MMR to diseases like Crohn's, the publics confidence has remained low although vaccination rates are starting to rise again. I think as Nature concludes in the end of their report...
Thus there is a strong case for a well-resourced independent national agency that commands the trust of both the government and the public in matters of health protection and is empowered to take responsibility for mediating in such debates.
...that this is a really good idea. Additionally, I would think that more interaction between scientists and the public is required not just in areas of medicine, but in the food industry (GE) and in the origins of all life (evolution). It's not sufficient anymore to simply say as a scientist "we have the degree and we're right" to the public, but rather we need to engage the public and say "this is what we are doing, and this is how it benefits you and why you should use it".

More wildlife

I've been going a bit crazy with the photographing of various garden invertebrates as of late. I was lucky enough to snap a couple of pictures of this damselfly before it decided to fly off.

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Not quite as impressive a specimen as the giant dragonfly I was able to find though.

Sunday, January 08, 2006


The garden at my new residence is proving very fruitful for the investigation of my beloved creepy crawlies. While pottering around in the garden looking for a mantis (without any actual success) I happened to stumble upon a female nursery web spider (Dolomedes minor) and best of all still clutching her egg sack!

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The animal is around 1" long and wasn't any particular threat because she is clutching her eggs very tightly with her chelicerae (fangs). Despite much poking to put her in a better position for a photo and even crawling all over me for a while she was fairly placid for the photoshoot. She proved to be the perfect mother however, never even considering surrending her most precious egg sack. I eventually put her back in the garden and ensured she had some cover from the sun (and birds).

Inevitably, things going well she'll climb up a bush or plant, spinning a thick white web for her to put her babies in. They'll hatch in there and be safe until the spiderlings reach a suitable size to escape the nest and flee into the real world. During this time they will be guarded by mom, who will hang around the egg sack at night and hide under the bush during the day. Possibly, if I'm lucky I can get some pictures of that as well although, with her disturbance today she might flee to another garden.

Friday, January 06, 2006

The 25th Skeptics circle has been posted

The next edition of the Skeptics circle is up at the Saga of Runolfr. I think the avatar he has picked for me is actually rather suitable, but you should head over there and engage in the best skeptical blogging around this week.

Great reading from Science and Nature.

Some reading from Science and Nature on the cards for today, firstly with Nature describing what the Kitz vs Dover Intelligent Design decision may mean for other court cases in the US. Secondly, with an interesting article from Science describing what went wrong with the peer review system that allowed the fradulent Hwang articles through.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Over in Dover

As other blogs have been reporting, the incompetent Dover school board policy that would have teachers read a disclaimer about evolution has been rescinded by the new school board. Additionally, one of the pro-science members was having his seat contested by a former pro-ID board member due to a problem with the voting machines. It appears that the pro-science board member has won the seat ensuring a clean sweep of the former ID supporting board members.

The lingering crowd at the Dover Area School Board meeting cheered and clapped when Dover science teacher Rob Eshbach spread the word that Bryan Rehm won a seat on the school board.

Someone called Eshbach on a cell phone to say Rehm received 373 votes to James Cashman's 280 during Tuesday's special election in Dover Township. When combined with totals from other precincts recorded during the Nov. 8 election, Rehm's total was 2,591 to Cashman's 2,523.

Although the margin he won by is somewhat disturbingly small, it is still a win and ensures that Dover is well and truly over. Mind you, if Kansas is anything to go by if nobody pays attention the kooks will be back in power, ready to hold kids education hostage again for their mistaken beliefs before anyone realises its too late.

A poo-flinger retires

Matt over at Pooflingers anonymous has decided to throw in the towel of blogging for the time being.
After much careful consideration during the last while, I've come to the realization that it's time to take some serious time away from blogging, though I will still be reading and occasionally commenting.
Well, he will be missed as would anyone who can stand to take the pain of actually watching all of Hovinds videos. Hopefully he'll have a good hiatus and will actually decide to return to blogging.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Scientific American looks at the "FSM"

The Flying Spaghetti Monster, loved by so many and loathed by members of the ID community has become one of the main symbols of the anti-creationism movement. Making fun of the fact the main ID proponents refuse to acknowledge their designer as "God" and instead propose things like time travelling space aliens, the FSM was inserted into the list of 'potential' designers to mock this apparent lack of transparency. As it turns out the FSM has become insanely popular and I've even seen a 'pastafarian' in full pirate regalia down here.

One of the problems that some see with the FSM analogy and is echoed by John Rennie of Scientific American here, is that it may be construed as an anti-religious argument. After all a large number of the things that make the FSM analogy so irritating to ID proponents is it targets the largely fundamentalist Christian beliefs that ID was born out of (and is supported by). For example, "pastafarians" make use of a corruption of "Amen" and instead say "RAmen". Additionally, they parody many other aspects of religion by dressing up in 'pirate regalia' and claiming those who follow the FSM will end up in a heaven with a beer volcano and strippers.

Now as John worries, this corruption of religious ideas and primarily from Christianity may have a negative effect. Speaking for myself and my particular beliefs (I am Christian) it doesn't really bother me because I understand the point of the analogy. To me, the FSM is an amusing parody and is very effective in attacking the 'soundbite' wars that creationists like those in the ID movement attempt to use. It's impossible to explain evidence for evolution, but it's not impossible to explain the fallacious logic in the opponents argument with a simple and succinct parody. It easily deconstructs the inherit silliness of the ID proponents refusing to name their designer or determine anything about it, you could say anything was the designer according to such logic.

Following on from that point, from a theological point of view the FSM demonstrates how worthless ID is even as a method for promoting Christianity. Remember that ID advocates 'pretend' that the designer isn't God and could be space aliens or any such nonsense, but in reality the question would be open in an initial 'wedge first' type scenario. In such a case, any manner of nutball minority religion or similar could try to hijack ID to promote any number of wierd religious creators such as alien cloners like Rael. This is the inherit twist in logic that the FSM relies on and so it inserts itself in there, alongside God, Rael, flying saucers, space lizards, Cthulhu and assorted great old ones for example.

So as a theist, do I feel any personal affront from the FSM? Well, no and really I couldn't care less. Some made up flying pile of spaghetti that touches people with it's noodly appendage, aside from being disturbing isn't going to bother me. It's a clear and obvious parody of the arguments that ID advocates make and if they get upset because it's 'mocking' Christianity then all the better. It simply helps expose the inherit connection between ID and fundamentalist Christian creationism, because the FSM is making fun of a lot of religions but in a specific context. Nowhere does the FSM (as an anti-ID parody at least) claim it's God except when we are talking about a specific argument put forth by those proposing intelligent design.

Then again, in saying all of this to many Christians in the US attacking ID=attacking Christianity. Even when Judge Jones presented his ruling meticulously detailing how ID fails as science and how board members lied on the stand, the likes of the Discovery Institute accused him of being 'activist' and others in the media accused him of 'attacking Christianity. Either way you are accused of attacking Christianity when criticising ID by many even when you don't bring up the parody. So I say keep the giant flying pasta monster and let it do as much damage to the ID movement as it can, because at least it's humorous.


While walking home today I happened to run across this fellow sitting on a fence.

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I naturally decided to pick it up and take it home for an exclusive photoshoot on the palm of my hand.

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As you can see this is a pretty big insect, with a wingspan of around 4" and a body length of around 3". This is actually a pretty rare find as you don't commonly see these animals in the suburbs around New Zealand too often, despite the fact it's actually a native species. This specimen is a giant dragonfly (Uropetala carovei), which are sometimes called the "devils threading needle" due to their long elongated body. Like other Dragonflies, the larval form of this insect spends its time underground in burrows where it consumes a variety of insects. Once they become adults they are equally as aggressive, usually plucking other flying insects out of the air. To accomplish this they are remarkable fliers, capable of hovering and turning on the spot in mid air. Adding to this is their rather impressive speed, up to around 40kmph at cruising speed and reportedly up to 58kmph if they really get going.

It was just slightly unfortunate that this guy seemed somewhat addled when I picked him up and didn't seem coordinated in flight. I think that's because it was struck by a car and was just recovering when I came across it. None the less, it's now quite safe and is recovering nicely on a shaded branch in my backyard. Quite a pleasant encounter.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

More Hwang

Although I'm certain some of you reading this blog are getting bored of Hwang, I can never seem to get sick of writing about the various new exploits he seems to have performed. The Korean times has an article up with this little juicy tid-bit:

Prof. Hwang Woo-suk plagiarized his subordinate’s work on the first-ever cloned human embryonic stem cells that was featured in the U.S. journal Science in early 2004, some scientists argued Friday.

The scientists contend a stem cell photo featured in the 2004 paper partially overlaps that of an article in another journal Stem Cells that was authored in 2003 by Kim Son-jong, a member of Hwang’s team.

So he fabricated his results by using photos taken at slightly different positions, used photoshop to play with DNA sequence traces and he plagiarized the work of one of his students. That's quite a lot of different fabrication skills on offer there, it's just a shame they aren't the kind you are wanting to have in science.

As to the question that Skeptyk posed in a comment to my last post about Hwang:
But why? Why would he falsify? He has to know that it would be found out, and quickly. What possible short term gain is worth such self-destruction?
Well, it's a good question that. With the depth of the deception and the fact there was no 'beef' to present when people asked for it, you'd have to wonder how he thought it would all end. Perhaps if it wasn't for those meddling students he would have gotten away with it, but ultimately it must have just been the sheer pressure of the field that led him to do it. Although it's not something I like to admit, in any area of science there are immense pressures to publish first and for the associated parties like the University to get patents in before anyone else. It's the competitive nature of science combined with a complete lack of proper regulation or ethics, which led to this situation.

As I've stated earlier, it won't just the sheer depth of the falsification that is remarkable in this case but also the number of individuals that will be involved. After some thought, the only way he could have gotten away with it is if he had support all the way up (including from government funding sources). My guess is that he felt the technique would 'work' and they published first to beat everyone else to the punch and gain the potential patents or awards.

Finally, this is the last I'll post about Hwang for a while I promise unless something else exceptional happens, like the snuppy paper turns out to be fake. I'll find another obsession to blog about for a while :p