Implausible Cause

On Pharyngula, PZ Myers deconstructs the hypothesis of two physicists who show an undue enthusiasm for biology. They claim cancer is caused by cells regressing from their modern, multicellular functionality to a “proto-metazoan” lifestyle of largely uncoordinated growth. Myers says their is no plausible avenue for such atavism, writing “you can’t take one of your cells, switch off a few genes, and set it free in the ocean to swim off and follow its primitive lifestyle.” Considering the factors that really contribute to cancer, Myers concludes “scientists shouldn’t be looking for optimism, they should be searching for the truth, which is sometimes going to be grim.” Meanwhile, on The Pump Handle, Sara Gorman recapitulates Sir Austin Bradford Hill’s criteria for determining disease causality, which are “still widely accepted in epidemiological research and have even spread beyond the scientific community.”


Drifted Apart, Crammed Together

As organisms spread into new habitats, they diverge and differentiate to best adapt to their surroundings. But when separated species exploit similar niches, their body plans begin to converge, and they end up looking a lot like each other. Such is the case with Beaked Sea Snakes, uber-venomous consumers of spiny catfish and blowfish, long thought to be a single species but now shown by genetic analysis to be two. Meanwhile, PZ Myers considers the Creationist discipline of baraminology, which self-consciously strives to minimize the number of animals Noah needed to fit on his ark. Dr. Jean K. Lightner counts only 137 progenitors of modern mammals, meaning there has been an awful lot of evolution since the flood. Still, it’s hard to explain a Beanie Baby in the wild without invoking Intelligent Design.

Time to Act on Climate Change

Although the science is getting cold, the conversation about climate change was warmed over by President Obama on Thursday. On Thoughts from Kansas, Josh Rosenau says “This is a welcome change from the complete silence of the last few years, but falls well short of what the American people and the world deserve.” Rosenau argues that with scientific consensus long established, an attempt at policy is overdue. California, the economic canary in a coal mine, just enacted a cap-and-trade system designed to curb carbon emissions. Meanwhile, climate change denialists strive to maintain a false equivalency. Taking issue with an article in New Scientist, Greg Laden writes “The idea that the effects of global warming are something of the future is a standard denialist lie.” In fact, Greg argues, global warming has been progressing incrementally since we first began “the wholesale burning of coal.” And on Stoat, William M. Connolley explains the buildup of ice in parts of Antarctica as a product of wind, not frigidity.

Statistics > Pundits

"This is a map of the United States, with the spatial distortion reflecting the population sizes of different counties and the relative contribution of electoral college votes."

Along with President Obama, statistician Nate Silver emerged triumphant on election night, after calculating a 90% chance of victory for Obama and correctly predicting the outcome of every state.  Chad Orzel allays suspicions of witchcraft on Uncertain Principles, writing that “statisticians have been refining the process of public opinion polling for something like a hundred years.”  Silver’s projections for Obama reached a low point in the weeks after the first debate, dipping to nearly 60%.  Still, Silver’s odds offered some refreshing realism in a mediasphere dedicated to hyping the closeness and uncertainty of the race.  Orzel concludes that Silver’s work is “a reminder that the vast majority of what you see on political blogs and cable chat shows is ultimately pretty unimportant.”  Meanwhile, on Built on Facts, Matt Springer wants “to be the guy who sounds the sad trombone and pours just a little cold water on his well-deserved celebration.”

Tightening Life’s Belt?

New research rethinks the possible prevalence of life in the Universe, suggesting that our asteroid belt—as disrupted by the gravitational influence of Jupiter—played a key role in seeding the Earth with water and organic compounds. Unable to coalesce, and situated around the solar system’s “snow line,” the belt provides millions of little ice trays which come smashing into the Earth on occasion. On Starts With a Bang, Ethan Siegel says “getting struck by asteroids can introduce new organics and materials into the ecosystem, and can knock off the apex animals of the time, paving the way for new species to mutate and fill niches.” Research shows that an asteroid belt like our own develops in only 4% of planetary systems, but it’s too soon to say if it’s really a prerequisite for, say, humanity.

Will Sandy Typify 21st Century Weather?

Hurricane Sandy Impacts Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge (DE) by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Hurricane Sandy made landfall on October 29th, drawn northwest by two cold fronts into the most populous area of the United States. Coby Beck has a telling wind map of the colossal storm on A Few Things Ill Considered, which was abetted by “a full moon causing the highest high tides of the year.” Sandy wreaked widespread devastation, and left over 100 Americans dead. Greg Laden writes that we have learned a lot from killer storms over the decades, and we were more prepared for Sandy than any other. But research shows that cyclones thrive in warm years; on Class M, James Hrynyshyn notes “storms that used to occur every 100 years can be expected between 5 and 33 times as often.” With the stakes raised, Sharon Astyk argues that it will be increasingly better to be safe than sorry, writing “as climate change alters the frequency and intensity of natural disasters, we are going to have to change our basic response, which is often to minimize and deny.”  Meanwhile, on EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse exposes Mitt Romney’s waffling support for federal emergency management. Rosenhouse writes, “it makes no sense to think the federal government has no role in relieving the devastation caused by a major storm that disrupts life in several states.”  And Liz Borkowski argues in favor of federal safety nets on The Pump Handle, writing “risk pooling is a central concept in health insurance, and it applies to disasters as well.”  Liz concludes, “we’re stronger as a nation when work together as a whole – and sometimes it takes a hurricane to remind us of that.”