Dowsing in the 21st Century: The ADE 651

June 21, 2010

Pseudoscience is an insurmountable obstacle that will never cease to exist. When I think of snake oil salesmen and charlatans, I imagine them peddling “cures” from town to town in the 17th and 18th centuries. From personal experience, I know how easy it is to believe this sort of quackery would never exist in today’s modern world. Yet, even with our knowledge and experiments, pseudoscientific claims and merchandise continue to line the pockets of deceivers.

Worst of all, in our society such scams deter consumers from products that have been proven to be effective. These days, rather than snake oil salesman preaching to the public on the streets, we have ‘natural cures‘ salesmen preaching on late night television infomercials. Instead of fortune-tellers, we have psychic call-lines. Today, the vatican still has an official exorcist, ghost-hunters have television shows, and newspapers continue to print daily horoscopes. Obviously, none of these things are based on reality yet they continue to persist in this more advanced society.

At this point you might be asking yourself if there is any harm in this. Why not let people have faith in their beliefs? After all, it might bring them enjoyment from a benign false assumption. My answer to this outlook is that, time and time again, it has been shown that what seem to be benign pseudoscientific beliefs do ultimately cause a lot of harm to many people. To use a recent example of this, I would like to present to you exhibit A: The dowsing rod.

Dowsing has existed since the 15th century. Back then, people would use special rods that would be held loosely with their hands to detect water or precious metals in the ground. While walking, the dowsing rod would be pointed to different spots and would swivel if the object being searched for were present there. Any sort of movement by the rod would signify a positive signal. Many of these dowsing rods were simple tree branches, while others were made of more specific metals and were said to work better.

Dowsing rods come in different shapes, sizes, and materials.

From a scientific perspective, the dowsing rod works like an ouija board. When a person holds the rod over a promising location, his subconscious secretly moves his hands in a way that makes it seem like the dowsing rod has a positive signal. This is termed the idiomotor effect, which on wikipedia is defined as, “a psychological phenomenon wherein a subject makes motions unconsciously.” For centuries, hopeful searchers believed that a stick was pointing them in the right direction while unknowingly making the decisions for themselves. Who knows how many people attempted to find water in harsh environments using such a rod. The good news is that today people understand much more and wouldn’t be so thick as to use a rod to guide their life-dependent decisions. Right?

Wrong. Enter the ADE 651 “remote portable substance detector.”

This nifty invention utilizes only the best modern technology. According to its makers, it uses “electrostatic magnetic ion detection.” I’ll quickly point this out as a red flag. It is not uncommon for today’s charlatans to mask their devices and cures in what sounds like sophisticated scientific jargon. It sounds nice, but it means nothing! So how’s it work? Well, since this ‘electrostatic magnetic ion detector’ is so sophisticated, we can imagine its parts to be very advanced. Here’s what wikipedia has to say about it:

“The ADE 651 consists of a swivelling antenna mounted via a hinge to a plastic handgrip. It requires no battery or other power source, its manufacturer stating that it is powered solely by the user’s static electricity. To use the device, the operator must walk for a few moments to “charge” it before holding it at right angles to the body. After a substance-specific “programmed substance detection card” is inserted, the device is supposed to swivel in the user’s hand to point its antenna in the direction of the target substance. The cards are claimed to be designed to “tune into” the “frequency” of a particular explosive or other substance named on the card.”

An ADE 651 dowsing rod being used.

Does this sound familiar? It turns out that the ADE 651 is nothing more than a dowsing rod marketed as a high-end tool. The manufacturers claim that it can detect anything from bank notes to human bodies and does so through walls, underground, underwater, and even in airplanes 5 km high. That is SOME device! It is a wonder that every police officer doesn’t have one of these on them…

Now I know that there are plenty of people out there who would believe in this sort of quackery. Not many people can think critically when overwhelmed with scientific jargon. But surely there would not be entire organizations buying into this stuff! By now you probably know where I’m going with this.

Enter the Iraqi Police Service and Iraqi Army. In a place as dangerous as Iraq, a detector of all substances would be an incredible advantage to the police force. It is unfortunate that the Iraqi military and police force have bought into these claims. They have embraced the ADE 651 not for precious minerals or water detection, but to detect bombs.

How a country’s government can so severely lack critical thinking is beyond me. Iraqi police and militia are roaming the streets with a shaky antennae attached to a plastic handle, thinking they’re actually detecting explosives. It is so sad, and so dangerous.

Adding insult to injury, not only did they get fooled into this con, but they got completely ripped off! How much does a magical antenna cost? Oh, let’s see here… in 2008 the Iraqi militia bought 800 of such dowsing rods for a mere $32 million dollars. And what’s a great con-artist do when he has someone hooked? He takes advantage of his victim’s gullibility and takes even more money. That’s exactly what ATSC (UK) Ltd.’s owner and ADE 651′s developer, Jim McCormick, did. In 2009, his company charged the Iraqi military a substantially higher amount of $53 million dollars for only 700 of these devices. I wonder how much more they’ll pay this year. To give the Iraqi government some credit, I’ll point out that the Mexican government bought a single ADE 651 for $60,000 dollars.

Jim McCormick, owner of ATSC and developer of the ADE 651. No scientific background.

To be honest, I was surprised by how much it even cost the company to make one of these. The manufacturing cost of $250 was much more than I expected for a dowsing rod. I think the biggest winners here could be the British and Romanian manufacturers who assembled the product for ATSC (UK) Ltd. I wouldn’t be surprised if they payed only a few dollars to create the device.

The more serious side of this is, of course, the lives that may have been lost due to this scam. I mentioned earlier how one of the problems with scam products in a technologically advanced society is that they are used in place of products that really do work. Allowing a shaman in the middle of an African desert to use cow blood as a cure won’t do much except to allow him to keep his faith, but allowing people to treat diseases with homeopathic products in countries with proper pharmacies on every street causes serious indirect harm. The same goes for this situation. Imagine how much better equipped the Iraqi military would be with a combined $85 million dollars of tested and approved bomb-detection equipment. Or how much more efficient the soldiers would have been searching cars using their instincts and experience instead of the movement of a flimsy antenna. Who knows how many bombs may have been missed because of this?

That is why it is so important for people to understand how much pseudoscience and fraud there is in our more advanced society and how important critical thinking skills are. A few critical thinkers is all that would have been needed to prevent this from happening. Now it’s too late and we can only speculate on the damage that was done.

Luckily, there won’t any new ADE 651′s sent to Iraq because the whole company producing them is under investigation. Jim McCormick was arrested in January,  and it was made illegal in England to export the devices out of the country. I’m curious if the Iraqi government will continue to use the dowsing rods they already own. It’s easy to picture a police task force 10 years from now using rusted dowsing rods to find terrorists. After all, it must be so hard, psychologically, to admit that you spent over $85 million on a piece of plastic with a swiveling antenna on it.

Iraqi officers using the ADE 651.


My Top 5 Logical Fallacies

June 14, 2010

Often times during debate the internal logic of one’s argument is constructed in a way that makes little sense. Such ways of arguing use what’s called “Logical Fallacies“: arguments that are meant to sound logical but when broken down do not actually make any sense. Thus, they are a fallacy in logic.

There are many types of logical fallacies, but there are approximately 5 that are used most often and that I see crop up all over the place. If you understand these logical fallacies, you will have a great deal of an advantage during debate. It will allow you to deconstruct other people’s arguments and will also help distinguish those that actually make logical sense from those who don’t.

Without further a-dieu,  I present to you my top five logical fallacies:

Logical Fallacy #1: The Strawman

A strawman argument is where one establishes a false belief by another and then attacks this belief, even though no one has explicitly agreed with it. It is called a strawman argument as a metaphor: the debater is arguing a false assumption that does not actually exist, rather than the real claims.

From my anecdotal experience, I would say that this argument is definitely one of the most used logical fallacies.

An example of this is when creationists say something like, “Atheists believe that everything came from nothing!” This is a strawman because no one is actually claiming that everything came from nothing. Instead, most atheists would argue that we simply don’t know where everything came from and probably will never know. Not that everything came from nothing!

Logical Fallacy #2: Argument from Authority

This one is a bit tricky. Certainly the opinions on subjects of experts in particular fields should be valued higher than those of untrained laymen. However, experts are disproved all the time. You will find doctors who believe that vaccines cause autism, chemists who say they have developed cold fusion, and engineers who believe in perpetual motion. These are all claims that have been disproven countless times, but yet there are always cranks out there that believe in this stuff.

Worst of all, this logical fallacy is often used to boost an argument  by using someone as a reference who is not even an expert in the field being discussed. For example, I recently was told that Sir Ken Robinson’s opinions on education were correct because he was knighted. Sure, that’s great, but does his status as a knight make his arguments any stronger? Not necessarily.

Another example of this is when opponents of genetically-modified agriculture point to the British royal family. Prince Charles is sternly opposed to genetically modified food and his status as a prince is used to bolster his argument. How would he know whether or not genetically modified food is good or bad? Just because he is a prince does not mean he is correct about everything he says.

This logical fallacy is countered with an understanding that no ONE individual’s opinion should be used to make up your mind about anything. Rather, it is always best to look at what all the experts of a subject believe. Also, what have the studies shown? It is the complete scientific literature that should be used when constructing our beliefs.

For example, there will always be a study here or there that shows that homeopathy is useful, but 95% (at least) of the scientific literature disproves homeopathy with well-constructed studies. Therefore, it does not work.

Logical Fallacy #3: Ad hominem

Ah, yes. The ad hominem logical fallacy.This one is probably the easiest to remember (by concept, not name). An ad hominem argument is one where the debater personally attacks the other. This can be a very straight forward attack, such as, “well you are an idiot, so why should I listen to you?” Or, it can be more concealed, such as “you have no educational degree in this, therefore you’re opinion on X can’t be taken seriously.”

One of the most common ways this argument is used has been demonstrated by believers of pseudoscience when they describe someone as “close-minded” because they don’t believe what they do.

You don’t believe in the paranormal because you are a close-minded person.”

If you hear something like this, it is an ad hominem argument with no bearing on the question at hand.

Another very common ad hominem argument used by many believers of alternative medicine  is the discrediting of doctors through claims that they are in the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry, or Big Pharma as it is colloquially called. A recent example of this can be seen on the ridiculous and harmful website Age of Autism, where an ignoramus attempts to disqualify a new study linking autism to genetic defects by claiming that a scientist involved has conflicts of interest and is secretly working for a pharmaceutical company. His argument is deconstructed here on a great skeptical and medically-related blog.

Logical Fallacy #4:  Post-hoc ergo propter hoc

This is another very common logical fallacy. Its latin wording translates into, “after this, therefore because of this.”

Many people in their lives believe that something caused another thing to happen simply because it occurred before it. I have seen this from friends who have argued that the over-the-counter ‘cold-busting’ supplement Airborn helps with colds.

A cold usually goes away after a few days. When people take Vitamin C or other supplements after the onset of a cold, they get better afterwards because the cold’s natural regression had occurred. Yet countless of people believe in such ‘cures’ because they felt better not long after beginning their pseudo-medical treatments. This can lead to a vicious circle of confirmation bias, where the patient unconsciously cherry-picks positive results from his life and continues to confirm his already existing beliefs.

Another example of post-hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning is seen in those who pray for something that actually does happen. They pray that they get better, and they do. Therefore, the prayer worked. Once again, the occurrence of whatever was prayed for was only a coincidence.

Logical Fallacy #5: Ad ignorantum (The Argument from Ignorance)

This logical fallacy stems from the belief that if we don’t know something, it must have a particular reason for occurring or existing. Those who use this argument most are probably UFO-believers. The mere fact that a UFO is an Unidentified Flying Object is enough for them to believe that UFOs are alien spacecrafts.

The logic is as follows: since we don’t know what the flying object was, therefore it must have been an alien. This obviously does not hold up because it could be any number of other things that are much more likely (remember the Occam’s razor principle?). Perhaps they were military air crafts, weather balloons or a myriad of other possibilities.

Another example of this is when believers of extra-sensory perception say that humans only use 10% of their brains. Their logic is that because we don’t know what the other 90% is used for, therefore it must be, or can be, used for extra senses that are beyond our normal everyday abilities. Ignorance about something simply can not be used to make a logical argument. I should also quickly point out that we do in fact use 100% of our brains anyway.

People who argue with this fallacy don’t grasp the idea that we don’t know a lot of things and perhaps one day we will but ,even if we don’t, that does not mean that one particular unsupported answer is fact.

Conclusion

This is only the beginning of the many logical fallacies that exist out there. For me, too much information can be detrimental to my learning. Therefore, I thought it would be best to list only the five most common fallacies people make when constructing logical arguments. If you read this, you may begin to see these forms of logic crop up from time to time. And if you continue to make conscious notice of them, you will find, like I, that logical fallacies are inherent in our daily lives. They are everywhere.

If you are interested in reading the rest of the logical fallacies that I did not feel like mentioning, please feel free to check out Steven Novella’s summary of logical fallacies. There are many more important ones that are worth reading about and if you truly learn them, you will be equipped with a system of debating that few people have.


The Biochemical Essence of Life: Carbon

June 6, 2010

I recently had a discussion with some friends of mine about life on other planets, a field called Astrobiology (or Exobiology) that was partly started by a hero of mine, Carl Sagan. The discussion unfolded into pondering what other forms of life could exist, and what it takes to make life. Two theories became apparent:

1) Extremes in the environment of other planets could allow for life to be based on different elements and processes that we don’t know about.

2) On the other hand, it seems like the elements and processes that exist here on Earth are so much more likely to be the gestalt of life that theorizing about other ways that life could arise is pointless.

Here’s why i think the second explanations is the correct one:

Carbon

Aspirin

The basic building block of life on the planet is carbon. Carbon is a divine element. What makes carbon so special is that it has the ability to make four bonds to surrounding atoms. Even more importantly, it can bind to other carbon atoms very easily, making it essentially a 4 sided building block for the creation of multi-atomed molecules. Ever see a picture like the one on the right? Every kink in the chain is a carbon molecule.

Other molecules more rapidly crystallize into uniform structures, like this depiction of a salt crystal.

This is vital for the creation of life. The components of life are all created with carbon: carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids (DNA & RNA). No other elements have properties to create such diverse, large and structurally unique molecules. Heavier elements are too large to create thin chains, and usually form uniform crystal lattices instead of unique structural combinations. In fact, the only other element that has properties like carbon and could be considered suitable for creating life is silica and it also tends to crystalize, rather than allow for complex structures to be created.

In contrast, look at the incredible properties of carbon-based molecules: Diamonds are pure carbon and are the hardest substance known to man. No other material can cut them. Carbon nanotubes can self assemble and provide not only incredible strength, but also electrical, optical, thermal and kinetic properties like no other materials. Graphite, also a pure carbon-based molecule is the lead in your pencil. Oil in your car is made of carbon, and the plastic of your keypad is carbon-based.

Try making such a diverse array of properties out of any other element! Metals will give you alloys, but will pretty much still be a metal. Gasses can be liquified but, once they are made solid, require some seriously extreme environments that would in-of-themselves cause a lot of complications for life to be sustained. Any expert chemist will quickly tell you that carbon is the only element that can be the backbone of so many different types of molecules with the properties required for organisms.

Energy

Another key feature of carbon is that its bonds are strong enough to resist environmental stresses, but weak enough to be manipulated by our bodies with enzymes. This is a requirement of any organism’s metabolism.

A basic depiction of how we take our carbon-based molecules and interchange them freely into the rest.

When we eat a piece of pork knuckle, the cooked muscle of another animal is chopped up into tiny pieces inside our guts, absorbed, and then reassembled into either our own muscle (if we are weight lifters), immediate fuel (in the form of sugars), or into fatty tissue (if you are like me) that deposits around your thighs (women) or bellies (men) and sits there until you are starving and require it, which in the Western world pretty much never happens.

Throughout these processes, we are either breaking bonds between atoms, or forming bonds between atoms. What this all leads to, is a net gain of energy into our bodies. We are taking this animal muscle, which has a higher state of energy, and we are ultimately excreting a much lower energy byproduct. The excess energy we gain from all of this is stored within the carbon-based molecules inside our bodies.

The ability of carbon-based molecules to so easily store and release energy is a necessary requirement for life. Other elements simply can not be manipulated like this to utilize, store, and relocate energy.

Compartmentalization and Water

Life would also require some sort of compartmentalization to exist. This is an assumption that I think can be assumed to be true. You can not have a uniform hunk of metal or cloud of gas be alive. You need to separate things from each other. There are always detriments inside life forms that need to be stored away safely (usually the left over waste from energy stores), and there are molecules that need to function in a specific environment. Furthermore, the life form itself can’t be exposed to the environment because that would be too risky. It would need something covering it to keep its insides safe, like skin on us or exoskeletons on arthropods (insects, crabs, etc.).

When we compartmentalize molecular substances, we need to have some sort of matrix to sustain everything in. Here on earth that matrix is water. If there is any element that I give most praise to, it’s carbon, but if there’s any molecule I give most praise to, it’s water. A simple bonding of two hydrogen atoms on either side of a much larger oxygen atom creates a unique molecule that should be a gas, but whose properties allow it to remain a liquid at a much higher temperature than expected of such a small molecule.

One of the greatest properties of water is that it has a very strong polarity. Essentially, there are polar molecules (hydrophilic), like water, and there are non-polar molecules (hydrophobic) like oil. These opposite polarities prevent them from mixing, like two ‘poles’ on the opposite side of a magnet. So one easy way to keep things separated from each other within a life form is by using either polar or non-polar liquids as a matrix for the rest of the working molecules, and using another substance of opposite polarity to compartmentalize things from each other.

To imagine this, think of dropping a dye into a glass of water, and then imagine dropping a dye into a glass of water with some olive oil poured on top. The dye would have a difficult time working its way down through the oil into the water below because it is water based and is repelled by the oil!

To bring this back to the original point: Carbon can be used to create oily substances that then allow us to compartmentalize cellular components from each other within a water matrix. So for life to be created from another element would require that element to be able to create both polar and non-polar forms of molecules.

Self-Assemblage

In the earliest origins of life, there must have existed a single molecule that could duplicate itself. Hot streams with glaring sunlight, volcanic heat, acidic environments, and a multitude of other environmental factors allowed for the existence of one molecule to replicate. Even if only to act as a template for other atoms to gather on top of it and form another type of molecule, this new cast could have allowed for corresponding atoms to rebind and form another form of the original molecule. This is the most basic way life formed and going into it any further would require a lot more words than it’s worth mentioning at the moment.

So what types of molecules could recreate themselves? As was mentioned before, these molecules would need to be based on an element that can form bonds capable of being strong enough to last for some time, but weak enough to be broken. It would be chain-like so as not to miss any hidden areas inside of it when replicated.

Today we know that this original molecule was probably a nucleic acid sequence that was similar to our DNA and RNA, our blueprints. Once again, the energy needed to create strands of a self-replicating molecule from elements more rare or non-existent in our life today would be tremendous. For life to form in such a manner, only the elements that we are made of would be able to be accomplish this.

Time

Finally, it should be noted how long it took life to form on our planet in this more simple and obvious way than many theorize. The earth is about four and a half billion years old. It took a billion years for life to occur on the planet. How much longer would it take for life to form in a more complex manner or with elements that are statistically less likely to develop into life? Twice as long? Ten times as long? The Universe itself is only 14 billion years old. The formation of life is not something that has infinite time to develop. There really is a time-limit involved, and for life to evolve using element other than carbon would certainly take a much higher amount of time to occur.

“Silicon-Based Life”

Finally, with all of this talk explaining how life can only form from carbon, I would like to mention that carbon-based life is not the only life that could exist. We can not forget robots. Life can exist “in-silico” once we create it. In this sense, life will definitely be different from how we know it. Robots with artificial intelligence are very likely to be invented sometime and this is the main life-form that I think could exist outside of a carbon-based design.

Already we are living in a time where people have microchips implanted into their brains, pacemakers into their hearts, and bionic limbs into their nervous systems. It would be interesting to see if life on earth continues to be biological, or strays into an in-silico form (or perhaps a combination).


The American Need to Invest in Science and Technology

May 31, 2010

Right now, the American people are experiencing the worst natural disaster in the history of their country. A kilometer deep in the Gulf of Mexico is an entire natural reserve of oil leaking into the ocean. Over the past decade, America’s lead in producing scientists, engineers, and novel research has been declining compared to asian countries like China. The BP oil spill has exposed this achilles-heel by leaving the American government helpless. If anyone can stop this oil leak, it is the private companies who spend the most money on scientific research. During Obama’s most recent press conference, he said,

“What is true is that when it comes to stopping the leak down below, the federal government does not possess superior technology to BP.”

Maybe America’s obsession with terrorism and wars has caused its politicians to forget that America’s position in the world is due not only to its power and strength but also to its brains and scientific knowledge. This is certainly the case when it comes to public education, where children are taught hardly any science anymore, leading to the scientifically most embarrassingly  ignorant population in the Western world. As a previous elementary school science teacher, I will say that the quality of our elementary science education is pitiful. This leads most americans to learn the majority of their scientific knowledge outside of school! However it usually takes some time before such lag in education begins to affect the actual production of gadgets and research and so far we haven’t felt the  inevitable effects of this scientifically-illiterate population maturing.

Thankfully, a recent bill has been approved by the House of Representatives that is awaiting Senate approval and will grant $84 billion dollars to scientific research and technology. This bill has been derailed twice already by the Republican party (A.K.A. the party of ‘No’) but has finally been approved. It is a good start to overcoming the recent decline in the U.S.A.’s role as the world’s leader in technological research.

In the New York Times, David Brooks discusses how this recent oil spill is one of many areas in the fields of science and technology that is becoming too complex for people to handle. Steven Novella writes in his blog that one possible solution to this problem is creating robots to help combat situations where humans are inadequate to stop disasters. This is already being done with the Deepwater Horizon oil leak by using BP’s underwater robots to fix the leaking pipe. It is such robots that are missing in the governments arsenal for stopping the growing slick. If they had pumped more funding into research in this area, perhaps they would have some of their own robots to use. For now, the American people and America’s ecosystems are in the hands of BP because they are the only ones with appropriate robots at their disposal.

I hope that this environmental disaster proves to the government how important scientific research and technology is for us. If we want to help prevent this sort of occurrence in the future, we should be producing more engineers and scientists and we should do so from an early age, rather than attempting to fill our textbooks with lies and unscientific religious beliefs. That way the next time something like this happens we will not only have more scientists and engineers we can rely on, but also better tools for the job.


Humans Create Synthetic Life

May 23, 2010

Science is undergoing the equivalent of the Cambrian explosion right now both metaphorically and literally. The summation of advances in different fields of science has created an exponential growth curve of our understanding and abilities so steep that we are propelled practically vertically into the skies above. With all the expanses in computer processing and medicine it is easy to overlook the speed at which the field of biology is expanding. This week, an article published in the journal Science has reminded many of us how advanced we are becoming in molecular biology.

Venter's Process

Craig Venter and his colleagues at the J. Craig Venter Institute have succeeded in synthesizing an entire genome that was implanted into a bacterial husk and lead to the creation of a small colony of man-made protozoans. The inserted DNA was from a different species of bacteria than the rest of the microbe yet caused the organism to transform into the species encoded by the DNA.  This marks the first time that a member of a species was created without ancestors. If you think genetically-modified food or organisms are a big deal, think about the implications of organisms with entirely synthesized genomes.

It’s very difficult to predict the implications and repercussions of new technologies but the potential benefits of this particular technique is massive. The scientists involved want to create an especially simplified template genome that has all the metabolic processes necessary to sustain life, so that they can later add whichever genes they choose for a multitude of purposes. This was the first step demonstrating that they can use a DNA sequence edited with computer software, synthesize it, and transform a bacteria into a different species with the digitally edited genome.

Some of the future implications for this include adding a gene for the metabolism of carbon dioxide. This would lead to bacteria capable of devouring carbon emissions from factories and power plants (maybe even the atmosphere). Other ideas include genes for creating pharmaceuticals or oil. Combine that with a gene to excrete the product and we could be using Craig Venter-patented bacteria to convert our landfills into gasoline (Exxon Mobile has invested $700 million with Venter already). Or, a modified bacteria with the opposite purpose could be used to devour oil slicks like the one in the Gulf before it bedaubs the coast.

"GloFish" are genetically modified pets already sold in pet stores.

This is only the start of what looks to be a new field in biology. Once we can apply this to eukaryotes, we will be able to synthesize new animals and plants. Forget about breeding dogs into new species (that is soo 20th century). Who’s to say we won’t be able to create our own dog with the characteristics of our choice instantly on our laptop? Send the DNA sequence code to the nearest laboratory and they’ll have your shitzdoodle delivered in no time.

Better yet, here’s to hoping I can have my children completely specialized to my own likings. Let’s add a couple inches to their height, eliminate any unnecessary  silent mutations or recessive diseases, brown hair, green eyes, +50 IQ points and **presto** little Robert Roman will have an expected life span of 130 years, good looks and a good brain to match. First stop, GATTACA!

Of course, there are those pesky ethical concerns that keep cropping up. Just like when people protested genetically-modified foods, which doubled our crop yields, now people are protesting against this. Ignoring the tremendous potential benefits, they point to religion and claim we are ‘playing God’ or worry that an evil scientist will create a superbug to destroy humanity. Their lack of evidence separates them from those actually conducting the research and is based solely on fear mongering.

The Human Genome

Craig Venter, the man in charge of much of this, has quite a repertoire for biological research. In the 90′s he criticized the Human Genome Project, a worldwide effort to map the human genome, for being too slow and instead started his own company that mapped it 3 years ahead of time. In 2007, with a team of researchers he mapped the first genome of an individual person: his own. He has been named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world twice. It’s my opinion that he will be remembered as one of the greatest minds of our generation.

Here’s a video of him talking about his research in 2008:

After this new accomplishment, it is suspected that he will synthesize a genome completely devised by human beings and unlike any species known to date. This new species is already patented and will possibly be named Mycoplasma laboratorium, although why one would need to establish a genus and species to an organism devised by man is beyond me. I assume that when we begin creating our own organisms, a new form of taxonomy will need to be devised and cladistics won’t be pertinent. M. laboratorium will probably be the aforementioned ‘simplest’ bacteria possible, and will serve as a blank slate to add other useful genes into.

In case you’re beginning to think we are reaching the limits of human technology, I posit that this is only the beginning. Imagine future synthetic life forms with genomes made of non-nucleotide molecules translating into structural components besides protein (carbon nanotubes would be nice). Perhaps people will devise inorganic life forms based on molecules other than carbon. Where will this research lead us a thousand years from now? Will humans use biology to better themselves, or will we integrate ourselves with computer systems and become silica-based “artificial life”? OK, that’s enough for now. These questions can be addressed in future blog posts.

:)


The Current Legalization of Marijuana is Unethical

May 15, 2010

Marijuana has been both steadily decriminalized and legalized for medical purposes in the United States since the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, where Californians voted to allow the use of marijuana with the guidance of a physician for the alleviation of symptoms for various medical diagnoses. Since that time there has existed a battle between the federal and State governments stemming from the federal governments blunt opposition towards the substance. Nevertheless, other States have since followed California’s lead and have also legalized its use for medical purposes.

Whether or not marijuana has therapeutic effects is becoming more evident with the coming years. Clearly, it has physiologic effects on both the mind and the body. Its active ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), is a cannabinoid that exerts its effects on the brain through its binding to cannabinoid receptors. Cannabinoids are neurotransmitters, and like other neurotransmitters can be used for therapeutic effects. For example, the neurotransmitter dopamine  is used to treat Parkinson’s disease (in the form of L-Dopa), which is caused by a deficiency of dopamine within the brain, and opiods, such as morphine, are used for analgesic properties. THC’s neurotransmitter effects show potential for future therapies and the molecule could help create similar drugs with different properties.

Tetrahydrocanabinnol (THC)

Although there exists this potential for marijuana to be used pharmacologically, we still do not know enough about it for it to be ethically made legal. All FDA-approved drugs that go on the market are tested through Phase I, II and III clinical trials before they are approved for release. These phases are extremely important as they help determine not only side effects but also dosages and other vital information required for optimum benefits and minimum risks. Without this sort of knowledge, patients can be harmed from over or under-usage, unexposed side effects, or potential adverse combinations with other pharmaceuticals.

These sorts of clinical trials, and large long-term studies have never been performed for marijuana. Ultimately, the federal government is to blame for this. As I write this, marijuana is a Schedule I substance according to the Controlled Substance Act that came into effect in 1970, along with heroin, cocaine, peyote and a multitude of extremely detrimental substances. Schedule I substances are defined to have “no current medical use.” If the United States government is to remain consistent with their legislature, they should surely drop marijuana to a Schedule II drug because research has shown it to have a multitude of potential health benefits, as well as side-effects.

The problem with marijuana being a Schedule I substance is that drugs of this legal caliber have a much stricter set of rules and circumstances for clinical testing. It is much more difficult for a research institution to study the effects of a Schedule I drug than it is for it to study a completely new drug synthesized in the laboratory. By definition, the same laws for researching heroin apply to researching marijuana, but researching a cholesterol-lowering drug or an anti-depressant is legally much easier. What this ultimately leads to is an inability for academia to research marijuana and study its effectiveness and proper dosages.

To counter the federal governments rigid stance on marijuana, 14 States have broken accordance with federal laws and allowed marijuana to be legal for medicinal uses anyway. This has created a sticky situation where the federal government is inconsistent with its own laws by refusing to reclassify drugs as new evidence deems them therapeutic, and individual States counteract this with their own inconsistency by allowing drugs with inadequate research confirming their efficacy to be medicinally legalized. Two wrongs don’t make a right. On top of all of this is the indecency of physicians who prescribe marijuana with inadequate clinical evidence to do so.

The lack of proper research on medical marijuana is evident through the completely different dosages that individual States recommend for their patients. A recent New England Journal of Medicine article about this very same subject has detailed information about the inconsistencies of marijuana dosing between different States. For example, Alaska allows patients a maximum of 1 ounce per month but Washington State allows 24 ounces and as high as 15 personal plants. Furthermore, the potency and quality of the plants themselves are undetermined and unregulated. Obviously, such guidelines are not based on any resounding proof or evidence of efficacy but rather politics alone. This exemplifies a completely unscientific approach that is necessary in modern medicine.

As of right now, medical marijuana is an alternative medicine that puts not only the patient and the doctor, but entire States, on thin ice legally. More importantly, however, if marijuana is to be used as a prescribed medicine it has to be researched as intensively as other drugs on the market. To do this requires a change in its classification from a Schedule I to a Schedule II drug by the federal government. Until then, its usage for medical purposes will continue to be unethical and potentially dangerous to patients.


Why Is Evolution Still Debated?

May 9, 2010

It always baffles me that to this day many people don’t believe in evolution. Even from my early days in grade school it seemed so obvious to me that human beings came from earlier species of animals. Other people don’t seem to grasp such fairly simple scientific concepts, especially in the U.S. where polls have shown that only 45% of Americans agreed with the statement, “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” That’s significantly less than the figure in Europe, which was 65%. Still shabby.

Last year I had a knock on my door and when I answered it there was two Catholic’s awaiting me to preach the good word of the Bible. They asked me if I was willing to speak to them about Jesus and the Bible, and I replied that I would be very grateful to discuss with them but that I was an atheist. After hearing this response, the considerably older one of the two was shocked. “You don’t believe in a God!?”, he asked. “No. Not at all.” The other member of the Biblical task force was a young guy that looked eager to confront a challenge.

He said to me, “But you must know that the evolution of feathers has never been proven and this is a major obstacle for the theory of evolution!” Every now and again, someone will use an argument that is so demonstrably false that you worry that if there was even a hint of truth to it your beliefs about something would dissolve. The more you learn, the harder it is for this to happen, and that poor kid had no idea who he was dealing with. He was like a sheep outside of a lions den, trying to convince the lion himself to become a vegetarian. I debunked his claim in about 3 sentences. But could anyone who doesn’t read general science articles and listen to science podcasts have done the same? Definitely not.

We bid each other adieu and went on our merry way. Who knows how many people will be led to believe his moronic assumptions? The nonsense will just keep on spreading.

Of note is the detail of his argument. The evolution of feathers? Comeon! That’s just going to make you sound like you know what you’re talking about. More importantly, it’s going to decrease the amount of people able to argue against the claim.

As someone who supports evolution, I find it so easy to come up with much more common sense arguments. Yesterday I thought about how humans lactate after delivery to feed their young, and how mice do the same exact thing. Is that a coincidence? Is it a coincidence that salamanders have hearts in their chests and that bacteria use oxygen with the same molecular mechanisms as us? Or that viruses use DNA just like we do?

According to polls, less than half of Americans that read this post will agree with my views. At what point will the evidence be so overwhelming that those numbers will rise? I guess since evolution has already been proven in just about every way possible, and nothing has come close to challenging it, evidence alone will never change people’s opinions on the subject.

Long-term Evolution Depiction


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