Friday, June 29, 2007

She's mad as hell and she's not going to take it any more...

A non-science Heroine of the day:

On the 27th June, the producer of MSNBC's "Morning Joe" show decided to lead with the story of a certain celebutante's release from chokey. This on the same day that Republican Senator Richard Lugar decided to defy President Bush on the Iraq war. News anchor Mika Brzezinski does not want:

Mika: "I have an apology as well, and that is for our lead story... I didn't choose it... I hate this story and I don't think it should be our lead ... move the prompter, thank you, alright, to the news now."

and later, as the male anchor (the eponymous "Joe"?) concludes his talking points about the senate and the house of representatives pressuring Bush to scale back the troops in Iraq, Mika begins her news rundown with:

"Well, you'd think we'd be leading with that story."

Go Mika!

Saturday, June 23, 2007

"The name of the page has been changed"

Or why the word "quack" seems to have been adjudged to be inflammatory.

The ever bombastic pharmacology Professor David Colquhoun has been running a "quackery" blog for some time. In it he takes on the purveyors of such woo-woo as "blood cleansers" and "magic water". His posts are less readable than the taut prose of Ben Goldacre, and he can get even more frothing than James Randi. What he says about pseudoscientific quackery, a multi-billion pound industry which preys on ignorance and fear, is ill-tempered but well founded.

Recently, the husband of one of these placebo-mongers launched a "kitchen sink" legal action which, according to Colquhoun and UCL provost Malcolm Grant, included: allegations of defamation, malicious falsehood and breach of copyright; enquiries under the FOI and a demand that "a paper [be] circulated to all UCL Council members concerning an alleged misuse of IT resources and possibly office space and secretarial facilities by Professor Colquhoun". UCL, in what must be conceded was a responsible, if ass-covering, move requested Colquhoun's blog be shelved whilst a QC was summoned to give advice.

Long story short - the blog is back. Ben Goldacre covers the public statement released after the advice was given. The joint statement by Colquhoun and Grant concludes:

"UCL... continues strongly to support and uphold Professor Colquhoun’s expression of uncompromising opinions as to the claims made for the effectiveness of treatments by the health supplements industry or other similar bodies"

The victory was not complete however. In thesis speak, some minor emendations were required. Colquhoun writes:
"The name of the page has been changed from quack.html to improbable.html on [the] advice of lawyers"

Who says lawyers don't have a sense of humour.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Genes for tones

Two "learning outcomes" for this post today: 1) "genes for" cognitive functions appear to be even rarer than is typically thought and 2) getting money to do science requires doing some of the work for free or cheaply here in the UK.

So - on to point one: Pure Pedantry reports on the [PDF] Dediu and Ladd study into genetic correlates of features of language.

No correlates were found for most features (the presence of dialects, phoneme distribution etc). Only one correlation has been found: different alleles of the genes ASPM and Microcephalin are correlated with whether or not language is tonal.

Figure 1 in the PDF paper neatly shows the relationship between haplogroups (specific sets of alleles) and the use of tone in language. Having low frequencies of allele (type) 'D' of the gene ASPM in the population is correlated with tonality. Having high frequencies of Microcephalin allele 'D' is correlated with the absence of tonality. The authors conclude that:

"We assume that any such bias is very small at the individual level and becomes manifest only at the population level through the process of cultural transmission. We also assume that the bias is probabilistic in nature and that many other factors, including language contact and history, also govern the process of language change and affect its outcome. Our findings therefore do not support any racial or deterministic interpretation. Finally, note that this bias could be either for or against tone, but the fact that nontonality is associated with the derived haplogroups (Fig. 1) suggests that tone is phylogenetically older and that the bias favors nontonality."

So the older alleles are correlated with tonality, but there are fewer tonal "phenotypes" than non-tonal ones. It would be tempting extrapolate from this that tonal languages are older than non-tonal languages. But the authors state clearly that they have only found a correlation, not a causal relationship, between certain alleles of ASPM and Microcephalin. That is, there is no evidence that certain alleles of ASPM and Microcephalin "make for" tonality in the brain.

Language Log is pretty sceptical of the meaning and provenance of this correlation. A response by the paper's authors can be found here. The authors' justification for searching for this correlation, whilst ignoring gene function studies at this stage is illuminating, and brings us on to learning outcome 2:

"[W]e knew that ASPM and Microcephalin are involved in brain development. So if it was a hunch, it was a reasonably well-grounded hunch... [O]ur geographical correlations would mean more if they had proceeded from some experimental demonstration of some sort of genetically linked, language-related, cognitive/behavioral/perceptual difference. But given the widespread assumption (rooted in the Boasian tradition, but with a significant contemporary boost from Chomsky) that the human language faculty is absolutely uniform across the species, it's very unlikely that we would have been able to get funding to look for such a difference first. So we started by doing something we could do on our own without such support, namely testing the apparent correlation. Having done that, we hope we are now in a better position to apply for funding for the expensive part of the research. This might seem backwards, but it's a pretty common way of doing genetic mapping studies: start from your phenotype, use correlational studies to identify plausibly associated genetic markers, and then try to understand experimentally what the genetic markers actually do."

(Emphasis mine)

This makes perfect sense. Do the quick and cheap investigation first, especially if the odds appear to be against finding something. Once you have more data, get the money to do the expensive stuff. It does mean that most UK academics end up doing "weekend research" or "slush fund research" just to get to the point where they can actually get the money to do the work that they have in fact already begun. It's one of those pragmatic compromises that is far from perfect but seems to work. Like democracy.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Is this what a lead baloon looks like?

So the London 2012 Olympics logo has garnered more brickbats than bouquets since its unveiling, with the petition against it standing at 43,442 signatures as at 16.35. And now it emerges that the video to launch the logo is in breach of Ofcom guidelines on the use of flashing images and that the version on the website has been pulled after causing seizures in viewers with photosensitive epilepsy. Is this the logo of doom? Or is this an attempt to preempt all the Olympic 'bad karma' that seems to affect host cities?

The BBC website is carrying a poll where readers' designs are pitted against the logo of doom. So far the favourite logo, a neat mash up of the figure 2012 and the word London is 10 times more popular than the official logo. Heigh ho - this could be a long five years.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Putin unveils his defence plans

Missiles aimed at Europe, sure. But I can't wait to see his "gigantic, humanoid robots.

Funnily enough - I didn't find the bit about robots to be the most disturbing part of that inteview.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Carnival time:

Scientiae is up at FemaleCSGradStudent's place. Check out FCSGS's Hierarchy of needs: a Maslow for today's woman in science.