free debate

July 19, 2010

Using Courts to Silence Science

John Adams famously said "Facts are stubborn things." In life and in science we sometimes get the answers we want, and sometimes we don't. When the facts don't go your way you only have a few options. Change your opinion, ignore them, or try to get rid of them. I'm sure we all have someone in our lives who is so stubborn they just won't change to new information. Our natural response as humans is usually to one of the latter two. Scientists strive to do the first even though it can be hard to give up a cherished idea. Personally, I like being right. This makes it hard to admit when I am wrong so I consciously work to override that gut reaction. Still there will always be those who refuse to accept those stubborn facts.

In 2008 Simon Singh wrote an article that said chiropractors were claiming to treat disease without the evidence to support those claims. In response the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) responded not by showing the evidence, not by responding with facts. Instead they tried to get rid of the facts by suing Simon for Libel. As the exposure of the trial grew it became more and more apparent that they did not have the evidence to back them at at one point they even advised chiropractors within their association to take claims off of their websites. It took almost before two years the BCA dropped the charges and only after Simon had spent over 200,000 Pounds (aprox. $307,500). The BCA couldn't change the facts, so they tried to get rid of them.

Now in the last month a similar series of events has begun here in the US. When I have questions or want information on quack or alternative medicine one of my first stops is It is an excellent resource for these issues with well written articles that cite the scientific evidence and explain its significance on lots of issues. On June 18th this year the owner of, Dr. Stephen Barrett, was sued by Doctor's Data also for libel. They neglected to tell Dr. Barrett where he mistaken in his articles but that he must take them all down. Doctor's Data can't change the facts, so they are trying to get rid of them.

Now I fully admit that in such a short article I am leaving out lots of the complexity in each of these cases. I also need to point out that many cases of libel are legitimate. That said, using libel to science your critics is dishonest, deceptive, and unscientific. This approach of using the courts is not just used by alt. med practitioners but also creationists and other groups who don't have the evidence to play by the rules of science. I find attempts to science the evidence and facts despicable. I think the best thing to do in these cases is grow awareness. The more people know this is going on and its risk to the public, the less  effective it might be as a strategy.  Dr. Stephen Barrett and Simon Singh have the resources in court but many who criticize quacks and cranks do not. "Facts are stubborn things," but they can be buried in the absence of a vigilant public.

July 16, 2010

Record Flight of the Solar Plane

The Zephyr taking to the air
A neat little follow-up: A little over a year ago, I ran across a story on a novel concept: a solar airplane. That version was a prototype for a manned version, that hopes to take flight across the Atlantic by 2012 and eventually around the world. A few days ago, I noticed that, while the solar plane of Bertrand Picard is still a ways out, there is another solar plane hoping to circuit the world.

Developed by the British research company QinetiQ, the Zephyr planes are already showing fantastic results. One prototype ran flew for a continuous 83 hours. The latest model has a 22.5 meter wingspan, state-of-the-art solar panels, and lithium-sulfur batteries that power its twin propellers. The batteries can keep it running night at night, and recharge during the day. It's light, it's efficient, and it's a plane that flies completely pollution free. The QinetiQ team is hoping to fly a Zephyr around the world by 2012, the same year that Picard's team hopes to fly a person across an ocean. We're still a very long way from solar panels replacing jet fuel, but this technology hints at a bright future for flying on alternative energy.

UPDATE (July 16): QinetiQ has announced today that the Zephyr has been up in the air over Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona continuously for over 168 hours, putting it at a full week. The goal is to keep it flying for another week, thus proving the plane can stay aloft indefinitely. This is an incredible achievement, and the applications for this kind of technology are unlimited: surveillance, communication, earth observation... It is truly a technological breakthrough, and a major win for solar and other alternative energies.

Source: BBC News: Zephyr solar plane set for record endurance flight
UPDATE: QinetiQ Zephyr UAV; QinetiQ website
BBC News- Zephyr solar plane flies 7 days non-stop

Thanks to Douglas Millard at QinetiQ's press office for the update.

July 5, 2010

The Jump to Multicellular

How life on this planet began is something I've discussed multiple times in the past, for instance here. This wasn't the only major milestone in the evolution of life as we know it, however. The step from unicellular creatures to multicellular ones is on par with the development of life itself, both in importance and in how little we understand it. Obviously, by the Cambrian explosion, life had made the jump from single-celled creatures to multicellular animals: this was about 550 million years ago. However, this was most certainly not the first time multicellular creatures appeared on the young planet Earth. A new discovery sets the date far back, to about 2.1 billion years ago.

The new species, found in Gabon
At a first glance, these new fossils don't seem that impressive. They look a bit like a squashed seashell; each is flat disc, around 5 inches long, with small slits and ridges along the edges. However, only a few other complex organisms, including Grypania spiralis, have been found at such an age (Grypania is about 2.0 billion years old). This new fossil demonstrates that Grypania was not as much of an exception as previously though. If other multicellular species existed around the 2 billion year old mark, then perhaps it wasn't so much a random accident as an evolutionary trend, arising from changing conditions on planet Earth. This is known as convergent evolution. In similar environments, filling a similar role in the ecosystem, two unrelated species may develop very similarly, as that is the ideal form to fill that role. Dolphins and sharks could be an example of this today.

For the first complex creatures, 2 billion years ago, the factor that seems to have changed is oxygen. A few million years prior (barely any time at all in geologic history), oxygen levels spiked. The development of photosynthesis proved highly successful, and the content of the atmosphere changed as single-celled, algae-like organisms began consuming carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. This in turn changed the temperature of the planet, the chemistry of the air and ocean, and created a lot of evolutionary pressure. In modern environments, when bacteria are under these sorts of stressors, they tend to clump together, communicating and sharing resources. Paleontologists suspect that something similar happened 2 billion years ago, to the point where the bacteria became so interdependent that they became a single organism, instead of many separate ones. If this is true, then they expect that more of these little disc-shaped creatures will be found in ancient rocks around the globe. It's certainly a viable explanation, and takes us one step closer to solving a great mystery in the evolution of life as we know it.

Source: Wired Science- 2-Billion-Year-Old Fossils May be Earliest Known Multicellular Life