One aspect of meandering rivers that has always interested me is oxbow lakes. Oxbow lakes are parts of a meandering river that have been cut off from the main river and become U-shaped lakes with no inflow or outflow of water. They derive their name from the collar placed on the neck of oxes to which the plow is attached. Oxbow lakes are formed because in the bend of a curving river there is more erosion of the outer bank and more sediment deposition on the inner bank. Thus the shores at the narrow side of a river loop tend to erode and connect establishing a new channel for the river, sealing the loop, and turning it into a lake. Oxbow lake formation is a well-recognized consequence of the physics of meandering rivers and there are even mathematical models that explain their formation.
Even before science came of age, people living in river basins figured out that oxbow lakes formed as part of normal river dynamics. Although oxbow lake formation cannot be seen in real time because they can take decades to form, any meandering river has a number of these potential lakes in various stages of formation. All that smart people had to do was put together all these different stages in a sequence to figure out how oxbow lakes are formed. Today with the advent of satellites we can see the formation of oxbow lakes such as the one shown in the video below in the Ucayali River in Peru between 1985 and 2013.
As far as I know, the notion of linking together the different stages of oxbow lake formation to answer the question of how these landlocked lakes form never generated any controversy. You would probably agree with me that linking all these stages to form a sequence was the smart and logical thing to do. Now I want to connect the narrative of this post so far with its title and address in parallel the theory of evolution.
Even before modern science came along, fossils of plants and animals (different stages of oxbow lake formation) were being discovered all over the world that bore resemblance to modern plants and animals (fully formed oxbow lakes), but at the same time displayed some differences. Charles Darwin had the idea that (just as different stages of oxbow lake formation are linked) all these fossils were linked and represented ancestral forms of these modern plants and animals (stages of oxbow lake formation). Although Darwin’s idea at the time he formulated it came short of fully explaining how this could happen, modern genetics coupled to other disciplines like geology, embryology, chemistry, physics, ecology, and so forth have confirmed that Darwin’s idea is true.
I realize that there are differences between fossils and stages of oxbow lake formation. For example, fossils are static and represent the past, while the different stages of oxbow lake formation are dynamic and are all found in the present. Also, some of the biggest evolutionary changes take place over millions of years, so we will never be able to see this process in those time scales as we can see oxbow lake formation with satellites. But my main point is that if we want to know the origin of an entity, whether an oxbow lake or an organism, and we find several apparent stages in the development of that entity that seem to point to a sequence, then linking these stages to infer how the entity came into being is a perfectly logical and smart thing to do.
So why do so many Americans accept the theory of oxbow lake formation without any controversy but reject the theory of evolution? If it is legitimate to put together all the stages of oxbow lake formation to come up with an explanation regarding how these lakes arise, why is it not acceptable to do the same with fossils and living things including humans?
This is, of course, a rhetorical question. I know that creationism is based on a literal interpretation the Bible. Whereas scientists look at different stages of oxbow lake formation or fossils and then follow a bottom-up approach allowing observations and experiments to guide them in finding the truth, creationists take for certain whatever is in the Bible and follow a top down approach trying to fit observations or experimental results to scripture. I suspect that if the Bible contained a very specific religious description regarding the creation of oxbow lakes that had nothing to do with river dynamics, creationists would also be objecting current scientific explanations of oxbow lake formation.
I don’t mean to disrespect or belittle something as important as faith and religion. I subscribe to Stephen Jay Gould’s proposal that science and religion occupy what he called non-overlapping magisteria, and I am sympathetic to the plight of a creationist who with horror sees atheism as the only alternative to not believing literally in the creation story described in the book of Genesis. As I have explained before, I believe that science should not operate in a vacuum. We should provide believers with a way to reconcile their beliefs with the fact of evolution.
One possible way to do this involves the finding by the Pew Research Center that support for evolution as gauged by a poll can change considerably if the phrasing of the question is altered. If people were asked whether humans evolved over time by natural selection with God having nothing to do with this or whether humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time, 31% chose the latter alternative, which is the strict creationist interpretation. However, if the option was included to allow for God somehow guiding the evolutionary process giving rise to humans, support for the strict creationist view dropped to 18%.
Of course, it is not in the nature of science to deal with God or the possibility that God influenced evolution, but I favor approaches such as allowing for a role for God in the process of evolution as a means of making our population more accepting of basic scientific facts in order to avoid the needless wasteful social conflict that has dragged on for decades. That way we can speed up the day in which we will all accept that the natural history of oxbow lakes and living organisms have some things in common.
Image from the air of The Carstairs Meanders in the UK by Thomas Nugent is used here under an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license. The diagram of Ox Bow lake formation by Maksim is used here under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license. The image of the evolution of the horse by Mcy jerry is used here under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license.
A while ago I went to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland.There are many interesting exhibits in this museum such as slides made of Einstein’s brain and the bullet that killed President Lincoln. During my visit I saw an exhibit comprising a human skeleton. The skeleton belonged to an army veteran named Peter Cluckey who before his death in 1925 at age 43 donated his remains to the Museum. The unfortunate Mr. Cluckey had developed a disease that led to the stiffening and fusion of every joint bone in his body. The disease was severe chronic progressive ankylosing rheumatoid arthritis and spondylitis.
Most people are bewildered by some of these medical terms. Medical names can be indeed vexing, even for clinicians. The first few months of medical school involve learning a new language which medical students need to master to be able to participate in the diagnosis of diseases. In medicine, most terms for anatomical names or procedures are composed of Greek or Latin roots combined with prefixes and suffixes. For example the word pericarditis is made up of the prefix “peri” (meaning around), the root word “card” (heart), and the suffix “itis” (inflammation). Thus pericarditis means “inflammation around the heart”. It describes the inflammation of a layer of tissue called the “pericardium” which surrounds the heart. Additionally, as new diseases are discovered and new procedures are developed, new terms are generated which more often than not end up shortened to acronyms (for example, AIDS is acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). At the same time, some of old terms fall out of use. For example, the term “apoplexy” has been replaced by the term “stroke”. All of this generates great complexity, but it is something that most doctors seem to master, even if the patients are often perplexed.
In principle, terms used for medical diagnosis should communicate in a concise manner exactly what the patient has, and their meaning should be clear even to doctors who speak different languages. However, sometimes one feels that the doctors are overdoing it. Here is a look at some medical terms. If you have trouble pronouncing these words you can input them into this website which will pronounce them for you.
Have you ever experienced “ice cream headache” or “brain freeze”? This happens when a very cold foodstuff comes in contact with the roof of the mouth. Well in medicine this is called sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia.
If you ever had hiccups, what you really had was a synchronous diaphragmatic flutter.
If your intestines ever made noise due to too much fluid or gas, then you had borborygmus. And if you ever felt a sharp pain in the butt, you had proctalgia fugax, which sounds to me like a more sophisticated thing to have than a sharp pain in the butt.
Have you ever had an ingrown toenail? Well, for your information, you had either onychocryptosis or unguis incarnates depending on whether you choose the Greek or Latin terms.
Have you ever experienced formication (with an “m”)? This is the sensation that bugs are crawling on your skin. And if you ever had goosebumps, what you really had was horripilation.
Most people have experienced the sensation of their arm “falling asleep” due to having slept on top of it and blocked blood flow, this is called obdormition. The prickling sensation you experience when blood flow returns is called paresthesia.
If you have ever vomited, you experienced emesis. If you have ever belched, then you engaged in eructation. And if you ever had a hangover, you really had veisalgia.
Whereas the above words are relatively short, some of the big words in medicine are reserved for medical procedures or diseases.
If you ever had your tonsils removed, then you had a uvulopalatopharyngoplasty.
People who have a simultaneous inflammation of the urinary track, the bladder, and the kidneys have cystoureteropyelonephritis.
In men, low levels of sperm that display little movement and are irregular in shape is called oligoasthenoteratozoospermia.
An inherited condition of the thyroid gland that causes short stature and many problems with the joints is called pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism.
The procedure of imaging the esophagus, stomach, and a part of the small intestine called duodenum with a specialized scope is called an Esophagogastroduodenoscopy.
The longest word in Gould’s Medical Dictionary is hepaticocholangiocholecystenterostomy. It is a surgical procedure that creates a connection between the gall bladder and the hepatic duct and between the gall bladder and the intestine.
The most ironic of medical names is hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia. Believe it or not, this social phobia is the fear of long words! People with this phobia may feel dizzy, tremble, break out in sweat, and develop nausea, shortness of breath, and headaches when reading a long word. The singer-songwriter Bryant Oden composed a song using this word.
Finally, as if the above were not enough, groups of medical practitioners and medical centers develop slangs of their own. For example, the procedure of coronary artery bypass grafting, or CABG, is called “cabbage” by some. Not all slang is innocuous. When some patients end up in the intensive care unit because they did an incredibly stupid thing, some exasperated doctors that would rather be elsewhere than treating a dummy refer to the patient as having fecal encephalopathy (sh*t for brains)! Some doctors even use slang for each other. Thus the psychiatrists are the “Freud Squad”, the anesthesiologists are the “Gassers”, and the general surgeons are the “Slashers".
Medicine is an ancient profession with a vocabulary which has been influenced by many cultures that keeps shifting as knowledge evolves. While this creates some challenges for both doctors and patients, medical terminology is vital for communicating information accurately within the medical profession. So next time you see one of those medical terms, please don’t engage in lachrymation (crying) or bruxism (grinding your teeth) or experience hyperhidrosis (excess sweating). Just calm down and look up the term. You will most likely find it has a very precise and logical meaning.
The recent shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio again reignited the gun debate in our society. Invariably citizens are torn between the desire to regulate the availability of guns and concerns about infringing the constitutionally protected right to bear arms. Several solutions that are unrelated to gun control have been proposed to curb gun violence. Among these are to reduce the number of violent video games that some consider to be responsible for creating a culture of violence, and to target those individuals with mental health issues preventing them from owning guns. What does science have to say about this?
First let’s look first at video games.
There are relatively benign video games that are even educational, but a large number of video games display a certain level of violence which is required to advance levels in the game. Some video games are extremely violent allowing players to engage in the gory killings of monsters, aliens, human beings, or the characters of fellow players. A few feature torture scenes that are either part of the narrative or torture activities that the players have to complete. The most extreme ones feature rape and other forms of violence against women. Over the years a number of these games have been heavily criticized by citizen organizations and even banned in many countries, but this has only increased their notoriety and their sales.
The main question that scientists researching video games have endeavored to answer is whether playing these games makes kids more aggressive. The scientists investigating this issue seem to have split into two sides.
One side is represented by scientists such as Craig Anderson, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University, who insists that the issue was resolved a long time ago, and that the majority of studies have shown that playing violent video games indeed increase aggressiveness, decreases empathy, and is linked to delinquency and violent criminal behavior.
On the other side are scientists like Christopher Ferguson, a professor of psychology at Stetson University in Florida, who insist that violent video games do not increase aggression. He claims that many of the studies showing a positive association between violent video games and aggression were flawed. Ferguson and others have conducted studies of their own and have found no such association. He points out that youth violence has declined even as violent video games have become more available, that nations with the highest per person consumption of video games are among the world’s least violent, and that data from school shooters found no evidence of high consumption of media violence.
It seems that at the moment there is no scientific consensus on the question of whether video games increase aggression or not. Indeed, the Supreme Court in 2011 found the evidence not convincing enough to support restricting the selling or rental of video games to minors. Studies keep appearing both in favor and against the notion that violent video games increase aggression. Clearly scientists need to come together and solve problems with the methodology and design of their studies before a consensus can be reached. But even if it is found that video games indeed increase aggression, that is a far cry from connecting this to mass shootings.
What about mental illness?
Mental illness is brandished by many as the real problem behind gun violence. Most people state that mass shooters are mentally ill people and argue that to curb gun violence we have to curb mental illness. Is this true? Has this been studied by scientists?
The answer is yes, but first we need to make some distinctions. Mental illness as understood by psychiatrists to be specific disorders of thinking or mood such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and so forth, plays only a minor role in mass shootings. Only 3-4% of shooters were people who had mental illness defined this way, and this is considered by scientists to be a well-established fact. There are millions of Americans recovering from, being treated for or living with mental illness that do not pose a threat to society, and thinking otherwise just puts a stigma on this group of people and makes them prone to discrimination. The targeting of these people would have a minor impact on gun violence.
If it’s not things like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, what are the mental issues that most shooters have? Many (but not all) shooters are people who have what is called mental health issues (different from mental illness). They feel alienated, angry, resentful, and experience hopelessness about their personal situations. They harbor specific or general grudges against others, and some have a history of past violence combined with substance abuse. The problem is that many people have experienced issues of mental health in their lives without becoming violent. It is virtually impossible to put together a personality profile to predict who will become the next shooter and who will not.
So what can be done?
The National Council for Behavioral Health has put forward a comprehensive document that distils the scientific evidence regarding gun violence into actions that can be implemented at many levels of society. Among these actions are the Extreme Risk Protection Orders or Gun Violence Restraining Orders, also called Red Flag laws. These laws target individuals who are known to pose a high risk of harming others or themselves, and allow law enforcement officers to temporarily remove their guns with a court order. Red Flag laws are not based on mental illness but rather they are based on what are called “behavioral indicators of risk”.
Actions like the Red Flag laws coupled with others such as universal background checks could reduce gun violence and still respect the right to bear arms.
Screen from Grand Theft Auto IV by Silvio Sousa Cabral used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license. Mental illness image from Pixabay is free for commercial use.
Most people are interested in science and they admire and respect scientists, but I’ve noticed that some folks exhibit one of two extreme reactions.
1) Self-Disparaging: Scientists are smart. They talk about all these things and use all these words, and I can’t figure out what they are saying. Therefore I’m stupid.
I was once trying to explain to a person not educated in science a specific scientific issue. I was trying to describe things in a manner as simple as possible, but I didn’t seem to be having much luck in getting the point across. In the end the person excused himself for not understanding what I was talking about, and then he added, “I’m stupid”. Whereas some individuals, like the one I described, state outright that their intellect is defective, or at least not up to par, others get defensive and either try to bluff their way through a conversation involving science or try to avoid it all together. Sometimes I even sense an animosity, an unspoken tension, or hostility when a scientist is around. It’s like some people are concerned that they will be exposed as not knowing enough or as not being smart enough.
2) Dismissive: Scientists seem smart, but it’s really all talk and jargon. Anyone can be as smart as scientists and talk science and read and quote scientific studies. Not only that, scientists are often beholden to the interests of governmental or other institutions that fund their research, and they lie, misrepresent, or fake their results when their data don’t fit the facts to keep on being funded.
Due to the nature of my blog, I have had several exchanges with creationists, anti-vaccination advocates, conspiracy theorists, climate change deniers, and so forth. These individuals believe they know more than the experts who have dedicated their lives to understanding a particular scientific field. These people normally laugh my replies off with off base comments filled with little emoticons and links to junk science sites or lists of scientific articles of low quality.
I want to state here that both extremes are wrong.
I believe the first extreme exists due to the popular perception of what being smart means, its value to society, and how scientists tally up to this perception. Regarding this, I want to make the following points:
1) As I have posted before, intelligence has many components. The fact that one person excels in one of these components does not make him/her smarter than those that excel in others.
2) There is nothing magical of mysterious about being a scientist. Although, science can be performed at several levels, the basic qualification required to be a scientist is to think like a scientist. Anyone who does that can be a scientist.
3) We all have areas of specialization on which we have become knowledgeable. A climate scientist may know a lot about global warming but they may not make the best salesperson, farmer, restaurant manager, secretary, truck driver, accountant, etc.
4) We must not dismiss the knowledge we have of our particular area of expertise compared to others. Being a librarian may not look important compared to working at NASA shooting satellites into space, but we all fulfil a role in society and benefit groups of people with our work.
5) For scientists, explaining what we do to people who are not knowledgeable in science is very important. A key component of being “smart” is finding a way to get the point across. As a scientist, when I cannot explain some important scientific issue adequately to my audience, I consider it my failing, not that of my audience.
The flipside of the first extreme is the other extreme which I believe in recent times has been fueled partly by the vitriol unleashed against scientists by those aligned with special interests, or those subscribing to notions that scientists are dishonest or sold to government agencies or corporations. Regarding this, I want to make the following points:
1) When a person has dedicated their life to learning and studying an area of human knowledge such as a scientific discipline, this has to count for something. If you are not an expert in that area, suggesting that you know more than the experts is not only foolhardy but also disrespectful. This is nothing germane to scientists, as it also applies to any area of human expertise.
2) The scientific consensus achieved regarding issues such as climate change or the safety of vaccination is supported by many scientists from different countries and ethnicities who have different political, social, philosophical, and religious persuasions. They all agree because they have been finding the same things. It is risible to suggest that ALL these scientists have sold out in some sort of global conspiracy.
3) Scientists are human beings, and as such they can have moral or ethical failings and harbor contradictions. No one denies that. Most scientists are moral and ethical persons, or at least they try to be, and just like other groups of people in the overall population, the transgressions of a few individuals do not bear on the majority of scientists.
So to recap, yes, scientists are smart and they know a lot, but even if you do not understand many aspects of science, you also are smart and have specialized knowledge about your own area of expertise that is useful to society. Additionally, scientists have the responsibility of explaining science to non-specialists in a way that is accessible to them and that will better equip them as members of society to deal with issues like the climate change and vaccination controversies. Finally, scientists, like other professionals in our society, also are worthy of respect and should be recognized for their merits and judged on their individual actions. As with many things in life, we are better served by avoiding the extremes.
The image is a public domain picture from Pixabay free for commercial use.
In an out of the way street in the city of Baltimore in Maryland, behind a door flanked by the statues of two lions, lies the mythically named “Protean Books and Records” store. And within the confines of this store behind a set of dark curtains lies a single-room museum with a most bizarre collection of oddities named “Doctor Gloom’s Crypt of Curiosities”.
The collection was originally put together by Dr. Augustus Gloom, a gentleman with interests that ranged from the unusual to the morbid. The first incarnation of the crypt was opened to the public in 1954 in Greencastle, Indiana. It grew and remained open for two plus decades until Dr. Gloom was killed in a Ferris wheel accident in 1977. The collection then changed hands a few times and travelled across two states before being gifted to horror filmmaker Chris LaMartina and finding its way to its current location.
I visited Dr. Gloom’s Crypt of Curiosities this year, and you can see some of the things that I found there in the photographs below.
Now, why am I presenting this in a science blog? Let me be clear, Dr. Gloom’s Crypt is pure balderdash. I mean, Bruno the headless duck doesn’t even have webbed feet. It’s a chicken! Fiji mermaids have long been a well-known taxidermist folly. No conclusive evidence has ever been found for the existence of Bigfoot, and so on. This museum is nothing more than a combination of myth, anecdotes, hearsay, exaggerations, and fake artifacts. But it admits as much. The book I bought regarding the museum’s collection is titled: “Take Home Tourist Trap”. Dr. Gloom’s Crypt of Curiosities revels in its own fakeness. It follows the great tradition of the American Dime Museums which were popular places of entertainment for the working class during the latter part of the 19th century. I see visiting Dr. Gloom’s Crypt as some harmless fun no different from reading a work of fiction or watching a fantastic movie.
But what if I told you that right now in the United States there are a number of museums and theme parks that are presenting misinformation, fake claims, and beliefs as truths?
The places where this is done are the so-called creationist museums and theme parks. In these places you are told that the world is a few thousand years old, that there was a universal flood that covered the whole planet, that the animals we see around us today are descendants from those saved from the flood in Noah’s Ark, that dinosaurs and humans inhabited the same time period, and that evolution is not true. Not only are creationist arguments highly problematic but they ignore, twist, or misrepresent all the evidence generated by scientists that has conclusively demonstrated that these notions are false. The scientific evidence indicates that our world is billions of years old. Scientists have refuted creationists’ alleged evidence for a worldwide flood as well as the notion that humans and dinosaurs were contemporaries. The sheer diversity and stratification of fossils also refutes the universal flood/Noah’s Ark narrative, and evolution not only is a fact, but its tenets have been and are being applied to the betterment of our societies.
I don’t believe that creationists are dishonest on purpose, and I understand the reason why they do these things. Creationists take the narrative of the Bible as literally true. And if they limited themselves to issues such as values, ethics, and morality, that would be one thing. But creationists also take the narrative of the natural history present in the Bible to be literally true, and from there they try to fit it as best as they can to evidence that is incompatible with it. In essence creationists are trying to insert a square peg into a round hole, so to speak. Not only do their beliefs taint their interpretation of the facts, but they are also presenting them as true to a wider audience and influencing minds. Because of this, I cannot excuse what they are doing. Belief is a fine thing to have, but it must be tempered by reality. If hundreds of years of evidence generated by scientists of different countries, ethnicities, and political, social, and philosophical persuasions indicates that your beliefs are wrong, then you should revise them.
If the people behind Dr. Gloom’s Crypt of Curiosities started arguing that the remains of Baron Radu are those of a true vampire, or that the specimen they have of the Devil Hawk of Amchitka Island is a true mutated bird, or that their copy of the Scroll of Anubis can actually raise the dead, I would raise my voice against them and write about it. However, they don’t. Doctor Gloom’s Crypt is phony and obviously so, but the premises espoused in creationist museums are no less fantastical. The difference is that the latter will not admit it.
Photo of dinosaurs alongside humans in the Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY by David Berkowitz used here under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.