Sunday, April 18, 2010

My soapbox, Points of Inquiry, The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, The Amateur Scientist Podcast, and The Skeptic Zone.

Soapbox 

There were a lot of podcasts I listened to this weekend, and I shall try my best to hit all the high points.  However, before I do, I would like to weigh into a topic that is near and dear to my heart, but really just a purely political opinion of mine.  I generally try to avoid such topics, but it's my blog, so why not?  (I'm pulling that card out which only Lady, Karl, and I can pull out.)  No.  It is not the "should skeptics take a side in trying to toss the pope in the pokey" debate bouncing around the web-o-sphere.  Instead, it's President Obama's new plan for N.A.S.A.  The justly highly esteemed Bad Astronomer, Dr. Phil Plait, who needs no introduction to the reader, has come out in favor of the plan with a few caveats, which you can read.  While I do have some underlying issues with the new plan, my main issue with the new plan is that a new plan is being brought forth at all.

NASA every few years gets a new goal to shoot toward, which has funding planned for the future, and goals and ideas that will take place in the future.  This is usually followed by inevitable cost overruns, changing priorities and then a new plan.  Here, NASA is about a half a decade into the last new plan with Project Constellation, and here comes yet another administration with "the way" to new glory.  The President proposes saving Orion as a life boat, scrapping the Ares rockets, and starting a new heavy lift booster program in about five years.  The plan's goal is to skip a return to the moon and aim for asteroid landings and finally a Mars landing.  Naturally, this will be all better than the current program, or until the next administration in two to six years wades in and has an even better new, new plan with its own clear goals and objectives.

I am wholeheartedly glad to see the administration taking on space policy, but a more realistic course would be to take the program in place, and shake it up -hard.  Compare LBJ's "we won't sleep by the light of a communist moon come hell or high water" {quote from LBJ's character in The Right Stuff} to Obama's decision to punt and start again with a new heavy lift booster in five years.  Once momentum stops with a government or any large scale program, I fear it will a herculean effort to get it moving again.

The Amateur Scientist Podcast 

Brian Thompson of the Amateur Scientist podcast finally aired some of the confessions he has been hoarding for the last few weeks.  So far so good, but nothing that was spectacularly good.  Thompson had two very nice segments during the show.  The first is a segment discussing the overreaction of some to Deepak Chopra sending out a joke tweet, that admittedly post earthquake might have been in questionable taste, that effectively noted he meditated so hard it caused the earth to move.  Thompson's mocking of the indignation shared by many in the skeptical, free thought, rationalist, atheist, agnostic, strong agnostic, weak atheist, diest, mini-diest community with the help of a comic legend was fantastic.

Thompson then ends his show with a hilarious bit on how to increase your manliness with a proper beard, that should be opened with a warning to not listen to while driving heavy machinery.  Machinery such as a Saturn, which if you laugh so much your eyes shut for second and almost end you up in a ditch.  I don't know how he thinks of this stuff, but it can kill or maim.

There is more to the show, but if you are an infrequent listener to the Amateur Scientist this is one not to miss.

The SGU

The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe featured the entire panel of Rogues, and an interview with Dr. Seth Shostack working with the S.E.T.I. project, or those who look for aliens that are not in flying saucers, and do not spend time pondering the intricacies of exo-politics.

As always, the Rogues rolled down a few news stories and topics of the day.  They had a brief discussion on the 40th anniversary of the epic successful failure of Apollo 13.  A lively and somewhat excited discussion occurred about the possibly of liquid water currently flowing on Mars.  Granted, the water, if it does exist, is only liquid apparently for a brief amount of time before it evaporates.  Still, any evidence of liquid water, let alone water, is exciting to space geeks the world over.  The Rogues discussed a new process of possible biology printing, which means in this story printing new skin onto a burn victim to expedite the healing process.  Another story how the national science board in the United States oddly 'edited' a report on U.S. science literacy by redacting a question about the Big Bang theory and evolution from the final report.  The reason for the redaction appears in part to be due to poor wording of the question, and also the answers being skewed by religious belief over science knowledge.

Then the topic du jour about skepticism's roll in dealing with issues of justice and in particular the pope and covering up child buggery by priests, and if you are not for arresting of the pople, are you an accommodationist, or if one supports such efforts are you wading where skeptics dare not tread.   Actually, it was rather anti-climatic.  Watson has taken a lot of flack for her support of Richard Dawkins' support of trying to arrest the pope when he is scheduled to travel to Britain this September.  The panel's take, and in particular Dr. Novella, is that there is no skeptical movement per se, and therefore, any "skeptic" can think and do in this political/moral realm without harming the 'movement.'  Meh-h-h... on the one hand, I get where Dr. Novella is coming from and yet I found it unsatisfying.  (The most satisfying discussion I have read, and more or less would adopt as my own is by Blake Smith, aka doctoratlantis.)

Dr. Shostack gave a general update on the current search of extra-terrestrial life program which is using the Allen telescope array in the search.  He gave some very insightful information on what exactly they are looking to find, and how much it will not be like the movie "Contact," which starred Jodie Foster.   What was quite startling is that even if they pick up a signal, we likely do not have a telescope built today that would be useful in decoding the signal.  He describes how this can be an easy to understand method.  He also indicated what occurred over a decade ago when they thought they actually found something, and how it was a useful dry run for the 'big day' if it should ever come to pass.  Shostack is a great interview, and the high point of the entire show.  I really think I learned a lot about S.E.T.I. and found it an extremely enlightening discussion.

The Skeptic Zone

The Skeptic Zone this week featured an interview by Kylie Sturgess of Dr. Petra Boynton who is a sexologist, or she studies sexology.  Being raised in a prude-ridden part of the United States, it always strikes me just how freely people can talk about sex.  Anyway, Boynton gives an overview of sex education and the lack of it in the United Kingdom.  This struck me as odd as I always thought in Europe, including Britain, sex education classes were rife and it was the promise land of sex-ed done correctly.  I guess I was wrong.  She discussed what is sexology.  Basic problems and troubles men and women, boys and girls all have with sex and getting prooperly informed about sex.   However, if all this was not enough the real reason for her interview was the clitoraid which has apparently been making the rounds and is for raising money to surgically repair female circumcised women in africa.  This, on the face of it, sounds as if it is a worthy cause.  (I must be honest, I did not know circumcised females could be repaired, but apparently this is legit.)  The odd thing is that this charity is run by the Raeelians.  The whole charity apparently is to build hospitals to do these procedures.  However, there are apparently hospitals in place that will perform the surgeries but they need money to continue and expand their work.  Also, Boynton could not find if there are any support services provided post surgery.  Boynton points out that it is traumatic for a woman in these cultures to go from have nots to haves.

Boynton indicates that even with these questions a lot of people are still giving to Clitoraid, since they oppose the female circumcision and they wish to be seen reversing it so they give.  The Raeelians also have hit up the adult entertainment industry, which given the topic, wish to do the 'right thing' in this regard.  The question is not focused on whether removal of the female clitoris is proper, but whether this organization is legitimate and doing their work in an appropriate and thoughtful manner.  This is an open question at the moment.

Dr. Rachie Reports covered the Simon Singh victory in the British court of appeals and the British Chiropractic Association's subsequent decision to end the litigation.  However, it is not quite over as Singh is asking for the BCA to cover his court costs and expenses, which could go on for sometime.  The litigation has had ripple effects causing a stir in journalist and scientific circles for libel reform in Britain,  so the free exchange of ideas can continue.  The blow back from the litigation has caused a large number of chiropractors to face pending investigation for questionable treatments and improper expectation from those treatments to patients.  A large number of chiropractors have pulled pamphlets and edited websites forms expounding upon some alleged benefits of their practice.  It is a nice time to be an advocate of science based medicine.  Good news is always nice.

The Think Tank segment this week consisted of Dr. Dunlop, Richard Saunders, and Jo Benhamu.  Benhamu had dinner, which Saunders and Dunlop skipped as they had nommed earlier that day. (I really like the word 'nom.')  Anyway, after discussing the day's culinary exploits they discussed a tale of a possible troll on Dr. Dunlop's blog.  The troll alleged that she was just a concerned person, and brought up a bunch of nonsense about the harm of vaccines.  When reason was attempted with this person, they became rather belligerent in language.  Then this person made a 180, and apologized and all of this took over 140 or so comments back and forth.  This led into a discussion of whether there should be a blogger code of conduct.  As a blogger in a knee jerk way I think a civil set of rules would be nice, but like the panel I think it is totally unworkable.  As much as the shield to anonymity can lead to rather coarse language, it also is the very engine that keeps the blog and internet forum community humming.

Dr. Dunlop discussed popular fiction author Jodi Picoult's new novel "House Rules."  The book revolves around a son who has Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism, who is adept at criminal forensics, and ultimately is thought to be involved in a murder of his own.  Underlying the story are references in the book of the child sustaining autism after his vaccination.  Apparently the book is not about why he is autistic, but the bent of the backstory is that vaccines played a role. The panel brought up that for many people this type of information is what seeps into the public consciousness, and more people will just know that vaccines play a role in autism.  They will not recall how they learned it from some work of fiction.

All in all, it was a good Skeptic Zone and the Think Tank discussion of Picoult's book and the whole riddle of clitoraid make it a show worth listening.


I also listened to two episodes of Point of Inquiry.  One was of Bob Carroll who discussed authoring the much respected Skeptics' Dictionary.  The interview is ably conducted by Karen Stollznow, and it is an interesting listen of how far and much the skeptical community has grown in the last decade and a half.  Carroll's best line of the interview was comparing skeptics to cats as skeptics are social creatures, but not pack animals.  A second POI that I heard was Chris Mooney's interview of Eli Kintisch author of "Planet Hacking."  Kintisch discussed the possibilities of purposely changing the Earth's environment to slow or reverse the effects of climate change by means other than lowering the amount of carbon being released.  The interview discusses the obvious ethical issues of man-made geo-engineering the planet, the political repercussions of the very idea of geo-engineering, what are some of the proposed ideas, and the conspiracy theories that this is already occurring.

Both shows are worth a listen, but the Kintisch interview was the more fascinating of the two.

I would type more, but it's getting late and it's time for an ice cream dinner. (Don't ask.)

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