Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Missing Something

You may not know this, but people are celebrating Rosh Hashanah right now. I wouldn't have known, except we had classes cancelled for today and tomorrow. I guess there were enough jewish people involved with the course that they saw fit to cancel classes.

Apparently, during Rosh Hashanah, one is prohibited from doing any work that was done in the tabernacle. I'm not sure who's in charge of the modern day interpretation of this, but last night my neighbors asked me if I could turn off their alarm clock for them, as they weren't allowed to. They even panicked when I left a lightswitch on in their bedroom, as that's another bit of "work" they can't do either.

Let's leave aside any theological disagreements I might have with such practices. I found this to be something quite startling all the same. These people care so much about honoring God that they had to ask their neighbor to turn off their alarm clock for them.

When I think about a lot of people in the modern church, including myself, I have to wonder whether there is that level of dedication, whether we are too permissive. Do we consider holiness that important? What would it look like if we did?

I guess the whole affair left me with more questions than answers.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Banality of Evil

Today in lecture, we were discussing the diagnosis of genetic diseases, sickle cell anemia and thalassemia in particular.

Thalassemia is a rather brutal disease when one is homozygous for the disease. It's not pretty. The lecturer discussed various methods by which the Italian island of Sardinia reduced the number of cases of people with the advanced form of the disease. Genetic counseling and widespread testing lead to people not having children if they were at risk of having diseased children.

If that had been all, I would have been fine with it. The professor also decided to mention prenatal testing, and cited abortion as the obvious outcome of such a procedure. She made reference to Italy legalizing abortion in the 70s, and apparently no one has looked back. She made a joke about the Pope being free to mind his own business. Some people in the class chuckled.

I'm not going to pretend that such decisions are easy to make. It's certainly a heavy matter to find out that your child is going to be born with a painfully crippling disease. This doesn't change the morality of such a decision, but I'm not going to trivialize it.

Still, the amazing thing to me was how glib the professor was about the matter, as if she was referring to something as simple as an appendectomy. Some people laughed when she acted glibly about it; I think you could have picked my jaw off the floor.

There are some thing I'll just never understand.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Genetics as a model

Yesterday I had the great opportunity to sit in on a lecture by a professor from John Hopkins. His talk was on ciliopathies, which might not sound terribly exciting, but the man was a terrifically engaging speaker.

There's probably little interest in hearing about any of that stuff amongst you readers, but he did use it to emphasize an overarching message about scientific bias. In the world of disease genetics, it seems there's a tendency to think in terms of, "one disease, one gene." Especially in the idea that what you observe in the inheritance patterns is definitive. This guy, Nicholas Katsanis, instead argued that incomplete penetrance demands that such thinking be put aside and alternative explanations examined. The end result being that most genetic diseases are incredibly complicated, with most of the involved mutations to the pathways providing only a percentage of the observed result. That is to say, three individual mutations might not show any sort of disease phenotype, but combinations of those mutations could give a spectrum of disease severity. He related this to his research by showing that genes which are written off as having nothing to do with a disease can, in fact, contribute to a disease state.

It's not really my intention to turn this blog into the "scientific bias" show, but if such problems can exist in biological sciences, why can't it be a problem for people involved in global warming research?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Thinking like a hypothesis

During my first week here, we had a "back to basics" lecture entitled, "Thinking Like a Scientist: How to Formulate a Hypothesis." I wasn't paying much attention, to the above title is what I ended up writing on my page of notes. Sometimes even I wonder what strange malady addles my brain. At least I got some blog fodder out of it.

Of course, the take home message of the whole thing was that a hypothesis isn't scientific if it isn't falsifiable. This could come in any number of forms: The thing you want to prove isn't testable, the way the test is designed automatically gives the assumed result, any outcome results in a confirmation of the hypothesis, etc. This is has to be distinguished from modifying your hypothesis to fit new data. Unfortunately, sometimes modifying the hypothesis can look like bending the data to fit a favored conclusion.

This is one of the things that I find so frustrating about the global warming debate. Not really being versed in the specifics of the science, a lot of what takes place looks to be a case of sticking to a favored conclusion (or in the case of guys like James Hansen, it's more than just appearance). We see things like, "If the glaciers melt, it's global warming, but if they grow in mass, it's also global warming." How could you not reach that conclusion?

Still, I admit the possibility that what we see more of is adaptation of the theories based on expanding data. I don't think this is communicated very well if it's the case. I think what concerns me most is that it doesn't seem to take place enough. There are significant numbers of studies out there which reject the idea that anthropogenic carbon dioxide is going to destroy us all, but it seems like it is more often rejected outright rather than integrated into the existing theories regarding climate science. This wouldn't be so much of a problem if politics weren't so tightly bound to this. When people are proposing plans of action that will restructure society and cost trillions of dollars, it seems like it might be a good idea to take as much information in as possible before you start running with a plan.

Then again, what do I know?