Messenger Spacecraft crashes into Mercury as final act of successful mission!! Farewell @MESSENGER2011!!

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Sad, but cool, farewell to NASA’s Messenger Spacecraft today as it crashes into Mercury. Messenger left its mark both scientifically, and on Mercury!!! Info on the Messenger mission here.

To become the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury, MESSENGER followed a path through the inner solar system, including one flyby of Earth, two flybys of Venus, and three flybys of Mercury. This impressive journey yielded the first return of new spacecraft data from Mercury since the Mariner 10 mission more than 30 years ago. Here you can find details about that journey, the MESSENGER spacecraft, and the instrument payload.

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Representative Lamar Smith gets SCICHECKED on climate change – @factcheckdotorg #science

SciCheck (part of FactCheck.org) has fact-checked a recent Wall Street Journal editorial by Representative Lamar Smith, one of CauseScience’s favorite anti-science congress members.

The short version of highlights below – Read the SciCheck article here for a breakdown and the scientific evidence debunking Smith’s claims.

  • Smith wrote that a connection between worsening storms and climate change has been “widely debunked,” and that the United Nations doesn’t believe that warming is related to “more severe weather disasters.” Both claims are incorrect. There is some evidence linking climate change to worsening hurricanes, droughts and other disasters.
  • He mentioned an oft-repeated claim that there has been a “lack of global warming over the past 15 years.” Though the rate of warming has slowed, the world does indeed continue to warm, and cherry-picked data underlie the claims that warming has stopped.
  • Smith quoted an InterAcademy Council report as saying the U.N.’s climate reports had “significant shortcomings in each major step” of the U.N.’s assessment process. That’s misleading. The report found that though there is certainly room for improvement, the U.N.’s process has been “successful overall.”

Who needs evolution? Basic GEOLOGY disproves CREATIONISM – David Montgomery @US_Conversation

Even setting evolution aside, basic geology disproves creationism

David R Montgomery, University of Washington

In the ongoing conflict between science and creationism, evolution is usually a main point of contention. The idea that all life on Earth evolved from a common ancestor is a major problem for creationists. As a geologist, though, I think that the rocks beneath our feet offer even better arguments against creationism. For the creationist model doesn’t square with what you can see for yourself. And this has been known since before Darwin wrote a word about evolution.

What the rocks say

I don’t have to travel very far to make this case. There’s a slab of polished rock on the wall outside my department office that refutes so-called Flood Geology: the view that a global, world-shattering flood explains geologic history after the initial creation of Earth by God. This eight-foot-long slab is a conglomerate – a rock made from water-worked fragments of older rocks.

It’s what you’d get if you buried a riverbed composed of many different types of rock deep enough below ground for temperature and pressure to forge it into a new rock. Preserved in it, you can see the original particles of sand, gravel and cobbles made of various kinds of rock. And if you look closely you can see some of the cobbles are themselves conglomerates — rocks within rocks.

Why does this disprove the creationist view of geology? Because a conglomerate made of fragments of an older conglomerate not only requires a first round of erosion, deposition, and burial deep enough to turn the original sediments into rock. It requires another pass through the whole cycle to turn the second pile of sedimentary rock fragments into another conglomerate.

In other words, this one rock shows that there is more to the geologic record than creationists describe in their scripturally-interpreted version of earth history. A single grand flood cannot explain it all. Embracing young Earth creationism means you have to abandon faith in the story told by the rocks themselves. This, of course, is no surprise to geologists who have established that the world is billions of years old, far older than the thousands of years that creationists infer from adding up the generations enumerated in the Bible.

Early Christians read nature as well as the Bible

In researching my book The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood, I looked into the history of thought about the biblical flood. What I found surprised me on two levels. First, most of the early workers who pioneered what we now call geology were clergy dedicated to reading God’s other book — nature. Second, in pitting science against Christianity, today’s young Earth creationists essentially ignore centuries of Christian theology.

For the first thousand years of Christianity, the church considered literal interpretations of the stories in Genesis to be overly simplistic interpretations that missed deeper meaning. Influential thinkers like Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas held that what we could learn from studying the book of nature could not conflict with the Bible because they shared the same author. Yes, it seems that one of the oldest traditions in Christian thought holds that when reason contradicts favored interpretations of scripture about the natural world then those interpretations should be reconsidered.

In keeping with this view, mainstream Christians reinterpreted the biblical stories of the creation and flood after geological discoveries revealed that Earth had a longer and more complicated history than would be inferred from a literal reading of Genesis. Perhaps, they concluded, the days in the week of creation corresponded to geological ages. Maybe Noah’s flood was not global but a devastating Mesopotamian flood.

Young Earth creationists break from history

For over a century, such views dominated mainstream Christian theology until the twentieth century rise of young Earth creationism. This is the version of creationism to which Ken Ham subscribes – you might remember his debate with Bill Nye from 2014. Young Earth creationists imagine that people lived with dinosaurs and that Noah’s flood shaped the world’s topography. In fact, this brand of creationism, embodied by Ham’s Creation Museum in Kentucky, is actually one of the youngest branches of Christianity’s family tree.

Interestingly, one can challenge Flood Geology on biblical grounds. What did Noah do in the biblical story? He saved two of every living thing. So consider the case of fossils, which creationists attribute to the flood. What you find in the rocks is that more than 99% of all species entombed in the rock record are extinct. This simple fact offers a stark contrast to what you would expect to find based on a literal reading of the biblical story.

After looking into the long history of engagement and cross-pollination between geology and Christianity, I find it curious that the conversation constantly gravitates to arguments for and against evolution. Overlooked is how the young Earth creationist’s literal interpretation of biblical stories runs afoul of basic geological observations — like that slab of rock on the wall near my office.

A key point that gets lost in debates over the modern perception of conflict between science and religion is the degree to which this is actually a conflict within religion over how to view science.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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The WEAK case against double-blind peer review – highlighting why we need it!! #science @NatureNews

NATURE this week feature a correspondence from Thomas E. DeCoursey reasoning against double-blind peer review. In my humble opinion his reasoning is flawed…. not unlike the current peer-review structure. To air out my laundry, I support a completely open or double-blind system for manuscript peer review. All of the peer review models have some flaws, but these two seem infinitely better than the current system where authors are blinded to reviewers but not vice-versa.

DeCoursey makes the somewhat legitimate point that it may be possible for reviewers to ascertain who the authors of a manuscript are based on citations. However, there would always be some element of doubt for the reviewer about who the authors are, and there are many cases where this circumstance would not occur.

Then DeCoursey reasons that reviewers need to know who the authors are in order to judge them on their past work…. or something…. wha???

To function in our increasingly competitive research culture, in which misconduct is on the rise, researchers need to be aware of which labs can be trusted and which have a record of irreproducibility. If a highly regarded lab and one with a questionable reputation each submit reports of similar investigations, a good reviewer would be extra vigilant in assessing the less-reliable lab’s study, even though the same evaluation standards would be upheld for both.

Yes, misconduct is on the rise, but this point seems wrong to me on every level. Reviewer’s should be vigilant of misconduct and scientific quality on every paper, regardless of what lab the paper comes from. Plenty of ‘good’ labs have had to retract papers for many reasons, and labs with a history of misconduct have reformed and redeemed themselves with quality papers. In fact, less vigilant reviewers may be to blame when flawed papers from highly regarded labs make it through the review process with glaring mistakes. Any reviewer that is more or less vigilant reviewing a manuscript based on the author’s names is not an impartial reviewer. PARTIALITY is bad when reviewing papers and grants…  Ethics 101 – Conflict of Interest. For the same reason, most journals won’t allow scientists to review a manuscript from within the same institution.

There is a reason double-blind experimental design is the gold standard for experiments and human clinical trials. Just like a reviewer might think he knows who the authors are, a doctor might think he knows whether a patient is receiving placebo, but neither can ever really be sure. Why wouldn’t we want the same type of controls for peer review?

Double-blind peer review removes this crucial quality-control option, opening the way for mediocre and bad labs to clutter the literature with sub-standard science.

#FacePalm…

Maybe I’m jaded, but good reviewers should be screening out sub-standard science regardless of whether they know what lab a manuscript is from or not. This closing statement makes it sound like DeCoursey thinks only the best labs, with the biggest names, and the highest impact factor publications should be publishing… which I hope is not the case (maybe I read into it too much). If it is the case, then that only argues stronger for a double-blind peer review system.

And in closing, a double-blind peer review system would help avoid racist, sexist, or other embarrassing situations like this one, where a reviewer commented that the two female author’s should add a male author in order to strengthen the manuscript. Double-blind peer review erases sexism, racism, nationalism, institutionalism (?), and other discrimination from the peer review process, which is definitely huge plus!

No Link Between MMR Vaccine and Autism, Even in High-Risk Kids

Francis Collins on the new study showing NO CORRELATION between MMR vaccine and autism, even in high-risk population!! NIH Director’s blog!!

NIH Director's Blog

Child vaccinationCredit: CDC

Study after study has found no link between autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine—or any vaccine for that matter. Yet many parents still refuse or delay vaccinations for their young children based on misplaced fear of ASD, which can be traced back to a small 1998 study that’s since been debunked and retracted [1]. Such decisions can have a major negative impact on public health. With vaccination rates in decline, we’ve recently seen the resurgence of measles and other potentially fatal childhood infectious diseases.

Among the parents most likely to avoid getting their kids vaccinated are those who already have a child with ASD. So, it’s especially important and timely news that researchers have once again found no link between MMR vaccines and ASD—even among children known to be at greater risk for autism because an older sibling has the developmental brain disorder.

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How should scientists respond to science denialism?? John Cook explains @ConversationEDU

Inoculating against science denial

John Cook, The University of Queensland

Science denial has real, societal consequences. Denial of the link between HIV and AIDS led to more than 330,000 premature deaths in South Africa. Denial of the link between smoking and cancer has caused millions of premature deaths. Thanks to vaccination denial, preventable diseases are making a comeback.

Denial is not something we can ignore or, well, deny. So what does scientific research say is the most effective response? Common wisdom says that communicating more science should be the solution. But a growing body of evidence indicates that this approach can actually backfire, reinforcing people’s prior beliefs.

When you present evidence that threatens a person’s worldview, it can actually strengthen their beliefs. This is called the “worldview backfire effect”. One of the first scientific experiments that observed this effect dates back to 1975.

A psychologist from the University of Kansas presented evidence to teenage Christians that Jesus Christ did not come back from the dead. Now, the evidence wasn’t genuine; it was created for the experiment to see how the participants would react.

What happened was their faith actually strengthened in response to evidence challenging their faith. This type of reaction happens across a range of issues. When US Republicans are given evidence of no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, they believe more strongly that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. When you debunk the myth linking vaccination to autism, anti-vaxxers respond by opposing vaccination more strongly.

In my own research, when I’ve informed strong political conservatives that there’s a scientific consensus that humans are causing global warming, they become less accepting that humans are causing climate change.

Brute force meets resistance

Ironically, the practice of throwing more science at science denial ignores the social science research into denial. You can’t adequately address this issue without considering the root cause: personal beliefs and ideology driving the rejection of scientific evidence. Attempts at science communication that ignore the potent influence effect of worldview can be futile or even counterproductive.

How then should scientists respond to science denial? The answer lies in a branch of psychology dating back to the 1960s known as “inoculation theory”. Inoculation is an idea that changed history: stop a virus from spreading by exposing people to a weak form of the virus. This simple concept has saved millions of lives.

In the psychological domain, inoculation theory applies the concept of inoculation to knowledge. When we teach science, we typically restrict ourselves to just explaining the science. This is like giving people vitamins. We’re providing the information required for a healthier understanding. But vitamins don’t necessarily grant immunity against a virus.

There is a similar dynamic with misinformation. You might have a healthy understanding of the science. But if you encounter a myth that distorts the science, you’re confronted with a conflict between the science and the myth. If you don’t understand the technique used to distort the science, you have no way to resolve that conflict.

Half a century of research into inoculation theory has found that the way to neutralise misinformation is to expose people to a weak form of the misinformation. The way to achieve this is to explain the fallacy employed by the myth. Once people understand the techniques used to distort the science, they can reconcile the myth with the fact.

Skeptical Science

There is perhaps no more apt way to demonstrate inoculation theory than to address a myth about vaccination. A persistent myth about vaccination is that it causes autism.

This myth originated from a Lancet study which was subsequently shown to be fraudulent and was retracted by the journal. Nevertheless, the myth persists simply due to the persuasive fact that some children have developed autism around the same time they were vaccinated.

This myth uses the logical fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc, Latin for “after this, therefore because of this”. This is a fallacy because correlation does not imply causation. Just because one event happens around the same time as another event doesn’t imply that one causes the other.

The only way to demonstrate causation is through statistically rigorous scientific research. Many studies have investigated this issue and shown conclusively that there is no link between vaccination and autism.

Inoculating minds

The response to science denial is not just more science. We stop science denial by exposing people to a weak form of science denial. We need to inoculate minds against misinformation.

The practical application of inoculation theory is already happening in classrooms, with educators adopting the teaching approach of misconception-based learning (also known as agnotology-based learning or refutational teaching).

This involves teaching science by debunking misconceptions about the science. This approach results in significantly higher learning gains than customary lectures that simply teach the science.

While this is currently happening in a few classrooms, Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs) offer the opportunity to scale up this teaching approach to reach potentially hundreds of thousands of students. At the University of Queensland, we’re launching a MOOC that makes sense of climate science denial.

Our approach draws upon inoculation theory, educational research into misconception-based learning and the cognitive psychology of debunking. We explain the psychological research into why and how people deny climate science.

Having laid the framework, we examine the fallacies behind the most common climate myths. Our goal is for students to learn how to identify the techniques used to distort climate science and feel confident responding to misinformation.

A typical response of scientists to science denial is to teach more science. But that only provides half of what’s needed. Scientific research has offered us a solution: build resistance to science denial by exposing people to a weak form of science denial.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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NIH will NOT fund research involving gene-editing technology in human embryos #drama

From the NIH directors blog, Francis Collins just issued a statement on the NIH stance toward gene editing on human embryos:

NIH will not fund any use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos. The concept of altering the human germline in embryos for clinical purposes has been debated over many years from many different perspectives, and has been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed. Advances in technology have given us an elegant new way of carrying out genome editing, but the strong arguments against engaging in this activity remain. These include the serious and unquantifiable safety issues, ethical issues presented by altering the germline in a way that affects the next generation without their consent, and a current lack of compelling medical applications justifying the use of CRISPR/Cas9 in embryos.

This comes in response to a Chinese group who has used the CRISPR/Cas9 system to delete a gene from human embryos that causes a fatal blood disorder.  There has been quite a bit of controversy on this new technique, which has led to the developers of the CRISPR/Cas9 system to call for a moratorium. Read the full statement from the NIH director here.

CauseScience would love to hear your thoughts on this new technology! Do we need to control the usage of this gene editing technology? Are scientists pushing the technology too fast without considering ethical implications? Is gene editing ethical?   Comment or tweet @CauseScience1

The science of the Sad and Devastating Nepal Earthquake – explained by Mike Sandiford and Kristin Morell @ConversationEDU

The science behind the Nepal earthquake

Mike Sandiford, University of Melbourne; CP Rajendran, Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, and Kristin Morell, University of Victoria

Saturday’s Nepal earthquake has destroyed housing in Kathmandu, damaged World Heritage sites, and triggered deadly avalanches around Mount Everest. The death toll is already reported as being in the many thousands. Given past experience, it would not surprise if it were to reach the many tens of thousands when everyone is accounted for.

Nepal is particularly prone to earthquakes. It sits on the boundary of two massive tectonic plates – the Indo-Australian and Asian plates. It is the collision of these plates that has produced the Himalaya mountains, and with them, earthquakes.

Our research in the Himalaya is beginning to shed light on these massive processes, and understand the threat they pose to local people.

The science of earthquakes

The April 25 quake measured 7.8 on the moment magnitude scale, the largest since the 1934 Bihar quake, which measured 8.2 and killed around 10,000 people. Another quake in Kashmir in 2005, measuring 7.6, killed around 80,000 people.

These quakes are a dramatic manifestation of the ongoing convergence between the Indo-Australian and Asian tectonic plates that has progressively built the Himalayas over the last 50 million years.

They are but one reminder of the hazards faced by the communities that live in these mountains. Other ongoing hazards include floods and monsoonal landslides, as exemplified by the Kedarnath disaster of 2013 which killed more than 5,000 people.

Earthquakes occur when strain builds up in Earth’s crust until it gives way, usually along old fault lines. In this case the strain is built by the collision or convergence of two plates.

There are a number of factors made this quake a recipe for catastrophe. It was shallow: an estimated 15km below the surface at the quake’s epicentre. It saw a large movement of the earth (a maximum of 3m). And the ruptured part of the fault plane extended under a densely populated area in Kathmandu.

From the preliminary analysis of the seismic records we already know that the rupture initiated in an area about 70km north west of Kathmandu, with slip on a shallow dipping fault that gets deeper as you move further north.

Over about a minute, the rupture propagated east by some 130km and south by around 60km, breaking a fault segment some 15,000 square kilometres in area, with as much as 3m slip in places.

The plates across this segment of the Himalaya are converging at a rate of about 2cm this year. This slip released the equivalent of about a century of built up strain.

Predicting quakes

While the occurrence of large earthquakes in this region is not unexpected, the seismological community still has little useful understanding of how to predict the specific details of such ruptures. While the statistical character of earthquake sequences is well understood, we are still unable to predict individual events.

Questions as to why such a large earthquake, in this specific location at this time, and not elsewhere along the Himalaya, continue to baffle the research community, and make for problematic challenge of better targeted hazard preparedness and mitigation strategies.

But with each new quake researchers are gaining valuable new insights. As exemplified by the ready availability of quality data and analysis in near real time provided by organisations such as the United States Geological Survey and Geoscience Australia, the global network of geophysical monitoring is providing an ever more detailed picture of how the earth beneath or feet is behaving.

Seismic gaps

New techniques are also helping us read the record of past earthquakes with ever greater accuracy. Our research collaboration – involving the University of Melbourne, the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research and the Indian Institute of Science in India, the University of Victoria in Canada, and the Bhutan Government – is studying the earthquake geology of adjacent areas of the Himalaya in the state of Uttarakhand in India and in Bhutan.

Together we are mapping indicators of tectonic activity that link the earthquake time-scale (from seconds to decades) to the geological time-scale (hundred of thousands to millions of years).

Using new digital topography datasets, new ways of dating landscape features and by harnessing the rapidly growing power of computer simulation, we have been able to show how large historical ruptures and earthquakes correlate with segmentation of the Himalayan front reflected in its geological makeup.

This is shedding new light on so-called seismic gaps, where the absence of large historical ruptures makes for very significant concern. You can read our latest research here.

The most prominent segment of the Himalayan front not to have ruptured in a major earthquake during the last 200–500 years, the 700-km-long “central seismic gap” in Uttarakhand, is home more than 10 million people. It is crucial to understand if it is overdue for a great earthquake.

Our work in Uttarakhand and elsewhere is revealing how the rupture lengths and magnitude of Himalayan quakes is controlled by long-lived geological structures. While little comfort to those dealing with the aftermath of Saturday’s tragedy, it is part if a growing effort from the international research community to better understand earthquakes and so help mitigate the impact of future events.

Funded as part of the Australian Indian Strategic Research Fund and DFAT aid programs, our collaborative work is a reflection of the commitment of our governments to international earthquake research.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Healthy eating, not exercise, should be the main argument to fight obesity

From the BBC, doctors are saying that physical activity has little role in tackling obesity – and instead public health messages should squarely focus on unhealthy eating.

In an editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, three international experts said it was time to “bust the myth” about exercise.

They said while activity was a key part of staving off diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and dementia, its impact on obesity was minimal.

Instead excess sugar and carbohydrates were key.

The experts, including London cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra, blamed the food industry for encouraging the belief that exercise could counteract the impact of unhealthy eating.

Dr Malhotra said: “An obese person does not need to do one iota of exercise to lose weight, they just need to eat less. My biggest concern is that the messaging that is coming to the public suggests you can eat what you like as long as you exercise.

“That is unscientific and wrong. You cannot outrun a bad diet.”

Read the full article here.