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Science Talk

From Dark Energy to Lone Star Lunacy

Scientific American magazine Editor in Chief John Rennie talks about articles in the April issue, covering dark energy, bee colony collapse and post-traumatic stress. And Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, discusses anti-evolution-education efforts by the Texas School Board. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Web sites related to this episode include www.ncseweb.org; www.youtube.com/NatCen4ScienceEd

Podcast Transcription

Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, for the week of April 2nd, 2009. I'm Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, Eugenie Scott brings us up to date on the strange goings-on at the Texas school board, but first Scientific American Editor in Chief John Rennie talks about the new April issue of Scientific American magazine. We spoke in the magazine's library.

Steve: Well merry April Fools', you [hilarious prankster, you].

Rennie: Well, thank you Steve. We do what we can in the editing field.

Steve: We have the April issue of Scientific American out; are all the articles jokes?

Rennie: No Steve, once again it's time for me to go through what have to be, [as] sure any number of readers every single year [may think], which is that they will read some articles and they will say, "Was this some kind of elaborate April Fools' joke?"—and no, none of them is an April Fools' joke. They are all quite real articles on quite real topics written, in many cases, by quite real scientists.

Steve: Which brings us to our first case.

Rennie: Yes.

Steve: The cover story "Does Dark Energy Really Exist?"

Rennie: Every time certainly, we publish articles about dark energy there are [a] certain number of people who I think, quite understandably, say, you know, they look at what we are talking about, well, dark energy—I mean, it's a force that makes up, you know, whatever it is.

Steve: 70 percent.

Rennie: Right, 70 percent of the universe, and it's, you know, an extraordinary, it's invisible, it's undetectable, it cannot seemingly be explained by any of the other kinds of forces we know of in the universe and yet, you know, somehow it's supposed to be pushing all of the galaxies of the universe apart. It's supposed to be responsible for this incredible, ever-accelerating expansion of the universe and everything moving apart, which we didn't even know existed until about a decade ago.

Steve: Right, because you need something to make all the observations and all the current theoretical framework and so what people have come up with is there is something out there and we are calling it dark energy.

Rennie: Right. That's right.

Steve: However, our authors in this issue propose a very different explanation.

Rennie: Right. That's what people wondered about is, you know, maybe, are we getting into some level of, you know, the epicycles, wheels within wheels within wheels; is there some other explanation that maybe makes more sense. And it's probably worth saying, I think, the authors of this article make this point themselves: Certainly dark energy is the best, most widely accepted explanation for the phenomenon that the astronomers are observing. But it's possible that if we change some of the fundamental assumptions that we make when we interpret, when we look out to the universe, the ways in which we are interpreting that, if we change some of our assumptions, just maybe there is a different explanation that could make sense. And the fundamental assumption that you have to change is the one called the Copernican principle. Copernicus, of course, is responsible for first making the argument [that] the Sun was the center of the solar system, not the Earth. So he ended the geocentric theory. And more broadly speaking, the Copernican principle, as scientists have applied [it] ever since, is that when we are trying to understand how the universe works, it is good to assume that there is nothing special about the Earth and where it sits; that we're not in a particularly privileged space and that's why things work the way that they do. The argument that the authors make here is, what if the Earth in this case, really, the Milky Way galaxy, happens to be in by chance a very unusual place in the universe. The assumption that we make is that the universe in its expansion is fairly homogeneous; that one part is pretty much exactly the same as any other part, same physical rules, same basic kind of expansion of time and space, going on everywhere. But what if that's not exactly true. As they point out, if purely by chance, we happen to be in a kind of a lumpy universe, that is not expanding smoothly, that some parts of it are expanding faster than others and as a result, if we happen to be in the middle of what is kind of relatively a huge void against a much larger universe than what we see, then that could explain what's going on. That in fact it may just be that we are looking at the fact that there is less and less gravity within this kind of big cosmic void to be slowing things down and so the accelerating expansion of the universe that we can observe is basically just sort of a geometric fluke.

Steve: And is it testable, though?

Rennie: Well, that of course is, you know, that's the other important thing. Because again you don't want to just get into replacing one untestable or at least experimentally untestable argument seemingly with another one. And they make the point that if this is true, then it should be possible using the right kinds of scans at the sky, and they point to the Planck satellite that's going up there testing microwave background. But if we look very closely, we should be able to see very, very tiny differences in the microwave background radiation that will help to verify the idea that "Oh! Yes we really are in the middle of some kind of big void, because way off that way it seems like we're actually getting into something that may represent a less empty part of the kind of larger macro-universe."

Steve: So the key is when things get confusing, as in any scientific venture, [is to] just get some more data.

Rennie: Right, exactly.

Steve: And we've got another, the Square Kilometer Array, a gigantic radio telescope, is supposed to go up in, it's not going to be in space, it's Earth based, supposed to be built by 2020; and that ought to maybe provide some information if you get to the bottom of this.

Rennie: Exactly.

Steve: Because I want to know...

Rennie: Yes, well who wouldn't Steve?

Steve: I mean 2020, will be in our dotage, but you know, we might still be able to read some of the articles.

Rennie: Throw ourselves up from our wheelchairs and say, "Yeeeaaahhhh......."

Steve: "Yeah, we're at the center of the universe after all."

Rennie: I told you, I told you all, I was the center of the universe, and you didn't believe me.

Steve: Now in our dotage we are going to want to eat a lot of fruits and vegetables.

Rennie: We'd better.

Steve: We need bees to do that.

Rennie: Bees, bees, bees.

Steve: And of course everybody has been hearing for a few years now about colony collapse disorder.

Rennie: Right.

Steve: And we have an article on that, and we are starting to get at least some clues as to what is going on. There is no definitive answer yet as to what's wiping out these large numbers of bee colonies. Well, we are starting to get some clues as to what are some probable factors in the collapse.

Rennie: Right, right. As you say, it's still a mystery and it may be that the answer in the end is that there is not just one single cause that's leading to this colony collapse disorder; as the authors of this article outline, people studying this problem have noticed that in fact we do seem to have an unusually large number of problems with certain kinds of parasitic mites that can attack the bees

Steve: And that has been responsible for previous collapse.

Rennie: Yes, exactly. I mean, when they look at it they can see that there are certain kinds of things that have been, everyone has known for [a] long time can cause collapse of different individual hives or sometimes regional collapses of honeybee populations; So for example, these kinds of infestations of these sorts of parasitic mites and [a] certain kind of virus called the Israeli acute paralysis virus that has been known to cause problems. There are different sorts of chemicals in the environment that may also be able to kill off hives over time and there does not seem to be just any one factor or any peculiar combination of all of these different factors that is now causing the collapse disorder. But it does begin to look like it may be just all of these problems piled atop one another that then may actually be doing it, and as a result, it may be some kind of unforeseen consequence of the kind of industrialized approach that we take to maintaining bee colonies. You know, city slicker like me, I had no idea about the extent to which our agricultural industry depends on people who are bee keepers and who take their hives around, in order to pollinate crops; and if they didn't do that, we would not have the level of crop production that we do. You know, we've developed this very industrialized approach to this in which you grow lots and lots of bees in close proximity to one another and you cart them around on trucks; and maybe that in much the same way that we are finding that some aspects of this kind of industrialized approach to a lot of animal husbandry and other kinds of agriculture that there are, there are downsides to that, that people haven't always foreseen; it may be that we are seeing something like that [surface] with the honeybees as well.

Steve: So that's an interesting situation that we're still going to be looking at. That this is more of a, "Here's what we know as of now", kind of report.

Rennie: Right.

Steve: It's an ongoing effort. A potentially controversial article on post-traumatic stress disorder.

Rennie: Yes. Post-traumatic stress disorder, obviously, is something that has become very well known to everybody; there have been lots of concerns about the levels of that that we see among people who are veterans of the Gulf War and of course Vietnam War before all of that. And in this April issue David Dobbs writes about a controversy that is now moving through the psychoanalytic field about the diagnosis of PTSD and the question of whether it is being significantly over diagnosed. Now it is probably very important at this point to point out nobody is disputing the idea that post-traumatic stress disorder is a very, very real, very, very serious problem, particularly for very large numbers of veterans who went through traumatic circumstances. The criticism that's being made though, is that post-traumatic stress disorder has always been, you know, it's kind of a mercurial problem. It's hard to peg down exactly what people will suffer from with this and why 1 person will have this problem and another veteran may not. The problem has been that maybe the criteria for diagnosing PTSD are so broad and so vague and so dependent on circumstance, that in a lot of cases, they are basically indistinguishable from, say, what would be other more common place forms of depression or schizophrenia; or in some cases even just normal responses to, you know, life's traumatic injuries, sort of the normal recovery process that people will go through. In effect the argument is that if you've been a soldier, and you have some of these kinds of symptoms, that you are very likely to be labeled as having PTSD; and in fact, maybe you're suffering from a completely different problem or something that's not even a really deep-seeded problem at all. And if that's the case, then sometimes the treatments that might be used to address the PTSD could be the worst possible thing for you.

Steve: Right, that's why diagnosis is so crucial. Any of you people [who] watch House know that diagnosis is crucial, because without the proper diagnosis, you're treating the patient incorrectly. So, as you said, nobody is saying that post-traumatic stress does not exist, but what they are saying, what they're proposing in this article, is that you may have a condition, a very real condition, but it's not PTSD.

Rennie: Right.

Steve: And if PTSD becomes a wastebasket diagnosis, then the people who really need help are not going to get it.

Rennie: Exactly, exactly. And as a result they are not getting help, and also we may start to have an exaggerated notion of how common post-traumatic stress disorder is among soldiers more generally or among the rest of the population. So it's, you know, this is a controversy that is going on within the psychiatric field itself right now, and David Dobbs does a good job, sort of, reviewing some of the arguments on both sides of that. It's something we think a lot of people should be aware of because the outcome of a lot of those debates are going to have a very real bearing on how many, many people are treated in the future.

Steve: One of the great things about the Web is I'm sure we're going to get a lot of commentary from readers, many of whom may be experts in the field. And we might get some really fruitful interactions in the comments about this article on the Web site.

Rennie: That's right, that's right. It's actually gratifying to see that we do have a lot of great readers who come in and share a lot of remarkable information in the comment sections online for ScientificAmerican.com.

Steve: Those are just some of the feature articles. I just want to share with you, I know you are well aware of this, but you might not have looked at the issue in a few weeks. On page 14, is one of our most popular features, the 50, 100 and 150 years ago innovation and discovery as chronicled in Scientific American. We have little clips from our issue of, this is April 2009, so we go back to April 1959; and here's a clip of an article we ran exactly 50 years ago. "In their relatively brief acquaintance with Pluto, astronomers have begun to doubt that this object is a planet at all". Isn't that great? I mean, you know, the more things change, it's just like people were arguing about this 50 years ago. And then if you go back a 100 years ago, a 100 years ago—1909, we have an article on voice recognition. "A safe lock has been invented which is provided with a phonographic mechanism so that it can be opened only by the voice of the owner." I would've loved to seen this thing with some kind of a wax cylinder, and you have to talk into a megaphone.
Rennie: Watson, come in here, I need you. No seriously I need you. Can't open up the safe.

Steve: The Texas school board has been revising the state science standards. On April 1st, I talked to Eugenie Scott, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education, about lunacy in the Lone Star state.

Steve: Dr. Scott, I saw that there was a vote in Texas. It was a 13 to 12 vote in the Texas board of education. Can you give us a little background on what they were voting about and why the outcome is a little disappointing?

Scott: The votes had to do with the adoption and modification of the Texas Educational Knowledge and Skills, T-E-K-S or TEKS, the Texas State Science Education Standards. And the TEKS have been under revision for a year now by writing committees from various disciplines like chemistry, physics, biology or whatever. The committees submitted their revisions and the board of education, in their last two meetings in January and March, were revising the TEKS because they didn't like some of the content. And the content they didn't like largely, almost entirely, had to do with the presentation of evolution in the biology and the geology sections. And the vote that you talked about was only one vote of many. The board heavily amended the standards to take out things they didn't like and to modify the standards to be more along their liking. Three things happened to the TEKS and all-science education standard that called for teaching the strength and weaknesses of theories, which had, back in the last time biology text books were adopted in the mid '90s, had been used as a club to beat publishers over whether or not they included weaknesses of evolution; by which they may enlist creationists and their claims, was taken out by the writing committees and attempted to be put back on several occasions actually by the school board members. But finally they just wore down the moderates on the board, and they ended up with a standard to replace that old, bad strength-and-weaknesses one that been used against evolution with a phrase that is still going to be used to beat up the publishers, still going to be used to try to get evolution taught as bad science in the state of Texas. They used the word "present all sides", and, of course, the only theory that is ever going to be applied to is evolution. So that actually wasn't a victory. So the first thing that sounded good but actually turned out to really give them what they wanted, although maybe not quite as easily as the old strengths and weakness language. They can still go ahead and press publishers to qualify evolution in the book and whether they will or not of course is the important thing. But then there were several other amendments too, and many of these amendments offered loopholes that creationists will be using to try to get their views into the classroom and into the text books. And a number of other amendments ended up weakening or making more tentative the presentation of evolution, and other weakening language appears as well. They took out, for example a statement about the 14-billion-year-old universe. They don't want to be specific. The board member who argued to take that specificity out said that we should be more humble about our scientific conclusions. The chairman of the board Don McLeroy is a self-admitted young earth creationist.

Steve: Let me just take a second to explain [that]. That
means he doesn't believe that evolution took place and he also
believes the earth is somewhere around 6[,000] to 10,000 years old.

Scott: The whole universe.

Steve: The whole universe.

Scott: Is 6–10,000, because the whole universe was created at one time specially by God and pretty much in its present form; that's the special creationist.

Steve: This is the chairman of the state of Texas's board of education.

Scott: And a man who has a great deal of authority over what [gets taught] in Texas Public schools.

Steve: Now why, this is really key. I mean, Texas is not let's say, South Dakota. Because what happens in Texas I think Jerry Coyne said this. "What happens in Texas doesn't stay in Texas."

Scott: Actually that was Glenn Branch, but never mind.

Steve: All right.

Scott: Yeah, and that is exactly true. What happens in Texas doesn't stay in Texas. Texas, because it adopts textbooks from kindergarten through 12th grade has a great deal of influence upon the textbook publishing industry. And as such traditionally what Texas has wanted is what people in California or South Dakota or New Hampshire or Massachusetts get. Now this may be changing because of the changes in the publishing industry—more digital publication, more modular publication. What we're hoping is that the publishers will see the wisdom of producing a Texas version that's got all the bad science in it and then a version of standard science for the rest of the country. I mean, stick Texas with this. This is you know their bad decision but don't inflict this on the rest of the country. Now this is extensive and given the economy, the publishers may not want to go that extent. But I think one of the things that scientists and other people concerned about science education in the country need to do is make it clear to publishers that as citizens and voters, wherever they live, whatever state or town that they live [in], they will make sure that their elected officials know that textbook X, Y or Z is not to be used in this district because of its bad science. The only way you can influence the textbook industry is the economic argument. We will not buy your books if you make Don McLeroy happy; and put this junk in your books for Texas, we will not buy them.

Steve: Right, let me give you this quote from McLeroy that you can comment on. He said, "Somebody has got to stand up to experts."

Scott: We were listening to a lot of statements like that in the board meeting last week, and, you know, our jaws just dropped to the floor over and over. That's got to be one of the top favorite McLeroy quotes, but I hate to say this, Steve, it's not the only one. You know, this is a guy who really is marching to a different drummer than that of the scientific community. And, you know, this was very clear. We had prominent scientists, members of the National Academy, in the past we've had Nobel Prize winners, testifying about the importance of teaching evolution, like we teach them in college, not to water it down and not to qualify it, or teach it as bad science. Within my organization, The National Center for Science Education, [we] wrote a statement that was signed by the officers of 54 scientific societies. I mean, there is no question that the scientific community is very strongly on the side of teaching evolution as an accepted and valid scientific explanation. But as Dr. McLeroy said when one of these National Academy members representing the national academy's group in Texas, McLeroy said, "Well, thanks very much for coming, I respect you guys, I just don't agree with you." Right, I don't agree with a National Academy Member and the Nobel Laureates in Texas. We have videotapes of Dr. McLeroy's comments on a number of issues on the NCSE YouTube site. Some of your listeners might like to take a look at that—it's quite an education.

Steve: And it's also a good reminder that in many municipalities, in many parts of the country, you don't need any specific qualifications to serve on a school board. On the local level, the citywide level, the state level. You can just run for the school board. So it might be nice if some science people actually did that, whether you have kids in the area or not.

Scott: Absolutely. And in fact the American Association for the Advancement of Science has been very active in encouraging scientists to take more of a public role in this fashion and running for a school board is a very good way of doing this. It is a very good way of serving your community, but actually also having an opportunity to use your expertise for the public good in a very important way.

Steve: Because one of the strategies of the antiscience crowd is to put people on school boards.

Scott: Yes, actually about 30 years ago, the Religious Rights figured out that if they really want to shape the society, they have to get to the kids. Because schools, public schools are where so much of the enculturation of the American society takes place. So if they want to influence that, they need to be running the schools. And 30 years ago, they started running people for school board, and people need to pay attention to who is running for and sitting on their state and local school boards if they really want to guard against some rather unscientific ideas being spread to the next generation.

Steve: Indeed some fabulous and unintentionally hilarious clips of Don McLeroy explaining evolution are up on YouTube. Just go to YouTube and then search for the National Center for Science Education's postings. Use the search term "Natcen4scienceed" ("4"—the numeral four), all one word, so that's "Natcen4scienceed".

Now it's time to play TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: Belly button lint may actually help keep your navel free of contaminants.

Story number 2: Sunspot activity has hit an 11-year high.

Story number 3: A gorilla at the Bronx Zoo got an MRI.

And story number 4: A venomous mammal, a small shoelike creature called the Solenodon is indeed a mammal that produces toxic venom.

Time's up.

Story number 4 is true. The Solenodon is indeed a venomous mammal, and it's now endangered in its home in the Dominican Republic. The new project is aimed at saving it. Check out images online of the Solenodon. It looks like the well-known Rodents of Unusual Size from the Florian fire swamps, only much smaller.

Story number 3 is true. A mobile MRI unit came to the Bronx Zoo to give Fubo the gorilla an MRI after he suffered a seizure. For more, check out the March 31st edition of the daily SciAm podcast, 60-Second Science.

And story number 1 is true. Belly button lint, aka navel fluff, appears to trap some nasty stuff that would otherwise lodge in there and be in contact with your skin. That's one result from a study performed by a chemist named Georg Steinhauser and published in the Journal Medical Hypothesis. Steinhauser's curiosity about belly button lint led him to discover that it is indeed composed mostly of bits of whatever shirt you happen to be wearing that day. He went so far as to study the collection process before and after shaving his abdominal hair. For more just google "Steinhauser" and "lint". And don't think that the belly button lint collection is an adaptation by evolutionary natural selection. I am sure that natural selection came up with the belly button for more important purposes.

All of which means that story number 2, about sunspot activity being at an 11-year high is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS because what is true is that solar activity is currently very low, the lowest since 1913, in fact. Sunspot frequency was very low in 2008 and so far in 2009, and there has been a 20 percent decrease in the solar wind, the stream of charged particles, coming from the sun, since the mid 1990s. The Web site, http://www.solarcycle24.com notes that "the sunspot cycle is behaving a little like the stock market—just when you think it has hit bottom, it goes even lower."

Well that's it for this edition of Scientific American's Science Talk. Check out http://www.SciAm.com for the latest science news, our In-Depth Report on the bee colony collapse situation and another In-Depth Report on the science of baseball, prepared by our steroid-free editorial staff. For Science Talk, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

Scientific American magazine Editor in Chief John Rennie talks about articles in the April issue, covering dark energy, bee colony collapse and post-traumatic stress. And Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, discusses anti-evolution–education efforts by the Texas School Board. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Web sites related to this episode include www.ncseweb.org; www.youtube.com/NatCen4ScienceEd

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