Encouraging science journalism: The genome of Kennewick Man.

A little over a year ago the complete genome sequence of a Clovis individual, the 12,500 Anzick child, was published. His sequence gave us a fascinating glimpse of ancient Native American genetic diversity, and new insights into the early peopling of the Americas. At the time, however,  I was unhappy about how the media covered it:

“Unfortunately, several press reports chose to find controversy in a decidedly non-controversial story by giving undue weight to problematic “alternative” explanations of Native American origins, including the Solutrean hypothesis, and other “European contributions” to Native American ancestry.”

Last week saw the announcement (also from Eske Willerslev’s lab group: they’re amazingly prolific) of the sequencing of yet another significant ancient American genome: the 8,500 year old skeleton from Washington popularly called “Kennewick Man.”  This time the press did an exemplary job of covering the news.

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No, Seriously, Don’t Politicize Anti-Vax Sentiment

It’s Wrong and It’s Dangerous

I read Amanda Marcotte’s recent piece, Vaccination becomes a more partisan issue, with Republicans on the wrong side of it, despairingly. The only thing worse than someone trying to politicize ani-vaccine sentiment is someone doing it with a giant megaphone. With all due respect to the author, her piece has two giant flaws. First, its basic premise is wrong: anti-vax ideology is demonstrably not very well connected to basic left-right ideology or party affiliation. Second, her article is ironically more likely to be harmful than a dozen frothing anti-vax pieces.

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A normal person’s review of the Apple Watch

I’ve had the Apple Watch for a few weeks now, and enough people have asked me about what I think of it that I thought it was worth writing a post. Since the majority of reviews I’ve seen are all from tech or fashion people, and I don’t find these particularly helpful, I thought I’d give a bit of a different perspective– one from a completely normal person who just happens to have gotten one early. I have the Sport version with the 38mm case, and the white band.

Let’s be real: I wouldn’t have bought this watch for myself. Despite the fabulous sums of shill money that certain antivaxxers are convinced I’m pulling in, I actually don’t have a spare $350 lying around. (If for some reason you’re burning with curiosity about what I make, go look up NSF biology postdoc salaries for a ballpark figure). The watch was an early wedding gift from my fiancé, who is both in love with being an early adapter of new tech but a staunch enemy of all things Apple. Yeah, I don’t get it either.

But that being said, I absolutely love my watch.  I’ve never worn one regularly before, but three weeks of wearing this one has made me an addict. Here are the ways in which I use it, and the ways in which I don’t.  Continue reading

The Most Important Playground Conversation, A Presentation

Earlier this year, the California Immunization Coalition invited me to speak at their 2015 summit. They’d heard me on a conference call with Voices for Vaccines, discussing methods for helping parents make the best decisions about immunization. I was delighted to have the chance to work with the Coalition, which does exemplary work in protecting children from vaccine-preventable diseases.

Thanks to Jennifer and Violent Metaphors, I have a chance to share the same material I presented at the Summit with you. My speech wasn’t recorded, which is a shame because I’m sure it was a treat and delight for everyone in the audience. (Self-deprecating humor is a common persuasive tool. As is handsomeness.) Instead I’m putting up each of the slides with a brief explanation of what I discussed, where it isn’t obvious from the image.

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The Genetic Analysis of the Alaskan North Slope

My colleagues and I have just published a paper on the genetic diversity and population history of contemporary Iñupiat peoples (the indigenous inhabitants of the North Slope of Alaska) in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.  It’s open-access for at least a few months, so you can read it in its entirety here, our collaborator Dr. Anne Jensen ‘s thoughts on it here, and Archaeology Magazine’s article on the paper here. I’ve also summarized our findings below.

Here I am working at the Nuvuk site in 2009.
Me, working at the Nuvuk site in 2009.

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New study overturns yet another anti-vaccine talking point

The pseudoscience community has long tried to convince parents that the MMR vaccine (to prevent infection with the diseases measles, mumps, and rubella) causes autism, despite study after study after study after study after study after study after study after study* showing that there is no connection between MMR and autism.

The pseudoscience community’s desperate investment in this myth–and the shaky ground they stand on– is illustrated by how quickly they shift their stories:

“Thimerosol or aluminum, or some kind of ‘toxin’ is the cause!”    Debunked .

“No, I mean, it’s just too many too soon!”    Debunked

“No, but seriously, natural infection is way better because unvaccinated children are healthier than vaccinated children!”   Debunked.

And just yesterday, another study  (Jain et al. 2015 Autism occurrence by MMR vaccination status among US children with older siblings with and without autism) has come out debunking yet another antivaccine myth: that the MMR vaccine somehow “triggers” autism in children who are genetically susceptible to it.

Time reveals the absence of integrity in pseudoscientific constructions.
Time reveals the absence of integrity in pseudoscientific constructions.

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Why the Food Babe is wrong (it’s not just because she’s ignorant)

You knew I had to talk about Food Babe this week.

My not-so-secret goal with this blog is to improve public science literacy and to help people become more critical consumers of information. As a consumer activist and critic with enormous influence, one might hope that Food Babe’s goals are similar to mine.  But I’m afraid I have to give her methods a big red F, and for distressing reasons. Before I get into that, however, I want to give readers who aren’t familiar with Food Babe some background.

Like the decision to vaccinate, the choices we make about food have significant consequences to our health.  It’s easy to find advice on how to structure our diet–there is an overwhelming volume of admonitions to eat more protein!, only organic!, less fat!, more fat!, plant-based!, paleo!, non-GMO!, raw!, Mediterranean!, gluten-free! with dire warnings about what will happen if we fail to follow that plan exactly. (I feel particularly sympathetic to parents of young children, who are already stressed out about the incredible day-to-day challenges of raising them in a difficult economy. Shaming them if they’re buying most of their food in bulk once or twice a month at Costco instead of shopping exclusively for their children at Whole Foods is outrageous.  In fact, the very ability to make choices about what we eat is a privilege not shared by a huge proportion of the planet’s population…but that’s a subject for another post).

For the average person untrained in science, nutrition, or medicine, the challenge of wading through this mountain of advice on how one “should” eat, sorting out the good advice from the bad, can be daunting.  With so many options it’s easy to succumb to decision fatigue–or default to way too many meals at fast food joints.

Diet and health gurus are counting on this. They offer people a simple solution: follow my “movement”, follow my advice and you don’t have to think for yourself about this; follow my simple “tricks” and you’re guaranteed “health”, “thinness” and a sense of belonging to a righteous movement.

Enter “Food Babe” (whose real name is Vani Hari).

Actions undertaken without understanding  are always foolish, and often dangerous.
Acting without understanding is always foolish, and often dangerous.

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New paper deals blow to hypothesis that Native Americans have European ancestry

The idea that Native Americans had at least some ancestry from a trans-Atlantic migration has been around since the earliest days of American anthropology. The earliest proponents of this idea looked at the spectacular burial mounds and art from North America and insisted that they could not have been made by the ancestors of the indigenous (or as they put it, “primitive”) peoples they encountered. Obviously, they reasoned, a “Lost Race” of “Moundbuilders” (identified variously as Atlanteans, Europeans, and Israelites) must have been responsible for the great archaeological sites in North America. But systematic excavation of these sites has thoroughly debunked that idea.**

Nevertheless, an idea that there must be a European origin for at least some Native Americans has persisted in various forms. In its modern iteration, this idea is known as the “Solutrean Hypothesis.” The Solutrean hypothesis claims that the Clovis people, the makers of the earliest known stone tools in the Americas, were the cultural and biological descendants of the Solutrean peoples of southwest coastal Europe.

I have written before about why the genetic diversity present in contemporary and ancient Native Americans does not support this hypothesis (“Problematic science journalism: Native American ancestry and the Solutrean hypothesis”). Here, I want to discuss a new challenge to the Solutrean hypothesis that came out in the archaeological literature just today.  Continue reading

Darwin Day!

Think hard. Go deep.

Happy Darwin Day, everyone! Thanks for helping to make the Violent Metaphors community a place where we celebrate intellectual bravery and relentless curiosity, in keeping with Darwin’s legacy.

Here are a few links in honor of today:

  • Did you know that Darwin’s children doodled on his “Origin” manuscript? You can see their sketches here.
  • Creationists tend to raise the same objections to evolution over and over again. Here are Phil Plait’s responses to a number of them (h/t to Washington Post for the last two links ).
  • If I’m being completely honest, I found “On the Origin of Species” to be a rather boring book. World-changing, but not a thrilling read. “The Voyage of the Beagle”, on the other hand, is fantastic and I highly recommend it! You can download the full book for free here.
  • What does it mean to be human? Understanding the history of our species helps us answer this question. If you’re a little rusty on your human paleontology, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History has an excellent, easy to read guide for you.
  • Help improve science education in your community by visiting the National Center for Science Education’s webpage. They keep track of legislation that threatens science education in public schools, and have resources for community members who want to help.
  • Finally check out this page to find an event in your town celebrating Darwin today! I’m planning on toasting the great man tonight with a nice bottle of champagne (sent to me by one of my mentors as a congratulatory gift for becoming a professor. It seems fitting!).

Have you got any evolution-related links you’d like to share? Please post them in the comments!

Please don’t politicize vaccine refusal

Given recent measles outbreaks and the ravenous news cycle, it was inevitable that public attention would shift to politicians’ position on vaccination. Some commenters are reacting by politicizing the vaccine debate, painting conservatives or the tea party (or, in response to those messages, liberals) as anti-vaccine. Please don’t let this message take hold. It’s wrong, it’s dangerous, and it’s counterproductive.

The president set off a small chain reaction by advising parents to vaccinate, but Governor Chris Christie’s comments have drawn the most attention. His statement was almost meaningless; he told reporters that (of course) he vaccinated his own children, and “that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well so that’s the balance that the government has to decide.” Vaccination is not strictly mandatory in any state, and most states permit exemptions for the few parents who have ideological objections to modern medicine, so as a matter of simple fact the government has already decided and given parents that choice. (He went on with a few more comments, but other than to say that obviously we disagree with them, there’s not much point in dissecting them here.)

Christie is a politician who wants to avoid unnecessary controversy. After the first negative reports of his comments emerged, he distanced himself from anti-vaxers by firmly stating, “there is no question kids should be vaccinated.” But it was too late. The public picked up on his initial remarks and fed him straight into the gnashing teeth of the news cycle. And once the meal started, other prominent politicians with an eye on 2016 staked out seats at the table. Rand Paul seemed to give credence to some anti-vax myths, although he, too, backed down a bit and clarified that vaccines are “a good thing.” His fellow conservative (and fellow physician) Ben Carson pushed back on those statements, backing vaccination and even comparing anti-vaxers to secondhand smokers. Hillary Clinton, the three conservatives’ bête noir, came out with her own strong, respectable and simple message: “The science is clear: The earth is round, the sky is blue, and #vaccineswork. Let’s protect all our kids.”

Notice something about these statements? Even the most ant-vax statement isn’t all that opposed to vaccination, compared to what you read online. That’s no surprise. The overwhelming majority of parents vaccinate their kids, and politicians who offend overwhelming majorities retire early. But you’re going to read a lot of headlines and tweets about how Rand Paul and Chris Christie are anti-vaxers because they’re pandering to the voters; you may even see people promoting the meme that Republicans (or conservatives or Tea Partiers) are anti-vax now. Don’t buy it.

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