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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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 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!

Dear parents, let’s talk about measles

Vaccine superhero
Thanks to vaccines, L. is protecting other kids in her community. And by avoiding illnesses, she has more time for important stuff, like being a superhero. Photo by Colin McRoberts

Dear parents,

Livia, with permission of her mother
This is Livia. An unvaccinated child with measles potentially exposed her the disease, so she spent one of her first six months in quarantine. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Simon

You’re probably aware that measles has been in the news a lot lately. We need to talk about it again, even if you feel like it’s old news, because of Livia, Rhett, and Cami.
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A bit of personal news

I’m absolutely delighted to announce that I’ve just accepted a position as Assistant Professor-Molecular Genetics of Human Evolution in the Anthropology department at the University of Kansas. KU has a very long tradition of producing top-notch anthropological geneticists, and I’m honored to be joining the department as a teacher and researcher.

I’m deeply grateful to my mentors, particularly Deborah Bolnick, Geoff Hayes, Dennis O’Rourke, Rika Kaestle and Beth and Rudy Raff, who provided so much guidance to me throughout the whole process. I’m also grateful for the wise perspectives and support from my dear friends Lyn Christian, Lisa Twight, Jeff Rabhan, my fabulous labmates, and my family (especially Colin).

Mentoring is everything in science.
Mentoring is everything

And now that the job season is over for me, I’m looking forward to having more time for writing here–we’ve got lots of science to talk about. Onward!

Storytelling vs. science

Things are not always what they seem.
Things are not always what they seem.

Several organizations exploit vulnerable parents by claiming that they can “cure” their children’s autism through various approaches.

As Left Brain, Right Brain observes, these “autism cure” movements persist because of the power of storytelling:

“Nothing sells unproven “treatments” like testimonials. For autism it has been true since the days of chelation and even before that. Tell people that your “treatment” cures autism and you have testimonials to show it and you can just about guarantee sales.”

As we all know, anecdotes aren’t scientific evidence, but they do appeal to us on an emotional level. Unfortunately, one woman’s recent experience has starkly illustrated just how untrustworthy such stories actually are.

Camile Saulnier (a pseudonym) was recently given a book by Kerri Rivera called “Healing the Symptoms known as Autism”, which prescribed a “Treatment” for curing autism:

“I began looking into the background of CD/MMS and I was extremely concerned to find that MMS (Sodium Chlorite + Citric Acid = Chlorine Dioxide) aka. ‘CD’ was and is being hailed and marketed as a cure for almost every ailment and disease known to mankind, this includes Cancer, Malaria, Aids and Ebola.

I found the man behind MMS to be one Jim Humble, the Arch-Bishop of a rather cult like church named the “Genesis II Church”. Suffice to say I was very worried indeed, I searched further and found that Kerri Rivera the author of the book “Healing the Symptoms known as Autism” is a Bishop within this church.

I voiced my concerns with my friend who was following the Protocol, but she seemed to be un-phased by my doubts. She directed me to the facebook group CDAutism, where she said I will find proof of the recovery stories and thousands of parents giving testimony to the marvelous gains achieved by using the CD Protocol.”

Saulnier was justifiably concerned and spent some time reading the group’s posts, learning that the linchpin of the group’s claims was the collection of testimonials of parents of “recovered” autistic children. Saulnier was skeptical about the reliability of these testimonials, as they were all posted by Kerri Rivera, and so devised a little test to see how Rivera determined what “recovery” was and whether it was the CD treatment that caused “recovery.”

“I had an idea to see for myself, I needed to be sure 100% that everything I was seeing and reading was real before I could even consider using this protocol. I am afraid my worst fears were not only imagined, they are real.

I made a recovery story for my child, based on so many others which I had read, I felt bad doing it as I do not like to pretend but it was for the sole purpose of finding a greater truth.”

Saulnier’s false testimonial was immediately and enthusiastically posted by Kerri Rivera on the group’s website, and the banner proclaiming the number of children “cured” of autism was promptly updated to reflect this false cure. You can read the details of Saulnier’s correspondance with Rivera here.

Now, I’m not at all comfortable with Saulnier’s approach. I don’t believe that it’s ethical to lie. But having said that, it is a fascinating glimpse into the credulity of this segment of the alt-med community. Can you imagine how this would have played out in the science-based medical community? What level of scrutiny would such a story have been subjected to by physicians and medical researchers before they accepted it as true?


Several readers of this blog are persons on the autism spectrum and have contributed their perspectives in discussions on vaccination and autism. I’d particularly love to hear their thoughts on this issue.