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Comment ...however, (Score 5, Insightful) 339

As a university instructor I recognize that the writing's on the wall - online courses will inevitably replace many aspects of higher education. Much of what I teach is already freely available on the internet. There are already many online lectures from which I crib material for my own lectures.

That said, there are many important things that simply can't be taught via computer. I am an evolutionary biologist (specifically human evolution), so that is what I know: you can't learn anatomy at the graduate level without cadavers, period. You can't learn biological variation without dissecting and studying many cadavers. You can't learn comparative anatomy without dissecting animals. You can't learn the fossil record without handling the fossils (or high quality casts). You can't learn population genetics without spending time in a sequencing lab. You can't learn field biology without going to the field. You can't learn paleontology without going to the field. There are many things that I learned in my graduate training that simply can't be taught on a computer.

Personal tutelage by a master is similarly an irreplaceable experience. I've learned an enormous amount of information from watching online lectures and taking online courses in subjects outside of my specialties - but I would absolutely not consider myself on par with people who have traditional graduate training in these fields. I loved the AI class - but Professor Thrun never discussed my ideas with me, criticized my writings on the topic, and certainly never helped me design a project and then execute it. I can't call, Skype, or email authorities in AI to chat about the newest papers in the field - because I simply never met them through the online course.

As enthusiastic as I am about the exciting possibilities of newfangled gadgetry, computers and the internet are still tools with limitations. Powerful tools, but not totipotent tools. Sometimes newer isn't better. Sometimes newer is worse.

Comment Re:but all food is now GM (Score 5, Informative) 334

I agree, it's too late. For example, two out of five different local organic farmers' corn I purchased at the Madison (Wisconsin) Farmers' Market last year came up positive for B. thuringiensis toxin genes. This is not an isolated case; the peer-reviewed literature is replete with examples of transgenic introgression into 'natural' populations. If you want to read more about this, you can start with this nearly-decade old paper that's been cited hundreds of times: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14526376

Comment Re:On a related note... (Score 1) 334

What does Margaret Mead have to do with culture bound syndromes? Did you look into what those are or just dismiss an entire body of interdisciplinary research because you don't like anthropology? The simple fact is that there are conditions that are in the DSM-IV that are culture bound. Hell, homosexuality was once in the DSM-IV, but our culture changed, and now it's not. Thinking you are diseased is a form of stress. Certain diseases manifest only in certain cultures. If that's not evidence of behaviors causing social stress in one culture but not another, I don't know what is. But hey, if you want to believe that all humans react the same way to the same social conditions, and that we're invariant in what elicits given hormonal responses, knock yourself out.

Comment On a related note... (Score 5, Informative) 334

A study (http://www.pnas.org/content/109/17/6490.full) was published in PNAS today showing how low-ranking monkeys have worse immune systems than high-ranking monkeys. (In monkey societies, 'high-ranking' is a euphemism for bully.) We've known for a long time that subordinate monkeys have worse health and live shorter lives in general than dominant monkeys, but this is one of the first studies that describe how this actually happens, genetically and physiologically.

Comment Tracking your impact with Open Access. (Score 1) 178

Making research science more open and more accessible is important to me as a young scientist. I work in a field that is often criticized/dismissed by the public (evolution), and I see open access research as both a shield against creationists/science deniers as well as a simple public good. The taxpayers are my ultimate bosses, and to convince them that I'm worth supporting financially, I need to show them what I'm doing (in addition to educating their sons and daughters). Paywalled research facilitates neither of these goals. Politics, costs, and other points have already been raised, but I haven't seen any comments about transparency of impact. Impact factor is a convenient metric that might work with deans and bureaucrats, but it does not work with fellow researchers. What matters to us is exposure, citation count, and who's citing your work. PLoS ONE (I've published there) has transparent metrics on views, downloads, Tweets, Facebook/G+ shares, and citations. Paywalled articles have citations - that's it. Having people talk about your research on blogs, in the electronic press, and on social networks is valuable, especially to younger researchers. As of now, I can show any potential employer that my PLoS ONE paper has > 3,500 views (which is good for my small field), four citations, and it was discussed by scores of folks on social networking sites. This transparency is simply not available from the paywall publishers.

Comment Re:This Is Great News ... (Score 2, Informative) 157

Your point about poverty and corruption defeating cures and treatments is valid, but is perhaps not entirely applicable to Ebola and Marburg. Both of these viruses are zoonoses, that is, they are transmitted to humans from other animals. We do not know for certain which animals are the natural reservoirs of Filoviruses (Ebola and Marburg are the two genera of the Filoviridae), but an incident in the Philippines in 2009 where Ebola infected swine illustrates that cosmopolitan animals (like pigs) can carry the virus. Furthermore, we know that a wide swathe of mammals (from rodents to bats to marsupials) carry 'fossil' Filovirus genetic material in their genomes, meaning that at least their ancestors were carriers of these viruses. Still further, Ebola and Marburg are part of the order Mononegavirales. This order contains the viruses that cause rabies, measles, mumps, and Newcastle disease (a really nasty scourge of domestic and wild birds). It's certainly possible that this treatment, as it undergoes further development, could be applied to related diseases. Sanitation and vaccination rendered rabies, measles, and mumps more or less non-issues in the developed world decades ago, but the current treatment for, say, rabies (if you contract it) is extremely dangerous and not particularly effective.

Submission + - Scientists finger new hominin with pinky (nature.com)

HomoErectusDied4U writes: A team of researchers describes in Nature that an approximately 30-50,000 year old distal fifth manual phalanx (pinky fingertip) from Denisova cave in Siberia has produced mitochondrial DNA that is unlike any previously described hominin mitochondrial DNA. Essentially, it's twice as different from living humans as Neanderthal mtDNAs are from our mtDNAs. John Hawks discusses the news in depth. For those not wanting to read his entire post, this could very well be a Neanderthal, and is not necessarily a new species, despite typical media aggrandizement of technical science.

Comment Re:So...the Neanderthals could have wiped us out (Score 4, Interesting) 777

Precisely. The journalist who wrote this article does not understand the difference between population census (gross size) & effective population size. 70,000 years ago, the scope of genetic variation of humans - who have living descendants today - was contained in approximately 2,000 individuals. It's a more sophisticated idea, but it's also a far cry from the more sensationalist 'only 2,000 people survived'. To put this idea into a modern perspective, there are over 6,500,000,000 people alive on the planet today, but our species' effective population size is only about 10,000. If human populations 70,000 years ago had the same amount of diversity as we do today, then there were about 1,300,000,000 people alive 70,000 years ago. Obviously this is an absurdly high figure; we know from historic records that there were not more than a billion people alive as recently as 1800. What it does imply, however, is that our species, over the course of the last 70,000 years, has become more genetically homogeneous. This can only be explained by gene flow & natural selection. Recent work by Greg Cochran & John Hawks has shown that adaptive evolution has been accelerating rapidly over the last 40,000 years; our comparatively low Fst value (a measure of population differences) indicates gene flow between regions has also been increasing.

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Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards. -- Aldous Huxley