Your assignment, should you choose to accept it...

Search out sensational, fantastical pseudo-science and expose the half-truths, misinformation and downright silliness for what it is: "pulp science."

If you find it and explain it well, I'll post it and consider it for a special award (you get a little extra credit too). All entries will be posted below, check back at the end of the quarter to see the winners from Fall 2004.

Entry
Your Explanations
Comments from Dr. L

Male Pregnancy

www.malepregnancy.com

This website details the first scientist-induced male pregnancy.The inventor of the embryo implantation procedure for males, Dr. Lowell, an associate professor of biochemistry, has noted that female hormones were administered to Mr. Lee in preparation for his pregnancy.We learn Luteinizing hormones are being administered and these hormones released from the anterior pituitary will stimulate estrogen and progesterone synthesis in the ovaries. Of course Mr. Lee does not have ovaries. However, I think he has testicles, and within the testes Lutenizing hormone will stimulate androgen synthesis. Androgen synthesis will affect Mr. Lee's hair follicles and cause increased beard and body hair growth. He should also develop increased musculature and possibly increase the likelihood of baldness. From what I can see in Mr. Lee's nearly full-term photographs, he's nearly hairless and far less than muscular. As Mr. Lee is administered progesterone, a precursor for both male and female hormones, testerone and estradiol he should experience a push-me/pull-you see-saw of male/female hormone aftereffects. He may develop hairy breasts, or oddly placed fat pads on muscular hips. This male pregnancy would seem to circumvent the positive feedback cycles that exist between the pituitary gland and the receptor sites within the body. As male hormones rise, more and more female hormones will need to be administered to Mr. Lee to counteract his increased production of male hormones. I don't know what the outcome would be, but this site provides a great foundation for some fun postulation on scientific possibility.

This site appears to be part of a very, very elaborate hoax/satire dealing with biomedical issues. It is more than a bit disturbing because it is amazingly well designed and so slick that it appears to be a real site for a real research institute. I spent quite a bit of time trying to track down the origin of the site and the location of the 'RYT Hospital and Dwayne Medical Center', only to find it to be the work of artists, graphic designers and web design gurus looking to make a statement ...I think?

See the fictious RYT Hospital website for more on male pregnancy, designer babies, nanobot implants and much, much more.

Not sure if this is funny or just sick, but you will be amazed and it sure does make you think.

 “Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs): The Greatest Threat Ever to Humans and Animals”

www.relfe.com/GMOs

“Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs): The Greatest Threat Ever to Humans and Animals” is the first thing you will read if you visit http://www.relfe.com/GMOs.html, a website dedicated to fighting the production of GMOs. The “evidence” website owner Stephanie Relfe used to support this claim is based on extreme conclusions and incomplete information. Some was based on a select few experiments with the results blown out of proportion. For example, the biggest bulk of scientific support came from an experiment conducted in Scotland. According to a discussion on the site written by Dr. Claire Gilbert, who read an article about the experiment in the London Times and spoke with the office mate of the head researcher, the data showed that ladybugs were indirectly affected by Bt potato plants. Note that a “Bt” plant is one in which a toxin-producing gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis is incorporated into the plant, which will in turn produce the bacterium’s toxin on its own. It was found that the ladybugs had a shorter life span and laid fewer eggs when they fed on the aphids eating the plant. This was enough to convince the website owner that the danger must live on throughout the food chain. If this kind of rationalization sounds familiar, it’s because there was a similar occurrence in 1999 when a team from Cornell University said they had the first evidence that a Bt plant’s pollen could harm a non-targeted organism. In the experiment, half of the monarch caterpillars that ate milkweed dusted with Bt plant pollen died shortly thereafter. This was enough to cause a public uproar. Never mind that field research later showed the results of the experiment were not reflected in the wild. Protesters still chanted: “Where have all the monarchs gone?” Dr. Gilbert advised, “Ladybug, Quickly Fly Away Home!” This kind of mentality causes serious problems for the progress/development of GMOs and related technology because it is easy to take a small amount of experimental data involving complications with a cute, well-known organism and create powerful images and/or statements that may not be entirely true. However, these statements are effective in causing fear and misconceptions among the general public. Relfe also states that there is a guaranteed danger from GMOs for people who are allergic to certain foods. She uses a peanut allergy as her example, saying that someone who has such an allergy could get a reaction from “ANYTHING that contained the peanut gene.” What was not mentioned in the website was the detailed series of tests any GMO must go through that will contain a potential allergen (such as a gene from a nut). Relfe goes on to claim that GMOs are unnecessary because “There is already 2-4 times enough food on the planet to feed everyone.” No other ideas as to why GMOs might be helpful were explored. Nor did she mention that the amount of food produced isn’t what keeps people from getting enough nourishment. However, Relfe did take into consideration that not all areas of the world have appropriate conditions for agriculture. Her answer to this problem lies in “Secrets of the Soil,” a book available for purchase through the website. Apparently this is the answer to world hunger, and it’s available for $19.95.  The author of this website is more concerned with creating a buzz and selling her books and products than presenting accurate information. It is important that people be informed by reading primary sources of scientific information and making sure that a study is placed in the proper context. The arguments on this website work very hard on our emotions (those poor fuzzy/cute animals!!) to demonstrate the evils of the mysterious and 'artificial' process of genetic modification. Unfortunately the author fails to mention that organisms experience changes in their genetic material naturally, this produces the variation needed for evolution. Her arguments convienently lead to a need for a 'natural' solution and why would we expect those solutions to be free?
The GOD Gene
Sensational Scientific Spirituality: Hamer’s God Gene

Molecular biologist Dean Hamer, chief of gene structure at the National Cancer Institute, has recently published The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired into Our Genes, a book that has generated a certain amount of media attention. Articles published in both Time Magazine and Scientific American state that the study of the existence of a god gene or genes was actually a side project to a study that was being conducted by Hamer’s research group on cigarette smoking and addiction in which he had surveyed over 1000 men and women. In the 240-question survey administered to the subjects there was a section that was designed to measure a personality trait known as self-transcendence, which is how scientists in Hamer’s field have chosen to quantify how spiritual a person is. On top of doing, I’m sure, wonderful work toward the understanding of tobacco addiction, Hamer also used his data to “discover”, what he has coined, The God Gene.

The October 2004 issue of Time Magazine showcased the book in its cover story entitled: Is God in Our Genes? Jeffery Kluger highlights several of claims that Hamer makes with his book. Apparently Hamer found a “direct relation” between self-transcendence scores and a variation (of one base) in the gene VMAT2. The article continues on with Hamer’s apprehensive, yet optimistic claims, and then turns into a commentary on the relationship of science and spirituality, a philosophical discussion not quickly solved by an eight page article in Time Magazine. The piece is riddled with pictures of spiritual people doing spiritual things, quotes from famous thinkers such as Albert Einstein and Henry David Thoreau, and it even has a quiz to let the reader know how spiritual they are (I am spiritually average, must mean I’m an agnostic. Thank you Time Magazine, my spiritual search is over!)

In a review of Hamer’s book published in Scientific American, Carl Zimmer critiques Hamer’s god gene theory in a slightly more scientifically rigid way than Kluger’s approach. The review brings up Hamer’s failed history with behavioral genetics when he reported a link between male homosexuality and a region of the X chromosome. Zimmer reports that the “Gay Gene”, after many attempts of scientific reproduction, ended up being nothing more than statistical noise. Zimmer also brings up the fact that neither a scientific paper has been published, nor have any of Hamer’s results been reproduced. As a taste for how Zimmer really feels about the book, he has suggested a new title for Hamer’s book: “A Gene That Accounts for Less Than One Percent of the Varience Found in the Scores on Psychological Questionnaires Designed to Measure a Factor Called Self-Transcendence, Which Can Signify Everything from Belonging to the Green Party to Believing in ESP, According to One Unpublished, Unreplicated Study” (Ouch!).

As for me, I have always had trouble thinking that a persons actions, thoughts, or values can be quantified. I also don’t think anyone should ever feel that who they are is determined by the chemicals their body has, does, and will produce, but that’s my take on this whole life and death thing. I’m much more of the free will believing, “we are the choices we make” sort of person, and because of that, I already have a bias. Maybe it’s the chemicals in me that my genes tell my body to produce that make me feel this way. I do know that whenever a multifaceted, multidimensional question is reduced into a single number, such as self-transcendence, one is left with an incredibly large null space and a “direct relation” is really nothing more than a correlation between a variation in one of tens of thousands of genes that make up ”who we are” and the sum of a bunch things that might be much more qualitative than quantitative.

The people falling in to the sensationalism that is Hamer’s God gene probably well deserve all the wonderful clarity his theories probably offer to their lives, but as for me, one base in billions seems like a bit of a long shot. One thing I found very interesting was the one thing similar to both articles. Both chose to use the painting “The Creation of Adam” by Michelangelo, from the Sistine ceiling. A painting of man (Adam) touching fingers with what appears to be nothing more than a floating man surrounded by a minion of little people. Maybe Michelangelo lacked the God gene, but if the acceptable image of God is nothing more than a slightly more impressive man, than it apears as if this God gene doesn’t affect the part of our mind that enhances imagination. We, as human beings, are all well aware of out own demise and as a result we almost all fear our own death. So is it all that unbelievable that we have created theology or “a God experience [as a] brilliant adaptation” says Michael Persinger, prof. of behavioral neuroscience at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont., “It’s a built-in pacifier.” Think whatever you want, I think that’s what we all do anyway.

Science and spirituality have historically been in conflict (Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin's ideas coming to mind as key examples). We are now in the age of molecular biology and genetics. The fact that we have DNA and a genome is not in question, but now that we know that there is a blueprint for the production of an organism the question arises: "So how much of the structure and behavior of an organism is determined by that DNA sequence?"

 

I agree that Hamer's work is flawed and I think that his approach is a bit dangerous. His work correlates a subjective answer on a questionairre to a single mutation in a gene. This is work that Hamer has published without peer review in a book sold in the popular press. The science has not been reviewed by his peers so I have little confidence in its integrity. I'm not saying his work is entirely fiction, but I would like experts to review Hamer's experimental design and analysis. I'd like to see him have a hypothesis that is tested by others.

In my opinion he is circumventing the process of scientific review to make a buck (or maybe another $19.95) off the general public's curiosity. Trust in the scientific method and peer review is so important to maintaining the integrity of science. As our knowledge becomes more and more detailed and specialized, it is more difficult to explain these concepts to the general public (do all computer users really know how their computers work?). Having trust in the integrity of scientists and the work they produce is key. Betraying that trust to manipulate the pubilc for commercial gain undermines this and threatens progress. Hamer plays on one of mankind's deepest curiosities - a ploy that may make him rich, but the scientific community poorer.