The Atavism

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Just trying to put the punk back into punctured lung

I'm going to be spending the rest of my week keeping up with my real work. Neither science nor the internet have chosen to rest while I catch up with that, so there are lots of interesting things happening that you should be reading about.


First, there's the news that from the New Zealand Medical Journal that a woman developed a pneumothorax (air on the lung) following an acupuncture treatment. As Darcy says in the linked article, the best scientific evidence says that acupuncture performed by people who think they are redirecting the flow of ineffable forces with their needles is no more effective than someone prodding people with sharp things where the eff ever they want. There might be a small benefit to having acupuncture, but it's a placebo effect. At the same time, and the present study notwithstanding, the risks associated with acupuncture are relatively small. Which all raises an interesting ethical question: should doctors send their patients to acupuncturists. Obviously treatments that have been shown to work better than a placebo should be the first tack, but if they fail is it OK to knowingly make use of the placebo effect? I don't think it's as simple as it might seem, after all acupuncture can cost a lot of money. Just as it must be a breach of trust for pharmacists to sell small vials of water to patients and call them "homeopathic remedies", surely it's wrong for acupuncturists to take money from patients to pay for their specialist skills in a bogus medical system? Perhaps some of the placebo effect would be down to the idea that the practitioner is steeped in some mystic art, put even if a quick in-clinic sham acupuncture session wouldn't to the trick other placebos treatments might, without incurring the risks associated with acupuncture (no matter how small they might be). Whatever you think, you should leave a comment on Darcy's post because he's just become a father! (It seems his place in life has finally caught up with his sense of humour)


There's lots of Science (yay) and Technology (meh) on the TV this week. Media7 is having a special episode on communicating science with a panel featuring Peter Griffin and Rebecca McLeod from the scibog crew. They had a show on a similar theme last year, so it will be interesting to see if anything has changed since. Our local climate cranks certainly haven't become sensible in the interim, but the media does seem to give them a little less room to be stupid so that's something .TVNZ7 also has the first episode of their new sci-tech show Ever Wondered? online. I have to admit that I haven't actually got around to seeing that yet so I can't offer much more than the fact that its there.


Last week I had my first crack at teaching a lab. I've done plenty of demonstrating before, which I've always enjoyed (even the lab that's mainly about ripping the heads off Drosophila larvae) but being in charge of the whole show it something else entirely. In the end I had fun, and I think the students went away happy but I have to say I wasn't prepared for the terrifying sea of blank or anguished expression that stared at me when I turned round from explaining something too quickly. So, I asked an award winning lecturer and her crew what they'd do if they faced that terrible sight, you can read the answer here.


left and right handed snail shells

Did you know that snails can be right- or left-handed? In most individuals of most species the shell coils in a "right handed spiral" so when a the shell is placed "apex up" the opening (the aperture) is on the on the right hand side (like the shell on the right above). In a very few snail species most individuals are left-handed. In both left- and right-handed species you get a very few individuals which coil the other way but that pattern usually doesn't persist for any length of time because right- and left-handed shells tend to get in each other's way during mating. It's even been suggested that the reproductive isolation caused by right- and left-handed snails might be enough to help with the generation of new species (I don't know if anyone has ever looked at the distribution of chilarity among closely related snail species, but it might be interesting). Now, Kevin Zelnio has the story of a landsnail species that maintains an even number of right- and left-handed individuals, and just how it manages that.


I've been reading In Pursuit of the Gene by James Schwartz which is a really well written history of the discovery of genetics. It's reinforced my notion that statistics was entirely invented by evolutionary biologists; Galton, Pearson (of the correlation coefficient) and Fisher were all trying to understand evolution in developing their methods. I also like the strange coincidence that Hugo de Vries developed what turned out to be a poor theory of evolution based on a misunderstanding of heredity from his observations in the evening primrose. Evening primrose's scientific name is Oenothera lamarckiana, a name which honours French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lemark who has gone down in history as someone whose mistaken ideas on heredity lead him to present a flawed theory of evolution.


And finally, a couple of posts from here have featured in blog carnivals lately. So, go tuck in to something spineless at the Birders Lounge or read about the history of science's frauds failures and fools.

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Posted by David Winter 11:22 AM


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