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Oxford Dictionaries: The term post-truth “sky-rocketed” in popularity in 2016

Maybe that explains the buzz re post-truth in science, blowing through recently. From sociologist Frank Furedi at Spiked: Consider the recently invented phrase, ‘post-truth’. It has been selected as word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. According to the Oxford University Press, after the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election, the use of ‘post-truth’ sky-rocketed. How did the term ‘post-truth’ acquire such a large public profile? This is not a phrase that emerged from the conversations of everyday life. Most people do not use it — at least not yet. Unlike ‘awesome’, ‘chilled out’ or ‘cool’, words whose origins are in the linguistic practices of ordinary people, ‘post-truth’ is the invention of individuals who are part of the political and Read More ›

Science writer asks, Would it make any difference if Darwin had never existed?

Could have done without him, maybe. Part of a long form article on the “great man” theory in science, by Philip Ball at Nautilus: So I asked historian and philosopher of science James Lennox of the University of Pittsburgh, an expert on the history of Darwinian theory, who might have done the job in place of Darwin and Wallace. His answer was striking: The story might not have gone that way at all. “When you read through Darwin’s Species Notebooks and see the struggle he went through, and then you compare his first and second attempts to present it coherently (in 1842 and 1844) with the Origin, I think it is equally plausible that some very different theory of evolution Read More ›

Analyst: Climate change crusade as faith, not science.

From political analyst Michael Barone at TownHall: Liberal elites tell us that “the science is settled” and that people must have faith in their predictions. But science is never settled. Scientists produce theories and test them against observations. When Albert Einstein announced his relativity theory in 1905, he didn’t ask people to have faith. He claimed that his theory would do a better job than Isaac Newton’s of predicting observations in a solar eclipse in 1919. It is religion, not science, that demands that people have faith in things that otherwise seem unlikely, brands those who do not as “heretics” and “deniers,” requires participation in repeated rituals (recycling, anyone?), and permits sinners to purchase indulgences (carbon offsets for Al Gore’s Read More ›

Why does climate change “denial” matter in a “post-truth” society?

From Clare Foran at Atlantic: The entrenchment of climate-science denial is one of the ways the United States appears to be exceptional relative to the rest of the world. A comparative 2015 study of nine conservative political parties in countries such as Canada, Germany, and Spain concluded that “the U.S. Republican Party is an anomaly in denying anthropogenic climate change.” Meanwhile, Americans were least likely to agree that climate change is largely the result of human activity in a 2014 survey of 20 countries, including China, India, Australia, and Great Britain. Scientific reality does not seem to have escaped the distorting influence of political polarization in the United States. A paper published in Environment earlier this year suggests that as Read More ›

Naturalism at the end of its tether: New Scientist on “outsmarting evolution”

From Joshua Howgego at New Scientist: Evolution has built bias into our brains – here are the best ways to overrule your instincts and make better decisions about everything (paywall) More. What? To the folk at New Scientist, we are merely products of evolution who probably cannot grasp reality (it is unclear that there is a reality to grasp). And therefore, even if we thought we were outsmarting anything, it would be an illusion, though whose or what’s illusion is unclear. If Darwinism, the creation story of naturalism, is taken seriously, there is no I in I. Questions of truth are irrelevant but, of course, power is forever. Don’t pay for this. Let’s spend our Christmas money on coffee and Read More ›

“Junk” RNA plays key role in helping cells respond to stress

From ScienceDaily: A study from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) investigators has found a surprising role for what had been considered a nonfunctional “junk” RNA molecule: controlling the cellular response to stress. In their report in the Dec. 15 issue of Cell, the researchers describe finding that a highly specific interaction between two elements previously known to repress gene transcription — B2 RNA and EZH2, an enzyme previously known only to silence genes — actually induces the expression of stress-response genes in mouse cells. … Less than 2 percent of the genome in mammals actually codes for proteins, and for many years it was thought that noncoding DNA was a useless artifact. While some is translated into RNA molecules required for Read More ›

Newly discovered epigenetic mechanism contributes to plants’ decision to flower

From Institute for Basic Science: When spring is approaching, how do plants decide that it is time to flower? A team of plant scientists led by KWAK June M. at the Center for Plant Aging Research, within the Institute for Basic Science (IBS) unravelled a new mechanism to explain this seemingly easy, but actually complicated question. Their research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on November 11, 2016. … Epigenetic regulation is one of the major mechanisms to control flowering time. It regulates gene expression through chemical modifications of DNA and its interacting proteins, but without changing the DNA sequence. If you think of the DNA contained in each cell as a big book Read More ›

Animal life evolution held back by lack of simple nutrients?

Phosphorus accumulation changed that, according to a new study. From Ben Brumfield at Georgia Tech News Center: For three billion years or more, the evolution of the first animal life on Earth was ready to happen, practically waiting in the wings. But the breathable oxygen it likely required wasn’t there, and a lack of simple nutrients may have been to blame. Then came a fierce planetary metamorphosis. Roughly 800 million years ago, in the late Proterozoic Eon, phosphorus, a chemical element essential to all life, began to accumulate in shallow ocean zones near coastlines widely considered to be the birthplace of animals and other complex organisms, according to a new study by geoscientists from the Georgia Institute of Technology and Read More ›

Cartilaginous skeleton not necessarily more “primitive”

A friend writes to tell us of an insightful article in Nature: It emerges that a dogfish shark’s spine becomes stiffer as the fish swims faster, enabling the animal to swim efficiently at different speeds. The finding could also provide inspiration for the design of robotic biomaterials. (paywall) – Biomaterials: Sharks shift their spine into high gear Matthew A. Kolmann & Adam P. Summers, Nature, 14 December 2016 | doi:10.1038/nature21102, More. The friend believes that the shark’s cartilaginous skeleton should not be thought of, as it often is, as primitive, but as an intelligent use of materials that enable high-speed bursts of movement. As the author put it, the skeleton is “an aquatic equivalent of continuously variable transmission, a type Read More ›

New Scientist: Why can’t monkeys talk?

From Andy Coghlan at New Scientist: “No one can say now that there’s a vocal anatomy problem with monkey speech,” says Asif Ghazanfar at Princeton University, and co-leader of the study team. “They have a speech-ready vocal anatomy, but not a speech-ready brain. Now we need to find out why the human but not the monkey brain can produce language.” … “They have gathered the type of data that confirms that monkey vocal tracts are speech-ready,” says Adriano Lameira at Durham University in the UK, who recently showed that an orangutan called Rocky could mimic human speech. And Philip Lieberman at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, says: “I’ve pointed out for decades that monkeys could talk, with reduced intelligibility, Read More ›

Astrophysicist: Knowledge of the cosmos has increased rapidly but understanding very little

Thanu Padmanabhan asks: Our knowledge about the universe has increased tremendously in the last three decades or so — thanks to the progress in observations — but our understanding has improved very little. There are several fundamental questions about our universe for which we have no answers within the current, operationally very successful, approach to cosmology. Worse still, we do not even know how to address some of these issues within the conventional approach to cosmology. This fact suggests that we are missing some important theoretical ingredients in the overall description of the cosmos. I will argue that these issues — some of which are not fully appreciated or emphasized in the literature — demand a paradigm shift: We should Read More ›

A scientist on the benefits of a post-truth society

From Julia Shaw at Scientific American: I’m a factual relativist. I abandoned the idea of facts and “the truth” some time last year. I wrote a whole science book, The Memory Illusion, almost never mentioning the terms fact and truth. Why? Because much like Santa Claus and unicorns, facts don’t actually exist. At least not in the way we commonly think of them. We think of a fact as an irrefutable truth. According to the Oxford dictionary, a fact is “a thing that is known or proved to be true.” And where does proof come from? Science? Well, let me tell you a secret about science; scientists don’t prove anything. What we do is collect evidence that supports or does Read More ›

Suzan Mazur on Royal Society finally agreeing to release evolution documents

From Suzan Mazur at Huffington Post: What a lovely way to end 2016 and ring in 2017 . . . a note from the head of Royal Society Scientific Programmes on behalf of President Sir Venkatraman Ramakrishnan advising that the public discussion from the recent “new trends” in evolution conference will be posted shortly online on the Royal Society event webpage. The discourse in evolution science has come a long way in the past year and the Royal Society’s decision to recognize that the circle has been drawn wider and a new integrated evolutionary synthesis has emerged is indeed a reason to celebrate. More. Yes, well, speaking on behalf of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, I (O’Leary for News) see Read More ›

Royal Society Evolution Summit presentations: Audio now available

Q & A to follow on main page. That’s what we are all waiting for. Received this, this morning: (Note that authors may redact some materials – highlighted in red in body of letter below.) Scientific Meetings <scientific.meetings@royalsociety.org> 6:47 AM (1 hour ago) to Scientific Dear Participant, Thank you for attending the recent Discussion Meeting ‘New trends in evolutionary biology: biological, philosophical and social science perspectives’. Apologies if you receive this message and were not able to attend. With the speakers’ permission we have made the audio of the presentations at the meeting available on the event webpage. At the request of attendees we would also like to publish the Q&A sessions on the event webpage. If you would prefer any Read More ›

Astrophysicist: Fine tuning of the universe as a true mystery of science

From astrophysicist Geraint F. Lewis at Cosmos: For more than 400 years, physicists treated the universe like a machine, taking it apart to see how it ticks. The surprise is it turns out to have remarkably few parts: just leptons and quarks and four fundamental forces to glue them together. But those few parts are exquisitely machined. If we tinker with their settings, even slightly, the universe as we know it would cease to exist. Science now faces the question of why the universe appears to have been “fine-tuned” to allow the appearance of complex life, a question that has some potentially uncomfortable answers. Oh, not to worry. “Evolution” bred a sense of reality out of us and – assuming Read More ›