Mar 20
Posted by: nicholasswetenham  

Two dolphins

I recently watched a harrowing documentary, The Cove. It documents a covert operation to film the regular slaughter of dolphins left in a cove after a drive hunt to capture dolphins for marine mammal parks.

Dolphins are intelligent creatures and their meat is not usually intentionally eaten by humans. Purely anecdotally, humans seem to have a greater emotional bond with marine mammals than most other wild mammals. This is an interesting observation, and there are probably interesting psychological and biological reasons behind it.

So I was quite pleased to see this BBC article on today’s front page explaining that swimming with dolphins or keeping them in captivity can be harmful to their health. But then I saw this paragraph:

“Humans do seem to feel a sense of kinship with dolphins, intelligent, playful, talkative creatures that they are. And separate research shows people feel the benefit from getting up close and personal with dolphins, says Dr Dobbs. This is because dolphins are thought to emanate “chi” – the essential life force in Chinese medicine – and the basis of various therapies for clinical depression, autism and brain damage.”

I feel that this completely undermines the serious point of this article.

Jan 08
Posted by: nicholasswetenham  

The World Health Organization (WHO) is a globally respected co-ordinating body for international public health. Its publications and recommendaitons bring together reliable evidence from across the globe and governments often act accordingly, budget permitting. Of course, as a UN agency, politics does enter into it in the sense that the World Health Assembly, the WHO’s governing body, consists of individuals nominated by member countries.

The WHO have principally been in the global news in the past ten years in relation to emerging (i.e. new) respiratory tract infections. The media have placed enormous attention on these: SARS, H5N1, and the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. None of these have turned out to cause as many deaths as ordinary seasonal flu. There is now a popular sentiment that these are ’scares’ – doctors in this scenario are either bumbling incompetents who place too much attention on a case of the sniffles, or shills for Big Pharma participating in a great vaccine scam. This is, of course, nonsense.

The reason that the WHO have been extremely cautious is because of the 1918 H1N1 pandemic. This killed somewhere on the order of 40 million people, most of them young adults. Modern experiments in mice using a virus reconstituted from preserved lung samples have shown that this strain was a completely novel form of flu transmitted wholesale from birds and that it is still deadly to this day. Its deadliness was previously thought to have been partly caused by malnutrition in WWI, but these experiments demonstrate that it was actually a particular combination of the 8 genes of H1N1-1918’s genome. If a similar cross-species transmission event were to reoccur, there is no reason to think it couldn’t be just as deadly.

Because their spread can be extremely quick, respiratory tract infections are the single most alarming infectious disease for health experts. SARS was frightening because it was a new virus about which little was known. This year’s H1N1 was initially unpredictable in behaviour, with a relatively high death rate in Mexico but low elsewhere. H5N1 initially spread by direct contact with birds and had an extremely high death rate – a worrying parallel with the initial outbreak of H1N1 in 1916 – which was followed by adaptation to humans and the 1918 pandemic. At the time of their initial appearance, these were all extremely worrying developments. That is why the WHO has always been cautious. A segment of the public’s perception, however, is that it is over-cautious.

Which leaves us with a difficult question – how can we reduce the ‘boy who cried wolf’ effect?

References – to be added

Oct 23
Posted by: colinhockings  

The end of October is upon us, with the imminent approach of demons stalking the night and magical changing clocks. Fear not, however, because this year we’ve got something special to brighten up your autumn. The fifth of November will be a day to remember, not just for bonfire enthusiasts in Britain: your very own will be hosting the 123rd Skeptics’ Circle!

There a few guidelines for what posts fall within the scope of the Skeptics’ Circle, which can be found here along with other information about the carnival, but they’re fairly common sense.¬† Any post where skepticism and logic are applied is welcome, as long as it’s not too political. We’re trying to create an atmosphere of reason here. Check out the latest installment at Young Australian Skeptics for some idea of what we’re looking for..

As regular readers will know, every Skeptics’ Circle seems to have a clever theme. I will consult with the Blue-Genes team, but any suggestions will be more than welcome.

Please send your posts, along with a brief description, to me at colin *at* blue-genes *dot* net, preferably before Tuesday 3rd November.

Jul 30
Posted by: colinhockings  

Ladies and Gentlemen! Head on over to Beyond The Short Coat for the Skeptics’ Circle: your fortnightly romp through skeptical posts, be they about the Obama birth certificate conspiracy, the latest pseudoscientific concoction, or whatever else people need a dose of evidence-based evaluation about today. You may also find a link to my first ever post! A cup of skepticism about the promises of green tea for prostate cancer.

Jul 21
Posted by: colinhockings  

The latest carnival of science writing aimed at the public is hosted over at A DC Birding Blog. Go take a look: as usual I’m sure there’s some great stuff!

Jul 08
Posted by: colinhockings  

Our Green Tea post has been mentioned in the Scienta Pro Publica blog carnival, hosted over at Greg Laden’s Blog. If you haven’t already taken a look, there’s lots of fascinating articles that are written so that they can be understood by non-scientists.

Head on over there now!!