Bioscience Day

(In which I play at being Ed Yong.)

Today is Bioscience Day at UMD. While I’m not a scientist, I am a science groupie, so on my lunch break I wandered over to the poster session to see what was being presented, and maybe score a pass to go backstage where the brown M&Ms and orgies are, and scientists would snort blow out of the small of my back before using me up and dumping me in some back alley with nothing but a case of antibiotic-resistant herpes and a couple of coauthor credits talk to the researchers.

For the most part, I lacked the vocabulary and the background to understand what was so cool about the research. But occasionally I understood enough to ask what was going on.

The Taboo Wiktionary: One problem with the sciences is that it uses big words, and so students are tempted to just memorize definitions without actually understanding the underlying ideas. So these folks devised a game similar to Taboo, in which students have to define terms without using certain words.

Attack! We’re right behind you! (Biological Nanofactories Target and Activate Epithelial Cell Surfaces for Modulating Bacterial Quorum Sensing and Interspecies Signaling): This was a rather cool notion. The idea is that bacteria like E. coli don’t attack the host organism until there’s a lot of them. The way this is coordinated is through chemical signals: the bacteria emit chemicals that their neighbors sense, so that each bacterium can tell whether it’s alone or part of a crowd. And if it’s part of a crowd, a bacterium will attack, confident that everyone else is, too.

So what these people figured was, what if you try to mimic the “crowd” signal? If there are only a handful of E. coli in your gut, but you fool them into thinking that there’s a bazillion of them, then they’ll attack. Your immune system will make mincemeat of them, and in the process, learn what that strain of E. coli looks like, in case they come back. I guess this is like beating the bushes to force potential enemies to show themselves.

Drug Delivery by Cucurbituril-Type Molecular Containers: The word that caught my eye was “Cucurbituril”. I seemed to remember that “cucurbit” is Latin for “pumpkin” or “gourd”, and that didn’t seem to match with the chemistry-heavy abstract.

I asked the author, figuring that cucurbiturils were originally derived from some gourd protein or something, but she explained that no, it’s because the molecule is sorta-spherical and has a lot of empty space inside, so it looks a little like a pumpkin. Sense of humor FTW!

Ant diversity from space: The way the title read (unfortunately, at that link they’ve replaced the poster’s title with “Assistant Research Scientist”, for some reason), I thought it was about detecting and mapping ants from satellites, which seemed rather hard to believe. It turns out that while there are some ant structures that can be seen from space (giant anthills in the African savannah, for instance), that wasn’t what they were talking about. Rather, they were using satellite imagery to map conditions like humidity, temperature, soil composition, etc., and from that predict the likely characteristics of native ants. In other words, if you’re looking for ants with a certain set of characteristics, this research can help narrow down the best places to look.

All in all, I found that all of the researchers I talked to were friendly, and more than happy to explain their work to a layman like myself.


I was approached over lunch by a couple of student fundies trying to convert me to Christianity.

They started with a slow buildup about whether matter and energy are all that exist, or whether it’s possible that the supernatural exists. I asked them to define “supernatural”, since as far as I can tell, that word simply means “magic”. They said “something beyond the natural world”. I asked them to explain what that means, exactly, but they just sort of floundered around.

Here’s a hint: if you can’t explain what it is that you believe in, how can you hope to convince someone else that it exists?

They went on to say that relative morality is bad because you can’t say that genocide is bad. In order to denounce someone like Hitler, apparently you need absolute morality. I asked them for specifics, and they said that rape and theft, or telling someone to do these things, are absolutely wrong. So naturally asked whether, when (on God’s orders, presumably), or when Jesus told his disciples to steal a horse, that was immoral.

Ah, but it’s okay when God does it. So I guess absolute morality is kinda relative.

But that’s okay, because only Christianity provides a framework with which to make sense of things like morality. I asked how they thought non-Christians manage to do it. One of the fundies said that “Well, when you look at things like morality, you’re doing it within your own mental framework.” So I guess Christianity is the only system in which things make sense, aside from all the others.

I made the obvious rebuttal: that they were arguing that belief in a god is useful, not that it’s correct. To which they said that no, they also think that God exists. So I asked what method they use to determine what’s true and what isn’t. The same guy said that they believe the Bible: if it’s in the Bible, it’s true.

Leaving aside the circular reasoning of this approach (which he conceded), I asked whether this approach was reliable, i.e., if “it says so in the Bible” leads you to believe that X is true, is it a safe bet that X is, in fact, objectively true. So naturally I had to ask about cockatrices and unicorns in the Bible, and whether bats are fowl. I actually showed them this last passage, and they mumbled something about how different translations use different words (FYI, the NIV says “birds”; so does the NASB and NKJV). So evidently what the Bible says is always true, except when it’s not.

I would have gone on, but my lunch hour was up and I had to leave. Ah, well. Maybe next time.

YEC on Campus

A Baptist group on campus invited G. Charles Jackson of the Creation Truth Foundation, a young-earth creationist ministry, to give a talk. So naturally I had to attend.

Unfortunately, my recorder’s batteries died during the pre-talk service, so I wasn’t able to record the event. But I tried to take notes.

The short version is that if you’ve seen Kent Hovind, or Ken Ham, or Ray Comfort, or any of their colleagues on the young-earth anti-evolution circuit, then you’ve seen G. Charles Jackson. He had the claims of having degrees. He had the cartoony misrepresention of evolutionary arguments. He had the mined quotes, and the ancient references. Okay, that’s not entirely fair, since he had a few arguments that I don’t remember seeing elsewhere. But still, nothing earth-shattering.

Have you ever gone to a concert by a band that used to be big, but is still touring, like Styx or Journey or Def Leppard? One of those that haven’t released an album in fifteen years (aside from direct-to-remainder-bin “Greatest Hits” compilations) and whose only attraction is nostalgia; playing to small venues full of people who used to like them in their heyday. But they keep touring and playing those old hits because it’s all they’ve got.

I got a similar vibe from Jackson. His entire schtick would have been right at home in circa 1992. Except that he’s younger than the Hovinds and Wiel, so maybe he’s more of a tribute band than an aging rocker. If you’re the sort of person who’d rather see a local stage production of a play than to watch a Broadway cast performing the same play on video, then you might enjoy going to see Jackson, rather than watching a Kent Hovind or Ray Comfort video.
Continue reading “YEC on Campus”

Conversion Stories

I was at a religious event yesterday on campus. Some student organization had invited three people to tell their conversion stories: one lifelong Christian, one former Muslim, and one former atheist.

All three stories followed a familiar pattern: “I used to be unhappy/abused/selfish, until I met some True Christians™ who seemed really happy. They invited me to read the Bible, pray, and live the life Jesus wanted, and I became happier and a much better person.” Nothing new there, but I was struck by the resemblance to an old statistical illusion:

Child psychologists have known for a while that praising children for their achievements works better than punishing them for their misdeeds. And yet, lots of parents think that punishment gets results. To see why, imagine a class of children taking a class with a series of weekly quizzes. In real life, a student’s grade depends both on how much effort he or she has put into studying, but also on random factors, like whether there were distracting noises outside, and things like that. So let’s ignore the effort part and make the grade completely random: the lazy teacher simply rolls percentile dice to determine each student’s score.

Imagine that one student got 90%, and his parents reward him for his this. Another student gets 10% and is punished by her parents for this. What should we expect to see on the next quiz?

The first student has a (roughly) one-in-ten chance of getting 90-100% on the second quiz, but nine times out of ten, his second grade will be 1-89%, lower than the first one. Likewise, nine times out of ten, the second student will get 11-100%, higher than on the first quiz. So what the first child’s parents see is that they rewarded their child, and his grades went down; the second child’s parents see that they punished their child, and her grades went up.

Likewise with conversions: if you’re at a low point in your life, there’s nowhere to go but up. And if you underwent a religious conversion during that period, you may attribute your subsequent improved fortune to the conversion. Post hoc, ergo proper hoc and all that.

Now, obviously conversions often come with changes in behavior and attitude, which are probably more significant. I’m not saying that this statistical illusion is a major factor in conversions, merely perhaps a contributing one.

An interesting thing happened in discussion afterward: the guy I was talking to said he had faith that Jesus existed. I asked him whether he thought faith was a good way of distinguishing what’s true from what isn’t. He asked me how I defined faith. I told him to use his own definition, since he was the one who believed on faith, and asked him again “is faith a reliable way of distinguishing what’s true from what isn’t?” He quoted Hebrews 11:1 and went off on a tangent, so I asked him again. I kept pressing him, and he kept dancing away from having to give a straight yes or no answer. I could practically hear the “clank!” as a shutter closed in his mind. “Don’t go there! There are dangerous thoughts there!”

Other than that, I have to give the organizers and presenters points for not bringing up Pascal’s wager. The general message was “follow Jesus and you’ll be happier”, rather than “repent or burn”.