Biography

RWP was born in Manchester, in the north of England, in the late 1950s, so he is very old. He really liked the north of England, which by 1965 was hip and had three TV channels, and where he went to a coed school. His parents, for reasons best known to themselves, then yanked him away, to Belfast and then Dublin, which had one TV channel that started up at 6 pm with the Angelus (Catholic call to prayer). He also had to go to an all boys school, where he realized he really missed girls. This probably let him focus on schoolwork, though, and at age 19, after he had finished college, he set off for America, where he still resides. He has a bachelors degree in biochemistry and a Ph.D. from Harvard in biophysics, and has lived also in Mainz, Germany, Setauket NY, and Richland WA. He currently divides his time between Nebraska, Rosslyn VA, and Florida.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Preserve us from scienceiness and science fanbois.

This year's SJW disinvitation season got off with a bang this week, as some outfit called NECSS (Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism) removed Richard Dawkins from their speaker list for the vile heresy of reweeting a link to a video that mocked feminists (and was spot on, IMHO). In the grand scheme of things, no big deal; I expect Dawkins turns down more invitations than he accepts, and it's entirely their loss. Dawkins may well the best expositor of science we have; for example, I still consider The Selfish Gene, which I read nearly 40 years ago, to have laid out the framework of how I look at biology.

Out of curiosity, though, i decided to look up what NECSS is. And, sadly, it appears to be a fanboi conference (what's the gender neutral version of fanboi?), dispensing what I call scienceiness, which bears the same relationship to science that truthiness bears to truth. One clue is that they don't actually have many working scientists as speakers. The two headliners are now Richard Wiseman, a 'psychologist and magician', and Bill Nye, the 'Science Guy' with a bachelor's degree in engineering whose schtick got stale at least a decade ago. As regular speakers, just working alphabetically, we have

  • 'physicist' who's published one paper in 3 years, on protein crystalization of all things
  • a postdoc with an alarmingly sparse record
  • a lawyer
  • a woman with a legit. Ph.D. in physics who calls herself 'The Science Babe' (her appraisal of her own babeliness is a bit off, IMHO) but who seems to work on investment analysis and to have exactly one science paper to her credit.
  • an 'Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Administration at CSU Dominguez Hills'.
  • some guy with a podcast
  • ...
You get the picture. This is a conference not for scientists, but for posers Who Fucking Love Science; people who want to borrow science's apparently invincible cloak of 'objectivity' to pursue goals that really aren't scientific, and in most cases without the fuss and muss of having to pass second-semester calculus.

And while we're on the subject of the awful I fucking love science, they have an editorial this morning about sexism in astronomy. Now, actually, I have no idea how much sexism there is an astronomy, though there have been a couple of scandals recently, but it really annoys me when astronomy is taken as representative of science as a whole. And the editorial, which calls for 'a reboot of science', whatever that means, is written by an adjunct in sociology at a down-under dump called Swinburne University of Technology (no, I never heard of it either). The crescendo...

Similarly, science cannot reach its full potential without diversity, and diversity cannot flourish in a culture of racism, discrimination and fear. Research excellence cannot happen without rebooting science culture. The rest of us are ready for change. Are you?
That's all very high-minded, but is it actually true? Just the most obvious example: the magnificent intellectual edifice of modern physics was created by a group of almost entirely white, almost entirely male, mostly German (or teutonophone) physicists. A very undiverse bunch indeed. There really isn't much actual evidence 'diversity', by the trendy definition, has increased the rate of scientific progress. And, of course, this woman is a sociologist; she has absolutely no first-hand knowledge of 'science culture'; I bet she doesn't know how to reboot her iPhone. And as for the 'us'; who are 'us', exactly?

Most scientists don't get involved in this sort of thing, because they regard it as a waste of time. I do, because I'm argumentative and easily annoyed. But it's really time we started standing up to this sort of dreck. There are compelling reasons to give everyone equal opportunity in science, and to stamp out some of the most obnoxious behavior of (a few) scientists; but the idea we can't do science without some specified quotas of the appropriate victim groups is pure idiocy.

Friday, January 1, 2016

How, despite the FDA's best efforts, I found out I probably won't get Alzheimer's

Apolipoprotein E (APOE) is a curious protein. It's made in the liver, and transports lipoproteins, fat soluble vitamins like A and D, and cholesterol into the lymph system and thence to the blood. It was implicated in various conditions that cause hypercholesterolemia, but then, surprisingly, was found to be a major predictor of Alzheimer's disease. In brief, people with two copies of the normal APOE gene (APOE-e3) are relatively unlikely to get Alzheimers, but people with one copy of the APOE-e4 variant have somewhere between a 1.5 fold and 3 fold increased risk of the disease, and people with two copies of APOE-e4 have a 20 - 30 fold increased chance. There's also a APOE-e2 variant that actually further reduces one's chances of Alzheimer's. Why, no one knows. APOE-e4 differs from APOE-e3 in a single amino acid (e4(Arg 112 Cys)e3, if you care), and ultimately in a single base-pair difference in the gene, a so called single-nucleotide polymorphism or SNP. While genes undoubtedly have a substantial influence on whether we develop a whole host of diseases, APOE-e4 is, so far, unique, in that a single base switch causes such a huge effect. There are, of course, all sorts of other mutations that cause particular genetic diseases, but APOE-e4 is by far and away the commonest.

About 6 months ago, I received an email from a close relative, telling me they had done a 23andme analysis, in the UK, and found they had a single copy of e4. I was able to reassure my relative that a single copy of e4 isn't that dangerous, and that one could easily reduce the chances of Alzheimer's back to average with some lifestyle changes. So it's useful information to have. I was however worried; both my mother and her mother died after prolonged and agonizing (for the family) dementia, and I could conceivably have double-e4. So I decided to get tested. And found out -- nothing.

This is because two years ago the Food and Drug Administration, an agency that is supposed to protect us from noxious foods and drugs, but in practice protects us from access to health information and cheap pharmaceuticals, told 23andme they couldn't give out health information without approval by the agency. So now 23andme will tell you if you carry genes for various rare conditions, but they aren't allowed to tell you if you have APOE-e4. Fortunately, I have a Ph.D. in biophysics, considered doing my Ph.D. with Wally Gilbert, who invented gene sequencing, and have taught courses on molecular phylogenetics. It wasn't hard to look up the chromosomal location of the APOE gene and simply read the sequence. And, after about 20 minutes of tedium, I found out what 23andme were forbidden to tell me; that I have two copies of APOE-e3 and thus have a pretty low risk of Alzheimer's. Good news, no? In fact, a friend then told me I could simply send the raw DNA sequence information to a site called promethease.com, and for $5 they'd deliver a report about a large number of polymorphisms that affect human health, though none as directly as APOE-e3. So I've found out I probably have a somewhat elevated risk of heart disease and cancer (no surprise, given my personal and family history) and a low risk of diabetes. Most of this I evaluated by doing a great deal of reading about the significance of these various SNPs. 23andme could have told me the same things, and saved me a lot of effort.

Morals? First, in the information age, the FDA is standing squarely in the path of progress, yelling 'STOP'. How can it be justified that the government can prevent a person from contracting with a company to find out information about their own genome? Second, it's pointless, because (as we used to say back at the dawn of the 'net) information interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it. A cumbersome bureaucracy like the FDA is simply not nimble enough to prevent small enterprising companies from selling interpretation of genomic information (or for that matter, from selling nootropics). All they can do is be an expensive nuisance.

Burgeoning access to information is likely to be the doom of the Mommy State, but in the interim, more and more people are going to be finding out government is usually not your friend. It's the friend of the companies who want to sell you drugs at 100 times their cost in other countries, and doctors who want to maintain their monopoly on health care.

Back from the dead.

I'm going to try to blog more frequently in 2016, and focus on the nexus between science and politics. But we shall see!