NTS LogoSkeptical News for 14 April 2003

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Monday, April 14, 2003

Science In the News

The following roundup of science stories appearing each day in the general media is compiled by the Media Resource Service, Sigma Xi's referral service for journalists in need of sources of scientific expertise.

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In the News

Today's Headlines - April 14, 2003

from The New York Times

Scientists in Canada announced over the weekend that they had broken the genetic code of the virus suspected of causing severe acute respiratory syndrome.

Sequencing the genome — which computers at the British Columbia Cancer Agency in Vancouver completed at 4 a.m. Saturday after a team slaved over the problem 24 hours a day for a mere six days — is the first step toward developing a diagnostic test for the virus and possibly a vaccine

The genome appears to be that of a "completely new" coronavirus unrelated to any known human or animal viruses, a scientist at the Canadian agency said.


from The Toledo Blade

Beware the bug.

Mosquitoes bring West Nile Virus, malaria, and dengue fever.

Ticks carry Lyme Disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

Flies around the world carry any number of life-threatening infections, to say nothing of the deadly pathogens that fleas, midges, and other critters unload on hapless humanity.

Is it any wonder, then, that a few people engaged in unraveling the mystery of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome - SARS - may be turning to the insect world in their search for a culprit in the disease spread?

Reports this week said Hong Kong officials are testing cockroaches from a heavily infested apartment building to see if the insects bring dangerous baggage when they check in. It's just one of many leads investigators are tracking on this disease with global reach.


from The Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Scientists who three years ago said they had virtually completed a map of the human genetic code now report progress in understanding the last few pieces of one of the world's most complex puzzles.

The sequencing of the human genome puts humankind on the verge of a new era of breakthroughs in treating disease, say researchers involved in the project.

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the federal National Human Genome Research Project, planned to announce the update Monday, with Dr. Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health, and James Watson, who shared the Nobel Price for discovering the building blocks of life that have now been decoded.


from The Los Angeles Times

New radioactive dating from a major Iron Age site called Tel Rehov in northern Israel supports the biblical tradition that David and his son Solomon, founders of the ancient kingdom of Israel, were real nation-builders and not largely mythical figures, as some revisionist historians have argued.

Recent excavations at Megiddo, 25 miles west of Rehov, had suggested that palaces and other artifacts there once associated with Solomon were built by a later family of rulers called the Omrides. Based on those finds, archeologist Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University established a so-called Low Chronology in which Solomon and David are minor chieftains at best.

But a team led by archeologist Amihai Mazar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem reported in Friday's issue of Science that carbon from olive pits and charred grain from one of three "destruction layers" at Tel Rehov date the layer to 940 to 900 BC. The destruction layers mark times when the site was demolished before being rebuilt.


from The Washington Post

CAPE CANAVERAL -- The launch of a powerful new space telescope, a $1.2 billion mission that marries high technology, innovative design and sheer determination, was delayed for at least a week Thursday by a technical glitch. But for a project 20 years in the making, what's another few days?

Boosted into orbit around the sun and chilled to a few degrees above absolute zero, the Space Infrared Telescope Facility, or SIRTF (pronounced SIR-tiff), will focus on the faint heat emitted by stars and planets in the making, targets that until now have been, quite literally, shrouded in dusty mystery.

The compact 1,900-pound observatory, so sensitive it could detect the pulse from a TV remote control 10,000 miles away, will probe the chemical composition of enigmatic brown dwarfs, would-be suns that lack enough mass to trigger nuclear ignition, and peer through intervening clouds of dust to map the hidden heart of the Milky Way.


from The San Francisco Chronicle

History's worst technological catastrophes could kill millions or billions of people in this century, and to prevent them, society may need to consider restricting specific types of scientific research, a famed astrophysicist proposes in a new book.

The proposal by Sir Martin Rees, Britain's astronomer royal, is an unusually high-placed challenge to the scientific community's traditional belief in the value of research that is "pure," unrestricted and independent of public oversight.

Because of the growing sophistication and proliferation of biotechnology, computer technology and nanotechnology, civilization could be ravaged or destroyed by irrational or evil amateur scientists who operate alone or in small groups akin to the terrorists of Sept. 11, 2001, Rees warns in the book, "Our Final Hour," just published by Basic Books.

As a result, "I think the odds are no better than 50-50 that our present civilization on Earth will survive to the end of the present century," Rees says.


from The New York Times

HOUSTON, April 10 — "I'm hearing a little bit of an echo here," said Dr. Sally Ride.

She was not talking about the acoustics of the hotel ballroom where she and other members of the independent board investigating the loss of the shuttle Columbia convened for two days of hearings this week. Dr. Ride, the first American woman in space, was talking about history repeating itself.

She is the only member of the board investigating the Columbia accident who had a similar advisory role after the Challenger shuttle was destroyed in 1986. And she was hearing something a lot like what she had heard back then: Serious problems with a particular component or components, repeatedly weathered by various shuttle missions, might have proved fatal in the end because management misread them as maintenance headaches.


Seeing is believing that miracles do happen


STARK MATTERS Bob Russ Repository bureau chief

Do you believe in miracles?

A cardiologist at Ohio State University does now.

What other explanation is there for what happened to Carla Bailey? A month ago, doctors told her she'd be dead by the end of the year.

Her heart was failing. She was barely alive. Another condition, lupus, made prospects of a transplant unlikely.

On Dec. 10, the Gahanna, Ohio, resident's heart was functioning at 16 percent. It was just a matter of time, doctors told her. And not much time, either.

Four days later, a program was held in her honor at her church. That night, Bailey said, "I got this heavy feeling in my heart."

When doctors checked again, her heart's function had improved to 57 percent. Overnight.

Her heart apparently healed itself.

After seven months in the Ohio State University Medical Center, Bailey came home in time for Christmas.

Dr. Philip Binkley, an OSU cardiologist, said doctors shun the word "miracle," but said, "It does feel miraculous. We still don't understand how a heart decreased that severely improves."

Bailey understands. It was God, she said.

I'm sure there are plenty of skeptics, but I'm not one of them.

I've seen a few miracles myself.

My daughter, Mary, heads the list. I had been married a year when doctors said my wife would never be able to have children. Twelve years later, my wife told me she thought she might be pregnant. I laughed, but we made a doctor's appointment anyway, just in case.

The doctor called a few days early; there'd been a cancellation, did we want to come in now?

So in we went, with no clue as to how important that cancellation would be.

Our expectations were low. So we were stunned when the doctor said that yes, my wife was pregnant.

Before that could even sink in, however, the doctor had disturbing news. The baby was being born. Now.

Two hours after we learned of our child's existence, our child was coming into the world. We rushed to the hospital where a cervical cerclage was performed; the uterus was sewn shut to keep the infant from being born.

But two days later, my wife's water broke, and the cerclage had to be undone. A day later, on July 19, 1991, Mary Alice Russ was born — almost 4 1/2 months early.

Doctors argued whether it was even worth the effort to try to save her. They didn't argue about one thing, though — they all agreed it would take a miracle for her to survive.

Mary weighed a mere 1 pound, 5 ounces at birth. She was 11 inches long; smaller than a Barbie doll. Her eyes were fused shut. Her hands and feet were the size of my smallest fingernail.

And it wasn't long before her condition worsened. Her breathing became more labored. Her weight dropped to 1 pound 2 ounces. All of the dozens of machines and medicines that were barely keeping her alive were slowly losing the battle.

She had surgery to repair a leaky valve on her heart — her only chance, even though doctors feared she wouldn't survive the operation.

Somehow she pulled through and, for a while, was improving. Then came another turn for the worse. At one point, a doctor told us there was nothing more they could do. He said my daughter had maybe a day to live.

Another doctor, though, told us there was once last hope — an experimental steroid treatment that offered only a remote chance of success, and at great cost. There would be a trade-off, we were warned. She might be blind or deaf, or severely brain-damaged. Even in the unlikely event Mary survived, we were told, odds were she'd never live anything resembling a normal life.

Today, my daughter is 11, in the sixth grade and, except for the unfortunate fact that she looks a lot like her dad, is pretty much like any other kid.

I look at her, and I don't have to wonder. I know.

Miracles are real.

Articles of Note

Group That Debunks Paranormal To Open Office In Manhattan
New York-AP, March 10, 2003


When the Center for Free Inquiry opens its newest office in Manhattan, it couldn't ask for a better greeting. The ornate sign outside the building at 30 Rockefeller Center reads "Wisdom and knowledge shall be the stability of our times" and a sculpture of the Greek god Prometheus stands prominently nearby. "If we had a patron saint, he would be ours," CFI-Metro NY Chairman Austin Dacey says of Prometheus, who brought fire and intelligence to humanity. The group of international skeptics, known for debunking psychics, ghosts and alien abductions, is opening a new office in Manhattan to promote better scientific coverage by the news media.

Some see Iraq war in Scripture
By Bill Hillburg
Los Angeles Daily News


"For millions of Americans, the looming war with Iraq is far more than an effort to eliminate a dictator and his weapons of mass destruction. Citing Scripture, they fervently believe that the conflict is yet another strong sign that the end of time is approaching."

Can good vibrations stop war?
by Dennis Roddy
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


"With Americans prepared to invade Iraq in reaction to terrorist strikes by Saudis and Saddam Hussein destroying weapons he denies having, logic's tattered remnants strode across the international stage in the robes of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi."

ITC monitors Diana spirit show
BBC News


"A TV watchdog is to monitor a documentary which claims to contact the spirit of Princess Diana as part of a review into paranormal programming."

Diana seance edited for British TV


"Lurid scenes of psychics trying to get in touch with the late Diana, Princess of Wales, have been cut from a U.S. television programme being shown on British television Monday."

ITC to investigate paranormal shows
by Matt Wells
The Guardian [UK]


"Tonight's coverage by a satellite TV channel of an attempt to raise the spirit of Princess Diana has prompted television regulators to launch an investigation into the proliferation of programmes about the paranormal."

It's Time To Rethink Ephedra Regulation
by Leon Jaroff


"Steve Bechler may not have died in vain. After the 23-year-old Baltimore Orioles pitcher collapsed and died in February following a spring training workout in Florida, a bottle of weight loss supplements containing ephedra was found in his locker. A Florida medical examiner reported that ephedra might well have contributed to his death."

The mind should be open
By Karl J. Mogel
California Aggie


"Last week, I had the privilege to discuss science and astrology with Michael Mercury on his radio show. He said that the reason I didn't believe in astrology was because my mind was closed. I contested that characterization, but he repeated that multiple times, even in the closing statements of the show, when it was out of place for me to respond again."

FDA Proposes Standards for Supplements
Associated Press


"Millions of users of St. John's wort, calcium and other dietary supplements may soon know for sure they're getting what they pay for: The government proposed the first manufacturing standards for the $19 billion supplement industry in an attempt to cut fraud and contamination."

Outlawing Science
By Ellen Goodman
Washington Post


"Never again will I underestimate the commitment of the U.S. House of Representatives to homeland security. While the whole country is on an emotional toggle switch, alternating between orange and yellow alert, the representatives nevertheless have taken time out to protect our fair country from another breed of international criminals: patients."

Is It Good for the Jews?
New York Times


"Two weeks ago, a group of senior intelligence officials in the Defense Department sat for an hour listening to a briefing by a writer who claims - I am not making this up - that messages encoded in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament provide clues to the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. One of the officials told me that they had agreed to meet the writer, Michael Drosnin, author of a Nostradamus-style best seller, without understanding that he was promoting Biblical prophecy. Still, rather than shoo him away, they listened politely as he consumed several man-hours of valuable intelligence-crunching time. Apparently he has given similar briefings to top officials of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency."

For More Stories Visit: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/skepticsearch/


1. There first came to the tomb on Sunday morning
       a. one woman (John 20:1)
       b. two women (Matt. 28:1)
       c. three women (Mark 16:1)
       d. more than three women (Luke 23:55-56; 24:1,10)

2. She (they) came
       a. while it was still dark (Matt. 28:1; John 20:1)
       b. after the sun had risen (Mark 16:2)

3. The woman (women) came to the tomb
       a. to anoint the body of Jesus with spices
          (Mark 16:1-2; Luke 24:1)
       b. Just to look at it (Matt. 28:1; John 20:1)

4. The women had obtained the spices
       a. on Friday before sunset (Luke 23:54-56; 24:1)
       a. after sunset on Saturday (Mark 16:1)

5. The first visitor(s) was/were greeted by
       a. an angel (Matt. 28:2-5)
       b. a young man (Mark 16:5)
       c. two men (Luke 24:4)
       d. no one (John 20:1-2)

6. The greeter(s)
       a. was sitting on the stone outside the tomb
          (Matt 28:2)
       b. was sitting inside the tomb (Mark 16:5)
       c. were standing inside the tomb (Luke 24:3-4)

7. After finding the tomb empty, the woman/women
       a. ran to tell the disciples (Matt. 28:7-8; Mark 16:10;
          Luke 24:9; John 20:2)
       b. ran away and said nothing to anyone (Mark 16:8)

8. The risen Jesus first appeared to
       a. Mary Magdalene alone (John 20:14; Mark 16:9)
       b. Cleopas and another disciple (Luke 24:13,15,18)
       c. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (Matt. 28:1,9)
       d. Cephas (Peter) alone (1 Cor. 15:4-5; Luke 24:34)

9. Jesus first appeared
       a. somewhere between the tomb and Jerusalem
          (Matt. 28:8-9)
       b. Just outside the tomb (John 20:11-14)
       c. in Galilee - some 80 miles (130 Km) north of
          Jerusalem (Mark 16:6-7)
       d. on the road to Emmaus - Miles (11 Km) west of
          Jerusalem (Luke 24:13-15)
       e. we are not told where (Mark 16:9; 1 Cor. 15:4-5)

10. The disciples were to see Jesus first
       a. in Galilee (Mark 16:7; Matt. 28:7,10,16)
       b. in Jerusalem (Mark 16:14; Luke 24:33,36;
          John 20:19; Acts 1:4)

11. the disciples were told that they would meet the risen
      Jesus in Galilee
       a. by the women, who had been told by an angel of
          the Lord,  then by Jesus himself after the
          resurrection (Matt. 28:7-10; Mark 16:7)
       b. by Jesus himself, before the crucifiction (Mark 26:32)

12. The risen Jesus
       a. wanted to be touched (John 20:27)
       b. did not want to be touched (John 20:17)
       c. did not mind being touched (Matt. 28:9-10)

13. Jesus ascended to Heaven
       a. the same day that he was resurrected
          (Mark 16:9,19; Luke 24:13,28-36,50-51)
       b. forty days after the resurrection (Acts 1:3,9)
       c. we are not told that he ascended to Heaven at all
          (Matt. 28:10, 16-20; John 21:25; the original
          Gospel of Mark ends at 16:8)

14. The disciples received the Holy Spirit
       a. 50 days after the resurrection (Acts 1:3,9)
       b. in the evening of the same day as the resurrection
          (John 20:19-22)

15. The risen Jesus
       a. was recognized by those who saw him
          (Matt. 28:9; Mark 16:9-10)
       b. was not always recognizable (Mark 16:12;
          Luke 24:15-16,31,36-37; John 20:14-15)

16. The risen Jesus
       a. was physical (Matt. 28:9; Luke 24:41-43;
          John 20:27)
       b. was not physical (Mark 16:9,12,14;
          Luke 24:15-16,31,36-37; John 20:19,26;
          1 Cor. 15:5-8)

17. The risen Jesus was seen by the disciples
       a. presumably only once (Matt. 28:16-17)
       b. first by two of them, later by all eleven
          (Mark 16:12-14; Luke 24:13-15,33,36-51)
       c. three times (John 20:19,26; 21:1,14)
       d. many times (Acts 1:3)

18. When Jesus appeared to the disciples
       a. there were eleven of them (Matt. 28:16-17;
          Luke 24:33,36)
       b. twelve of them (1 Cor. 15:5)

Scientist Defends Book of Exodus


In a new book, he says the biblical account of the Israelites' journey out of Egypt is accurate and attributes miracles to natural events.

By Richard N. Ostling
Associated Press Religion Writer

April 12, 2003

A British scientist is making two claims about Jewish history this Passover season that could surely spark discussion over the Seder meal.

Colin J. Humphreys of Cambridge University has concluded that science backs traditional beliefs that the Israelites' exodus from Egypt was led by Moses pretty much the way the Bible and the Haggadah ritual tell it.

He also says that Mt. Sinai, where Scripture says Moses received God's Law, is in Saudi Arabia, not Egypt's Sinai Peninsula -- thus moving a key site for Judaism into the nation where Islam was founded.

Humphreys' approach is to read the Book of Exodus as literally as possible and search for scientific explanations of what is recorded.

The biblical account of the mountain's shaking and emitting fire and smoke (Exodus 19:18) must mean that the holy mount was an active volcano, he said. He has carefully examined ancient and modern records to fix the site.

His candidate is Mt. Bedr in northwestern Saudi Arabia, because there were no volcanoes in what was later named the Sinai Peninsula. For different reasons, other scholars also have suggested that the Mt. Sinai of the Bible was in Arabia.

Humphreys also thinks that near Mt. Bedr, Moses experienced God's call at the "burning bush." He suggests that the phenomenon was caused by flammable natural gas or volcanic gas escaping from a small vent in the ground.

That style of close, literal reading of the Book of Exodus is far out of fashion among most archeologists as well as among Conservative and Reform Jews, though it may be welcomed by Orthodox Jews and conservative Christians.

Humphreys details his ideas in a new book, "The Miracles of Exodus: A Scientist's Discovery of the Extraordinary Natural Causes of the Biblical Stories" (HarperSanFrancisco).

The 61-year-old academic brings a solid intellectual reputation in his own fields of physics and materials science to the table, though admittedly amateur status in archeology and Bible scholarship.

Humphreys doesn't feel his lack of expertise is a problem: He believes that gives him an open mind. "I am not preconditioned to accept standard interpretations," he said.

By contrast, some prominent Jewish archeologists, such as William Dever, of the University of Arizona, and Israel Finkelstein, at Tel Aviv University, treat the Exodus story as primarily an inspiring national fiction, rather than history.

Dever's new book, "Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?" (Eerdmans) says that, although the Exodus story "may rest on some historical foundations, however minimal," the Israelites didn't develop -- at least not primarily -- from a people fleeing Egypt.

A churchgoing Baptist, Humphreys says he was fully prepared to find biblical mistakes and signs that the Exodus story had been written many centuries after the events, as scholars like Dever believe.

The Book of Exodus obviously underwent later editing, Humphreys concludes. But he believes that the evidence strongly suggests that eyewitness material might have come from Moses himself. The book is "amazingly accurate and coherent," he says, and the mind-boggling events happened.

As with other writers, he proposes a series of possible natural causes to explain events the Bible attributes to miracles, such as the 10 plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea

Some argue that such explanations undercut the idea of miracles. Humphreys disagrees. He believes that nature produced the occurrences with just the right timing, and Israel, reasonably enough, regarded this as miraculous.

Natural explanations only bolster Exodus, he says.

Sunday, April 13, 2003

Saddam holds Swiss bank A/C in Satan's name

London, April 13

A retired banker living in Switzerland spent 10 years helping Iraqi President Saddam Hussein hide millions of dollars via a bank account under the name of Satan, Britain's Sunday Times reported.


A reducibly complex mousetrap


Creationist Michael Behe has been attracting a lot of attention recently with his advocacy of the "intelligent design" argument. He makes the claim that certain biochemical processes are "irreducibly complex": they involve multiple proteins, and removing any one of them would destroy the function of the overall pathway. From this he concludes that these pathways could not have evolved through the action of natural selection, but instead must have been created by an "intelligent designer."

To illustrate the concept of irreducibly complexity, Behe uses the common snap mousetrap. "If any one of the components of the mousetrap (the base, hammer, spring, catch, or holding bar) is removed, then the trap does not function. In other words, the simple little mousetrap has no ability to trap a mouse until several separate parts are all assembled. Because the mousetrap is necessarily composed of several parts, it is irreducibly complex." (Behe, 1996).

The battle for American science


Creationists, pro-lifers and conservatives now pose a serious threat to research and science teaching in the US, report Oliver Burkeman and Alok Jha

Thursday April 10, 2003
The Guardian

One of the first signs that something was changing came in March last year in the suburbs of northern Atlanta, when people started talking, a little more frequently than might be expected, about mousetraps. It was hardly unprecedented in the US that a group of local parents should be lobbying for their children to be taught that evolution was a disputed theory, not a fact. But the way some of them were doing it was new, which is where the mousetraps came in. Unlike some of the openly evangelical Christian lobbies, they didn't want schools to teach creationism - the theory that God created the universe in seven days - they only wanted to air a theory known as Intelligent Design. ID holds that the living cell is "irreducibly complex", like a mousetrap. Remove the spring from a mousetrap and it isn't just an inferior mousetrap; it isn't a mousetrap at all. It had to have been created by an intelligent designer. It was the same, they said, for cells, and so life must have been designed by some kind of intelligence. Critics called this "stealth creationism" - religious dogma masquerading as science - but the ID proponents got their way, thanks partly to wording in President Bush's new education bill. Schools in Atlanta are now theoretically entitled to "teach the controversy" (though officials have urged teachers to stick to evolution for now, sparking a lawsuit) - and textbooks presenting Darwinism as fact have stickers inside, pointing out that it might not be.

Some other signs: if you were contemplating an abortion and were worried about the rumour that it might increase your risk of breast cancer, you might visit the website of the government-funded National Cancer Institute to read their factsheet, which noted that most scientists doubt a link. Or, at least, you might have done so until June last year, when the page, criticised by some Republicans in Congress, simply vanished. (A replacement page was posted last month.) Or maybe you were an Aids activist, elated by the president's unexpected (and genuinely revolutionary) announcement in the State of the Union address of $15bn (£9.7bn) in funding for fighting the epidemic worldwide - and then surprised to find that only around 10% was destined for the Global Aids Fund, while the rest would be funnelled through US agencies, where it is more likely to be accessible to American abstinence-only groups campaigning against condoms.

Welcome to the new battlegrounds of American science. No conspiracy, nor even one political agenda, links the incidents above. But US scientists say they are indicative of a new climate that has emerged under the Bush administration: one driven partly by close relationships with big business, but just as much by a fiercely moral approach to the business of science. The approach is not exclusively religious, nor exclusively rightwing, but is spreading worry as never before through the nation's laboratories and lecture halls.

As prescient observers of the events north of Atlanta last year realised, these aren't the old wars of science versus religion. The new assaults on the conventional wisdom frame themselves, without exception, as scientific theories, no less deserving of a hearing than any other. Proponents of ID - using a strategy previously unheard of among anti-Darwinists - grant almost all the premises of evolution (the idea that species develop; that the world wasn't necessarily created in seven days) in order to better attack it.

"It's not that I don't think Darwinian evolution can't explain anything," says Professor Michael Behe of Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, the movement's foremost academic advocate, when asked how he accounts for the very visible evolution of, say, viruses. "It's just that I don't think it can explain everything. Bacterial resistance to antibiotics, for example, is one of the things it can explain."

Similarly, the White House's strategy on global warming is not to scoff at the scientific establishment's warnings on climate change. Rather, it trumpets the importance of their research activities and calls for even more research - years more, in fact - before any action is taken. In the same fashion, one of the most popular arguments currently circulating on anti-condom websites claims not that they encourage promiscuity but that they can't protect against HIV. The reason, it argues, is because the virus is 0.1 microns in diameter, while there are tiny pores in latex measuring 10 microns. (There is no evidence for this.)

A related tactic has been observed in recent weeks among the conservative organisations vying for a say in how Bush's new Aids cash should be spent. The Bush administration had long been criticised by the left for neglecting the promotion of cheap anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) in favour of policies that benefited patent-owning pharmaceutical giants. Usaid, the government's international development agency, argued at one point that Africans would find it hard to adhere to drug programmes because they had a different conception of time.

Suddenly, though, ARVs are the right's new passion - because, argues Holly Burkhalter of the pressure group Physicians for Human Rights, spending more money on drugs means condom programmes could be starved of cash. It is the most unlikely reversal of positions, she argues. "Who knew? Now you have the activists putting the case for prevention and the conservatives campaigning to make treatment widely available in Africa."

The two men inside the Bush administration who have had the most to do with this shift in approach are about as different from each other in style as it is possible to imagine - except, perhaps, in their avoidance of the media spotlight. One is Karl Rove, the president's senior political aide, a master tactician who has been Bush's main strategist since his earliest days campaigning for the governorship of Texas. (He does not seem overly bothered by scruples: in one campaign, for another politician, he claimed to have discovered a bug in his office on the day of a major debate. The opponent, tarnished by the insinuation of dirty tricks, lost the race, but the ensuing police investigation found nothing.) His importance should not be understated. "If Karl Rove did not exist, George Bush would not be president of the United States," the liberal columnist EJ Dionne wrote bluntly this month.

Some saw Rove's influence at play when John Marburger, Bush's new science advisor, was informed that the role would no longer be a cabinet position. The White House had decided that "they don't need that level of scientific input," Allan Bromley, the first President Bush's science advisor, said glumly at the time.

The other man is Leon Kass, chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics. The occupant of that role was always going to be a central figure in an administration as morality-driven as Bush's. In Kass, the president found a paragon of good repute (a renowned ethicist at the University of Chicago, Kass exudes erudition) who nevertheless differed radically from the academic consensus on the issues his committee would be considering, such as euthanasia, human cloning and in-vitro fertilisation.

"It is rare to see a scientist who thinks that nascent human life has any dignity worth respecting whatsover," he said last year, arguing that the scientific establishment "treat it as chopped liver".

Rove's alertness to Bush's Christian-conservative voter base and Kass's moral convictions proved a powerful combination when it came to one of the most radical science policy changes to emerge from the current White House: the clampdown on human cloning.

The Bush presidency was in its infancy when Rove identified cloning as a topic that needed to be tackled. The administration's contempt for the issue was made transparent when he suggested introducing a bill into Congress that would ban all forms of cloning. Kass readily agreed: "We are repelled by the prospect of cloning human beings," he has written, "not because of the strangeness or novelty of the undertaking, but because we intuit and feel the violation of things that we rightfully hold dear."

The problem for scientists was that the legislation could single-handedly destroy research using stem cells (otherwise known as "therapeutic cloning", a term the anti-cloning lobby rejects), as well as closing the door on reproductive cloning - making cloned babies. Stem cells are the master cells found in early-stage embryos. They evolve into all the different tissues of the body, and doctors hope to treat several serious diseases by directing the cells to develop into specific implants. Advised by Kass's council, however, Bush announced in 2001 that he would end government funding for the cultivation of new cell lines, forcing scientists to find private funding or rely on existing, often contaminated lines.

On the subject of whether to introduce a wider ban on cloning itself, though, the US is stuck. Galvanised by the news that the Raelians, a Canadian cult, claimed to have overseen the delivery of the world's first cloned baby, the House of Representatives tabled a bill earlier this year to ban all cloning. Fortunately for the scientists involved, the bill is now destined for the more sympathetic Senate. But Bush has already made it clear in several statements that he is reluctant to sign any bill into law that did not ban all forms of cloning.

Cloning proponents like Howard Garrison, director of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, say that when they sit down with sceptics they go a long way in convincing them. But the president "listens selectively", says a source close to one of the national academies, the learned societies which represent the elite scientists in the US. In the White House, an embryo is an embryo and must be protected at all costs. Not that this is necessarily a cause for surprise. "We elected a Republican president," sighs the source. "And the scientific community tends to be more liberal."

Nor, perhaps, was it a surprise that evolution, in this climate, would come in for a renewed bout of questioning. Bush has said that he has not made up his mind on evolution - a stance that is politically helpful in the US, where Christian conservative voters feel strongly but where there is not, on the other side of the debate, a unified "pro- evolution" lobby likely to be turned off a candidate solely on the basis of such remarks.

But John Ashcroft's Department of Justice has proved active: when Michael Dini, a Catholic biology professor at Texas Tech University, announced that he would not write academic recommendations for students who did not "affirm" that there is a scientific explanation of the origin of the species, a creationist student launched a lawsuit. Such lawsuits aren't uncommon. What was uncommon was that Dini, soon after, received a call from government lawyers, demanding the handover of numerous documents, and implicitly threatening to make a minor local dispute into a high-profile federal case.

Advocates of ID, too, are making further attempts to change school curricula, and this month achieved success in Tennessee. Their strategy is to adopt a studiedly undogmatic style, and to come across as amiable debaters willing to listen to your doubts. "All very good questions," says Behe when asked about the most glaring absence from ID: a theory of when, and by what mechanism, an imputed intelligent designer actually did their intelligent designing. (Also: who designed the designer?) "We'd all like to have the answers. Suppose you drove someone who'd never seen Mount Rushmore to look at it. They would immediately apprehend that the mountain had been designed, formed by intelligent activity. Now, most people would think that designer would be God ... but where the designer came from is a separate question." (Most scientists point out, among many criticisms of ID, that it assumes the function of an organism to be a given: true of a mousetrap, but not necessarily of living things - ends themselves can change.)

Kenneth Miller, a professor at Brown University in Rhode Island who is one of the most persistent critics of ID, remains happy at the overwhelming lack of success the movement has had. "But none of that has come without concerted work," he says. "I think they've made significant advances in public opinion: if you ask the American people, do you believe in the general Darwinian theory, they split 40/40 [with 20% unsure]." ID, he says, is "stealth creationism - it's been recognised for what it is, which is a quasi-political theory."

Critics speak with similar alarm about other theories that have been getting a new airing recently, on Aids and abstinence and global warming, for example - theories presented as rival scientific ideas asking only for a "fair hearing". "It's a very good rhetorical strategy, because it appeals to the very American sense of openness and fair play," says Miller. "But there's something called the scientific process, you know - involving open publication, criticism, and rejection of things that aren't convincing. We don't teach both sides of the germ theory of disease and faith-healing. Evolution isn't in the classroom because of political action or court decisions. It's in the classroom because it made it through, it stood up to scrutiny and became the scientific consensus. It fought the battle and won."

Further reading Boy Genius: Karl Rove, the Brain Behind the Remarkable Political Triumph of George W Bush by Lou Dubose, Jan Reid and Carl M Cannon. Public Affairs (2003). ISBN: 1586481924

Human Cloning and Human Dignity: The Report of the President's Council on Bioethics by Leon R Kass. Public Affairs (2002). ISBN: 1586481762

Clones and Clones: Facts and Fantasies about Human Cloning ,edited by Martha Nussbaum and Cass Sunstein. W W Norton (1999). ISBN: 0393320014

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003

A Brief History of the Multiverse

April 12, 2003

Imagine you can play God and fiddle with the settings of the great cosmic machine. Turn this knob and make electrons a bit heavier; twiddle that one and make gravitation a trifle weaker. What would be the effect? The universe would look very different - so different, in fact, that there wouldn't be anyone around to see the result, because the existence of life depends rather critically on the actual settings that Mother Nature selected.

Scientists have long puzzled over this rather contrived state of affairs. Why is nature so ingeniously, one might even say suspiciously, friendly to life? What do the laws of physics care about life and consciousness that they should conspire to make a hospitable universe? It's almost as if a Grand Designer had it all figured out.

The fashionable scientific response to this cosmic conundrum is to invoke the so-called multiverse theory. The idea here is that what we have hitherto been calling "the universe" is nothing of the sort. It is but a small component within a vast assemblage of other universes that together make up a "multiverse."


Prayer Day Declared to Find Killer


April 11, 2003
by Terry Phillips

A horrific series of murders in south Louisiana is drawing the attention of the best in law enforcement -- including a full-time task force. Now, the state's leaders are turning to another source for solving the crimes: literally praying for help.

The murders of five women in Louisiana have been connected to a single killer, and there may be many more. Marsanne Golsby, Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster's spokeswoman, said her boss proclaimed a day of prayer to capture the killer.

"It was just a coming together of the state and the community to ask for divine guidance to find this monster, who's murdering these women," Golsby said.

Gene Mills, executive director of the Louisiana Family Forum, said this is not the first time the governor has turned to the Lord in prayer.

"When Louisiana was experiencing severe drought, he convened and commissioned that a day be set aside for prayer and fasting," Mills said.

Bobby Simpson, the mayor of Baton Rouge, La., said such a community plea for God's help goes with the territory in Louisiana.

"We're used to adversity, but we're also a people that realizes that God can overcome all this, and we need to keep Him on our team as much as possible," Simpson said.

Saturday, April 12, 2003

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Education leader defends Christian comments


WASHINGTON (AP) -- Education Secretary Rod Paige's attempt to clarify his views about religion in schools may not satisfy those pushing him to recant his comments and apologize.

In a story run by a religious news service, Paige was quoted as showing a preference for schools that appreciate "the values of the Christian community." He told reporters his expression of personal faith has no bearing on his role as the nation's education chief.

"I don't think I have anything to apologize for," Paige said. "What I'm doing is clarifying my remarks."

Paige reaffirmed his commitment to the separation of church and state. But critics contend Paige, a Baptist, has shown a penchant for favoring religion in the classroom.

The occult economy
Is anybody there?


There certainly is - on this side of the great divide, at least. In fact, reports Phillip Inman, there are serious numbers of people making a tidy living out of getting in touch with the dead

Saturday April 5, 2003
The Guardian

The psychic medium is a fairground cliché. She sits in her small gilded tent, overly tanned and gilded in jewellery, a cross between a pirate and an Indian goddess. But today the cliché is dead. Psychics have gone mainstream: they work from offices, they pay rent, they pay tax (well, some of them do) and they appear on primetime television, albeit largely cable or satellite.

Figures for how many Britons are now engaged in the occult economy are impossible to pin down, but anecdotal evidence suggests it has become a boom area for employment. Some estimates suggest that the numbers now gaining some sort of living from the paranormal could equal the numbers working in the once-proud manufacturing industries currently in steep decline.

Is Britain moving from the Workshop of the World to the Psychic Parlour of the globe? ...



Dr. Dino Iraq Creation Ministry Formed


Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf Put in Charge

For immediate release

Noted scientist Dr. Kent Hovind from the Patriot University, one of the great universities of our time, and founder of Creation Science Evangelism is proud to announce formation of Dr. Dino Iraq Creation Ministry to bring young-earth creation science to the people of Iraq long oppressed by the teaching of evolution.

Mr. al-Sahaf, a former diplomat who recently quit his previous employment for new ventures has turned down many high-profile jobs to help Dr. Hovind teach the Iraqi people how bad believing the world is older than ten-thousand years old really is. Some of the jobs he turned down are spokesman for La Société de l'Histoire Militaire Française in Paris, Al Gore speech writer, ghost writer for Sen. Hillary Clinton's memoirs, and senior economic advisor to President George W. Bush. He will act as a minister of information about the evils of evolution for the new ministry.

Science In the News

The following roundup of science stories appearing each day in the general media is compiled by the Media Resource Service, Sigma Xi's referral service for journalists in need of sources of scientific expertise.

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Today's Headlines – April 11, 2003

from The New York Times

Deep in the recesses of the human heart, lurking guiltily beneath the threshold of consciousness, there may lie a depraved craving — for the forbidden taste of human flesh. The basis for this morbid accusation, made by a team of researchers in London, is a genetic signature, found almost worldwide, that points to a long history of cannibalism.

The signature is one that protects the bearer from infection by prions, proteins that can be transmitted in infected meat and attack the nerve cells of the brain. Prions can be acquired from eating infected animals, as in the case of the mad cow disease that in 1996 spread to people in England, but they spread even more easily through eating infected humans.

This fact is known from study of the Fore, a tribe in the eastern highlands of Papua New Guinea that started to practice ritual cannibalism at the end of the 19th century. Dr. D. Carleton Gajdusek, who later received a Nobel Prize for his work, noticed that the Fore were being devastated by a neurodegenerative disease known as kuru. He linked it with their practice of eating the brains of their dead in mortuary feasts. When the feasts were banned by Australian authorities in the mid-1950's, the incidence of kuru declined, and no cases have appeared in anyone born after that time.


from The Washington Post

New research suggests that it may be a lot harder to clone people than to clone other animals, an unexpected scientific twist that could influence the escalating congressional debate over human cloning and embryo research.

The new work by scientists in Pittsburgh provides an explanation for why hundreds of attempts to clone monkeys have all failed despite successes in several other mammals. The scientists said they suspect that similar roadblocks exist for all primates -- the evolutionary grouping that includes monkeys and humans.

If true, researchers said, then Congress may not have to worry that basic cloning research on human embryos will lead to the production of cloned babies. Free of that slippery slope, they said, Congress could settle for less stringent restrictions on embryo cloning studies, which scientists favor.


from The Baltimore Sun

Army scientists have reproduced the anthrax powder used in the 2001 mail attacks and concluded that it was made using simple methods, inexpensive equipment and limited expertise, according to government sources familiar with the work.

The findings reinforce the theory that has guided the FBI's 18-month-old investigation - that the mailed anthrax was probably produced by renegade scientists and not a military program such as Iraq's.

"It tends to support the idea that the anthrax came from a domestic source and probably not a state program," said David Siegrist, a bioterrorism expert at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. "It shows you can have a fairly sophisticated product with fairly rudimentary methods."


from The San Francisco Chronicle

A top security official at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory resigned Thursday after he was linked to an alleged Chinese spy scandal and love triangle involving a Los Angeles socialite and a retired FBI agent.

William Cleveland Jr., himself a retired FBI agent who was working as a counterintelligence expert at the sensitive nuclear weapons research laboratory, is under investigation by the lab to make sure no national security secrets were compromised, a lab spokeswoman said.

His abrupt resignation came one day after the arrests in Los Angeles of retired FBI agent James J. Smith, who faces federal charges of gross negligence, and Los Angeles businesswoman Katrina Leung, an FBI informant accused of being a double agent and turning over classified information to China.


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Friday, April 11, 2003

Lost letters' Neptune revelations


By Christine McGourty
BBC science correspondent in Dublin

Long-lost documents relating to the 19th Century discovery of the planet Neptune are shedding new light on one of the most controversial episodes in the history of astronomy.

Speaking at the UK/Ireland National Astronomy Meeting in Dublin, a historian who has pored over hundreds of letters from the period says British scientists have taken more credit for the discovery than they deserved.

The planet was found on 23 September 1846 after the French astronomer Urbain Jean-Joseph Le Verrier calculated its likely location, based on perturbations in the orbit of Uranus.

He wrote to German astronomers equipped with a powerful telescope, telling them where to look.

The new planet was discovered at the Berlin Observatory immediately.

Not quite sure

But the find was quickly mired in controversy, with Britain's powerful Astronomer Royal, George Airy, arguing that a young Cornish mathematician, John Couch Adams, deserved a large share of the credit, having made similar predictions for the likely location of the missing eighth planet in 1845. It was said his predictions had been ignored.

The exact details of the matter have been difficult to establish because crucial British Neptune correspondence (1837-1848) went missing from the Royal Greenwich Observatory.

The documents were found in 1999 in Chile and are being studied by historian Dr Nicholas Kollerstrom of University College London.

He now says the British claims have been exaggerated.

"The British case was largely constructed after the discovery of the planet and we're now discovering that it gave the Brits a bit too much credit," he says.

"Adams had done some calculations but he was rather unsure about quite where he was saying Neptune was."

The burden of blame has traditionally fallen on Airy for failing to act on the mathematician's predictions. But Kollerstrom argues that Airy was largely responsible for Adams being noticed at all.

Ogre and despot

"In order to construct this British maths hero with his wonderful predictions, Airy took a lot of blame for not having acted," says Kollerstrom. "In reality, a more thorough perusal of the documents shows that Adams was rather uncertain and his predictions ranged over as much as 20 degrees."

He says Adams and Le Verrier were doing very similar calculations, but Adams, who was only in his twenties, never had the confidence to say "look there and you will find it".

"He was rather vague and he was vacillating - his predictions kept changing. And I would suggest that's why the British spent six weeks looking for Neptune and not finding it. In contrast, the Germans found it in half an hour."

He describes what follows as "a remarkable British takeover". "They gave themselves far too much of the credit and Adams ended up with much more than was due to him, even though he had done some remarkable calculations," says Kollerstrom.

"Le Verrier has been almost wiped out by history because the Brits were so successful at taking the credit," he adds. "I think he was personally traumatised by what had happened and he ended up as a complete ogre and despot in his later years. I think he was inwardly shattered by having the credit taken from him."

Kollerstrom's conclusions are likely to be controversial, but historians will be able to consider the material for themselves when the complete Neptune Correspondence is published for the first time at the end of this year.

Voodoo recognised as official religion in Haiti


Voodoo has been recognised as an official religion in Haiti allowing priests to perform ceremonies from baptisms to marriages.

Voodoo priest Philippe Castera, 48, said he hopes the government's decree is more than an effort to win popularity amid economic and political troubles.

"In spite of our contribution to Haitian culture, we are still misunderstood and despised," said Castera.

President Jean-Bertrand Aristide invited voodoo practitioners to register with the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

After swearing an oath before a civil judge, practitioners will be able to legally conduct ceremonies such as marriages and baptisms.

Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest, has said he recognises voodoo as a religion like any other.

"An ancestral religion, voodoo is an essential part of national identity," he said in the decree recognising voodoo.

Voodoo practitioners believe in a supreme God and spirits who link the human with the divine. The spirits are summoned by offerings that include everything from rum to chickens.

Many books and films have depicted voodoo as black magic based on animal and human sacrifices to summon zombies and evil spirits.

"It will take more than a government decree to undo all that malevolence," Castera said, and suggested that construction of a central voodoo temple would "turn good words into a good deed."

© Associated Press

Mean scientists dash hopes of life on Mars


PASADENA, CA—A team of cold-hearted, killjoy scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory callously announced Monday that the likelihood of complex life on Mars is "extraordinarily low," dashing the hopes of the public just like that.

"What? Are they sure? I'm crestfallen," said Shreveport, LA, real-estate agent Martin Lucas, 47. "I remember back when I was a little boy, I'd dream of life on Mars. I'd lie awake under the covers imagining myself having all sorts of adventures with these Martians I befriended. How can those scientists just dismiss it so nonchalantly? What jerks."

Added Lucas: "Maybe next, they can do a study definitively disproving the existence of Santa Claus."

Many citizens believe Saddam has mystical powers


Posted on Thu, Apr. 10, 2003

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Mercury News

UMM QASR, Iraq - Ahmed Ali believes Saddam Hussein can never die. All his life, the 23-year-old laborer has heard about the dictator's powerful stone.

Saddam, the story goes, had the stone made shortly after he came to power 24 years ago. Its powers were first tested inside a chicken. One of his soldiers pulled out a gun and shot a bullet at point-blank range. The chicken's feathers fell off, but it lived.

So the dictator implanted the stone in his upper arm.

As the curtain falls on Saddam's reign, many ordinary Iraqis are reluctant to believe that their much-feared dictator has lost power, much less that he is actually dead. Stories abound of Saddam's mystical powers that have helped him elude assassination attempts and missile strikes.

``The stone makes him bulletproof,'' Ali, a slim man with a Saddam-style mustache, said in a serious voice.

That belief, common throughout Iraq, presents uncommon challenges for U.S. and British forces as they try to persuade Iraqis that Saddam is gone and will not return. Without a body to display, it may be impossible to overcome the mythical creation of a propaganda apparatus that was bent on showing he was a worthy heir to a long line of Babylonian kings.

No word on fate

Wednesday, there was no word on Saddam's fate. U.S. officials have said they believe he was in a building in Baghdad when it was bombed Monday afternoon. British media reports quoted sources saying they believed Saddam had left the building before the bombing. Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi exile leader who was returned this week by U.S. forces to Iraq, told CNN that Saddam is in Baqubah, northeast of Baghdad.

``People won't believe the regime has ended until they are certain Saddam is dead,'' said Mohammad Nasar, a doctor at Basra Teaching Hospital. ``They need to see his body.''

An intricate web of Baath party officials, spies and informants in even the smallest village in Iraq created a feeling that Saddam is watching and listening on every conversation. And his use of doubles who strikingly resemble him has only perpetuated his mythical status, particularly among poor illiterate villagers.

``Many average people here fear Saddam,'' said Ayat Jabar, 28, an Iraqi soldier who deserted in the village of Shuaiba. ``He doesn't even have to be here. They fear his ghost. Even now people are probably thinking he's watching me while I talk to you.''

Reports that Saddam was killed in U.S. bombing attacks are lies to many.

``He has seven spirits. He doesn't die,'' said Adnan Mohammad Yousef, 32, another army deserter.

Yousef told a story about Saddam's supernatural luck.

One of his elite Republican Guards tried to assassinate him at point-blank range. But the trigger on his gun got stuck as he pointed it at Saddam. The dictator grabbed the gun and said, ``This is how you do it.''

Then he killed the soldier.

``It's well-known that Saddam's mother is a magician,'' Yousef said.

Saad Abdel Rida, 19, has also heard about Saddam's stone. It's blue, he said, and Saddam got it from a fortuneteller he visits often. Spirits from the underworld talk to Saddam through the fortuneteller, informing him who's planning to kill him, said Rida, a college student.

`He has the stone'

At a bus stand in Basra, Jasim Way, 54, doesn't believe the regime has ended -- even though he sees British troops and tanks on every corner of the city.

``He has the stone,'' said Way, wearing a red-and-white checkered Arab head scarf. ``You shoot him and he doesn't die.''

Next to him Jawal Kazem, 60, laughed and said: ``Saddam makes these stories up. He feels happy that these stories are out there. It's another way to hurt the people. But it's all an illusion.''

Inside a crumbling apartment building a few miles away, Mohammad Sadek, 43, a teacher, smiles. He, too, has heard the story of the stone. But he doesn't believe it.

``People are very poor,'' he said. ``They'll believe anything.''

Then Sadek said something he would never have said publicly a few days ago: Saddam intentionally creates this image of immortality to make Iraqis fear him. Yet Sadek, too, finds it hard to believe that Saddam can be captured or killed.

``I think he'll disappear like Osama bin Laden,'' he said.

Aboud Muttar, 60, a shepherd, knows Saddam is human. ``There's no one who has seven lives,'' he said.

But Muttar, who has spent more than half his life under the power of the Baathist regime, said it would take much convincing for him to believe Saddam is dead.

``I won't believe it until I see it with my own eyes,'' he said.

Army investigates chaplain trading water for baptisms


Posted on Thu, Apr. 10, 2003

Knight Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Army Office of the Chief of Chaplains is checking into a report by Knight Ridder Newspapers that an Army chaplain in Iraq withheld clean bathing water from U.S. soldiers who did not first agree to hear a sermon and be baptized.

The allegation against Chaplain Josh Llano, 32, of Houston, has drawn heated responses from religious, civil libertarian and atheist groups who say the practice amounts to religious coercion. Army officials said that so far their investigation hasn't shown that to be true.

"Neither the Army nor the Army Chief of Chaplains approves of religious coercion, but reports we've gotten indicate that's not what this was at all," said Pentagon spokesperson Martha Rudd, who added that there was plenty of additional water available to soldiers at that camp.

Thursday, April 10, 2003

Science In the News

The following roundup of science stories appearing each day in the general media is compiled by the Media Resource Service, Sigma Xi's referral service for journalists in need of sources of scientific expertise.

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In the News

Today's Headlines - April 10, 2003

from The Chicago Tribune

Chicago scientists reported Thursday the first birth of a baby who had been selected as an embryo to be free of a severe and often lethal birth defect.

The study published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), which marries the newest genetic testing and in-vitro fertilization, may be a useful option for families with a history of congenital malformations.

The birth defect that the procedure prevented is called holoprosencephaly (HPE), a common and typically fatal developmental anomaly in which the brain fails to separate into distinct right and left halves. The disorder affects an estimated 1 in 10,000 live births.


from The New York Times

BEIJING, April 9 — A senior retired military physician said that China's health ministry was lying about the number of people hospitalized in Beijing with severe acute respiratory syndrome, noting that the number in military hospitals alone could be "up to 100."

In a statement released to news organizations and in a subsequent interview, Dr. Jiang Yanyong said he "couldn't believe what I was hearing" as he watched the minister announce last Thursday that there had been only 12 cases and 3 deaths in Beijing.

He said doctors at the military hospitals were "furious" about the statement, noting that on that day the military hospital designated to treat SARS cases, the People's Liberation Army No. 309 Hospital, already had 60 patients and 7 deaths from the disease.


from The Associated Press

Scientists hoping a cure is already on the shelf will test at least 2,000 drugs against the frightening SARS virus, although some doubt anything they find will stop the flu-like disease once it gets a foothold.

This search is intended to find an immediate therapy for severe acute respiratory syndrome, or one that could be developed quickly. There is now no proven cure, only treatment that relieves symptoms.

Scientists are almost positive SARS is caused by a newly discovered member of the coronavirus family. Until now, these bugs have been known only to trigger colds or mild diarrhea, so no one has ever tried very hard to find a treatment.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is gathering up the 30 or so antiviral drugs on the market, about 800 drugs approved for other uses, plus more than 1,000 that are still being developed.


from The Christian Science Monitor

BOCA DE YUMA, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC – Kelvin Guerrero gamely steers his small pickup truck along a rutted one-lane dirt road, dodging half-buried rocks. Between makeshift fences of barbed wire draped over weathered wooden posts, shrubs, and cacti, he makes his way toward one of the Dominican Republic's environmental jewels - Parque Nacional del Este.

Established in 1975, the park represents "one of the largest tracts of pristine marine and coastal environments in the Caribbean," according to Francisco Geraldes, with the Marine Biology Research Center at the Autonomous University in Santo Domingo.

During the 1990s, the 162-square-mile park off the eastern tip of the republic became a poster child for Parks in Peril. The program is a joint effort by the US Agency for International Development and the nonprofit Nature Conservancy to provide critical support to cash-strapped countries in the Caribbean and Latin America that are trying to set aside new land for parks and reserves - or preserve the ones they have.


from The Associated Press

BOULDER, Colo. (AP) - NASA has given a Boulder-led science team final approval to start building a spacecraft to send to Pluto.

"It's historic. The U.S. is really going forward to build a spacecraft to go to the last known planet," said team leader Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder.

The space agency on Monday approved the New Horizons mission to Pluto and to the Kuiper Belt, a jumble of rock and ice beyond Neptune. Mission costs will be capped at $650 million.


For Kon-Tiki Theory, Ray of Hope Is Dashed

April 1, 2003

The explorer Thor Heyerdahl insisted, contrary to all expert opinion, that Polynesia had been settled by people from South America. He hewed balsa logs with his own hands, persuaded five companions to join him and courageously sailed his raft the Kon-Tiki from Callao, Peru, to the Raroia atoll in Polynesia, a journey of 4,300 miles.


CSICOP at the National Science Teachers Convention

CSICOP would like to thank volunteers from PhACT for encouraging CSICOP's involvement in the recent National Science Teachers Convention in Philadelphia and for their excellent representation of our programs and resources. The following is a report on the success of outreach efforts at the convention.

CSICOP and PhACT join forces for the science teachers' big Philly weekend.

by Becky Strickland, Eric Krieg, Tom Napier

One of CSICOP's newest efforts to spread skepticism is Amanda Chesworth's creative outreach program for young people. Amanda is a major force behind programs like Darwin Day and Inquiring Minds. Reaching children is an important mission for skepticism. The young are naturally inquisitive and have yet to reach the stage of, "My mind is made up, don't bother me with the facts." Besides, they have a lifetime of critical thinking ahead of them; today's skeptical activists are notoriously long in the tooth and won't be around forever.

In their quiet way America's science teachers are a priceless resource for the skeptical cause. Teaching critical thinking is part of their job; offering whatever we can to help is a no-brainer.

The Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking (PhACT) was encouraged by the response to our appearance at the 2001 Pennsylvania Science Teacher's convention in Hershey, PA. We could hardly believe our good luck (or was it kharma?) when we heard that the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) convention would be held in Philadelphia in March 2003.

Discussion about representation at the NSTA convention were initiated by Eric Krieg with CSICOP agreeing to foot the bill and use the experience to gather data for directing further outreach and programming for the Inquiring Minds Program and increased collaboration with local skeptic groups. Becky Strickland, Tom Napier, Bob Glickman, Richard Slade and Eric Krieg from PhACT volunteered to set up and man the booth for Thursday through Sunday. Amanda had most of our materials shipped ahead of time and flew in from New Mexico to get things set up.

Our turn-over was the envy of some better funded, larger, booths. Unlike the majority, which were glossy, brassy and commercial, ours was a friendly little nook strewn with skeptical information -- all under the ever-watchful eyes of our trade-mark inflatable alien. Teachers interested in ordering books or in getting more information filled up many sign-up pages.

Being on a corner lot we had two display tables. One we dedicated to the Skeptical Inquirer. There was nearly always someone perusing the piles of back-issues; we gave away about two hundred pounds of free issues! Such was their popularity that by halfway through Friday we were having to ration magazines. Luckily we had plenty of subscription leaflets.

A surprising number of visitors were lapsed subscribers -- let's hope we've encouraged them to return to the fold. Some teachers wanted to Xerox SI articles as case studies for students so we urged them to take back-number order forms.

Our other table had a selection of skeptical and scientific books published by Prometheus. We had arranged them by the intended age of the reader and it was immediately obvious that, while there was a good selection of books for young children and many for adults, there was a distinct lack of the books most teachers wanted, ones suitable for middle-school grades.

Given a stock of books and permission to sell them we'd have done a roaring trade. We soon ran out of short-form catalogs and had to make do by handing out the Prometheus Books web address. One young lady appeared seven or eight times, each time pleading to be allowed to take one of our sample books with her.

Teachers entering the Convention Center ran the gauntlet of fanatics plying them with anti-evolution materials. Word soon got around that we had the antidote available. Amanda had left reels of "Darwin Day" ribbon printed with a DNA double-helix pattern. We must have handed out miles of it to teachers who wanted to make class awards from it.

A devout anti-evolutionist stopped by our booth to hold an amiable but unavailing debate with our staff. He made a tactical blunder by citing the Second Law of Thermodynamics as evidence against evolution -- to a physicist. We removed the "anti" book which apparently arrived on our display table when our backs were turned -- no point in giving a mixed message.

A more welcome visitor was Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education and a frequent speaker at CSICOP conferences. Luckily her visit didn't overlap with that of the anti-evolutionist, we might have been hurt in the cross-fire.

Reactions from teachers we spoke to included: "How can I order this book?"; "I wish I knew about your group before."; "If I come back at the end of the show, could I take this book."; "I'm sick of all the pseudoscience garbage my kids are believing."; "I don't like taking heat for teaching evolution." and even, "I wish I could teach evolution but my state won't let me." Many teachers were interested to hear of local skeptics' groups in their areas and one even said, "This is the best booth in the place."

The Fox TV program alleging we never landed on the Moon was a frequent talking point. Our inside insight into what it takes to be hailed as an "expert" on Fox: a crazy idea, no credentials, a vanity-press book and lot of chutzpah, was widely appreciated. Programs like this almost do a service to skeptics, offering teachers such a good example when teaching their pupils to think scientifically.

A young guy from Florida presented a workshop on science vs pseudoscience; he directed people to our booth. We spoke to teachers from all over the USA as well as from Singapore, the Netherlands, Mexico and Puerto Rico. A couple of non-critical thinkers stopped by to argue but most visitors were interested and enthusiastic. We heard so often, "I've been looking for this kind of information," "Critical thinking is so important," and "I'm so glad you are here!"

As for the future, Eric Krieg has been invited to speak to a county group of science teachers on, "How to use pseudoscience to teach real science." PhACT hopes to have a booth at the New Jersey Science Teacher's convention in the fall. Next year's NSTA conference is scheduled for April 1 - 4 in Atlanta, Georgia and CSICOP hopes to be there.

A skeptical presence at conventions greatly helps teachers respond to irrationality but it does cost money. CSICOP (and PhACT) will be very grateful for donations to help us continue to guide children towards a more rational future.

Online Sites to Visit:

Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking (PhACT): www.phact.org

Inquiring Minds: www.inquiringminds.org

Pole Shift Preparation


"Jeremy explains why he believes a large planet - up until now considered hypothetical by astronomers - will pass between the Earth and the Sun causing a pole shift in 2003. The pole shift will set off worldwide cataclysms - massive earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and hurricane force winds."


"If Planet X is not visible to the naked eye by April 2003, and the impending pole shift scheduled for mid May seems unlikely, I shall publish a revelatory essay on this web site which delves further into the reasons why I committed myself to this apocalyptic scenario. The essay may appear in late April or early May depending on events leading up to this time."

Cosmic link to stone circles

By Helen Briggs BBC News Online science reporter

Stone Age people in Ireland appear to have built tombs based on a detailed knowledge of how the Sun moves across the sky during the year.

Tombs at the archaeological site of Loughcrew in County Meath align with the rising Sun at the spring and autumn equinoxes. The inside of the chambers are spectacularly illuminated by a shaft of sunlight at dawn on these days, said Frank Prendergast of the Dublin Institute of Technology.

It suggests settlers in the area some 5 to 6,000 years ago knew the yearly cycle of the Sun and perhaps centred their lives around it.

Tombs found elsewhere in Ireland have been found to point towards the rising Sun at the summer and spring solstices.

At these times, the Sun reaches its most northerly and southerly points in the sky, which can be easily observed from any place on Earth.

The equinoxes - in late March and late September - are not so obvious and can only be pinpointed by tracking the passage of the Sun across the entire year.

Why tomb builders wished to do this remains a mystery but it suggests the Sun was at the heart of ritual and ceremonial practices of ancient people. "Archaeology now has a substantial body of evidence which would indicate a very sophisticated and advanced agrarian society," Frank Prendergast told BBC News Online.

"They would have attached a sense of sacredness to their landscape and the sky and they would have done that by building the monuments the way they did; decorating them with a kind of rock art; and associating some of these monuments with key astronomical events such as a significant rising and setting points of the Moon and Sun."

Window to the past

The findings are to be presented at the UK/Ireland National Astronomy Meeting in Dublin.

Details will also be revealed of how Bronze Age stone circles in Ulster relate to both the Sun and the Moon.

Archaeologists believe there could have been separate lunar and solar traditions, possibly at different times in history. But Professor Clive Ruggles, of the University of Leicester, said great care was needed in interpreting them.

"Just because a monument is aligned in a direction that we would be tempted to interpret as astronomically significant, such as the direction of sunrise or sunset on one of the solstices, this might not have been intentional," he said.

He believes the study of astronomical alignments gives an insight into how people comprehended the world in the past.

"The builders were not 'astronomers' in the sense that we would mean it today, but celestial objects and cycles were important to them in keeping their own lives in harmony with their world," he explained.


Spring/autumn equinox - day and night are each 12 hours long and the Sun is at the midpoint of the sky Summer solstice - the longest day of the year, when the Sun is at its most northern point in the sky Winter solstice - the shortest day of the year, when the Sun is at its most southern point

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2003/04/09 02:48:50

Wednesday, April 09, 2003

Science In the News

The following roundup of science stories appearing each day in the general media is compiled by the Media Resource Service, Sigma Xi's referral service for journalists in need of sources of scientific expertise.

For accurate instructions on how to subscribe or unsubscribe to the listserv, follow this link: http://www.mediaresource.org/instruct.htm

If you experience any problems with the URLs (page not found, page expired, etc.), we suggest you proceed to the home page of "Science In the News" http://www.mediaresource.org/news.htm which mirrors the daily e-mail update.

In the News

Today's Headlines - April 9, 2003

from The Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Under a smoking mound of rubble in what was once a Baghdad building lies a conundrum for U.S. military officials: What if they did their job of targeting Saddam Hussein too well?

As long as Hussein's supporters believe there is a chance he is alive, some are sure to continue to fight for him, prolonging the war. And yet U.S. officials, by conducting a massive bombing strike on a building thought to house the Iraqi leader, may have disfigured Hussein's body beyond recognition and deprived them of clear proof of his death...

DNA testing has improved recently as a result of the challenge of identifying victims of the World Trade Center attacks. But to prove that an unidentified body is that of the Iraqi leader, U.S. officials would need to obtain a sample from the body and compare it to DNA they are sure came from Hussein or from one of his close relatives.


from The New York Times

HOUSTON, April 8 — To determine what it would take to breach the wing of a space shuttle in the way that apparently doomed the Columbia, investigators are preparing to shoot foam at wing material. But they will find little basis for meaningfully assessing the results, because tests conducted on the Columbia's own wings before its fatal mission were not sophisticated enough to determine their condition with certainty.

In fact, most inspections of the reinforced carbon-carbon that covered the leading edges and adjacent areas of the Columbia's wings involved nothing more complicated than a bright light, a magnifying glass and a gloved hand.

Inspection tests that might have been more revealing use techniques called "nondestructive evaluation," or NDE, which employs high-frequency sound, infrared energy or lasers to probe the material.


Homeopathy - The Test - transcript


NARRATOR (NEIL PEARSON): This week Horizon is doing something completely different. For the first time we are conducting our own experiment. We are testing a form of medicine which could transform the world. Should the results be positive this man will have to give us $1m.

JAMES RANDI (Paranormal Investigator): Do the test, prove that it works and win a million dollars.

NARRATOR: But if the results are negative then millions of people, including some of the most famous and influential in the world, may have been wasting their money. The events that would lead to Horizon's million dollar challenge began with Professor Madeleine Ennis, a scientist who may have found the impossible.

Suburban Home Haunted By Really Boring Ghosts


GURNEE, IL—On the surface, the home of John and Beth Secora looks just like any other suburban residence. But this seemingly ordinary dwelling harbors a secret: It is haunted by two incredibly boring ghosts.

"They really don't do much," Beth said. "Once in a while, John and I will see our Uno cards spread out all over the kitchen table or the refrigerator door left slightly ajar. If we go out on a Sunday afternoon, sometimes we come back to find a few coupons clipped out of the newspaper for things we never use, like cream of mushroom soup or Metamucil. As haunting goes, it's pretty tame stuff."

The couple first felt an otherworldly presence just days after moving into the home in November 2002.

"We would feel this slowly increasing chill, like someone else was in the room with us," Beth said. "Then, we'd notice that even though we set the thermostat at 72 degrees, someone or something had turned it down to 68. We'd turn it up, and they'd turn it back down. We finally just gave up and started wearing sweaters."

Determined to rid their house of the mundane wraiths, the Secoras enlisted the help of psychic Mary Harrow.

Tuesday, April 08, 2003

Science In the News

The following roundup of science stories appearing each day in the general media is compiled by the Media Resource Service, Sigma Xi's referral service for journalists in need of sources of scientific expertise.

For accurate instructions on how to subscribe or unsubscribe to the listserv, follow this link: http://www.mediaresource.org/instruct.htm

If you experience any problems with the URLs (page not found, page expired, etc.), we suggest you proceed to the home page of "Science In the News" http://www.mediaresource.org/news.htm which mirrors the daily e-mail update.

In the News

Today's Headlines - April 8, 2003

from The Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Stud No. 391 has been dead for 23 years. But last week the animal, a member of an endangered, cattle-like species known as the banteng, became a parent through cloning.

Scientists say they will announce today that two clones of No. 391 were born last week on an Iowa farm, part of an effort to test the ability of cloning to help save endangered species.

No. 391 died in 1980 of wounds from a fight with another banteng at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. He never produced a calf, but cells from his body were preserved. Now, zoo officials hope to mate the clones to other banteng at the park, increasing the genetic diversity and health of their herd.

"I'm awed, frankly, by being able to produce animals from frozen cells. It's an astounding feat," said Oliver Ryder, a geneticist at the Zoological Society of San Diego, which includes the wild animal park and the San Diego Zoo. "But the real conservation payoff will come if genes from under-represented individuals that otherwise would be lost can be reintroduced to the gene pool."


from The Baltimore Sun

They died of the very diseases they were trying to conquer: one in Cuba of yellow fever, another in Africa of the Ebola virus, the most recent in Thailand of the mysterious flulike illness that has spread around the globe.

The death late last month of the World Health Organization's Carlo Urbani - one of the first doctors to identify the disease known as SARS, before contracting it himself - brings a sobering reminder: Those on the front lines of the effort to make the world a healthier place often put themselves in harm's way.

Working without recognition, often in tough conditions, public-health practitioners treat contagious patients and collect samples of blood and tissue from sick people and animals. They culture dangerous viruses and bacteria and sequence their DNA. And, when they're successful, they unravel the medical and scientific mysteries of infectious disease.


from The San Francisco Chronicle

There could be an unexpected beneficiary of the war in Iraq: the environment.

More specifically, the late, great Mesopotamian marshes -- a decade ago, the largest wetland by far in the Middle East, and a site considered by many religious scholars as the inspiration for the Garden of Eden in the Bible and Koran.

Located at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers near Basra, this vast watery substrate sprawled over 20,000 square kilometers, providing sustenance and shelter for a wide array of wildlife. They were also home to 200,000 "ma'dan," or marsh Arabs, a group of hunters and fishermen who trace their habitation of the region back five millennia.


from The Los Angeles Times

In a chandeliered ballroom at the Embassy Suites Hotel, a roomful of men and women are seeking the perfect piece of real estate but rejecting nearly everything they see.

Some sites are too cold, others too windy, and most aren't sunny enough. A few are just plain boring, and a handful turned out to have too many triangular-shaped rocks.

It's never easy to find the perfect place to land. It's even harder when you're looking on Mars.

"The good news is, it's Mars," said Jet Propulsion Laboratory geologist Matt Golombek. "The bad news is, there's not much to choose from."


from The New York Times

WASHINGTON, April 7 — NASA is preparing to launch the last of its "Great Observatories," space telescopes that astronomers hope will explore the faint warm glow of the early days of the universe and see through the billowing clouds of interstellar dust that obscure the birthplaces of stars and, possibly, far-off planets.

The telescope, a robot observatory that the space agency calls the Space Infrared Telescope Facility, or Sirtf, is scheduled to be launched on April 18 from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on a Boeing Delta II rocket. Sirtf (pronounced SIRT-ef) will travel in an unusual orbit: it trails the Earth from a distance on its mission to map the infrared, or heat, emissions from objects near and far.

Sirtf is the last in a suite of space telescopes that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration proposed in the 1970's. The idea was to place them above the obscuring atmosphere of Earth and examine the heavens across the entire electromagnetic spectrum of light, ranging from gamma rays, X-rays and ultraviolet light on one end to infrared and radio waves on the other.


from The New York Times

PHILADELPHIA, April 7 — With a blast of X-rays compressing a capsule of hydrogen to conditions approaching those at the center of the Sun, scientists from Sandia National Laboratories reported today that they had achieved thermonuclear fusion, in essence detonating a tiny hydrogen bomb.

Such controlled explosions would not be large enough to be dangerous and might offer an alternative way of generating electricity by harnessing fusion, the process that powers the Sun. Fusion combines hydrogen atoms into helium, producing bountiful energy as a byproduct.

"It's the first observation of fusion for a pulsed power source," said Dr. Ramon J. Leeper, manager of the target physics department at Sandia, in Albuquerque, who presented the findings at a meeting of the American Physical Society here.


Creationism vs. evolution central debate behind rejection of textbooks


by Erin Hudson
of The Daily Times Staff

The Blount County Board of Education denied the adoption of three new biology textbooks because they teach evolution but do not cover creationism.

The vote to deny the texts passed by a 2-1 margin Thursday night. Four board members did not vote.

The three textbooks in question were not among the 37 science, consumer science, wellness and agriculture books adopted by the board.

Board members Mike Treadway and Jean Simerly voted to deny the texts and Don McNelly voted to approve them.

Board members Charles Finley, Bill Padgett, William ``Booty'' Miller and Don Talbott did not participate in the vote.

Treadway said he had reservations about the approach to the theory of evolution in the three texts. He said he does not want people to believe he is against evolution, but wants it to be taught as a theory along with creationism.

``With the overwhelming references to evolution, I don't feel comfortable with (adopting these texts),'' Treadway said.

Simerly said she is concerned with how evolution is approached in the selected biology texts, because creationism is not addressed.

``I do not believe that we evolved from anything other than human beings,'' she said.

McNelly said he shared those concerns, though he is not against evolution as a theory. Like Treadway, he said he believes students should be taught both creation and evolution theories.

``With creationism not presented as a theory, there's a large gaping hole in the books,'' McNelly said.

McNelly said he voted against the motion to reject the textbooks because he believes the teachers could address creationism when covering the material in class.

Technology supervisor Brian Bell, who is charged with assisting teachers in selecting new textbooks, said these three particular texts were those elected by the biology teachers at both high schools. Those texts are also on the state's list of books that can be adopted for use in the schools.

``The theory of evolution is covered in the Gateway exams, and the teachers have to address that,'' Bell told the board Thursday.

The current texts used in the biology classes in the county high schools also do not have references to creationism, Bell said Friday.

The next course of action would be for the matter to be taken back to science instructors at the high schools and have them write a curriculum that includes creation being taught beside evolution. With that curriculum in place, the board would be content to adopt the three texts, according to Bell.

The four nonvoting board members apparently were reluctant to get involved in the discussion with memories of the Scopes' Monkey Trial in the not so distant past.

New Bibliography Entry (Fickett: Supernatural)


Things In Heaven And Earth: Exploring the Supernatural
Harold Fickett, ed.
1998, Paraclete Press; viii+200p.

anti-science:defense, creationism:defense, faith-healing:defense, prophecy:defense, psi:defense, religion:defense, religion:philosophy

A defense of Christian supernatural realities, remarkable only because its peculiar combination of authors. Most are poets, fiction writers and so forth, who typically give personal, experience-based testimonies. These include anything from tales of second-sight types of psychic sensitivity to wide-eyed recitals of Catholic saint-stories to pointless ramblings presumably meant to hint that true art requires religious faith. But then, it also includes a piece by ID-creationist Phillip Johnson bashing "Darwinism," conservative Catholic psychologist Paul C. Vitz accusing unbelievers of closed-mindedly not trying to experience the supernatural directly, and another Catholic, Deal W. Hudson, fulminating against modern philosophy. The book ends up as a curious window into a kind of pious Christian mindset, but otherwise carries no weight.

Please visit the rest of the bibliography at


Consider contributing an entry or two yourself...

Taner Edis, SKEPTIC Bibliographer

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