Daily Archives: February 25, 2013

Antiscience bill dies in Oklahoma

From the NCSE:

Senate Bill 758 (document), the so-called Oklahoma Science Education Act, which would have undermined the integrity of science education in the Sooner State, is dead. February 25, 2013, was the deadline for Senate bills to pass their committees, but the Senate Education Committee adjourned its February 25, 2013, meeting without considering it. Still active in the Oklahoma legislature is House Bill 1674 (document), styled the Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act, which differs from SB 758 primarily in mentioning “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning” as supposedly controversial topics. HB 1674 passed the House Education Committee on a 9-8 vote on February 19, 2013.

As usual in Oklahoma, resistance to the antievolution bills was spearheaded by the grassroots organization Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education, whose board of governors includes a former member of NCSE’s board of directors, Frank J. Sonleitner, and a recipient of NCSE’s Friend of Darwin award, Victor H. Hutchison. “OESE has been a model of effective advocacy for supporting good science education,” commented NCSE’s executive director Eugenie C. Scott. “Unlike evolution and climate change, cloning isn’t something that NCSE is really interested in,” she joked, “but we might make an exception if we could clone people like Vic and Frank and all of the hardworking and vigilant folks they work with in Oklahoma.”

SB 758 would, if enacted, have required state and local educational authorities to “assist teachers to find more effective ways to present the science curriculum where it addresses scientific controversies” and permitted teachers to “help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught.” Unusually but not uniquely, no scientific topics were specifically identified as controversial, but the fact that the sole sponsor of SB 758 was Josh Brecheen (R-District 6), who introduced specifically antievolution legislation in the two previous legislative sessions, is telling.

In late 2010, Brecheen announced his intention to file antievolution legislation in a column in the Durant Daily Democrat (December 19, 2010): “Renowned scientists now asserting that evolution is laden with errors are being ignored. … Using your tax dollars to teach the unknown, without disclosing the entire scientific findings[,] is incomplete and unacceptable.” In a subsequent column in the newspaper (December 24, 2010), he indicated that his intention was to have creationism presented as scientifically credible, writing, “I have introduced legislation requiring every publically funded Oklahoma school to teach the debate of creation vs. evolution using the known science, even that which conflicts with Darwin’s religion.”

What Brecheen in fact introduced in 2011, Senate Bill 554, combined a version of the now familiar “academic freedom” language — referring to “the scientific strengths [and] scientific weaknesses of controversial topics … [which] include but are not limited to biological origins of life and biological evolution” — with a directive for the state board of education to adopt “standards and curricula” that echo the flawed portions of the state science standards adopted in Texas in 2009 with respect to the nature of science and evolution. SB 554 died in committee. In 2012, Brecheen took a new tack with Senate Bill 1742, modeled in part on the so-called Louisiana Science Education Act; SB 1742 likewise died in committee.

With SB 758, Brecheen seemed to be following the lead of Tennessee’s “monkey law” (as it was nicknamed by House Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh), enacted (as Tenn. Code Ann. 49-6-1030) over the protests of the state’s scientific and educational communities in 2012. The major difference is that SB 758 omitted the monkey law’s statement of legislative findings, which cites “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning” as among the topics that “can cause controversy” when taught in the science classroom of the public schools. The history of Brecheen’s legislative efforts clearly demonstrates that it is evolution which was primarily the target of the new bill, however.

Click through for links and stuff.

Antiscience bill dies in Arizona

From the National Center for Science Education:

Arizona’s Senate Bill 1213 died on February 22, 2013, when the deadline for Senate bills to be heard in their Senate committees passed. A typical instance of the “academic freedom” strategy for undermining the integrity of science education, SB 1213 specifically targeted “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming[,] and human cloning” as supposedly controversial. Unusually, however, a sponsor of the bill, Judy Burges (R-District 22), told the Arizona Star (February 5, 2013) that climate science was her primary concern, complaining of imbalance in the presentation of climate change

But Andrew Morrill, the president of the Arizona Education Association, told the Star that there was no need for the legislation. “The curriculum for teaching science is already balanced,” he said. “If there’s overwhelming evidence on one side, then within the science curriculum there’s going to be a look at that evidence.” He added, “The controversy is at the political level, not the scientific one.” (Morrill misattributed the language of the bill to the American Legislative Exchange Council; it is, rather, based on the language circulated by the Discovery Institute.)

The prime sponsors of SB 1213 were Judy Burges (R-District 22) and Chester Crandell (R-District 6), with Rick Murphy (R-District 21), Steve Pierce (R-District 1), Don Shooter (R-District 13), and Steve Yarbrough (R-District 17) as cosponsors. The bill was the first antiscience bill introduced in Arizona in at least the past decade; the last statewide controversy over the teaching of evolution was evidently in 2004, when the Arizona state board of education was lobbied, in the end unsuccessfully, to include a directive for teachers to discuss “intelligent design” in the state science education standards.

Click through for a link to the bill and other sources.

A Test For River Blindness

River blindness, also called Onchocerciasis, is the result of the infection of several different eye tissues by the nematode Onchocerca volvulus. The bacterium Wolbachia pipientis lives symbiotically in the gut of the nematode, and escapes the small roundworm to cause an inflammatory response in human tissues, which results in damage to the tissue. These infections can occur in a number of different human tissues causing a variety of effects, but when the eye tissues are involved, the result can be river blindness. It is endemic and widespread in several areas of Africa, as well as more restricted areas in South America and the Middle East.

ResearchBlogging.orgTreatment of the disease involves killing the bacterium, which in turn kills the host nematode, using various anti-biotics. However, as we have learned over recent decades, widespread use of antibiotics can be less than ideal because this can cause selection for resistant strains so that treatment can become generally ineffective across an affected population. Ideally, there would be a reliable test for river blindness infection that would allow more targeted use of treatments. Continue reading A Test For River Blindness

Is Solar Energy Totally Bogus or Something that Gives Hope?

I recently posted a simple Internet meme suggesting that if we subsidized solar energy like we subsidized fossil fuels that this could be good. I posted that on Google Plus an it engendered way over 300 comments, many of which attempted to explain, often rather impolitely, that solar energy was inefficient or in some other way bad. I’m pretty sure most of those comments come to us courtesy of the bought and paid for climate change denialist campaign, funded by Big Oil to the tune of many tens of millions of dollars to date. Most of the commenters were saying similar things, most of which were either incorrect or irrelevant, and far too many of them showed up on this comment at once to be explained by normal internet behavior, at least on my Google Plus page. This was a move made by the denialists, and rest assured … they are doing this more and more often as time goes by.

What I found interesting about this is the fact that the main complaints were about how inefficient, expensive, or otherwise technologically poor those cheap Chinese photovoltaic cells are. I’m not going to argue about that here. I’ve got some friends who have put those photovoltaic cells on their homes and they are glad they did it. I take their word above random anti-Planet internet trolls. I also know that simple photovoltaic fuel cells are used in a lot of highly specialized applications where running a wire to some light or comm device or something is impractical, but a battery charged up by a solar cell will do. The detractors of solar energy are so vehement in their position on this that they would probably insist that building a miniature coal plant next to the remote airport up by the cabin, or next to the highway by some DOT electrical device would be preferable.

Here’s the thing. When I say “solar” I mean energy produced by accessing radiation coming form the sun more or less directly. Wind energy is a form of “solar” because the wind moves around because of the sun. Fossil fuels are solar because it was photosynthesis that converted the Sun’s energy to carbohydrates. But of course I’m not talking about that. I am talking about the hand full of different ways in which solar energy can be harnessed pretty directly including but not limited to cheap Chines solar panels.

The most obvious use of solar energy is passive heating. Back in the 1970s, we (in the US anyway) discovered that there was an energy crisis. We then promptly forgot about it, as various suficial patches were applied and energy seemed to not be an issue any more. But if we were not acting like total morons (which we tend to do) we would have gone ahead and added attention to passive solar to zoning regulations and to best practices in architecture. Of course, that did happen to some extent, but not in any comprehensive or meaningful way. Imagine if most buildings–residential, commercial, built over the last 40 years were built with attention to passive solar design. That would probably have resulted in a decrease in fossil fuel use for those buildings in the two digit percentage range. A lot of buildings have been built over the last four decades. We’d be using several percent less fossil fuel for our buildings today had we done that.

The professional and avocational naysayers of solar energy helped cause us to miss that boat, and they want us to keep missing that boat. They should be ashamed of themselves.

Then there’s direct solar heating. This is another way to use solar energy in which you pass liquids through devices that are set out in the sun (i.e., on your roof). This may be used directly or indirectly to heat the water we use in our buildings. In areas where there is never a significant freeze, such devices can directly heat the water. Otherwise, a non-freezing liquid is used to capture and store the heat, which in turn is transferred to heat water or air inside a home or other building. This may be one of the best ways to use solar energy since it is relatively low tech and can be made of easily obtainable parts. Cheap devices can create essentially free energy. Imagine if most homes, commercial buildings, and other structures built over the last 40 years had a direct solar system to contribute to the heating of water and air in the building. Again, there’d be a few percent off our current annual carbon contribution to the atmosphere.

Then there’s the rather esoteric and very experimental but very cool looking use of solar in which fluids stocked with organisms are passed under the sunlight up on the roof. In one such system, the CO2 rich exhaust from a gas or oil heating plant is passed through a liquid full off algae. The algae live off the CO2 and sunlight, and are strained out to produce … I don’t know, soilent green or something. You can probably burn the algae. This serves as a carbon sink. This is probably not a technology that will make a major contribution to anything until we have genetically modified algae working in concert with solar collectors to do something really interesting.

Then there are the high performance solar systems, of which there are two types. Both involved concentration of solar energy using mirrors or lenses. In CSP, of Concentrated Solar Power, piles of mirrors are used to focus the sunlight on a thing that gets heated way up and runs a turbine. There are many systems like this running around the world, and the general consensus globally is that wherever you have a lot of sun (arid regions, generally) this method of producing electricity is cheaper per watt than some other methods, and on par with the average fossil fuel plant. The other type of high tech system concentrates the sunlight on a device that converts sunlight to electricity.

And, then there are the grand schemes of solar power. Such as…

… TREC, which is a grand vision for connecting solar power in North Africa, wind power from the Eastern Mediterranean to the North Sea, bio-mass, and hydropower with a high-voltage direct current (HVDC) system of power lines to provide assured renewable electricity for the Mediterranean basin and Europe.

… written up here.

So those are several ways in which solar energy can be exploited. Photovoltaic panels is only one way. So when someone suggests that we should consider using more solar energy, maybe subsidize it to get the industry moving along, or simply to make it more common in recognition of the very high external costs of fossil fuels (which are not counted in the actual cost of running coal power plants or driving trucks with diesel, etc.) don’t bring up cheap Chinese photovolatics first.

Every flat roof on a school, parking garage, shopping mall, or other commercial or industrial building that is not grabbing sun in some way and using it for something is an affront against the planet and an insult to our grandchildren.

Solar Furnace Photo Credit: pluvialis via Compfight cc