Skeptical reporter @ 2013-08-23

Skeptical Reporter for August 23rd, 2013

In the United States, Tarrant County health officials have zeroed in on a mega-church near Eagle Mountain Lake as where a measles outbreak began to spread. A congregant contracted the viral infection during a visit to a foreign country and attended a service before he knew his diagnosis. The individual was not a member of the church and was visiting the facility as part of a multi-nation mission trip. The Texas Department of Health and Human Services last week issued an alert against the measles, a viral infection that has been nearly eradicated by vaccinations.  The youngest victim is 4-months-old while the oldest is 44-years-old, said Tarrant County epidemiologist Russell Jones. More than half are younger than 20. Jones said he believes the county has reached all children who are possibly exposed to it, although there is concern that residents outside the church could have been infected. The outbreak is prompting state and county health authorities to remind residents of the importance of immunizations, especially as school begins across the state and in North Texas. The majority of the patients were not vaccinated.

The Indian state of Maharashtra has enacted emergency laws banning black magic and superstition, one day after a prominent campaigner was killed. Anti-superstition activist Narendra Dabholkar, 71, who campaigned for the law, was shot dead in the city of Pune by unidentified gunmen. Many businesses closed to protest against his killing and chanting demonstrators marched through the city. He spent decades campaigning against what he called "fraudulent" practices. After his murder, the government rushed through emergency legislation which, according to local media reports, makes it an offence to exploit people by offering rituals, charms and magical cures, and to practice black magic. Dabholkar and his committee (Committee for the Eradication of Blind Faith), was particularly well-known for openly criticizing some of India's so-called "godmen", the self-styled Hindu ascetics who claim to perform miracles and are revered by many.

You cannot convince people that evolution is false with logic, according to the founder of the Creation Museum in Kentucky. In a 60-second radio ad, Answers in Genesis President Ken Ham admitted there was no scientific evidence that conclusively demonstrated that evolution was a lie. But that didn't mean there wasn't solid evidence that evolution was a lie. The solid evidence just wasn't scientific. “We have solid proof in in our hands that evolution is a lie: the Bible,” Ham explained. “You see, we can’t depend solely on our reasoning ability to convince skeptics. We present the evidence and do the best we can to convince people the truth of God by always pointing them to the Bible.”

In the US, governor Chris Christie signed a bill barring licensed therapists from trying to turn gay teenagers straight, making New Jersey the second state to ban so-called conversion therapy, along with California. The bill passed both houses of the New Jersey Legislature with bipartisan support in June. Assemblyman Tim Eustace, who sponsored the bill and is openly gay, described the therapy as "an insidious form of child abuse." In a note accompanying the bill, Christie said he believes people are born gay and that homosexuality is not a sin. The Republican governor also said the health risks of trying to change a child's sexual orientation, as identified by the American Psychological Association, outweigh concerns over the government setting limits on parental choice. "Government should tread carefully into this area," he said in the note, "and I do so here reluctantly. However, I also believe that on the issues of medical treatment for children we must look to experts in the field to determine the relative risks and rewards," Christie said, citing a litany of potential ill effects of trying to change sexual orientation, including depression and suicide.

And now let’s look at some news in science.

European forests are showing signs of reaching a saturation point as carbon sinks, a study has suggested. Since 2005, the amount of atmospheric CO2 absorbed by the continent's trees has been slowing. This is a result of the declining volume of trees, deforestation and the impact of natural disturbances. Many of Europe's forests are reaching an age where growth, and carbon uptake, slows down as they have been recovering in recent times after centuries of stock decline and deforestation. The carbon cycle is the process by which carbon - essential for life on the planet - is transferred between land, sea and the atmosphere. Carbon sinks refers to the capacity of key components in the cycle - such as the soil, oceans, rock and fossil fuels - to store carbon, preventing it from being recycled. Saturation refers to the point where the natural carbon sinks are unable to keep pace and absorb the additional atmospheric carbon being released by human activities.

The secretive underground lives of British mammals have been captured on camera by filmmakers. Full-scale rabbit warrens, vole burrows and badger sets were crafted in order to film previously unrecorded details. The team were able to capture intimate views of family life for some of Britain's best loved, and least understood, species. In the past, underground filming has been limited by natural conditions. The lack of light forced filmmakers to use infra-red cameras that only produced black and white footage. The claustrophobic nature of underground dwellings also makes it difficult to follow animals without disturbing them. The filmmakers overcame these challenges by consulting with zoo architects, model makers and experts in underground species, then building artificial burrows based on those found in the wild.

The oldest known globe to represent the New World has been discovered. Dated to the early 1500s, the globe was likely crafted in Florence, Italy, from the lower halves of two ostrich eggs. It is engraved with then-new and vague details about the Americas garnered from European explorers like Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci. It is also decorated with monsters, intertwining waves and even a shipwrecked sailor, according to the Washington Map Society, which published a study of the artifact. The anonymous owner of the globe, who bought it in 2012 at the London Map Fair, allowed researchers to investigate the globe. Using carbon dating, computer tomography testing, an ink assessment, as well as a geographical, cartographic, and historical analysis it was determined that the grapefruit-sized globe was made around 1504. It was likely used to cast the famous copper Lenox globe housed at the New York Public Library, which, until now, had been thought to be the oldest globe to show the Americas and is dated to 1510.

Human beliefs are shaped by perception, but new research suggests delusions — unfounded but tightly held beliefs — can turn the tables and actually shape perception. People who are prone to forming delusions may not correctly distinguish among different sensory inputs, and may rely on these delusions to help make sense of the world, the study finds. Typical delusions include paranoid ideas or inflated ideas about oneself. "Beliefs form in order to minimize our surprise about the world. Our expectations override what we actually see", said neuroscientist Phil Corlett of Yale University, who was not involved in the study.

And, now, in local news from Romania, we learn that

An article in “Nature” looks at the failures of Romanian science and how research has stood still. The article is a severe criticism to the steps that Romania has taken backwards and states: “In April, hundreds of scientists took to the streets in protest, and more than 900 signed a petition addressed to Prime Minister Victor Ponta, demanding that the research budget and quality control be restored. The entire National Research Council, Romania’s main research-funding agency, resigned in protest. With no compromise from the government and the council seats still unfilled, Romanian science is adrift. Scientists are resigned to treading water, in the hope that the tide will turn”.

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