Skeptical Reporter @ 2014-02-07

Skeptical Reporter for February 7th, 2014

Saudi Arabia, which has the largest number of Twitter users relative to internet users in the world, has formed a special task force to track those who are accused of spreading vice and witchcraft on the social networking service. The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which serves as the religious police of the conservative Gulf kingdom, is conducting surveillance of Twitter accounts in an effort to reign in heightened interest in subjects related to sorcery. The religious public watchdog is keeping a lookout for those accounts which “are spreading vice and witchcraft” through the community, said Ahmed Al Jardan, the Commission’s spokesman. Saudi Arabia’s Mufti, the country’s leading Islamic cleric, recently declared social media networks like Twitter have become a “podium for spreading evil and bad ideas and exchanging accusations and lies” by many of their subscribers and that “many Twitter users in the kingdom are also fools who lack modesty and faith”. The crackdown on Twitter users comes in the same week that Riyadh passed new counter-terrorism legislation that makes it an act of terrorism for any person to disturb public order or defame the reputation of the state or the king.

A British magistrate has issued an extraordinary summons to the worldwide leader of the Mormon Church alleging that its teachings about mankind amount to fraud. Thomas Monson, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been ordered to appear at Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London next month to defend the church’s doctrines including beliefs about Adam and Eve and Native Americans. A formal summons by District Judge Elizabeth Roscoe warns Mr Monson, who is recognized by Mormons as God’s prophet on Earth, that a warrant for his arrest could be issued if he fails to make the journey from Salt Lake City, Utah, for a hearing on March 14. In one of the most unusual documents ever issued by a British court, it lists seven teachings of the church, including that Native Americans are descended from a family of ancient Israelites as possible evidence of fraud. It also cites the belief that the Book of Mormon was translated from ancient gold plates revealed to the church’s founder Joseph Smith by angels and that Adam and Eve lived around 6,000 years ago. The document suggests that asking members of the church to make contributions while promoting theological doctrines which “might be untrue or misleading” could be a breach of the Fraud Act 2006.

A five-month-old baby has died from rickets after his parents insisted on following a strict eating regime as part of their religion. Nkosiyapha Kunene, 36, and his wife Virginia, 32, could face jail after admitting the manslaughter of their son Ndingeko. Acute rickets, from which the child died on June 14, 2012, sees the bones soften because of a deficiency of vitamin D, phosphorus or calcium. The case comes after health professionals raised concerns that the Victorian disease is returning to Britain as a result of poor diets and children not being exposed to sufficient sunshine. It is believed the parents belong to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, whose members follow a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet – one that allows milk and eggs, but not animal flesh. The childhood disease was endemic in the growing cities of 19th century Britain because of a lack of access to sunlight and poor diets. But by the 1950s it had been wiped out thanks to Vitamin D being added to everyday foods such as margarine and cereal. Until recently even specialist doctors had struggled to spot the disease. In 2012 the parents of four-month-old Jayden Wray were charged with his death before doctors realized he had probably died from rickets. Before Jayden there had been only one death in 30 years. Yet in 2012 about 900 cases were diagnosed in hospitals in England. Nutritionists say the return of rickets is largely due to a generation of inactive children not getting enough sunlight and Brian Wharton, of the Institute of Child Health, said a rise in “unusual diets that provide little vitamin D and calcium” were also to blame.

In the United States, the Reverend Michael Maginot has signed a deal with Evergreen Media Holdings to bring “The exorcisms of Latoya Ammons” to the big screen. Maginot declined to disclose the terms of his contract with Evergreen Executive Chairman Tony DeRosa-Grund, calling it a “standard deal.” DeRosa-Grund produced “The Conjuring,” grossing $318 million worldwide. After the publishing of Ammons’ claims that she and her three children had been possessed by demons, the story received international attention. More than a dozen movie producers and countless TV shows have clamored for interviews. Maginot, who performed a series of exorcisms on Ammons, said he signed a contract with DeRosa-Grund because he felt the producer wouldn’t sensationalize what happened. Maginot said he also signed a contract with Zak Bagans, host and executive producer of “Ghost Adventures” on the Travel Channel, to make a documentary.

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

Scientists have discovered the earliest evidence of human footprints outside of Africa, on the Norfolk Coast in the East of England. The footprints are more than 800,000 years old and were found on the shores of Happisburgh. They are direct evidence of the earliest known humans in northern Europe. The footprints have been described as "one of the most important discoveries, if not the most important discovery that has been made on [Britain's] shores," by Dr Nick Ashton of the British Museum. "It will rewrite our understanding of the early human occupation of Britain and indeed of Europe," he told BBC News. The markings were first identified in May last year during a low tide. Rough seas had eroded the sandy beach to reveal a series of elongated hollows. Such discoveries are very rare. The Happisburgh footprints are the only ones of this age in Europe and there are only three other sets that are older, all of which are in Africa.

Pancreatic cancer is a particularly devastating disease. At least 94 percent of patients will die within five years, and in 2013 it was ranked as one of the top 10 deadliest cancers. Routine screenings for breast, colon and lung cancers have improved treatment and outcomes for patients with these diseases, because the cancer can be detected early. But because little is known about how pancreatic cancer behaves, patients often receive a diagnosis when it's already too late. University of Washington scientists and engineers are developing a low-cost device that could help pathologists diagnose pancreatic cancer earlier and faster. The prototype can perform the basic steps for processing a biopsy, relying on fluid transport instead of human hands to process the tissue. "This new process is expected to help the pathologist make a more rapid diagnosis and be able to determine more accurately how invasive the cancer has become, leading to improved prognosis," said Eric Seibel, director of the department's Human Photonics Laboratory. The new instrumentation would essentially automate and streamline the manual, time-consuming process a pathology lab goes through to diagnose cancer.

After suffering a critical injury last year, NASA's Kepler space telescope has just observed an exoplanet for the first time in months. The Jupiter-sized world is not a new discovery – it was found by another telescope – but spotting it again with Kepler is solid evidence that, following a few modifications, the famed planet-hunter is ready to get back to work. Launched in 2009, Kepler was designed to see planetary transits – the tiny dips in starlight when a planet passes in front of its star, from Earth's perspective. Over four years the mission collected almost 250 confirmed planets and thousands more candidates, boosting our confidence that the galaxy is brimming with alien worlds. But observations ground to a halt last year, when mechanical failures killed Kepler's precision steering system and ruined its ability to hold steady enough to see transits. At a meeting in November last year, the Kepler team announced the K2 mission, which would use the radiation pressure from sunlight to hold the craft steady for up to 75 days at a time. During a test run in January, the K2 team nabbed their first planet.

Climate researchers at the University of East Anglia have made the world's temperature records available via Google Earth. The CRUTEM4 land-surface air temperature data-set is one of the most widely used records of the climate system. The new Google Earth format allows users to scroll around the world, zoom in on 6,000 weather stations, and view monthly, seasonal and annual temperature data more easily than ever before. Users can drill down to see some 20,000 graphs -- some of which show temperature records dating back to 1850. The move is part of an ongoing effort to make data about past climate and climate change as accessible and transparent as possible. Dr Tim Osborn from UEA's Climatic Research Unit said: "The beauty of using Google Earth is that you can instantly see where the weather stations are, zoom in on specific countries, and see station data-sets much more clearly. The new initiative does allow greater accessibility, but the research team do expect to find errors. Dr Osborn said: „This data-set combines monthly records from 6,000 weather stations around the world -- some of which date back more than 150 years. That's a lot of data, so we would expect to see a few errors. We very much encourage people to alert us to any records that seem unusual”.

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

Another plagiarism scandal has affected the Education Ministry. This time, state secretary Ștefania Duminică, has been accused of plagiarizing her Master’s Degree research paper. She is responsible for pre-college education and has an impressive CV. She is accused of having copied another research paper written in 2008. A commission has been formed to determine whether this is indeed a case of intellectual theft. This is only the latest in a line of scandals involving officials unable to write their own research papers and caught having plagiarized.

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