Thursday, May 29, 2008

Science: New science snippets

New Scientist (right), the weekly British science news magazine, is often an embarassment of riches. When I had a weekly subscription, I ended up with rather a backlog of issues to consume my reading space.

The occasional issue is most welcome; this week's had a number of interesting items, some of which appear here today.

Creationism and science teachers
The US is the only western country for which creationism is a significant issue. Most of the rest of the world is accepting of scientific reason; or more correctly, most of the rest of the world doesn't have a powerful fundamentalist christian lobby voice.
A survey of science teachers (presumably secondary level) from Pennsylvania State University has found some interesting statistics - as well as a fair bit of the bleeding obvious. A quarter of the 900-odd respondents taught about creationism, and about half of those presented it as a valid scientific alternative to Darwinism.
Sixteen percent of these science teachers believe humans were created in the last 10,000 years.
So, half of those who raised the concept of creationism didn't teach that it was valid; and there was a number who thought it was valid, but didn't teach it.
Interestingly, it notes that the amount of class time given to evolution was higher, the more science education the science teachers themselves had. Making a rather good case for science teachers to be properly trained.
The study suggested that less-trained teachers felt less confidence engaging in the subject (ie responding to questions).
However, I strongly suspect that even where science is taught properly, a lot of those teachers would have a somewhat weak grasp of the two fundamental tenets of random mutation and natural selection, let alone the myriad implications that stem from them.

Inbreeding and genetic disorder
A review of studies from Murdoch University in Western Australia examined genetic disorders amongst the offspring of first cousins. This would be a rather surrogate measure, of course, of the effects of inbreeding. The study found a 1.2% higher rate of infant mortality of offspring of first cousins, compared to the overall population. Another such (review) study in 2002 found a similar order of magnitude: less than 3%.

Artificial legs as a boost for runners
Recently was shown a prosthetic foot design that enabled high performance sprinting, notably in double amputee Oscar Pistorius. Claims then made that this unfairly boosted performance - which have now been tested.
Again, a proxy measure was used to determine any advantage conferred: the amount of calories burnt per distance - ie whether it was cheaper to fuel the prostheses.
The answer given was no - it wasn't more efficient. So Pistorius is free to compete in the Olympics - unless some other hurdle appears.

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