Did This Bird Go Extinct and Re-Evolve? I Doubt It.

A flightless Railbird on the Aldabra atoll in the Indian Ocean (click for credit)

Over the past few days, several people have sent me articles like this one, which makes a rather fantastic claim:

The Aldabra white-throated rail bird was declared extinct, a victim of rising sea levels almost 100,000 years ago.

However, the flightless brown bird has recently been spotted – leaving scientists scratching their heads as to how – and why – the species has come back to life.

What do you conclude from reading that? The article seems to be saying that no one had ever seen this bird before; it was only known from the fossil record. Now, however, living versions of it have been seen, and how they came back from extinction is a mystery. Unfortunately, like many “science news” stories, this one distorts the science to the point that it is deceptive and misleading.

The science that is being distorted comes from a study published last year. A responsible article that describes the study can be found here. While the study and the responsible article don’t distort the science, I do think the conclusion that they draw is not the only one consistent with the data.

Let’s start with the bird that is being discussed. It’s the Aldabra white-throated rail, whose scientific name is Dryolimnas [cuvieri] aldabranus. It lives on the Aldabra atoll in the Indian Ocean and is nearly identical to white-throated rails (Dryolimnas cuvieri) found in other parts of the world, like Madagascar. However, the ones on the Aldabra atoll cannot fly, while the others can. As a result, the flightless birds on the atoll are considered a subspecies of the version that can fly.

While we cannot say for sure, the generally-accepted origin story for the Aldabra white-throated rail is that normal white-throated rails landed on the atoll, and since there were no predators there, they stayed. Since they didn’t need to fly anymore, they evolved into flightless birds over several generations. This makes sense, because when a population of organisms doesn’t need a particular biological trait, mutations can degrade those traits without affecting survivability. In addition, DNA is so incredibly well-designed that over the course of generations, it can “turn off” genes that are no longer used in order to save energy. As a result, it makes sense that these flightless birds are descendants from birds that could originally fly.

Why do these articles discuss the birds being extinct at one point? Because the authors of the scientific study looked at the fossil record of the atoll. Using scientifically-irresponisble dating methods, they came to the conclusion that the atoll was completely underwater about 140,000 years ago. When they looked at fossils they interpreted to be older than 140,000 years, they found two bones that seem identical to the corresponding bones in the Aldabra white-throated rails that currently live on the atoll. Thus, they conclude that these flightless birds lived on the atoll before it went completely underwater.

Well, since the birds couldn’t fly, the authors assume that they all died when the atoll was underwater. However, in fossils that they interpret as being deposited after ocean levels decreased and the atoll was no longer underwater, they found another bone that looks similar to the corresponding bones in white-throated rails that can fly. However, it is heavier and more robust than what is found in those birds, but still lighter than what is found in the flightless Aldabra white-throated rails. In other words, it seems to be “in between” the bone of a normal white-throated rail and a flightless white-throated rail. To them, that gives “irrefutable evidence” (their words) that the Aldabra white-throated rails evolved twice: once before the atoll went underwater, and once after.

While their interpretation of the evidence makes sense and is consistent with all the known data, their case is certainly not “irrefutable.” First, you have to assume that they are interpreting the fossil record correctly. There is a lot of evidence to indicate the earth isn’t anywhere close to 140,000 years old, and if that evidence is correct, then their entire explanation is wrong. Also, even if the earth is as old as these scientists want to believe, the authors’ explanation is not the only one consistent with the data. We know that flightless animals can move from place to place on floating mats of vegetation. This is called “rafting,” and it is used by both evolutionists and creationists to explain the worldwide distribution of certain animals. If the atoll flooded like the authors think, the flightless birds could have survived by rafting. What about that one bone that is “in between” the two subspecies? There are natural variations in all bones. A “more robust” bone from a normal white-throated rail can be explained by natural variation within a population of normal white-throated rails.

The main reason I am writing about this is not to argue with the authors. It’s to point out the deceptiveness of articles like the one I quoted at the beginning of the post. As I have said many times before, do not believe the things you read in the popular press when it comes to science. Most “science journalists” are profoundly ill-equipped to understand science, and usually quite poor journalists as well.

Posted in Age of the Earth, Answered Questions, Creationism, Evolution, Modern Science, The Wonders of Creation | 3 Comments

Lichen Hid This Secret From Scientists for More Than 140 Years!

The colorful splotches on this rock are lichens, which we now know are a mutualistic association between THREE different organisms (photo copyright Kathleen J. Wile)

For more than 140 years, scientists have taught that lichens are the result of a relationship between a fungus and an alga (singular of algae). The fungus gives the lichen most of its visible characteristics and provides a protected place for the alga to grow. In exchange, the alga does photosynthesis and shares what it makes with the fungus. In other words, the fungus provides housing for the alga, and the alga provides food for the fungus. This is a form of symbiosis, in which organisms of different species exist in a long-term relationship. Since both organisms benefit in this symbiosis, it is called a mutualistic symbiosis, one of the most fascinating aspects of the biological world (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, for example).

Despite the fact that lichens have been studied for more than 140 years, there has always been one nagging mystery: The relationship cannot be recreated in a lab. Lichens can be found in all sorts of ecosystems, but no matter what you do with the fungus and the alga, you cannot get them to form the same relationship in a laboratory setting. A recent study might explain why. The authors of the study analyzed two different species of lichen, Bryoria fremontii and Bryoria tortuosa. They are easily distinguished from each other, since the first is dark brown, while the second is yellow. However, recent studies have indicated that the fungus and alga in each are the same. How is it that two lichens can be so different when their fungus and alga are the same? That’s what the authors wanted to find out.

They decided to look at the specific genes that were actually being used by the two species. After all, even if both lichens have the same fungus DNA and the same alga DNA, it’s possible that one lichen uses one set of genes more than the other lichen, and perhaps that could explain the differences between them. However, their initial analysis indicated that both lichens used essentially the same set of genes. That’s when they decided to think “outside the box.”

When doing a study like this, you have to decide what gene products you are looking for. They had limited themselves to the genes found in the fungus and the alga that were known to exist in the lichens. They decided to change their analysis to include all known fungus genes. When they did that, they found that genes from an entirely different fungus were also being used by the lichens! That fungus is a type of yeast (specifically from genus Cyphobasidium), which is very different from the fungus that was already known. The authors did some very difficult microscope work and confirmed the presence of the yeast in the lichen. In addition, they did the same genetic tests on many different species of lichen, and they found the yeast genes in the vast majority of the lichens that they studied. As a result, the authors suggest that the vast majority of lichens are made up of at least three different species. Here is how they conclude their paper:

The assumption that stratified lichens are constructed by a single fungus with differentiated cell types is so central to the definition of the lichen symbiosis that it has been codified into lichen nomenclature. This definition has brought order to the field but may also have constrained it by forcing untested assumptions about the true nature of the symbiosis. We suggest that the discovery of Cyphobasidium yeasts should change expectations about the potential diversity and ubiquity of organisms involved in one of the oldest known and most recognizable symbioses in science.

While this discovery in and of itself is remarkable, it is also an excellent illustration of how assumptions can put blinders on science. Why haven’t these yeasts been discovered in more than 140 years of lichen study? Partly, because they are well-hidden. To confirm the presence of the yeast in the lichen required some rather detailed microscopic analysis. In addition, when you are doing genetic analysis, you have to decide what to search for, which means your results will be limited by that decision. However, here’s the main reason: No one was looking for them. Since the assumption that lichens are mutualistic symbioses between two different species was so ingrained in biological thought, no one ever considered looking for a third, until these authors decided to “think outside the box.”

I wonder how many more scientific discoveries are waiting on other scientists who are willing question old paradigms and look for things that no one else has been looking for!

Posted in Modern Science, The Wonders of Creation | 2 Comments

Another Confirmed Creationist Prediction

This was one of the first depictions of Neanderthal man, based on the work of paleontologist Marcellin Boule.

In 1908 a nearly-complete fossil skeleton was found in La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France. Marcellin Boule, professor at the Museum of Natural History in France and director of the French Institute of Human Paleontology, analyzed the skeleton in detail, eventually publishing his findings in the scientific literature. Before his scientific publication, however, a weekly French newspaper (L’Illustration) published the drawing above, which was based on Boule’s work. The drawing was later published in the Illustrated London News. As you can see from the drawing, Neanderthal man was interpreted to be a sub-human creature that was probably one of the steps in the hypothetical evolutionary process that led from an ape-like creature to modern humans.

As time went on, more discoveries were made that indicated this view was far from correct. Artifacts were found indicating that Neanderthal man buried his dead, used fire, made art, etc. This somewhat elevated Neanderthals from sub-human to almost-human. When DNA analysis strongly suggested that Neanderthals and what some call “modern humans” interbred, it became increasingly clear that from a biological point of view, Neanderthals were, in fact, fully human. Nevertheless, most evolutionists still consider Neanderthals to have lower intelligence than modern humans.

Throughout this entire time, creationists have seen Neanderthals as human in every way, including their intelligence. As early as 1925, creationist Harry Rimmer wrote a pamphlet entitled “Monkeyshines: Facts, Fallacies, and Fables Concerning Evolution.” In it, he says that drawings like the one given above are incorrect. He goes on to state:

At any rate, these reconstructions of the Neanderthal man do not show him the way his skeleton really was. He also was a true man.

This has been a common theme throughout the young-earth creationist literature. Neanderthal man was truly human in every sense of the word. A recent paper confirms this long-standing creationist prediction, while at the same time falsifying the evolution-inspired idea that Neanderthal man was of low intelligence. The paper analyzed a cord that was found on a stone tool which was made by Neanderthals. While the cord was not part of the stone tool, it was stuck to the tool and was deposited either before or with it. The authors show that the cord was made of three strands twisted around each other, which indicates sophisticated intelligence. As they say, it

“…is the oldest direct evidence of fibre technology to date. Its production demonstrates a detailed ecological understanding of trees and how to transform them into entirely different functional substances. Fibre technology would have been an important part of everyday life and would have influenced seasonal scheduling and mobility. Furthermore, the production of cordage implies a cognitive understanding of numeracy and context sensitive operational memory. Given the ongoing revelations of Neanderthal art and technology, it is difficult to see how we can regard Neanderthals as anything other than the cognitive equals of modern humans.

As I have said before, it is an exciting time to be a young-earth creationist. The true test of a scientific theory is confirmation of its predictions, especially when those predictions are at odds with a competing theory. In this case (and many others), young-earth creationism is showing that it is a robust, successful scientific theory.

Posted in Confirmed Creationist Predictions, Creationism, Failed Evolutionary Predictions | 5 Comments

Student Suicides Peak When School Is In Session

Suicides among children increase when they are in school. One factor might be the peer group to which school exposes students, which can be incredibly cruel. (image from stockunlimited.com)

In response to a Harvard Law Professor’s evidence-free assertion that there should be a presumptive ban on homeschooling, Ideological Diversity (a student group at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government) hosted an online conference entitled “The Disinformation Campaign Against Homeschooling.” You can watch it here. I attended the conference, and it lived up to the student organization’s name. There were seven speakers, and they all come from very different ideological perspectives. There was one Evangelical Christian, for example, while two of the other speakers specifically noted that they are not religious in any way. Some were conservative, while others were liberal. One speaker even noted that while he agreed with the other speakers when it comes to homeschooling, he strongly disagreed with them on many other matters.

All of the speakers were decidedly anti-school, but for different reasons. One suggested that the school system we have today is institutionalized child abuse. Another suggested it is the result of government overreach. Another suggested that it had never been shown to produce desirable results. Another highlighted that when it comes to the most basic outcomes, its results are horrible. Since I have been involved with the homeschooling movement since the early 1990s (because my best university students were homeschool graduates), I had heard all of those things before. Someone hearing them for the first time, however, might be shocked by the degree to which some of the speakers denounced what most people consider a normal part of a person’s childhood.

While most of the speakers covered material with which I was already familiar, one of them (Dr. Peter Gray, research professor at Boston College) focused on something I had never heard before: The suicide rate for children is twice as high when school is in session than when it is not in session. This is particularly striking, since Dr. Gray says that for people out of school, there is no difference between the rate of suicide in the winter and the rate of suicide in the summer. He noted that lots of people talk about suicide among students, and they discuss all sorts of different causes, but school is hardly ever mentioned.

Since I had never heard this before, I decided to look into it, and several studies confirm Dr. Gray’s statement. One of the more disturbing studies I found was published three years ago. It looked at hospitalization in children’s hospitals for thoughts of suicide (SI – suicide ideation) or suicide attempts (SA). It covered 2008-2015, and the results are very clear. Consider, for example, Figure 2 from the study:

Notice that even among 5-11 year-olds, thoughts of suicide and suicide attempts peak when school is in session and drop when school is out of session. It seems to me that anyone who is concerned about the welfare of children should be very worried about this clear correlation. However, most people (including myself as of three days ago) seem to be totally unaware of it.

Now remember, correlation does not mean causation. School might not be the cause of the increase in child suicides, suicide attempts, and thoughts of suicide. It might be something else that just happens to be correlated with the academic year. However, unless someone is actually willing to look specifically at the question of whether or not school is to blame, we will never know.

Posted in Home Education | 3 Comments

Another excerpt from Science in the Atomic Age

God designed creation so that almost everything it needs is recycled. Only sunlight must be continually added to satisfy the needs of both producers and consumers. (Image copyright Shutterstock.com/Sakurra)

I am putting the finishing touches on my 7th/8th grade book Science in the Atomic Age (which should be available for purchase in June), and I wanted to post another excerpt from the book. The excerpt I posted previously comes from a section about the brain. This one comes from an earlier chapter, where I discuss plants.

By the time the students reach this point in the course, they know that producers are organisms which make their own food (usually through photosynthesis), and consumers must eat other organisms for food. They also know how to interpret chemical equations and the specific chemical equation for photosynthesis. In addition, I have just shown them the chemical equation for the process by which consumers burn their food for energy and have pointed out that it is the opposite of the chemical equation for photosynthesis. Here is the discussion that follows:

In other words, producers like plants use water and carbon dioxide to make glucose and oxygen, and consumers then use that glucose and oxygen to make carbon dioxide and water. So producers are feeding us, and we take what the producers make and then produce the chemicals they need to make what we need! In this sense, at least, consumers are the opposites of producers.

This is a real testimony to God’s power and ingenuity. He not only created the producers to feed the consumers, He also designed the consumers so that when they use what the producers made, they give the producers what is needed so that the producers can make more food. Now, of course, the sun plays its role, too. It provides the energy the producers need in order to do photosynthesis in the first place.

This is all summed up in the illustration above. The sun shines light on the earth. Producers absorb that light in the chloroplasts of their cells and use it, along with carbon dioxide and water, to make glucose and oxygen. Consumers then take that glucose and oxygen and use them to make energy for themselves. This ends up making carbon dioxide and water, which can be used by the chloroplasts in the producers (along with more energy from the sun) to make more glucose and oxygen. As a result, the only constant input needed is energy from the sun. Everything else just keeps getting recycled between producers and consumers!

This Balance Is Even More Amazing

The balance between producers and consumers, as illustrated in the drawing above, is amazing. However, we need to be aware that it is often oversimplified. I have heard many educators say, “Plants make food and oxygen, while animals use food and oxygen.” That is true, but it is oversimplified. Plants do make food and oxygen. It happens when they are doing photosynthesis. However, they also use food and oxygen.

Does that statement surprise you? It might, but if you think about it, the statement makes a lot of sense. After all, why are plants doing photosynthesis? Because they need to make food for themselves, right? Well, what does the plant do with that food? It burns that food for energy, according to the equation I showed you earlier. What does that equation say? It says oxygen and C6H12O6 are reactants. That means they are used up. So plants not only use carbon dioxide and water to make glucose and oxygen, but when it is time for them to burn their food, they must use glucose and oxygen to make carbon dioxide and water.

Now wait a minute. If plants end up using the glucose and oxygen they make through photosynthesis, how are we able to use it? Because of this important fact: Plants make a lot more food and oxygen than they ever need. If plants only made the food that they need, they would end up using it and all the oxygen they made, and there would be nothing for consumers to eat or breathe. However, plants have been designed to make much more food than they will ever need. That means they also make more oxygen than they will ever use. That way, there is food and oxygen for consumers.

This is a very, very important design feature that many people don’t appreciate. In order for us (and most consumers) to survive, it’s not enough that producers like plants exist. They must not only exist, but they must do a lot more work than just keeping themselves alive. They must overproduce food and oxygen so that there is plenty for the consumers. Thus, the proper way to describe the balance between plants and animals is, “Plants make food and oxygen, but they also use it. However, they make more food and oxygen than they need, so that animals can use the rest.”

Posted in Home Education, Intelligent Design, The Wonders of Creation | 7 Comments

Harvard Graduate Responds to Proposed Ban on Homeschooling

Harvard Square as seen from a nearby building (click for credit)

A few weeks ago, I wrote about an anti-homeschooling summit that was being held at Harvard Law School. Well, over the weekend, I got several emails and Facebook contacts that contained an article written about one of the summit’s organizers, Professor Elizabeth Bartholet. The article discusses a paper she recently wrote in the Arizona Law Review. That paper

…calls for a radical transformation in the homeschooling regime and a related rethinking of child rights. It recommends a presumptive ban on homeschooling, with the burden on parents to demonstrate justification for permission to homeschool.

Once I read the article and the abstract from Dr. Bartholet’s paper, I started planning the rebuttal piece that I was going to write. After all, my first exposure to homeschooling was having homeschool graduates in my Ball State University chemistry and physics courses. They impressed me so much that I started researching home education and eventually started working with homeschoolers. Today, I am a strong advocate of homeschooling specifically because I have come to the conclusion that it is the best model of education available to parents in the United States.

Fortunately, there is no need for me to write that rebuttal article, because an excellent one has already been written by Melba Pearson,
a homeschool graduate who also graduated from Harvard. I encourage you to read the article in its entirety, as well as one of the articles (published in The Harvard Crimson) that she links to. However, I must leave you with the closing paragraph of her article, which succinctly explains why Dr. Bartholet’s idea is not only absurd, but profoundly anti-education:

I excelled at Harvard because I was homeschooled, and of that I am proud. It is deeply disappointing that Harvard is choosing and promoting an intellectual totalitarian path that calls for a ban of the liberties that helped me and countless others succeed, for it is those liberties and ideals that have made America the great nation it is today.

Posted in Home Education, Homeschool Graduates | 14 Comments

What Does Social Distancing Accomplish?

Cumulative COVID-19 cases (left) and deaths (right) per million in Sweden and Denmark

In a comment on a previous post about COVID-19, John D. said that he was watching Sweden and Denmark to evaluate whether or not shutting down most of society is an effective strategy against the disease. Why? Because they are very similar countries in the same basic region of the world, but they have remarkably different responses to the disease. Denmark has instituted many social-distancing strategies against the disease, while Sweden has not. Comparing how the disease is affecting those two countries might tell us something about how effective these strategies really are.

Well, I had a chance to look into this a bit, and the results of my analysis are shown in the graphs above. I got my data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Of course, you could question the reliability of the source. However, I think that if it is not reliable, it is probably equally unreliable for both countries, so most likely, the comparison is justified. The data are compiled as a list of cases and deaths each day. I made a running day-by-day total of each and then divided by the population of each country in millions. So what you see in the graphs above are the cumulative number of cases (left) and deaths (right) each day, per million people in the country.

Looking at the graph on the left, we see that the rate of growth of cases is similar for both countries, but Sweden actually has a lower number of cases per million! So despite its social distancing guidelines, Denmark has more cases per million people than Sweden. However, look at the deaths per million, shown in the graph on the right. Not only does Sweden have significantly more deaths per million, they are increasing a lot faster than those in Denmark!

How can we understand the fact that Denmark has more cases but fewer deaths per million people? I personally think it’s because Denmark is probably testing more. Because of social distancing, doctors and hospitals are not doing a lot of the routine care they normally do. As a result, they are probably more focused on COVID-19, which probably results in more testing. It’s very possible that Sweden has a lot more cases, but since they aren’t testing as much as Denmark, that doesn’t show up. This is all just spectulation, of course. I don’t have the data to confirm whether or not Denmark is doing more testing than Sweden.

It’s also possible that less routine medical care in Denmark simply means that the people with COVID-19 are getting more medical attention, which leads to a higher rate of survival. So perhaps Sweden does have fewer cases, but since each case doesn’t get as much attention, the death rate is higher. Finally, it’s possible that because of social distancing, the sheer number of viruses to which each person is exposed is lower in Denmark. If that’s the case, the initial viral load on a patient is lower, which makes the disease more survivable.

Whatever the explanation for the fact that Denmark has more confirmed cases but fewer deaths per million, it appears that social distancing significantly reduces the number of deaths per million people in the population. Of course, I don’t think you can say that definitively based on this analysis alone, but the data do support that conclusion.

ADDED NOTE: If you look at the links in Dawn’s comment and Laree’s comment, you will see that Denmark is, indeed, doing more testing, which explains why they have more cases.

Posted in Uncategorized | 15 Comments

Please…Discard the Dogma!

Evolutionists have dogmatically insisted that pseudogenes are genes that were broken by mutation and are now useless. Some are now pleading with their colleagues to actually look at the data.

It always troubles me when I read other scientists who ignore the data in order to cling to their cherished dogmas. As a scientist, I know that this holds back the progress of science. As a result, I was heartened to read three scientist calling on their colleagues to abandon evolutionary dogma when it comes to pseudogenes. If others heed their call, we will most certainly learn more about DNA.

What am I talking about? Let’s start with what a pseudogene is. It is a region of DNA that looks like a known gene, but is different enough that it can’t do what the known gene does. As a result, it has become evolutionary dogma that pseudogenes are “broken” genes – genes that became non-functional due to duplication and mutation. Here, for example, is how the Encyclopedia of Genetics definitively describes a pseudogene:

A pseudogene is a nonfunctional genomic region that originated by duplication of, and is still homologous to, an ancestral gene.

In other words, a pseudogene is the result of a gene being copied and then broken. Creationists have long argued that pseudogenes are functional; they just don’t function the way evolutionists expect them to. The three authors of the paper I mentioned above have arrived at that same conclusion (at least for many pseudogenes), and they are asking their colleagues to pay attention to the data and do the same.

To emphasize the point that this evolution-inspired dogma is wrong, they list many pseudogenes that have been demonstrated to have an important function. They then make this important statement:

The examples of pseudogene function elaborated on here should not imply that pseudogene functionality is likely to be confined to isolated instances.

In other words, you can’t say that the known functional pseudogenes are exceptions to the rule. There are enough functional pseudogenes to call into question the assumption that they are mostly non-functional.

At the same time, however, these authors are cautious:

The purpose of this article is not to discard the pseudogene concept or to suggest that all pseudogenes are functional. The majority of currently annotated pseudogenes are neither robustly transcribed nor translated. Such regions fit well the original descriptions of pseudogenes as ‘similar, but defective’. Rather, we argue that their labelling as pseudogenes is not constructive for advancement of understanding of genome function and misdirects experimental design.

In other words, the authors are simply telling their colleagues to follow the data. Do not assume that a pseudogene is non-functional just because it has been identified as a pseudogene. Instead, investigate it to find out whether or not it actually is. The progress of science is hindered when you assume non-functionality because of the way the sequence has been identified.

I not only completely agree with that sentiment, I would also add this: following any dogma (evolutionist, creationist, or other) hinders the progress of science. Scientists should be willing to follow the data wherever they lead. Unfortunately, such scientists tend to be the exception, not the rule.

Posted in Confirmed Creationist Predictions, Modern Science, The Wonders of Creation | 15 Comments

Are Hydroxychloroquine and Azithromycin Effective Against COVID-19?

Dr. Didier Raoult, French physician and microbiologist who thinks he has an effective treatment for COVID-19 (click for image source)

Two weeks ago I wrote about a possible treatment for COVID-19, the pandemic disease that is affecting most of our lives. It has been championed by French physician and microbiologist Dr. Didier Raoult. So far, he has written two papers about it (here and here). I was excited about his initial report, and I was hoping for a serious follow-up study. When I saw that he had written a second paper, I eagerly read it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the serious study that I had hoped for. Nevertheless, it has gotten some media attention and seems to have influenced the FDA, so I decided to share my thoughts on it.

The results seem very exciting. He and his colleagues treated 80 patients with the malaria-fighting drug hydroxychloroquine and the antibiotic azithromycin. They note that they saw “clinical improvement” in 78 of them. One of the other two (an 86 year-old patient) died, and the other (a 74 year-old patient) was still in intensive care when the paper was written. While that sounds really good, there are a couple of “red flags” that make me hesitant to think that the treatment is as effective as it seems.

The first problem is that there is no control group. In a serious medical study, there needs to be a similar group of patents who do not receive the treatment. The treated group can be then measured against the untreated (control) group. Without that, it is very difficult to determine what the actual effect of the treatment is. Of course, I understand why there is no control group. Dr. Raoult wants to save lives. He thinks his treatment is effective, so he wants to give it to as many people as he can. He would have to “withhold” his life-saving treatment from some people so that he could have a control group, and that could lead to more deaths. I can understand why a physician would shudder at that idea.

However, the control group is important, because we really have no idea what would have happened to the 78 people who recovered had they not been given the treatment. While we still don’t know, the fatality rate of this disease is thought to be 1-2%. In 80 people, then, you would expect only one or two (0.8-1.6 to be precise) deaths, so this group of patients has the fatality outcome we expect had there been no treatment at all.

Now, of course, Dr. Raoult and his colleagues did more than just track whether or not the patients died. They tracked the amount of virus in each patient’s nasal cavity and found that the amount of virus dropped significantly for most of them. Once again, that sounds nice, but without a control group, we simply don’t know whether or not that was because of the treatment.

The second problem is the profile of patients who got the treatment. They mostly seemed to have a mild case of the disease. Only 15% had fever. Only 53% showed signs of lower respiratory tract infection. Worse, 5% showed no symptoms at all. Once again, it isn’t surprising that most of these patients recovered – most of them fit the profile of people who are expected to recover.

There is a third problem. A scientific study has been done in China with a control group. It is very small, and I can’t read it, since it is in Chinese. However, based on a Forbes article, the study had 30 patients. Half were given hydroxychloroquine, and half were not. That study showed no significant difference between the control group and the treatment group. Thus, if that study is correct, hydroxychloroquine is not an effective treatment for COVID-19.

Now, of course, that study didn’t include the antibiotic, so it’s possible that Dr. Raoult’s treatment is better than the treatment assessed by the study. It’s also possible that because of problems with the Chinese study’s design (small number of patients and no placebo, for example), the Chinese study is wrong. From a scientific point of view, then, we simply do not know whether or not Dr. Raoult’s treatment (or hydroxychloroquine by itself) is effective against COVID-19.

Nevertheless, the FDA has approved using hydroxychloroquine and other, similar drugs to treat COVID-19. This is probably a good plan, since the risks of using the drugs are low. However, until serious, controlled studies are done, we have no idea whether or not they are doing any good.

Posted in Medical Science, Modern Science | 16 Comments

A Cool Variation on an Experiment

In my elementary science book, Science in the Beginning, I explain to students that many things in science are counter-intuitive. To make this point clear, I have them do an experiment with unexpected results. In one lesson, students learn that salt melts ice. In the next lesson, they are presented with this question:

In which situation will an ice cube melt more quickly:
Floating in hot freshwater or floating in hot saltwater?

I then have them do the experiment. They put hot freshwater into two glasses. They then add salt to the water in one of the glasses. Afterwards, they put ice cubes of roughly the same size in each. Unlike most people expect, the ice cube in freshwater melts more quickly. Here is how I explain the results (keep in mind they have already seen that freshwater floats on saltwater):

So, why did the experiment produce counter-intuitive results? Because of another fact that you know but probably didn’t think was important enough to consider: freshwater floats on saltwater. Why did the ice cubes melt so quickly? Because you put them in hot water. The water was so hot that the ice cubes had to melt. But when the ice cubes melted, where did the water that was formed by the melting actually go?

Let’s start with the freshwater. Remember that cold freshwater is just a bit heavier than an equal volume of warm freshwater. What does that tell you? It tells you that cold freshwater sinks in warm freshwater. Well, as the ice cube melted, the water that was formed by the melting process was still pretty cold. Thus, it sank in the hot water, getting out of the way. This allowed the warm freshwater around the ice cube to stay very warm, which kept melting the ice cube.

What happened in the saltwater was a completely different story, however. Remember that freshwater floats on saltwater. This effect is so strong that cold freshwater floats in hot saltwater. So,in the end, when the ice cube started to melt, the cold freshwater that was formed from the melting ice cube floated on the top of the saltwater, along with the ice. It didn’t sink like it did in the cup that had freshwater in it. For the ice cube to continue to melt, then, the hot saltwater had to heat up the newly formed freshwater that floated on the surface. That took time, and as a result, the ice cube melted a bit more slowly.

So, the counter-intuitive results were caused by the fact that freshwater floats on saltwater, but cold freshwater sinks in hot freshwater. That probably wasn’t something you thought about when I initially asked you the question, but you probably understand why it is important now that I have explained it to you. It turns out that a lot of science is like this because God created an incredibly complicated world for us. Often, we don’t think about all the different things that are important when we try to analyze a situation. As a result, many experiments end up showing us counter-intuitive results. Regardless of how counter-intuitive, however, as a scientist, you must follow what the experiments show. After all, we can’t always take into account all the complexities of creation, so when we do an experiment and find counter-intuitive results, unless we find something wrong with the way we did the experiment, the results are more important than what we think the results should be!

A homeschooling mother, Leah, recently shared a variation that she and her son, Parker, made to this experiment, and it is pictured above. They made ice cubes out of water that had blue food coloring in it. The first picture on the left is of the ice cube in freshwater. You can clearly see the cold water from the melted ice cube sinking in the warm freshwater. The middle picture shows you both ice cubes, and it is really clear that the water coming from the melting ice cube is floating on the saltwater, while it is mixing well with the freshwater. The last picture shows you what is left after both ice cubes melt. Once again, you can see that the water from the ice cube has mostly stayed floating on the saltwater.

The impressive thing about this variation is that Leah came up with the idea on her own. When she suggested it to Parker, he immediately understood what it would show. I would have never thought to do this kind of variation, but it really illustrates the process well. I will probably add a note about doing this in the next printing of the course so that others can benefit from it.

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