Everything You Need to Know about the Ebola Vaccine

By Dina Fine Maron

The Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) just got worse. In what the World Health Organization’s top response official is calling a “game changer” event, one case has now been confirmed in Mbandaka—a city of 1.2 million people about 150 kilometers from the rural rainforest area where the other confirmed Ebola cases have been found.

The country has been grappling with 44 reported cases, three of which have been confirmed. Another 20 of these cases have been categorized as probable, and 21 are suspected. At least 23 of these individuals have died, according to the latest WHO figures.

The Geneva-based Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, a public-private partnership that has purchased 300,000 doses of the experimental Ebola vaccine for an emergency stockpile, has already committed funding to deploy thousands of doses during this outbreak. This Merck-produced vaccine has been through clinical trials but is not yet licensed by any health authority. The DRC government, however, approved its deployment under what are known as compassionate-use regulations.

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The Virginia GOP wants to get this creationist elected to Congress

By Casey Michel

A few years ago, Cynthia Dunbar played a central role in the great Texas textbook controversies, moving to inject creationism into the curricula and eliminate Thomas Jefferson from American history — all while blasting public schools as “tyrannical” and calling for making the judicial branch “subordinate” to Congress.

Now, she’s gunning for the Republican nomination for Virginia’s 6th congressional district.

And she appears favored to win — but not without stirring a brand new round of controversy that stems from watching the district GOP re-write the rules to all but ensure her nomination.

With Dunbar’s rise, national voices on both sides of the aisle are perking up about the controversy. After all, whoever comes out of Saturday’s convention for the Republican nomination seems close to a lock to win in November — except Dunbar, who Republicans fear will torpedo their chances at holding onto the solid red district.

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MIT Now Has a Humanist Chaplain to Help Students With the Ethics of Tech

By Isabel Fattal

Even some of the most powerful tech companies start out tiny, with a young innovator daydreaming about creating the next big thing. As today’s tech firms receive increased moral scrutiny, it raises a question about tomorrow’s: Is that young person thinking about the tremendous ethical responsibility they’d be taking on if their dream comes true?

Greg Epstein, the recently appointed humanist chaplain at MIT, sees his new role as key to helping such entrepreneurial students think through the ethical ramifications of their work. As many college students continue to move away from organized religion, some universities have appointed secular chaplains like Epstein to help non-religious students lead ethical, meaningful lives. At MIT, Epstein plans to spark conversations about the ethics of technology—conversations that will sometimes involve religious groups on campus, and that may sometimes carry over to Harvard, where he has held (and will continue to hold) the same position since 2005.

I recently spoke with Epstein about how young people can think ethically about going into the tech industry and what his role will look like. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

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Mauritania Passes Law Mandating Death Penalty for “Blasphemy”

By Hemant Mehta

Mauritania has long been one of the worst countries in the world for freethinkers. Those guilty of “blasphemy” have been threatened with the death penalty, which is disturbing on its own but even more so when you realize how blasphemy is always in the eye of the beholder.

But now that punishment will become mandatory.

The International Humanist and Ethical Union reports:

The National Assembly passed a law on April 27, 2018 that replaces article 306 of the Criminal Code and makes death penalty mandatory for anyone convicted of “blasphemous speech” and acts deemed “sacrilegious”. The new law eliminates the possibility under article 306 of substituting prison terms for the death penalty for certain apostasy-related crimes if the offender promptly repents. The law also extends the scope of application of the death penalty to “renegade acts.”

The law also provides for a sentence of up to two years in prison and a fine of up to 600,000 Ouguiyas (approximately EUR 13,804) for “offending public indecency and Islamic values” and for “breaching Allah’s prohibitions” or assisting in their breach.

That law has prompted a coalition of groups to urge officials there to reverse the law immediately. They also referenced a blogger accused of blasphemy who has been sentenced to death, had his conviction overturned, but still remains in police custody.

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Dogs Might Be More Rational Than Humans

By Yasemin Saplakoglu

JERSEY CITY, N.J. — At the 2018 Liberty Science Center Genius Gala, Laurie Santos, one of the night’s honorees, performed an experiment on stage. She showed the audience a box with a cylindrical handle jutting from its side. She first jiggled the handle a few times and then opened the top of the box. She then repeated the process.

Santos said that if she asked a human to then open the box, the human would do the exact same thing: try to jiggle the handle first before attempting to pop the top open. But instead of asking a human, Santos invited a dog onto the stage to try to open the box, which contained a reward in the form of a doggy treat. Santos showed the dog, just as she did humans, how to open the box: Jiggle the handle, and open the top. The dog watched closely, but when it came time to claim its treat, it did its own sniffing and, ignoring the handle, popped the top open with its nose. It turns out that the handle wasn’t connected to anything in the box and had nothing to do with opening it.

Dogs are “really good at learning from us, but they might, in funny ways, be better at learning from us than we are from ourselves,” Santos, a cognitive psychologist at Yale University, told Live Science. They are “less irrational in following our behavior than humans are.”

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Cosmic Conflict: Diverging Data on Universe’s Expansion Polarizes Scientists

By Lee Billings

What began as a debate over astronomical measurements is on the verge of becoming a full-blown crisis in how we understand the cosmos. Two data sets—one from the newborn universe nearly 14 billion years ago, the other from stars as we see them today—are yielding contradictory answers to a deceptively simple question: How fast is the universe expanding?

The gap between answers is only 9 percent, but that far exceeds each data set’s estimated uncertainties. Researchers on each side of the gap call it “the tension,” and are digging in their heels about the validity of their observations. This tension is the stuff of scientific dreams—and nightmares. It hints that somewhere, somehow, our understanding of the laws of nature may be fundamentally flawed—with potentially profound implications for physics, and perhaps even the fate of all things.

“If the tension isn’t a fluke and it’s not an error in measurement, it implies we’re missing something in our models,” says Adam Riess, an astrophysicist at Johns Hopkins University and the Space Telescope Science Institute. “Making this measurement for the early universe and then comparing it to today’s is an end-to-end test of the whole story we’ve constructed about the universe. The trouble is, if something definitely doesn’t fit, we don’t know where exactly the story diverges.”

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Probing Pence: Did his Hillsdale College commencement speech get anything right?

By Andrew Seidel

Every year, the Freedom From Religion Foundation gets complaints about graduations in public schools. Preachers delivering sermons, staff and students scheduled to deliver prayers, the graduation being held in a church — you name the violation, we’ve seen it. None of these is an issue for a commencement ceremony at a private religious college, such as Hillsdale College in southern Michigan, which, however, had a problem of its own.

The trouble with Hillsdale’s commencement, which was full of religion, was that it was also full of lies and alternative facts (but perhaps I repeat myself). The source of this problem was Vice President Mike Pence, who addressed the graduating class.

One of Pence’s favorite lines, which he used when he accepted the Republican nomination and trotted out again for the graduates, nicely illustrates the Pence problem: “I’m a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican — in that order.” Pence considers himself a Christian before anything else, including someone who values facts and truth (but perhaps I repeat myself yet again).

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Inside the Fight Against America’s Wave of Anti-LGBT Adoption Bills

By Samantha Allen

On May 11, Oklahoma became the eighth state to allow state-licensed child welfare agencies to cite religious beliefs in order to discriminate against LGBT people looking to foster or adopt children.

The Sooner State won’t be the last, either: Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer has already said that he “look[s] forward to signing” a similar bill that has already cleared the legislature.

Both of these laws are notable losses for LGBT advocates in a year that has mostly seen the failure of anti-LGBT bills, as The Washington Post noted this April.

Legal challenges already underway could reverse the rising tide of anti-LGBT adoption bills: Troy Stevenson, executive director for the advocacy group Freedom Oklahoma, told The Daily Beast that they have retained counsel and are “definitely filing” a lawsuit, but still determining the best timing.

The American Civil Liberties Union already has a lawsuit underway against a similar anti-LGBT adoption law in Michigan, which took effect in June 2015.

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Why Do Some Fruits and Vegetables Conduct Electricity?

By Joanna Fantozzi

At any science fair, you’re almost guaranteed to see at least two go-to experiments: the clichéd papier-mâché volcano and the ever-popular pickle or potato battery. Many people may think it’s amazing that a simple piece of produce can conduct electricity. As it turns out, that’s not the whole story.

There are many types of electrical conductors. These include traditional electrical conductors, such as the copper and silver wires that are used to run electrical currents in homes and buildings, and ionic conductors, which can power electricity via free moving ions. Organic material, such as human tissue or the potato in your science experiment, are ionic conductors that create ionic circuits. Electrolytes — chemical compounds that create ions when they are dissolved in water — in these materials do all of the work.

“Fruits and vegetables conduct electricity in the same way a salt solution will complete an electrical circuit,” Michael Hickner, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at Penn State, told Live Science. “It’s due to the ions in the salt solution. They don’t conduct electrons [as traditional electrical conductors do].

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It’s That Dress Again, But Now For Your Ears

By Stephen L. Macknik

It’s an epic auditory insult. Akin to: I say tomato and you say “blow it out your ear.” I just listened to the new amazing illusion, in which about half of the denizens of my current café hear a voice say “Yanny” whereas I clearly hear “Laurel.” It’s a magical-seeming deception that seems innocent when you hear it. But it reveals itself as mysterious—and a little bit sinister—when you ask your friends, listening to the same recording at the same time, what they hear, and its totally different from what you hear. Try it now:

[Link]

My wife agrees with me—Laurel—saving our marriage from otherwise certain divorce—but our three rotten kids instead all hear “Yanny.”

So what is going on? We’ll have to find out when neuroscientists around the world start digging in to determine its neural underpinnings of this equivocal percept in the lab. But this is what we can tell you at this time, drawing some inferences from equivalent visual illusions, like The famous Dress that took the world by storm in February of 2015.

Dress Illusion, about half of the world’s population sees a white-gold dress, whereas the other half sees a blue-black dress. Like the Yanny-Laurel Illusion, nothing at first seems amiss, until you start talking to somebody about your experience and discover that their sensation is completely different from yours.

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