Archive for April, 2015

Apr 30 2015

Neonicotinoids, GMOs, and Colony Collapse Disorder

Published by under General Science

A new propaganda point has entered the anti-GMO repertoire – that GMOs are killing the honey bees. This claim, like many of their claims, is highly misleading, as the actual cause is incidental to the technology of genetic modification or even its use. This hasn’t stopped headlines like this one from GMOs Are Killing the Bees, Butterflies, Birds and . . . ?

This story follows a common strategy among the intellectually dishonest anti-GMO propaganda machine. The fact is, producing enough food to feed over 7 billion people (and growing) is not easy, and requires intensive high-yield farming. Farming, not surprisingly, is having an impact on the ecosystem. Just cutting down forests to make room for crops can have a huge effect, in addition to displacing native species. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of farming’s effect on the environment is that anytime you want to grow millions or even billions of something, critters will evolve to exploit that food source. Any attempt you make to fight back against those critters will inevitably result in resistance.

We face the same challenge with antibiotics. Crowding into cities, and the growing population of humans meant that bacteria who use humans for their lifecycle exploded, leading to outbreaks and epidemics of infectious diseases. Antibiotics have been a powerful weapon against bacterial infections, but evolution is relentless and has led increasingly to antibiotic resistance among bacteria pathogenic to humans and our livestock. This is a genuine dilemma, as we struggle to come up with new antibiotics, and enforce practices that reduce the emergence of resistance.

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34 responses so far

Apr 29 2015

SGU 10 Hour Live Streaming Event

Published by under Skepticism

This Saturday, May 2nd, from noon to 10pm Eastern time, the SGU will be having a live video streaming event. This will be a 10 hour marathon to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the SGU.

You can watch the live video feed here. We are planning on recording the stream for later use as well. We will be taking live questions via Twitter at #SGULive.

Come join us in our newly refurbished skeptilair. We will be joined by in studio guests, George Hrab and Brian Wecht, and guests via Skype: Eugenie Scott, Dean Cameron, Phil Plait, Cara Santa Maria, Julia Galef, Richard Saunders, and Joe Schwarcz. There will be some surprise guests as well.

Fill your Saturday with science, skepticism, assorted random geekery, and a celebration of everything SGU.

11 responses so far

Apr 28 2015

Audi’s E-Diesel

Published by under Technology

Audi has been working on a synthetic diesel fuel and is currently producing test samples, with plans for industrial production. This is potentially a useful technology (depending on the details) but, as is almost always the case, is widely misreported.

For example, Gizmag states: “Audi just created diesel fuel from air and water.” Farther down in the article they do mention that you also need another critical ingredient – energy.

Engadget reports: “The automaker recently produced its first batch of “e-diesel,” a synthetic diesel based solely on carbon dioxide and water — readily available chemicals that are far nicer than sulfur and other typical diesel elements.” They never make mention that the process requires energy.

I don’t think this is a nitpick, because already the Audi story has been mentioned to me by someone who did not understand, until I pointed it out to them, that processes such as this are not a source of energy or fuel, they are simply an energy storage medium. Saying that fuel is made from “carbon dioxide and water,” while not wrong, is incomplete and fosters a fundamental misunderstanding of what is going on.

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17 responses so far

Apr 27 2015

Defending Children – See, That Wasn’t So Hard

Last year two similar cases in Canada came to public attention – both involved young girls with terminal blood cancer, but ones that are very treatable. Their cancers would almost certainly result in death if they go untreated, and yet they would have about an 85% chance of survival with standard treatment. Both girls were also members of the First Nations, natives with a history of not being treated well by the Canadian government.

In both cases the family wanted to seek “traditional” treatment instead of completing chemotherapy. However, the “traditional” treatment they were seeking was holistic garbage peddled by a charlatan (who is white, and not a native) in Florida, Brian Clement. Clement is not a doctor, but claims to treat cancer with the usual assortment of popular quackery today. Recently the state of Florida accused him of practicing medicine without a license, but they then dropped the case for unknown reasons. I guess Florida just doesn’t have the political will to protect the public from harmful nonsense.

Clement’s false hope has already claimed the life of one of the girls, 11 year-old Makayla Sault died of her leukemia in January. Her mother was literally lured away from continuing chemotherapy by the promises of Clement.

What is most interesting is that the Canadian courts had an opportunity to intervene and to protect these children. They failed with regard to Sault and it is now too late for her. The second girl, whose name is not public, also was allowed to forgo chemotherapy to pursue traditional Floridian quackery. In November 2014 Ontario court Judge Gethin Edward ruled that the family has the right to deny their daughter standard medical treatment. This was done to respect the rights of the First Nations. I argued at the time, while I understand this is a sensitive issue, the rights of a young girl to live trumps everything else in such cases, and I felt this was a profound failure on the part of Judge Edward.

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9 responses so far

Apr 24 2015

The FBI, Forensic Science, and the CSI Effect

Published by under Legal Issues

The FBI recently acknowledged that over a two decade period prior to 2000 they used a flawed forensic technique in their investigations – hair analysis. As reported in the Washington Post:

Of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Innocence Project, which are assisting the government with the country’s largest post-conviction review of questioned forensic evidence.

That is shocking and disappointing, but I don’t think it’s an isolated case.

Our society has come to expect high tech investigative techniques, especially at the level of the FBI and in high-stakes criminal cases such as murder trials. This is partly due to shows like CSI which showcase such technology, and exaggerate the speed and precision with which forensic scientists can tease information out of trace evidence. This effect may even be affecting juries, who expect any murder trial to be accompanied by such evidence.

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20 responses so far

Apr 21 2015

Recent Death from Diet Supplement

Eloise Aimee Parry, 21, died on April 12 after taking 8 diet pills she bought online. The pills contained 2,4-dinitrophenol (DNP), which is essentially an illegal weight loss aid. The case illustrates the failure of current regulations to protect the public from potentially dangerous drugs. There are many factors that contribute to this failure.

First, some background on DNP

DNP is a powerful uncoupler of oxidative phosphorylation – it allows protons to leak across the mitochondrial membrane, bypassing ATP synthesis. Mitochondria are the energy factories of cells; they make energy using oxygen in a process called oxidative phosphorylation, essentially adding a phosphate atom to ADP to make ATP. ATP are the batteries of cells, they store energy in their phosphate bonds and then can release that energy to drive the reactions necessary for cell functions.

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31 responses so far

Apr 20 2015

Naturopathy Leaks

In a recent editorial David Brooks makes the point that privacy is important and we should not relinquish it lightly. Among other benefits of privacy, he states:

There has to be a zone where half-formed thoughts and delicate emotions can grow and evolve, without being exposed to the harsh glare of public judgment. There has to be a place where you can be free to develop ideas and convictions away from the pressure to conform.

I agree with this. The law also recognizes this, which is why there is automatic privilege between married individuals. This also came up in discussions of whether or not conversations between the president and his advisers should be private or public, with many making the point that the public’s interests are probably best served if their advice were candid and uncensored. We also recognize the need for attorney-client privilege and the confidentiality of the physician-patient relationship.

At the same time there are benefits to transparency and there are situations in which the public interest is best served by open discussion, even leaking information that some would want to keep private. For example, government communications at some level should be transparent, hence the mini-scandal surrounding Clinton’s e-mails. Courtroom testimony is public, but the deliberations of the jury are private.

Science is one of those things that should be, in my opinion, completely transparent and public. An individual scientist is free to keep their private thoughts private, but scientific deliberations, publications, research, and policy should be not only public but easily accessible.

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65 responses so far

Apr 17 2015

Grab Your Torch and Pitchforks

Published by under Skepticism

I always find it disturbing to see people, especially in large crowds, apparently acting according to primitive emotions rather than enlightened thinking. It makes it seem like the veneer of civilization is paper thin, and we are not far removed from apes huddled around the monolith and hitting each other over the head with bones.

We can get on top of it, but that is a high energy state. Entropy is forever dragging us down to the lowest common denominator of tribalism, fear, disgust, and paranoia. As Sagan wrote in the Demon-Haunted World:

Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us – then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.It does seem, based upon a century of psychological research, that all that basic programming is still there in our brains.

The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.”

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153 responses so far

Apr 16 2015

Mission to Mars

Published by under Astronomy

Mars is an interesting place. The more we study the surface of the planet with our various robot labs, the more interesting it becomes. This is one of the reasons that it is very enticing to send people to Mars, but there is debate about the feasibility of any mission to Mars over the next few decades.

Life on Mars

Recently the Curiosity rover found evidence that suggests there might be briny liquid water just under the surface of Mars. When the temperature and humidity are just right, salts in the Martian soil could absorb moisture from the air creating a subsurface briny liquid water. This water would then evaporate again when temperatures rise during the day, creating a water cycle.

This would be a harsh environment for life, perhaps not compatible with life as we know it, but extremophiles have surprised us before. It is perhaps more likely that deeper down in the Martian dirt there is more permanent liquid water and more protection from cosmic rays, meaning that life could endure in slightly less extreme conditions.

There are also geological features that suggest recent flowing something, perhaps water bubbling up temporarily from below the ground, and flowing briefly before it evaporates in the thin Martian atmosphere.

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13 responses so far

Apr 14 2015

FDA and Homeopathy

The skeptical community is abuzz with the announcement by the FDA’s announcement that they are reviewing the “regulatory framework” of homeopathic products and are open to public input. We have written about this at Science-Based Medicine, and as you can imagine, this is a serious topic of discussion among the editors.


The FDA regulates food, drugs, medical devices, supplements, and cosmetics for the purpose of protecting the public health and safety. Congress created the FDA and determines its powers. In the 1938 FDA act, one Senator, Royal Copeland, who was a physician and homeopath, included in the bill that the provision that the Homeopathic Pharmacopeia of the United States (HPUS) would be included in the list of official drugs.

What this means exactly is that homeopathic products are automatically considered drugs by the FDA. Further, any new homeopathic product added to the HPUS in a supplement also counts. All homeopaths have to do, therefore, to get a homeopathic product listed as a drug by the FDA is write it down in one of their supplements to the HPUS. That’s it. No research is necessary, no assurance of safety or efficacy.

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21 responses so far

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