Archive for March, 2017

Mar 23 2017

The Need for Critical Thinking

Published by under Education,Skepticism

thinkers_cartoon-26nmykqOne of the (perhaps) good things to come out of the recent political climate in the US is a broader appreciation for the need to teach critical thinking skills. I hope we can capitalize on this new awareness to make some longstanding changes to our culture.

For example, a recent NYT article is titled: “Why People Continue to Believe Objectively False Things,” and begins:

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” goes the saying — one that now seems like a relic of simpler times.

The article also discusses recent evidence showing that belief in the “birther” Obama conspiracy decreased after Trump admitted that Obama was born in Hawaii. Shortly after that admission 62% of people stated they believed Obama was a US citizen, but a more recent poll shows the number dropped to 57%. (Over that period of time fewer Republicans believed he was a US citizen, while more Democrats did.) The authors conclude that over time people forget specific information while they revert to old tribal beliefs.

A recent study looking at Twitter activity also reinforces the evidence that people generally follow their instincts rather than critical thinking. They showed that people will rate the believability of a tweet as higher, and are more likely to share that tweet, if it already has a high number of retweets. This creates a positive feedback loop in which retweets beget retweets, regardless of the inherent reliability of the information.

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34 responses so far

Mar 21 2017

Y2K and the Year 2038 Problem

Published by under Technology

unix2038I was recently asked about the year 2038 problem as it relates to the Y2K bug. Specifically, it seemed like the Y2K bug was a non-event, so should we similarly not worry about the year 2038 problem.

Lessons from Y2K

At this point some of you may not know what I am talking about, so first some history. When the modern computing age was being developed back in the 1950s memory was at a premium. For this reason dates were represented by six digits – MM/DD/YY.  Just two digits were used for the year, assuming that all years had the prefix 19. So 01/01/80 was January 1st, 1980.

The first person to recognize this was a potential problem was Robert Bemer in 1958. Apparently he spend the next couple of decades trying to convince his fellow programmers this was a problem, but no one listened. Talk of the year 2000, or millennial bug (often shortened to Y2K bug) didn’t really spread until the 1980s, and no one took it seriously until the 1990s.

The potential problem is that once the date turned over to January 1st, 2000, computers would only record that as 01/01/00, and treat it as 1900. This might cause systems to crash, and by 2000 much of our society was controlled by computers, from banking to air traffic control. In the 1990s the Y2K bug went from a non-problem to a mild panic, with the most dire warnings talking of civilization collapse.

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28 responses so far

Mar 20 2017

The Need for Publicly Funded Science

Trump-ScienceThe American scientific community is in a bit of a panic over Trump’s first proposed budget. The budget calls for an 18% decrease ($5.8 billion) for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). There are deep cuts in energy research and Earth science as well.

The reaction of the scientific community has been consistent – such cuts would be disastrous.

It probably comes as no surprise that science is expensive. This is despite the fact that scientists are generally paid very little, especially when compared to their years of training. Science is a career of passion. But maintaining a lab or conductive field research can be very expensive. Research often requires expensive equipment and materials, lab space, support staff, and lots of time.

Research is not just something that scientists do – it requires extensive infrastructure. That infrastructure needs to be maintained mostly with one-off grants. The vast majority of scientific research will not directly generate profits for the researchers, the lab, or the supporting institution. Keeping a lab going is like keeping plates spinning, the researchers are constantly applying for grants and weaving together the funding they need.

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43 responses so far

Mar 17 2017


Published by under Culture and Society

microaggressions2I have to say, from the first time I heard the term “microaggression” I didn’t like it. Something deeply bothered me about the concept, but I kept an open mind as I tried to understand how it was being defined and used.

A recent article by Scott Lilienfield (who is a friend of mine and has written for SBM) put into technical terms much of my vague discomfort with the concept.

Here is how one article supportive of the concept defines microaggressions:

Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment.

They give some specific examples:

• A White man or woman clutches their purse or checks their wallet as a Black or Latino man approaches or passes them. (Hidden message: You and your group are criminals.).

• A female physician wearing a stethoscope is mistaken as a nurse. (Hidden message: Women should occupy nurturing and not decision-making roles. Women are less capable than men).

• Two gay men hold hands in public and are told not to flaunt their sexuality. (Hidden message: Same-sex displays of affection are abnormal and offensive. Keep it private and to yourselves.)

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89 responses so far

Mar 16 2017

Does Glyphosate Cause Cancer?

Published by under General Science

glyphosate-effects-fbGlyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is the most popular herbicide used in the world. It has gained particular attention because several of the more commonly used GMOs are glyphosate tolerant, and therefore are intended to be used with the herbicide. Glyphosate is also manufactured by Monsanto (although it is off patent and there are generic versions available).

The question of the safety of glyphosate is in the news again after the New York Times did an article about a recent court case against Monsanto and the documents revealed through discovery and made public by the judge. Unfortunately, in my opinion the NYTs article is poorly done, and reveals significant bias – anti biotech bias is nothing new for the NYTs or the author of this article, Danny Hakim.

Last year I wrote about another article that Hakim wrote in the NYTs about GMOs, concluding:

In my opinion Hakim’s article in the Times was a hack piece with a biased narrative that is nothing more than a rehash of tired anti-GMO tropes that have already been widely deconstructed. He is entering this conversation late, and isn’t up to speed.

There are essentially two questions raised by Hakim’s latest article. The first concerns the behavior of Monsanto. Hakim alleges that they ghostwrote scientific articles for academics and used political pressure to shut down EPA reviews of glyphosate’s safety. I would not assume this assessment is true, and certainly don’t trust Hakim’s journalism given his history. The academics in question deny the allegations, and Monsanto claims these e-mails are taken out of context. We have certainly seen that before.

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27 responses so far

Mar 14 2017

GM Corn To Prevent Deadly Toxin

aflatoxin-cornAflatoxin is a serious food contaminant that causes both acute and chronic illness in animals and humans. It was first discovered in 1960 when 100,000 turkeys in the UK died over the course of a few months. Their deaths were tracked to a nut-based feed that was contaminated with a newly discovered toxin, named aflatoxin.

Aflatoxin is a group of 20 toxins produced by a fungus, Aspergillus species. According to Food Safety Watch:

Aflatoxins may be present in a wide range of food commodities, particularly cereals, oilseeds, spices and tree nuts. Maize, groundnuts (peanuts), pistachios, brazils, chillies, black pepper, dried fruit and figs are all known to be high risk foods for aflatoxin contamination, but the toxins have also been detected in many other commodities. Milk, cheese and other dairy products are at risk of contamination by aflatoxin M. The highest levels are usually found in commodities from warmer regions of the world where there is a great deal of climatic variation.

Corn is perhaps the biggest source of aflatoxin contamination. It is estimated that 16 million tons of corn are disposed of each year due to aflatoxin contamination. The toxin is highly stable and can survive most types of food processing.

Acute toxicity can result in death when severe. Chronic toxicity is difficult to detect, and the most common effect is liver damage and increased risk for liver cancer.

Many techniques are used to minimize contamination, but even with these methods aflatoxin is a huge source of food waste and an important cause of human illness, especially in developing countries. Continue Reading »

8 responses so far

Mar 13 2017

Reconsidering The Nudge

Published by under Skepticism

behavioural_economics_nudgeIn 2008 Thaler and Sunstein published their book, Nudge, advocating for a more nuanced approach to changing public behavior. Since then nudge theory has been quite popular but hasn’t created the revolution optimists had hoped.

Here is the core problem: people do not always act in their own best interest. Sometimes this affects only them, but often the negative impacts affect the people around them, their family, and even society as a whole. An obvious example is vaccinations.

There are many less-obvious examples, however. Poor health care decisions increase the cost of health care, which is a rapidly increasing burden on society. Poor financial decisions can leave people in debt, might cause them to default on those debts, and have an overall negative impact on the economy. We all share risks through insurance premiums and public costs.

And, we actually care about people. We are a social species and we do generally have empathy for others (unless they have been psychologically relegated to an out-group). It is also some people’s job to care about people.

Therefore, for various reasons, there are individuals and groups who care about changing other people’s behavior for their own good and for the good of society. This paternalism runs up against several obstacles.

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40 responses so far

Mar 10 2017

Fast Radio Bursts and Alien Life

Published by under Astronomy

frb-alienFast radio bursts (FRBs) are brief, bright, and distant bursts of radio emissions that are of unknown origin. Recently they have been in the news because of a paper which explores the feasibility that FRBs have an alien origin.

“Fast radio bursts are exceedingly bright given their short duration and origin at great distances, and we haven’t identified a possible natural source with any confidence,” said theorist Avi Loeb of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “An artificial origin is worth contemplating and checking.”

Let me first give a little more background on FRBs and then we can discuss the alien hypothesis.

Fast Radio Bursts

The first thing to know about FRBs is that they are, indeed, fast. They typically last only a few milliseconds (thousandths of a second). Recorded FRBs range from 0.05 ms to 9.4 ms. That is extremely brief.

They are broadband radio bursts, meaning that they cover a broad frequency range.

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12 responses so far

Mar 09 2017

Alzheimer’s and Stem Cells

Published by under Neuroscience

ADA recent article in The Mercury News reports on the work of a neurosurgeon who is injecting fat-derived stem cells into the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. The reports is, unfortunately, typical. It revolves around a heart-wrenching anecdote, while giving the facts with the usual false balance.

This is the perfect storm for dubious treatments – Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a progressive dementia that causes sufferers to slowly lose their memories and ability to think. It is a growing problem with our aging population. There are some modest symptomatic treatments for AD but nothing which alters the course of the disease, or can stop or reverse it.

There is no doubt that the need for an effective treatment is great, but that does not justify lower the standards of science in medicine. If anything it means we have to be more careful.

Added to this is the hype and allure of stem cells, which are progenitor cells that can turn into specific cell types. The general idea with stem cell therapy is that the stem cells will replace damaged or dying cells, repair organs, and reverse disease. This is tricky technology, however, and as is common the hype is running ahead of the science. That is a recipe for exploitation and quackery. Fake stem cell clinics have popped up around the world, promising cures but just robbing the desperate of their remaining health and large amounts of money.

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33 responses so far

Mar 07 2017

Phasing Out Coal

Published by under Technology

coal_waterIt seems clear that if we are going to make significant progress in reducing global CO2 emissions, we are going to need to phase out the burning of coal to generate electricity. The UK may serve as a demonstration of this fact.

In recent years UK coal burning has plummeted – in 2016 the UK burned 18 million Metric Tonnes (Mt) of coal, which is less than it has burned since before 1860. At its peak in 1956 the UK burned 221 Mt of coal.

As a result, overall carbon emissions from the UK have also dropped, from its peak of 685 Mt of carbon in 1970 to 281 in 2016. That is the lowest annual carbon emission from the UK since 1894 (not counting two years in the 1920’s during massive strikes).

Power from coal is being replaced by power from gas, oil, and renewables. Last year the UK generated more power from wind than from coal. Some are crediting the precipitous drop in coal burning to a doubling of the carbon tax in the UK in 2015.

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88 responses so far

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