Archive for the 'General Science' Category

Dec 15 2014

The Mound Builder Conspiracy

Even after a couple of decades as a skeptical activist I can still encounter new dark recesses festering with pseudoscience. The human capacity for nonsense seems endless.

A report in an alternative news outlet from the American Institution of Alternative Archeology (AIAA – the tag “alternative” is a huge red flag) claims that the Smithsonian Institution “destroyed thousands of giant human remains during the early 1900′s.”

Why would they do this? The AIAA has an unconventional view of human history. Apparently based on mention in the bible that giants once walked the earth, they believe that the mound building cultures of the Americas were not the product of early Native Americans but rather an earlier race of technologically advanced giants. Reading the comments after the article, it also seems that the belief these giants were white and Aryan is popular.

This is an excellent example of how a narrative develops from a combination of religious beliefs and cultural biases, and then history is rewritten and conspiracy theories woven out of whole cloth in order to support the preferred narrative. Science and evidence do not guide the narrative, but rather it is the other way around – a hallmark of pseudoscience.

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Oct 24 2014

The Many Interacting Worlds Hypothesis

Published by under General Science

Howard Wiseman, a theoretical quantum physicist at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, and his colleagues have come up with an entirely new theory to explain the weird behavior of particles at the quantum level. The idea is that quantum effects result from classical universes interacting with each other.

Classical physics is essentially the physics of Newton and describes the macroscopic world. In classical physics particles have a definitive location and momentum. At the scale of fundamental particles, however, the world behaves very differently.

At this so-called quantum level, particles move in waves but then interact as particles. They have only a probabilistic location and cannot be nailed down specifically. There is a minimum amount of uncertainty when trying to measure any linked properties, such as location and momentum. Even more bizarre is quantum entanglement in which particles have linked properties, even when separated across the universe.

The bottom line is that we do not really know why the quantum world behaves as it does. We have experimental data, such as the double-slit experiments, that show consistent results. When light beams shine through two close narrow slits they interfere with each other as if they are moving like waves, even when the beams are so faint that only one photon will be passing through the silts at a time. One photon can apparently cause a wave interference with itself. But when those same photons strike a film plate or detector, they behave like a particle.

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Sep 22 2014

Vandana Shiva and GMOs

Published by under General Science

A recent New Yorker article by Michael Specter does an excellent job of putting the activism of anti-GMO campaigner, Vandana Shiva, into perspective. Shiva has since written a very critical response to Specter, and The New Yorker has responded to Shiva. The exchange is very enlightening.

Shiva is a dedicated anti-GMO activist, perhaps the most widely known and successful in the world. Specter paints a picture of Shiva as more than an ideologue – a “demagogue” who has created a dramatic narrative that is meant to frighten the public about GMOs, but has little to do with reality. For Shiva, her anti-GMO stance is part of a broader economic and social ideology. In her vision of the world, local farmers would feed the world with organic farming, without fertilizer or corporate involvement. The actual science about GMOs seems to be irrelevant to her narrative.

Specter illustrates several example. There are definitely religious undertones to her activism. For example, Specter quotes her from a speech earlier this year:

“G.M.O. stands for ‘God, Move Over,’ we are the creators now,”

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Sep 19 2014

How To Be a Science Denier

This Week Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal gave an excellent lesson on how to be a science denier. Unfortunately, this was not a faux demonstration, he was sincere.

If you recall, in 2012, Jindal advised Republicans to stop being “the stupid party.” This was a provocative statement. I wondered at the time if this signaled a shift in the party away from having anti-science on their platform. Had party insiders finally realized they can’t hang their political future on denying undeniable science, that they need to embrace reality and stop fighting against it?

Alas, it seems that a more cynical interpretation is closer to the truth – that Jindal was simply worried about damage to the Republican brand caused by Republicans saying “offensive, bizarre” comments, but not by the substance of their positions on scientific issues.

At a recent breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, Jindal was introduced as a Brown graduate at the age of 20 with a biology major, then a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and having a 2 year stint as the president of the University of Louisiana, along with many other accomplishments. So he is a scholar and, to some extent, an academic, with advanced study in biology specifically.

During the breakfast, which included journalists, Jindal was asked about global warming. In response to this issue, Jindal performed a very deft dance. He said, “Let the scientists decide,” referring to whether or not global warming is happening. This, of course, is a clever denialist tactic. The hidden premise here is that the scientists have not already spoken with a unified and loud voice. They have decided – it is clear that human activity is increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and warming the climate.

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Sep 11 2014

19 Years of Feeding Animals GMO Shows No Harm

Published by under General Science

Often GMO critics will argue that the biotech industry is conducting a massive experiment with our food supply by introducing genetically modified organisms. The implication is that GMOs are not adequately studied, which is at best debatable, but in a way they are correct. We can look at what has happened in the 19 years of GMO use starting in 1996 to see if there have been any adverse effects.  A newly published study, Prevalence and impacts of genetically engineered feedstuffs on livestock populations, does just that. (Full study, may be behind a paywall.)

The study authors, Van Eenennaam and Young, first review the existing literature on animal feeding studies. They then review available data on livestock outcomes to see what effect feeding them mostly GMO since 1996 has had, if any.

GMO Feeding Studies

The first regulatory hurdle for safety testing of GMOs is to establish “substantial equivalence.” Researchers must show that the genetically engineered crop is essentially the same as the parent variety in all ways except for the desired introduced genetic change. The authors report:

Over the past 20 yr, the U.S. FDA found all of the 148 GE transformation events that they evaluated to be substantially equivalent to their conventional counterparts, as have Japanese regulators for 189 submissions.

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Sep 09 2014

Has Jack the Ripper Finally Been Solved?

Published by under General Science

Jack the Ripper is perhaps the most iconic serial killer in history. Part of the mystique of this dark figure is the fact that he was never identified, leaving room for endless sleuthing and speculation. Every Ripper fan has their list of favorite suspects, usually filled with famous and powerful people of the time to add even more interest. My favorite, of course, is that he was a time-traveling friend of H. G. Wells.

Now a private researcher, Russell Edwards, claims that he has finally solved the case. First I will present his story without comment, and then we can take a skeptical look at it.

Edwards claims he acquired a blood-stained shawl in 2007 that is supposed to be from Catherine Eddowes, one of the five fairly accepted victims of the Ripper. The shawl was apparently recovered from the scene of Eddowes murder, and was covered in her blood. Acting Sergeant Amos Simpson took the shawl home as a gift for his wife. She was, apparently, not impressed and stored the shawl away without cleaning it.

The shawl remained in the possession of his family until they auctioned it off in 2007 and Edwards acquired it.

Edwards then solicited the help of Dr. Jari Louhelainen, a Finnish expert in historic DNA. Louhelainen found that the 126 year old shawl contained a great deal of blood, likely all from the victim. However, he also found a semen stain on the shawl. Genomic DNA is unlikely to have survived 126 years sufficiently intact for DNA matching. However, mitochondrial DNA is more hardy and likely did survive.

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Sep 04 2014

Doubt and Confusion over Global Warming

Published by under General Science

Global warming (or global climate change) continues to be a contentious issue because of the political ramifications of the science. When I talk to those who doubt human-caused (anthropogenic) global warming inevitably they express a strong political opinion about the implications of AGW – that it is being used to justify government take-over of private industry.

There are also those on the left who embrace AGW as a way of reinforcing their ideological economic opinions. None of this makes AGW correct or mistaken. The political implications of AGW are irrelevant to the science.

I might be tempted to say that the controversy over AGW is partly being driven by the fact that the science is very abstract. There is a ton of data that can be used to support just about any opinion you wish to defend, if you are willing to cherry pick. The data is also somewhat abstract and is very complex.

While I do think it’s true that the nature of the data regarding AGW does exacerbate the controversy, I can’t say it is a necessary component, as there are controversies surrounding far simpler rock solid science, such as the efficacy of vaccines.

In any case, AGW does have a particular challenge in that the discussion is very statistical and graph heavy, two things which are easy to manipulate and sow confusion.

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Aug 28 2014

Bt and Leukemia – Another Anti-GMO Myth

The headline of an article on the Organic Consumers Association proclaims, “New Study Links GMO Food To Leukemia.” The same article trumpets the thoroughly discredited Seralini study. The claim is not true, but is part of a pattern of behavior that is depressingly familiar.

The pattern is not unique to anti-GMO activism. In fact, it seems to be the default human behavior. We tend to search for information that supports our currently held views. The more passionate we are about those views, the more industrious we are in finding apparent support, even if it means twisting and distorting information.

I find myself doing this all the time – if a study or new piece of information directly opposes something I currently believe, then my mind immediately starts finding reasons to dismiss the information. I have the opposite reaction when the information confirms my current beliefs, I find reasons to accept it.

But then I consciously step back and try to take an objective look at the information. This is not always easy, and may involve specialized knowledge I don’t have. I then have to look to experts to see if there is a clear consensus opinion. In other words, I don’t just stick with my knee-jerk reaction to information. I go through a process of evaluation and critical analysis. My goal is to come to a valid conclusion, one that will hold up under critical assault, whatever that conclusion is. Meanwhile I have to remain open to the possibility that my conclusion is wrong or incomplete, that I missed something or made an error in my process.

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Aug 25 2014

Nassim Taleb, The Precautionary Principle, and GMOs

Published by under General Science

Nassim Taleb is a serious scholar of risk assessment, especially in the world of economics. So when he and two co-authors published a paper on the precautionary principle as it applies to genetically modified organisms it is worth taking seriously. That does not mean I have to agree with his conclusions, however.

What I found was that Taleb’s argument is mathematically rigorous, although I think too absolute, but also is biologically naive.

Here is his argument in a nutshell: The mathematical part if this – if we consider risk prevention, we must decide how much risk is acceptable. As risk increases, tolerance should decrease. As risk approaches infinity, tolerance should approach zero.

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Aug 07 2014

Antibiotic Resistant Markers in GM Crops

Published by under General Science

Neil deGrasse Tyson stepping into the public GMO debate has raised the profile of this issue, and so I am likely going to return to the issue as new claims surface.

Recently Jeffrey Smith posted a Youtube video in which he directly challenges Tyson on his claim that people should “chill out” about transgenic GM technology.  Smith is an anti-GMO activist, founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology, and producer of the anti-GMO documentary, Genetic Roulette — The Gamble of Our Lives. 

For further background, Smith attended Maharishi University of Management in the 1980s and was a Natural Law Party member in 1996 and participated in a TM-Sidhi program yogic flying demonstration in Des Moines, Iowa.

His latest anti-GMO effort is full of specific claims I have not previously addressed. He makes an attempt to seem as if his claims are scientific, but upon investigation it quickly becomes clear he is cherry picking studies and then wildly speculating way beyond the evidence. It would take many articles to deconstruct his 20 minute Gish-galloping video, so I will pick out a few prominent claims.

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