Archive for the 'General Science' Category

Jul 22 2016

Does Race Exist?

World_Map_of_Y-DNA_HaplogroupsIs Pluto a planet or a dwarf planet? Are these two categories even meaningful? The reality is that objects orbiting our sun occur on a continuum from asteroids to planetoids, dwarf planets, and full planets.

Humans like to categorize, however. It helps us wrap our minds around complexity, gives us convenient labels to help sort our knowledge, and hopefully the categories reflect some underlying reality.

Categories often begin as purely observational. We label diseases by what they look like (their signs and symptoms), and then later may have to recategorize them once we know what causes the diseases.

Prior to Darwin, taxonomists categorized all of life according to superficial characteristics. These categories sometimes, but not always, matched the underlying reality of evolutionary relationships. We now have a different system of taxonomy called cladistics, which is purely evolutionary. That’s why birds are now dinosaurs.  Continue Reading »

63 responses so far

Jul 14 2016

Framing the Debate on GMOs

Framing is a very interesting and intellectually critical concept. It is part of metacognition, the act of stepping back from the details of your beliefs and arguments to think about the nature of the thinking itself. Framing is meta-debate, where you think about the context of the debate itself, not just the details.

Framing can also be used, either consciously or inadvertently, to control a debate or discussion, to set up the parameters so that they favor one position.

A recent article in The Conversation discusses the framing of the GMO (genetically modified organism) debate. It’s an interesting article that definitely makes me think about how the GMO discussion should be framed, although I do not agree with the author, Sarah Hartley’s, take.

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2 responses so far

Jun 17 2016

Economics, Renewables, and Climate Change

Published by under General Science

Solar panel on a red roof reflecting the sun and the cloudless blue sky

The debate about anthropogenic global warming (AGW), in my opinion, is mostly silly. Most climate scientists are saying there is a 90-95% chance that human activity is driving global warming, and that this warming is likely to have some unwanted consequences, such as rising sea levels.

Phil Plait made an excellent analogy – what if the majority of the world’s astronomers said there was a 90-95% chance that an asteroid was going to strike the earth in 50 years? Hell, what if they said there was a 10% chance? How certain would we need to be before we decided to take action? Keep in mind, asteroids are easier to deflect the more time you have. The closer we get to the impact, the harder it is to avoid and at some point it becomes impossible.

Now imagine if one political party claimed that astronomers were exaggerating the risk to secure funding, that those who believed the astronomers were being “impact hysterics,” that asteroid impacts aren’t necessarily a bad thing, and there is probably nothing we can do about it anyway. An asteroid impact is more sudden and dramatic, but the effects of AGW could be comparable to a medium-sized impact in terms of the cost to civilization.

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118 responses so far

Jun 06 2016

The Lost City

ZakynthosWe often don’t give nature enough credit. In many contexts, scientists or explorers find an anomaly and immediately the interest and speculation turns to intelligent agents at work. The ultimate expression of this, of course, is intelligent design creationism, where nature is denied credit for biology itself.

For example, snorklers discovered some odd shaped stones off the coast of the Greek island Zakynthos. The stones were surprisingly round, and so the immediate speculation was that these were the bases of pillars and are therefore the remains of an ancient Greek port, since lost to the sea.

I am not saying that this hypothesis is unreasonable, just that it seems to be the preferred hypothesis. This preference is also not unreasonable, because the remains of an ancient city are a lot more interesting than some oddly shapes stones (unless you’re a geologist).

Of course, there is always going to be someone taking such speculation too far, and prematurely concluding they have evidence for an intelligent artifact, even when further scientific investigation finds otherwise. It’s important to remember that in order to conclude that an anomaly is the product of deliberate artifice, we need further evidence. Greek ruins, for example, are lousy with pot shards. They are just everywhere. None have been found in the vicinity of the alleged pillars, however. This should give any ancient Greek port proponents extreme pause.

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8 responses so far

May 26 2016

What’s Killing the Bees

honeybeesYesterday I saw a bumper sticker that stated, “Save the Bees, Buy Organic.” Of course, a bumper sticker is not the place for a nuanced or thorough treatment of a complex topic. It is a venue suitable for simplistic slogans.

People like simple narratives, but reality rarely conforms to our desires. This has led to a frequent reminder, popularized by Ben Goldacre, that you will often find the situation (pretty much whatever situation you consider) is more complex than it might at first seem. That is a good rule of thumb – it is fair to assume as a default that any topic is more complex than your current understanding, or how it is being presented in the media, or how it is understood in the public consciousness.

Complex and ambiguous situations, like the fate of our pollinators, become a convenient Rorschach test for ideology. People tend to impose on this complex and not fully understood situation whatever simplistic narrative suits their beliefs and values, like the notion that organic farming will somehow save the bees. Continue Reading »

14 responses so far

May 10 2016

Criminalizing Climate Change Denial

Published by under General Science

Temp_anomalyHere is a non-controversial topic – some attorneys general in the US are exploring the idea of criminal charges against certain climate change deniers. This round of the climate debate was triggered by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman who issued a subpoena to ExxonMobil for financial records, e-mails, and other documents. This was followed by Attorney General Claude E. Walker of the U.S. Virgin Islands who issued a subpoena to the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) for their documents related to their climate research and policy activity.

Investigation of oil companies is partly financial, did they mislead investors and overvalue their companies by ignoring the financial costs of climate change and the potential of having to leave fossil fuel assets in the ground?

Investigation of the CEI has a different focus, are they engaged in a conspiracy to mislead the public and affect public policy by knowingly manufacturing false doubt about the science of climate change? Continue Reading »

85 responses so far

Apr 26 2016

Organic Pesticides

Published by under General Science

pesticidesHave you seen the pro-organic propaganda video with the happy family who switches to organic only food and the pesticides disappear from their urine? It has over 5 million hits as of this writing. This is a core fearmongering strategy of the organic lobby.

Of course, there is no discussion about the absolute level of the pesticides, and the fact that such levels are insignificant and pose no known risk. But there is a deeper deception in this video and many studies looking at the difference in pesticide exposure between conventional and organic produce. They are only testing for pesticides not used by organic farmers. They are not testing for pesticides that are used in organic farming.

The game, therefore, is completely rigged, and the outcome is assured. If they tested only for organic pesticides the results would be flipped.

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7 responses so far

Apr 25 2016

How Old are Classic Fairy Tales?

beautyMy daughters will occasionally relate some bit of culture from their school, such as a joke or prank, that I recognize from my youth four decades ago. It is amazing to think that these memes have persisted in “kiddy culture” largely unchanged over decades, transmitted largely from older to younger children, though siblings or perhaps schoolmates. Of course, some of these memes were already old when I was a child. How far back do they go, I wonder?

Forget slightly crude jokes, what about classic fairy tales? Many of these tales were first recorded in the 19th century by the Brothers Grimm, but they were German academics who were just collecting folktales, not authoring them. Those folktales existed in oral tradition for a long time prior to being written down, but again, how long?

A recent study published in the Royal Society Open Science seeks to answer that question. The authors, Sara Graça da Silva and Jamshid J. Tehrani, took an evolutionary approach to the question.

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2 responses so far

Apr 22 2016

Illegal Immigration and the Law of Unintended Consequences

Published by under General Science

Undocumented immigrantsOne thing I have learned as a science communicator over the last two decades, trying to digest many areas of science, is that stuff is complicated. It is a good rule of thumb that everything is more complicated than you might originally think.

This complexity takes various forms. First, unless you are at the leading edge of expertise in an area, your understanding of that topic is relatively superficial. There is greater depth and nuance than your current understanding, which is likely a necessary simplification.

Second, there are few clean answers in science. Some things, obviously, are well established to the point that we can treat them as facts, but many more things than we might naively suppose are controversial on some level. The evidence is mixed, imperfect, and incomplete and there remain various opinions about how to interpret the data.

As an aside, this is one of my peeves about how science is often communicated. A complex debate is distilled down to, scientists think X (representing just one side of that debate). Each time a new study is published apparently supporting one position, that position is now correct and the others are now wrong. All the nuance is lost.

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80 responses so far

Apr 21 2016

Huffpo Attacks GMO Bananas

Published by under General Science

GMO-bananaEric Gimenez, writing for the Huffpo, recently wrote a typical anti-GMO piece, hitting many of the common themes. He focuses on the GMO banana with enhanced vitamin A, but his article reflects the poor logic, tortured arguments, and general anti-science of the anti-GMO crowd.

The GMO Banana

I wrote about the GMO banana controversy here. Bananas are a staple crop in parts of the world, including East Africa where it can represent up to 70% of calories consumed. Vitamin A deficiency is also common in this region. According to National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) acting director Dr Andrew Kiggundu, 52% of children under five in Uganda suffer from Vitamin A deficiency, while iron deficiency accounts for 40% of deaths in this age group.

The idea is to engineer a banana cultivar native to the region so that it produces more beta carotene and iron. The cultivar is already adapted to the region, and the locals are already heavily growing and relying upon this staple crop.

Further, the GMO is being developed by the Ugandan government, NARO, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). This is primarily a humanitarian project created by the local government and farmers.

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21 responses so far

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