Archive for the 'General Science' Category

Oct 31 2016

The Times Gets it Wrong on GMOs

Published by under General Science

Bt BringalIt is unfortunate that so many journalists begin with a narrative and then back fill the facts and points necessary to tell their narrative. I have encountered this many times when being interviewed for an article or documentary – more often than not the reporter or producer is simply hunting for quotes to plug into a story they have already written. I am not giving them information so much as filling a role, which could be that of expert or of token skeptic.

We are all familiar with this phenomenon when reading about political topics in outlets that have a clear editorial policy. If the policy is clear, we don’t even expect objectivity. When reading about non-political topics, however, I do think there is a general expectation of objectivity, but the motivated reasoning can be just as pronounced.

A recent New York Times article, in my opinion, is a good example of what happens when a journalist writes about a complex and contentious topic and allows their narrative to overtake the facts. The article, Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops, declares the narrative in the headline (yes, I know journalists don’t write their own headlines, but they still may accurately reflect the tone of the article, as in this case).

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62 responses so far

Oct 14 2016

Science Is Not Colonialism

science-fallismThis Youtube video is making the rounds. Relax, tape a deep breath, and take a look at the video.

The core point that the primary speaker is making is this: Science is nothing but Western colonialism imposed upon the African people (and presumably others). The only solution is for science to “fall” – she would like to wipe away all of science and start with a blank slate, so that Africans can develop their own knowledge.

She gives as an example that Newton saw an apple fall, made up gravity, wrote down some equations, and now that is scientific truth imposed on the world forever (seriously, I am not exaggerating this one bit).

The other pillar of her position is that in Africa there are practitioners of black magic who can summon a lightening bolt at their enemy. This is not explainable by “Western” science, and yet this is African knowledge, and therefore is an example of Western colonialism suppressing indigenous wisdom.

After stating that practitioners can summon lightening, someone in the audience shouted “It’s not true.” While this might be considered rude, it is an understandable impulse. The response of the moderator was illuminating, in my opinion. She stood up, shamed the audience member, lectured him about the fact that he violated their safe space that is supposed to be free of antagonism, and then forced him to apologize.  Continue Reading »

72 responses so far

Oct 13 2016

GMOs and Horizontal Gene Transfer

Published by under General Science

horizontal-gene-transferPeople reject genetically modified organisms as food (GMOs) for a variety of reasons, but the single most cited reason is the false belief that they are unhealthy. That specific belief also represents the single greatest disconnect between the opinion of scientists and of the general public in a 2015 Pew poll, greater than evolution, climate change, or vaccine safety.

The reason for this disconnect is that the public is relying upon their intuition, rather than scientific knowledge, to arrive at their conclusion. Further, that intuition has been hijacked by a deliberate anti-GMO campaign orchestrated by misguided environmentalists and by the organic food lobby to help promote their brand.

As Stefaan Blancke and his coauthors argue in the above article:

This intuitive reasoning includes folk biology, teleological and intentional intuitions and disgust.

One of the primary “folk biology” talking points of the anti-GMO crowd is that it is “unnatural” to place genes from one species into a distant species. No further reasoning is offered to defend this position – just the invocation of what is “natural” seems to be enough. Those who defend the scientific position often point out that this irrelevant, just a manifestation of the appeal to nature fallacy. Whether or not something occurs in nature does not determine if it is good or bad for human health.

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Sep 23 2016

Tardigrade Radiation Shield

Published by under General Science

tardigrade1Tardigrades (also called water bears or moss piglets) are one of the coolest animals on earth. They are microscopic, live pretty much anywhere there is water, and are “extremotolerant.” When they lack water they just dry up, and their dessicated form can survive extremes of temperature, high pressure, and even the vacuum of space. Just add water back, and they plump up and go about their business.

They are also very tolerant to radiation, an enviable property. Recently scientists studied the tardigrade genome – more specifically, R. varieornatus, which is one of the hardiest species. There are about 1000 known species of tardigrades and probably a couple thousand more waiting to be described. They had a couple of questions.

First, they wanted to follow up on prior research showing that tardigrades have an extremely high percentage of genes acquired through horizontal transfer from bacteria. This result was not replicated in the current study, which found a very low amount, only about 1.3%. The higher result had already been called into question by other researcher, and this it pretty much the final nail in the coffin.

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13 responses so far

Sep 16 2016

Bayer Buys Monsanto

Published by under General Science

bayer-monsantoGerman company Bayer has successfully bid to buy Monsanto for $66 Billion. This merger represents the latest in the consolidation of the biotech industry that has been going on feverishly in the last few years.

I have more questions than opinions about this merger, but there are some points worth discussing.


Every article and opinion I have read about the merger characterizes it as a bad thing, as a symptom of a dropping agricultural market. The story being told is this: as crop production has increased, the price of major crops in the market has decreased. This has squeezed farmers, who in turn buy less biotech products, which squeezes the seed and fertilizer companies.

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36 responses so far

Sep 15 2016

Congressman Lamar Smith and the Union of Concerned Scientists

smith-house-science-committee-1200Lawrence Krauss recently wrote an editorial in The New Yorker about how Lamar Smith, a congressman from Texas and chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, is harassing scientists who are providing data on global warming.

The story that Krauss tells is very clear – Smith is a Republican who receives more money from the oil industry than any other industry, he is a Christian Scientist, and he is a global warming denier. Last year the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published a paper in Science in which they show data that indicates there never was a global warming pause and that the world is continuing to warm.

The response of Lamar Smith was to accuse the scientists of lying, of altering the data to suit the political agenda of the administration, and to subpoena their internal communication (they had already turned over their data). In the subpoena Smith writes: Continue Reading »

82 responses so far

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 »

67 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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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

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