Archive for the 'General Science' Category

Aug 05 2014

Persistent Anti-GMO Myths

One persistent theme in my writing about scientific topics is that, to optimally serve our own interests, public discourse and decision-making on issues that are highly scientific should be informed by the best evidence and scientific analysis available, not on lies, myths, misconceptions, or raw ideology. I am therefore attracted to topics where I think the myth to fact ratio is particularly high.

Genetically modified organisms (GMO) is one such issue. The propaganda machine seems to be way out in front of the more sober voices trying to correct the record and focus the discussion on reality. I also see GMO as the ideological flip side to global warming denial.  In the latter case we seen industry and free-market ideologues sowing confusion and misinformation. They also do the ideology shuffle – a dance in which, whenever they are nailed by the facts on one point, they state that their objection is really based on some other point. They never really acknowledge the point, just side-step it.

Anti-GMO activists, in my experience, operate the same way. They have marshaled every possible point they can against GMO, whether or not they are true or valid. When one such point is exposed as a myth, they simply slide over to some other point as their “real” motivation for opposition, but never give any ground.

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202 responses so far

Jul 28 2014

Dinosaur Extinction Revisited

Published by under General Science

Sometimes I just have to indulge my childhood fascination with all things dinosaur. Actually, paleontology in general is one of my favorite subjects – reconstructing an utterly alien past, including incredible and strange-looking beasts.

And of course, one of the most fascinating aspects of the dinosaurs is that, after 165 million successful years on earth, they suddenly went extinct 66 million years ago. What could cause such a catastrophe? When I was in grade school, the textbooks still contained an outdated (and ridiculous) answer – they ran out of food.

Now most people know that the dinosaurs were wiped out by an asteroid, and the event is frequently depicted in movies and popular culture. It is less well known, however, that scientists are still debating this issue.

There is no question that a large meteor slammed into the earth 66 million years ago and caused devastation. We even found the crater, Chicxulub in the Gulf of Mexico. There is also evidence of shocked quartz from the impact, and a layer of iridium from the meteor itself. This event marks the K-T boundary (now called the K-Pg boundary) between the cretaceous and tertiary periods.

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22 responses so far

Jun 27 2014

Seralini GMO Study Republished

Published by under General Science

I don’t recall this ever happening before. It probably has, but if so, it’s rare enough that I have never heard about it. The strange odyssey of the paper, Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize, by Seralini et. al., just got stranger.

The paper was published in 2012 in Food and Chemical Toxicity. It was greeted with intense criticism from the scientific community for its many shortcomings, culminating in the journal retracting the study. Now the study has been republished by a new open access journal, Environmental Sciences Europe.

The GMOSeralini website is celebrating the republication, writing:

“Now the study has passed a third peer review arranged by the journal that is republishing the study, Environmental Sciences Europe.”

They also claim the the article was retracted because of pressure from pro-GMO lobbying.

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21 responses so far

Jun 13 2014

Moms for Pseudoscience – Roundup Edition

Published by under General Science

I really resent groups that transparently try to take the moral high ground, or appropriate an entire category of people, to bolster their personal ideology. The Thinking Moms Revolution (TMR) is one such group. Sorry, you don’t speak for moms, and your group is certainly not based on thoughtfullness.

A recent blog post in the HuffPo is clear pro-organic propaganda, borrowing the “mom” meme from TMR and another such group, Moms Across America. The theme of the blog is that glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup, is a horrible toxin that is destroying our health, but luckily these plucky moms are going to take on the EPA and demand safety for our children (because the EPA obviously can’t do their job without help from non-scientist ideologues).

I went through a couple of overloaded irony meters reading the post, especially with this section: “Swaying Decision Makers With Science.” The article, rather, is a series of anecdotes, misrepresentations, and cherry-picked factoids masquerading as science for the purpose of ideological advocacy. No, eating organic is not going to cure your child of autism.

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37 responses so far

Apr 28 2014

Dueling Narratives on Organic Farming

Published by under General Science

There are many public debates raging that are essentially dueling narratives, both sides claiming to have science, evidence, and logic on their side. It always fascinates me when two groups can look at the same evidence and come to opposite conclusions. Is man-made climate change a real danger or all hype? Are alternative medicine treatments a revolution or a scam? Is GMO our best hope for sustainable agriculture or a looming health menace? Is organic farming useful or just marketing the naturalistic fallacy?

These binary choices are a bit of a false dichotomy, but not entirely, as people do tend to fall into one or the other camp. The narratives then tend to polarize the two sides with self-reinforcing echochambers of opinion and information.

I am also not suggesting that in each of the topics above the two sides are symmetrical or equally valid. Alternative medicine, for example, is a scam – it is the explicit creation of a double standard in order to market treatments that fail the test of scientific validity.

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108 responses so far

Apr 21 2014

Not Looking Good for Biofuels

Published by under General Science

I have yet to be convinced that biofuels will be a significant benefit in our attempts to achieve sustainable energy production. Ideally we would run our civilization on energy that does not burn a limited resource or contribute CO2 or other compounds into the atmosphere. Any limited resource will eventually run out, by definition. Further, no matter what you think about the current effects of climate change, it’s hard to deny that if we continue to pump CO2 into the atmosphere this is likely to be a problem.

Biofuels sound like a good idea at first. Plants get their energy from the sun and fix CO2 from the atmosphere. Because we can grow plants, this is a renewable resource. When we burn fuel made from plants we are releasing the previously captured CO2 back into the atmosphere, and so the process is carbon neutral. Sound pretty good.

However, experts argue that we have to consider in this equation every aspect of the production of biofuels. The equation will change depending on the source of the fuel, and it is possible that if we use the right plant source and have a sufficiently efficient process, then we might have a biofuel with a net benefit. I think we will get there, but even still how much of a benefit is an important question.

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18 responses so far

Apr 14 2014

Navy Process to Make Fuel from Seawater

Researchers at the US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) announced that they have successfully tested a process to convert seawater into jet fuel. They can extract CO2 both dissolved and bound from the water as a source of carbon, and can extract H2 through electrolysis. They then convert the CO2 and hydrogen into long chain hydrocarbons:

NRL has made significant advances in the development of a gas-to-liquids (GTL) synthesis process to convert CO2 and H2 from seawater to a fuel-like fraction of C9-C16 molecules. In the first patented step, an iron-based catalyst has been developed that can achieve CO2 conversion levels up to 60 percent and decrease unwanted methane production in favor of longer-chain unsaturated hydrocarbons (olefins). These value-added hydrocarbons from this process serve as building blocks for the production of industrial chemicals and designer fuels.

They claim that with this process they can mass produce jet fuel for $3-6 per gallon. They tested the fuel on a model airplane, and it appeared to work fine.

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16 responses so far

Mar 28 2014

Synthetic Yeast

Published by under General Science

Synthetic biology is an emerging field with incredible potential. The idea is to build genomes from the ground up. Craig Venter made the first breakthrough in synthetic biology four years ago when his team created the first artificial bacterial genome. Now another team has made similar progress with yeast, which is eukaryotic (meaning the cells keep their DNA in a nucleus).

To be clear, these teams have not made life entirely from scratch, not even the genome. In Venter’s case he started with an existing bacterium, and then recreated its genome with some changes, and inserted it into a bacterium whose DNA had been removed.

In the latest research, the scientists have created one of the yeast’s 16 chromosomes. Again, they did not build it from scratch but started with the wild chromosome and then made significant changes. They therefore have 15 chromosomes to go, but there is no reason they should not get there.

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19 responses so far

Mar 14 2014

GMO and Indian Farmer Suicide

Published by under General Science

In 2005 PBS aired a Frontline special: Seeds of Suicide, in which they report:

In recent years, as Heeter finds in the fields of Andhra Pradesh, crop failure can often be traced to Bt cotton, a genetically modified breed that contains a pesticide that naturally occurs in soil rather than plants. Bt technology should, in theory, repel bollworm — cotton’s worst enemy — but some farmers who plant more expensive Bt seeds often wind up worse off than those who don’t. One farmer, Pariki, confides that after he fell into debt, his wife killed herself, leaving him to care for their three small children.

In 2008 Prince Charles, who has campaigned against GM crops, directly blamed a rise in suicides among Indian farmers on the failure of GM crops and the predatory practices of big seed companies. It was reported at the time:

“He called cultivating the modified crops ‘a global moral question’ and ‘a wrong turning on the route to feeding the world.’ He associated the technology with ‘commerce without morality’ and ‘science without humanity.’”

And Prince Charles criticized in a speech:

‘the truly appalling and tragic rate of small farmer suicides in India, stemming… from the failure of many GM crop varieties’.

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14 responses so far

Mar 04 2014


Published by under General Science

A new article published in PNAS warns of, Increasing homogeneity in global food supplies and the implications for food security. They reviewed crop production worldwide over the last 50 years and found that:

“The increase in homogeneity worldwide portends the establishment of a global standard food supply, which is relatively species-rich in regard to measured crops at the national level, but species-poor globally.”

In other words, there has been a globalization of crop production, with more nations looking very similar to each other in terms of which crops they grow in what amounts. This has caused a shift to the major energy-dense crops (wheat, corn, rice, potatoes, and sugar) and a relative reduction in more nutrient dense foods. At the national level, species diversity remains high. However local varieties around the world are being displaced by the same energy dense crops internationally.

This has allowed countries around the world to increase their calorie production to help feed a growing human population. However, the trend also raises several concerns discussed by the authors.

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103 responses so far

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