Archive for the 'General Science' Category

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.

Continue Reading »

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.

Continue Reading »

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.

Continue Reading »

21 responses so far

Apr 12 2016

8 Lies About GMOs

Published by under General Science

GMO_PC-illustration_04This is an article from 2010 but it is making the rounds again: 8 Reasons GMOs are Bad for You. The article is published on the organic authority website. It is full of misinformation, but does accurately demonstrate two things – the organic industry is largely behind anti-GMO propaganda, and they are willing to lie and distort the truth in order to attack their competitors.

Let’s take their 8 points one-by-one:

  1. The health consequences of eating genetically modified organisms are largely unknown.

This is clearly the main point of anti-GMO fearmongering, that they have not been proven safe and have unknown risks. This misinformation campaign has clearly been effective. According to a Pew poll:

A minority of adults (37%) say that eating GM foods is generally safe, while 57% say they believe it is unsafe. And, most are skeptical about the scientific understanding of the effects of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on health. About two-thirds (67%) of adults say scientists do not clearly understand the health effects of GM crops; 28% say scientists have a clear understanding of this.

Continue Reading »

28 responses so far

Mar 31 2016

The Need for Improved Food Production

Published by under General Science

land useThere are two undeniable trends that impact global food production – increasing CO2 in the atmosphere is warming the planet, and the human population is growing. The former affects production, the latter demand. In both cases there are anti-scientific ideological groups hampering progress, and even denying that there is a problem.

By 2050 it is estimated that the world human population will be 9.7 billion. This means we will need to produce 87% more food than we produce today. Johannes Kromdijk and Stephen P. Long argue in a recent paper that we need to act now if we are going to avoid a serious food shortage. They argue we are “One crop breeding cycle from starvation.”

Rising CO2

Some who deny the reality of global climate change have argued that, even if CO2 is increasing in the atmosphere, who is to say it’s a bad thing? Plants breath CO2, so increasing CO2 should just increase plant growth.

Continue Reading »

62 responses so far

Mar 29 2016

Engineering A Minimal Genome

Published by under General Science

Minimal genomeCraig Venter’s team has crossed another milestone in their quest to engineer artificial life – they have engineered a bacterium that can survive and reproduce with just 473 genes. This is the smallest genome of any free-living thing (so that does not include viruses).

The purpose of this is to create a minimal starting point for later genetic engineering. Venter says this minimal bacterium is like a frame onto which specific modules can be placed. He envisions a future in which you can have made-to-order genetically engineered bacteria in which you plug in specific functions.

The Basic Science

This research program is also interesting from a purely basic science perspective. The bacterium used in Venter’s research is Mycoplasma mycoides. The choice of a Mycoplasma bacterium was obvious, as the species in the wild with the smallest number of genes is the related Mycoplasma genitalium, which has 525 genes. The new bacterium has 52 fewer genes.

Continue Reading »

15 responses so far

Mar 04 2016

The Cost of Banning GMOs

Published by under General Science

farm1What would happen if the US or the world banned the use of GMO (genetically modified organism) crops? A new study out of Purdue addresses that question.

The authors estimated the reduction in yields for corn, soybeans, and cotton if GM traits were abandoned. They then plugged the results into a well-established model of how much additional land would be needed to make up for that reduction in yield. They found:

Eliminating all GMOs in the United States, the model shows corn yield declines of 11.2 percent on average. Soybeans lose 5.2 percent of their yields and cotton 18.6 percent. To make up for that loss, about 102,000 hectares of U.S. forest and pasture would have to be converted to cropland and 1.1 million hectares globally for the average case.

The most significant environmental footprint of agriculture is land use. Every hectare (2.471 acres or 10,000 square meters) of forest or pasture that you convert to farmland increases carbon in the atmosphere contributing to global warming. Further, converting land to farmland reduces natural habitat or land for grazing.

Continue Reading »

42 responses so far

Feb 19 2016

The Nitrogen Problem

Published by under General Science

Farming-2The farming systems we are putting in place now will need to feed the 9-10 billion people that will inhabit our planet in 2050. This is a huge challenge.

Many people speak about “sustainable farming,” which is a legitimate and important concept. Truly sustainable means that we need to track all of the inputs and outputs in the global food system and see that we can extrapolate that system indefinitely into the future.

One of the most, if not the most, important factor in sustainability is nitrogen. Plants need a lot of nitrogen to grow, and this is often the limiting factor in large-scale food production.

Thinking about where nitrogen ultimately comes from – the entire nitrogen cycle – is like thinking about where energy ultimately comes. It’s a very useful question to ask. For example, when people claim that they can run their car on water they are failing to ask this basic question. When you do you realize that the energy is not coming from burning the hydrogen and oxygen, but from whatever energy source you used the split the water into hydrogen and oxygen.

The same thought process applied to nitrogen is also illuminating. Continue Reading »

21 responses so far

Feb 09 2016

The Journal of Failure to Replicate

Published by under General Science

(Note: We have been having some website issues over the weekend, which is why there has not been a post in a couple of days. All seems to be working now, but we are monitoring closely.)

Science may have a replication problem.

One of the goals of scientific skepticism is to examine the process of science itself, often through the lens of pseudoscience. I find this remarkably helpful, and something that many mainstream scientists often do not understand.

By closely examining pseudoscience as a phenomenon, we can see clear examples of how science goes wrong, how the process of science is subverted, and all the different ways scientists can make mistakes or bias their results. We can then apply this knowledge to legitimate science, flushing out more subtle manifestations of the same problems.

Said another way – if we explore all the reasons that a scientist can come to the conclusion that homeopathy works (when it clearly doesn’t) we will learn much about all the possible ways to fail when people do science (or think they are doing science).

Continue Reading »

49 responses so far

Jan 22 2016

Answering Questions About GMOs

Published by under General Science

CitrusGreening1I hadn’t planned on writing about GMOs again today, but I received an e-mail from a listener of the SGU which nicely represents common misconceptions that many people have about genetically modified organisms and farming in general. These are common anti-GMO talking points, which is why they are so widespread.

That even thoughtful skeptics have these concerns is testimony to the successful misinformation campaign waged by the anti-GMO movement, which is largely the organic lobby and some in the environmental movement, such as Greenpeace.

The strategy here is also clear – whenever you deal with one misconception about GMOs, opponents just slide over to another point which becomes the “real” reason they are against GMOs. The experience is identical to arguing with those who reject the claims of anthropogenic global warming, when forced to give ground on one factual claim (OK, maybe the Earth is warming), they just retreat to another (but do we know that this is bad?).

Continue Reading »

39 responses so far

« Prev - Next »