Archive for the 'General Science' Category

Dec 10 2013

Do Seed Companies Restrict Research?

Published by under General Science

Well, yes and no. Such questions are often complex. With some exceptions, we generally do not live in a world with cartoon heroes and villains. Rather we live with people who have conflicting perspectives and priorities. Yet we have a universal human desire for simplicity and the sense of control, so we often reduce the horrific complexity of the world to white hats and black hats.

This tendency makes my job difficult, although also useful – specifically whenever I attempt to wrap my head around a controversial issue, such as GMO crops and agritech, I have to wade through tons of ideological propaganda in order to dig down to some clear information.

In the world of GMO, anti-GMO activists have generally made Monsanto (and big agritech generally) into the cartoon villain. Many of the claims made by critics against Monsanto, however, turn out to be gross distortions. They don’t sue companies for accidental contamination, only deliberate piracy, for example. Pointing this out does not make one a Monsanto shill.

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Dec 03 2013

Seralini GMO Study Retracted

Published by under General Science

Elsevier has announced that they are retracting the infamous Seralini study which claimed to show that GMO corn causes cancer in laboratory rats. This is to the anti-GMO world what the retraction of the infamous Wakefield Lancet paper was to the anti-vaccine world. At least this retraction only took one year.

The Seralini paper was published in November 2012 in Food and Chemical Toxicology. It was immediately embraced by anti-GMO activists, and continues to be often cited as evidence that GMO foods are unhealthy. It was also immediately skewered by skeptics and more objective scientists as a fatally flawed study.

The study looked at male and female rats of the Sprague-Dawley strain of rat – a strain with a known high baseline incidence of tumors. These rats were fed regular corn mixed with various percentages of GMO corn: 0 (the control groups), 11, 22, and 33%. Another group was fed GMO corn plus fed roundup in their water, and a third was given just roundup. The authors concluded:

The results of the study presented here clearly demonstrate that lower levels of complete agricultural glyphosate herbicide formulations, at concentrations well below officially set safety limits, induce severe hormone-dependent mammary, hepatic and kidney disturbances. Similarly, disruption of biosynthetic pathways that may result from overexpression of the EPSPS transgene in the GM NK603 maize can give rise to comparable pathologies that may be linked to abnormal or unbalanced phenolic acids metabolites, or related compounds. Other mutagenic and metabolic effects of the edible GMO cannot be excluded.

Sounds pretty scary. Now let’s look at the multiple criticisms:

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Nov 05 2013

Is Science Broken?

Skeptics are often in a tricky position. We simultaneously are cheerleaders for science, promoting science education, scientific literacy, and the power of science as the best method for understanding the universe.

At the same time the skeptical approach requires that we explore and discuss all the various flaws, errors, and weaknesses in the institutions and process of science. Science in theory is fantastic, but it is practiced by flawed people with all their cognitive biases and perverse incentives (much like democracy or capitalism).

I think the best approach to this apparent contradiction is transparency, honesty, to be as constructive as possible, and avoid sliding into nihilism. It’s easy to focus on all the negatives about any institution, and conclude that it’s hopelessly broken. Some institutions are broken and unfixable, so it’s not an inherently unreasonable position. We should strive for a balanced and fair assessment (just like Fox news).

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Oct 24 2013

Golden Rice – A Touchstone

Published by under General Science

Psychologists have documented a human tendency to pick a belief and then defend it at all costs. We all do this to varying degrees, and the more emotionally invested we are in a belief, the more extreme we are in our defense.

In fact, a skeptical world-view is largely about avoiding this mental trap by tentatively accepting or rejecting claims based upon available evidence, and modifying our beliefs as new arguments and evidence come to light. Skepticism values the process over any individual belief.

Since reality is complicated, if one follows an objective process it will often be true that any controversial issue will have valid points on both or all sides. This is not always true (creationists are completely wrong in their denial of evolution, making this a false controversy), but it often is. For this reason, one of my skeptical “red flags” to alert me to the probability that someone is an ideologue rather than an honest broker of information and analysis is whether or not their opinions point entirely in one direction on a genuinely controversial topic.

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Oct 22 2013

Free Energy and the Casimir Effect

Free energy is to physics what creationism is to evolutionary biology. Both offer a teaching moment when you try to explain why proponents are so horribly wrong.

Free energy proponents have been abusing the laws of thermodynamics (come to think of it, so have creationists), and more recently quantum effects a la zero-point-energy. Now they are distorting a new principle of physics to justify their claims – the Casimir effect. Apparently this was a hot topic at the Breakthrough Energy Conference earlier this month.

Before I get into the specifics, I do want to address the general conspiratorial tones of the free-energy movement. I wonder if anyone influential in the free-energy subculture realizes that their conspiracy-mongering over free energy is perhaps the greatest barrier to their being taken seriously. There is also the fact that they get the science wrong, but if they think they are doing cutting edge science (rather than crank science), then convince us with science and ditch the conspiracy nonsense.

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Oct 17 2013

PPMOs – The New Antibiotic?

Published by under General Science

People generally worry too much and about the wrong things. The media exploits dramatic risks for sensational headlines and exciting narratives, but rarely put risks into a useful context.

Meanwhile, there are some real things to be worried about out there. One thing that has long been on my short list is the coming post-antibiotic era.

Antibiotics have dramatically improved human life and life-expectancy. I know many people who would likely be dead without them. The are one of modern medicines greatest success stories. But they have a critical weakness – evolution.

The antibiotic era started an evolutionary arms race with the pathogenic bacteria they kill or inhibit – and the bacteria are winning. Antibiotics work through a number of mechanisms that interfere with the cellular function of prokaryotes, but not eukaryotes, so bacteria are affected while host cells are unharmed.

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Oct 14 2013

The Science of Learning

Published by under General Science

As a perpetual student and frequent teacher, I am very interested in the science and technology of learning itself. In medical school, for example, we have to transfer an incredible amount of information to students over a relatively short period  of time. The trick is to get students to maintain their attention, focus on the important bits of information, and understand and remember that information.

This is very challenging. Simply lecturing is not very effective. There are different figures as to what the average “attention span” is, depending on exactly how it is measured, but the figures are generally less than 20 minutes, and as low as 5 minutes. Of course, this depends on attention to what. I can pay attention to a 3 hour movie without difficulty, if it’s Lord of the Rings or similar quality. Try listening to a 3 hour lecture on a dry technical topic, and effectively process the information presented the whole time.

So how do we get students to spend the day in lectures and actually learn a significant portion of the material?

There are many answers to this question, but a recent study perhaps adds another technique to improve lecture efficiency. Robert Collins conducted a multi-year study in which he used video during his lectures, but for the first year the video had captions turned off, and for the second year he had captions turned on. He found that during the second year class discussion improved, and grades significantly improved.

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Oct 07 2013

A Problem with Open Access Journals

Published by under General Science

In a way the internet is a grand bargain, although one that simply emerged without a conscious decision on the part of anyone. It greatly increases communication, lowers the bar for content creation and distribution, and allows open access to vast and deep databases of information. On the other hand, the traditional barriers of quality control are reduced or even eliminated, leading to a “wild west” of information. As a result it is already a cliche to characterize our current times as the “age of misinformation.”

For someone like me, a social-media skeptic, I feel the cut of both edges quite deeply. With podcasts, blogs, YouTube videos, and other content, I can create a network of content creation and distribution that can compete with any big media outlet. I can use these outlets to correct misinformation, analyse claims, engage in debates, and debunk fraud and myths.

On the other hand, the fraud, myths, and misinformation are multiplying at frightening rates on the very same platforms. It is difficult to gauge the net effect – perhaps that’s a topic for another post.

For this post I will discuss one of the most disturbing trends emerging from the internet phenomenon – the proliferation of poor quality science journals, specifically open access journals.  The extent of this problem was recently highlighted by a “sting” operation recently published by Science magazine.

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Oct 01 2013

New IPCC Report on Climate Change

Published by under General Science

Whether or not the planet is warming due to human activity is a very important question. That is perhaps the one statement on which everyone agrees. Beyond that we have the usual conflict between mainstream science and motivated reasoning, denialism, industry apologists, and contrarians. Stuck in the middle are sincere skeptics who have not managed to wade through the tsunami of misinformation.

This is the 5th report of the intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) assembled by the UN. The point of this panel is to provide usable information to the UN, and the governments of the world, through robust scientific consensus. They describe the working group as:

A total of 209 Lead Authors and 50 Review Editors from 39 countries and more than 600 Contributing Authors from 32 countries contributed to the preparation of Working Group I AR5.

That sounds pretty robust to me. Of course, consensus is not always correct in retrospect, but the whole point of building a consensus is that it is more likely to be correct than the quirky opinions of any individual or small group. Personal bias, error, skewed perspectives, and misinformation should all average out and the result should, hopefully, reasonably reflect the actual scientific evidence.

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Jun 24 2013

Bird Conservation

Published by under General Science

I am on vacation this week, so my post today is going to be brief and somewhat self-indulgent (probably redundant when referring to blogs generally). I am a casual birder. It started as a hobby I could do with my daughters, and it has turned out to be an excellent activity – it’s fun, it gets them outside when perhaps they would prefer to play Minecraft, and there is actually a ton of science you can teach in the context of casual birding.

The picture here is of a pileated woodpecker which I took yesterday morning. It’s a bit grainy because of the distance and the low light – it was early in the morning – but I like the way the sun caught its red crest.

The pileated is the largest extant woodpecker. This is assuming that the ivory-billed woodpecker is really extinct, something which is somewhat controversial. You can tell this guy is not an ivory-billed because of the white chin and lack of broad white stripe on the wings.

I am currently visiting in Cumberland Maryland. We have pileateds in Connecticut where I live, and I have seen them on occasion, but not near my house. They will come to suet feeders, and I’m hoping one day a pileated will move into my neighborhood and visit my feeder.

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