Archive for the 'General Science' Category

Sep 09 2014

Has Jack the Ripper Finally Been Solved?

Published by under General Science

Jack the Ripper is perhaps the most iconic serial killer in history. Part of the mystique of this dark figure is the fact that he was never identified, leaving room for endless sleuthing and speculation. Every Ripper fan has their list of favorite suspects, usually filled with famous and powerful people of the time to add even more interest. My favorite, of course, is that he was a time-traveling friend of H. G. Wells.

Now a private researcher, Russell Edwards, claims that he has finally solved the case. First I will present his story without comment, and then we can take a skeptical look at it.

Edwards claims he acquired a blood-stained shawl in 2007 that is supposed to be from Catherine Eddowes, one of the five fairly accepted victims of the Ripper. The shawl was apparently recovered from the scene of Eddowes murder, and was covered in her blood. Acting Sergeant Amos Simpson took the shawl home as a gift for his wife. She was, apparently, not impressed and stored the shawl away without cleaning it.

The shawl remained in the possession of his family until they auctioned it off in 2007 and Edwards acquired it.

Edwards then solicited the help of Dr. Jari Louhelainen, a Finnish expert in historic DNA. Louhelainen found that the 126 year old shawl contained a great deal of blood, likely all from the victim. However, he also found a semen stain on the shawl. Genomic DNA is unlikely to have survived 126 years sufficiently intact for DNA matching. However, mitochondrial DNA is more hardy and likely did survive.

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Sep 04 2014

Doubt and Confusion over Global Warming

Published by under General Science

Global warming (or global climate change) continues to be a contentious issue because of the political ramifications of the science. When I talk to those who doubt human-caused (anthropogenic) global warming inevitably they express a strong political opinion about the implications of AGW – that it is being used to justify government take-over of private industry.

There are also those on the left who embrace AGW as a way of reinforcing their ideological economic opinions. None of this makes AGW correct or mistaken. The political implications of AGW are irrelevant to the science.

I might be tempted to say that the controversy over AGW is partly being driven by the fact that the science is very abstract. There is a ton of data that can be used to support just about any opinion you wish to defend, if you are willing to cherry pick. The data is also somewhat abstract and is very complex.

While I do think it’s true that the nature of the data regarding AGW does exacerbate the controversy, I can’t say it is a necessary component, as there are controversies surrounding far simpler rock solid science, such as the efficacy of vaccines.

In any case, AGW does have a particular challenge in that the discussion is very statistical and graph heavy, two things which are easy to manipulate and sow confusion.

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Aug 28 2014

Bt and Leukemia – Another Anti-GMO Myth

The headline of an article on the Organic Consumers Association proclaims, “New Study Links GMO Food To Leukemia.” The same article trumpets the thoroughly discredited Seralini study. The claim is not true, but is part of a pattern of behavior that is depressingly familiar.

The pattern is not unique to anti-GMO activism. In fact, it seems to be the default human behavior. We tend to search for information that supports our currently held views. The more passionate we are about those views, the more industrious we are in finding apparent support, even if it means twisting and distorting information.

I find myself doing this all the time – if a study or new piece of information directly opposes something I currently believe, then my mind immediately starts finding reasons to dismiss the information. I have the opposite reaction when the information confirms my current beliefs, I find reasons to accept it.

But then I consciously step back and try to take an objective look at the information. This is not always easy, and may involve specialized knowledge I don’t have. I then have to look to experts to see if there is a clear consensus opinion. In other words, I don’t just stick with my knee-jerk reaction to information. I go through a process of evaluation and critical analysis. My goal is to come to a valid conclusion, one that will hold up under critical assault, whatever that conclusion is. Meanwhile I have to remain open to the possibility that my conclusion is wrong or incomplete, that I missed something or made an error in my process.

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Aug 25 2014

Nassim Taleb, The Precautionary Principle, and GMOs

Published by under General Science

Nassim Taleb is a serious scholar of risk assessment, especially in the world of economics. So when he and two co-authors published a paper on the precautionary principle as it applies to genetically modified organisms it is worth taking seriously. That does not mean I have to agree with his conclusions, however.

What I found was that Taleb’s argument is mathematically rigorous, although I think too absolute, but also is biologically naive.

Here is his argument in a nutshell: The mathematical part if this – if we consider risk prevention, we must decide how much risk is acceptable. As risk increases, tolerance should decrease. As risk approaches infinity, tolerance should approach zero.

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Aug 07 2014

Antibiotic Resistant Markers in GM Crops

Published by under General Science

Neil deGrasse Tyson stepping into the public GMO debate has raised the profile of this issue, and so I am likely going to return to the issue as new claims surface.

Recently Jeffrey Smith posted a Youtube video in which he directly challenges Tyson on his claim that people should “chill out” about transgenic GM technology.  Smith is an anti-GMO activist, founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology, and producer of the anti-GMO documentary, Genetic Roulette — The Gamble of Our Lives. 

For further background, Smith attended Maharishi University of Management in the 1980s and was a Natural Law Party member in 1996 and participated in a TM-Sidhi program yogic flying demonstration in Des Moines, Iowa.

His latest anti-GMO effort is full of specific claims I have not previously addressed. He makes an attempt to seem as if his claims are scientific, but upon investigation it quickly becomes clear he is cherry picking studies and then wildly speculating way beyond the evidence. It would take many articles to deconstruct his 20 minute Gish-galloping video, so I will pick out a few prominent claims.

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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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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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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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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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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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