Archive for the 'Science and the Media' Category

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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Feb 14 2014

Eating Yoga Mats

This is the worst example of pseudoscientific fearmongering I have seen in a while, and that’s saying something.

Vani Hari, a blogger known as “food babe,” has started a petition to get Subway to remove use of the chemical azodicarbonamide from their breads. She writes:

Azodicarbonamide is the same chemical used to make yoga mats, shoe soles, and other rubbery objects. It’s not supposed to be food or even eaten for that matter. And it’s definitely not “fresh”.

This, of course, is utter nonsense – that is, the notion that because a chemical has multiple uses, included in non-food items, that it is not “supposed” to be eaten. Azodicarbonamide (ADA) is used as a blowing agent in the formation of certain rubbers and sealants. It is used, for example, in sealing the tops of baby food containers, but also in the production of certain plastics and rubbers. It is also used as a bleaching agent for bread, giving it a softer and fluffier quality. None of this says anything about it’s safety at the levels used.

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Jun 10 2013

Science Journalism

I recently got into a small kerfuffle with a journalist, actually a sports writer who decided to dabble in science journalism. The exchange started at science-based medicine when I wrote a piece critical of the claims being made for a new device called the GyroStim, which is being offered as a treatment for brain injury.

In this article I linked to a piece in the popular press about the treatment, in the Denver Post by a sports writer, Adrian Dater. Dater thought I was being unfair in my criticism of his piece, and so wrote a response on his blog.  The exchange and the comments have exposed many of the problems with journalism in general and science journalism in particular, that I would like to explore further here.

First I have to say that there are many excellent journalists and science journalists out there. I am not implying that that there are no good journalists. I do find, however, that the baseline quality of science journalism is lacking and, if anything, getting worse. Part of the problem is the evaporating infrastructure for full-time journalists. Many outlets no longer maintain specialist journalists, and use generalists (including editors) to cover science news stories.

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Mar 19 2013

Evolved to Gamble

It is tempting to make arguments about how and why particular aspects of human psychology evolved. I will not be getting into an evolutionary psychology discussion in this post, I will just say I find such arguments offer a plausible framework for understanding human psychology, regardless of whether you think they can be scientifically tested.

A recent example is a paper by researchers at McMaster University. The title of their press release  reads: It’s in the cards: Human evolution influences gamblers’ decisions, study shows. 

The study actually says nothing about human evolution. It simply demonstrates an aspect of human behavior – the evolutionary explanation is pure speculation, not tested or demonstrated in the study itself.

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Feb 28 2013

Tattoo Electrodes

Headlines read: “Temporary tattoos could make electronic telepathy and telekinesis possible.” The technology is actually quite cool and interesting, but it is distressing how much of the mainstream reporting has been calculated to misinform for the sake of some cheap sensationalism. The technology is interesting enough without turning it into science fiction.

The temporary tattoos are really skin surface electrodes that can read electrical signals, such as EEG signals from the brain. They can also incorporate other sensors, like heat or light sensors. They can contain antenna to receive energy or communication, and wireless technology to communicate to devices.

The electrode circuits are also thin (100 microns), flexible, and small. Combining several features into such a small device is the real advance here, expanding the number of feasible applications of such technology.

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Feb 19 2013

Comments to Science Articles

A study presented at the AAAS meeting (and yet to be published) looked at the effects of the tone of comments following a science article on the interpretation of the article itself. The researchers presented a balanced article on the dangers of nanoparticles, followed by fake comments. One group read fake comments that were polite, while another read comments that were rude and personal.

Because the study is not published I can’t review the details, but the way it is reported (and discussed here on NPR) makes it sound like the content of the comments were the same, and only the tone was varied. Also, the rude tone was just rude, and did not rise to the level that we would call trolling. The researchers found that the rude comments significantly affected how the content of the article was perceived, pushing readers to believe that nanoparticles were more dangerous.

This is a question that every bloggers, and perhaps especially science blogger, faces – how do we moderate the comments to our articles. It is not uncommon, for example, for commenters to hold me as the author of a blog post responsible for claims made in the comments, as if I obsessively police every comment. At the same time, if the author is participating in the comments perhaps it is reasonable to make inferences about which comments they challenge and which they do not.

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Nov 30 2012

Another Journalism Fail on the Denver Bug-UFO

A couple weeks ago I wrote about a local Denver news report about “mysterious UFOs” caught on video. The news report includes several videos of blurry dark objects zipping past the camera and actually tried to make this into something interesting any mysterious. The report is an excellent example of a journalism failure when dealing with such topics.

In the age of the internet, such local news stories can now go internationally viral, which is apparently what happened here. This is a double-edged sword for the local news teams – they seem to revel in the widespread attention their local fluff news stories garner, but also seem a bit stung by the criticism it equally attracts.

Now, the news station, Fox 31 WKDVR in Denver, and the reporter, Heidi Hemmat, have decided to double-down on their original journalism failure, apparently concluding that negative attention is a good thing. Their follow up report is entitled: Insect expert: UFOs over Denver not bugs; images on video remain a mystery. Wrong and wrong. What they have offered us is another example of how journalists fail to properly cover controversial science stories.

Most of the videos in question clearly show some sort on insect close to the camera. A few of the videos show what is probably a bird flying by. Some have argued that there are also videos showing what might be a radio controlled plane – there is one quick shot of a video which might show this, but it’s not clear. What is clear is that the majority of the videos are bugs and birds (mostly bugs).

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Jul 27 2012

Anti-Fluoride Propaganda as News

A news article in the Sacramento Bee declares: “Harvard Study Finds Fluoride Lowers IQ – Published in Federal Gov’t Journal.” Except – this is not a news item, and it’s not really a study. The article is about a recently published systematic review and meta-analysis – not new data. The term “study” is vague, and I find it often causes confusion.

Far worse than this common imprecision is the fact that this article, under the “News” tab on the Bee website, is not actually a news report. It is a propaganda article written by the NYS Coalition Opposed to Fluoridation, Inc. and distributed as a press release. The Bee does post a disclaimer at the top of the page, reading:

This section contains unedited press releases distributed by PR Newswire. These releases reflect the views of the issuing entity and are not reviewed or edited by the Sacramento Bee staff. More information on PR Newswire can be found on their web site.

That’s better than nothing, but I wonder how many people reading the press release will notice and read the disclaimer. In my opinion, a news outlet should not reprint press releases sent out from advocacy organizations clearly intended to promote an agenda. They especially should not print them under the banner of “News.” The disclaimer is not adequate.

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Jun 12 2012

The Science of Prometheus

I’m a huge fan of science fiction, especially hard science fiction, and also of scientific deconstructions of popular works of science fiction. I also enjoy other forms of speculative fiction – I don’t require scientific accuracy, or even plausibility, to enjoy a good book or movie. I’m perfectly willing to suspend disbelief or allow for “gimmies” – OK, there’s subspace and you can travel faster than light. I’m good with that. I appreciate, however, when sci fi writers try to work within the scientific framework as much as possible, to minimize “gimmies”, and to extrapolate thoughtfully from established science. What I am not tolerant of, however, is gratuitous errors in science. There’s just no excuse for that in science fiction.

I saw Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel, Prometheus, over the weekend. What follows is a sequence of spoilers, so be warned. I will try not to discuss plot points unnecessarily, but if you don’t want any spoilers wait until after you see the movie to read further. This is also not going to be a movie review, just a discussion of some of the science in the movie.

Let me start with something that I really enjoyed. The planet that the ship Prometheus and its crew visit in the movie is actually a moon of a gas giant. I find this idea fascinating, and have speculated about this before myself. We are in the midst of an explosion of exoplanet discoveries. We are just now starting to get some data about what the typical configuration of other stellar systems is likely to be. We still don’t have enough data to answer this question, and our methods of finding exoplanets are biased toward large planets close to their suns. But we are starting to find smaller Earth-sized worlds far enough out to be in the goldilocks zone where liquid water can exist on the surface.

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Jun 05 2012

Education and Vaccine Uptake

A new study, not published but to be presented at a meeting, purports to show that after the infamous Andrew Wakefield 1998 Lancet article alleging a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism, vaccination rates in the US declined by about two percent. This may seem like a small amount but has an effect on public health, and vaccine refusal typically occurs in pockets that bring vaccination rates below the level needed for “herd” immunity, allowing for outbreaks.

This, however, is all old news. There are two other pieces of information in the study that are interesting. The first is that the decrease in vaccination rates did not rebound after Wakefield and his Lancet study were thoroughly refuted. That genie was out of the bottle, and correcting the misinformation did not have the desired effect of putting it back in. This too is in line with other research and experience. It is easier to spread fear than reassurance. Once rumors are spread the damage cannot be undone.

The study also purports to find that the there was an inverse relationship between education level and vaccine use – college-educated mothers were less likely to vaccinate their children. Further, in the 8 years after the Lancet study this gap increased. This education-gap is also in line with previous research, but needs some explanation. We need to distinguish unvaccinated from undervaccinated, and vaccine non-compliance from vaccine refusal. When looking at the undervaccinated, and specifically those who missed scheduled vaccines, this correlates with lower socioeconomic status and less education. This is in line with a more general pattern – the fewer resources a family has the less likely they are to avail themselves of available health care.

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