Apr 18 2016

The Age of Click-Bait

A recent article in The Guardian discusses the current pressures in newsrooms that is eroding quality control. The article brings up many rather sobering points, but will hardly be news to anyone who frequents the internet.

The internet and social media have rapidly revolutionized the way we communicate, find, and consume news. Large publishers able to maintain a significant infrastructure are no longer the gatekeepers of information. This has both positive and negative ramifications.

While no one likes the idea of fat-cat publishers having all the power – deciding what news to print, which programs to air, which albums to produce, etc. – they did provide a filter. They filtered out the vast background noise, providing at least an opportunity for quality control. How they used that opportunity determined the reputation of the outlet. We still has the National Enquirer, but everyone knew it was a grocery store tabloid.

Now the filters are largely gone. The internet is filled with all the noise. We still have news outlets, aggregators, and brands based on perceived quality. Essentially there are few top-down controls, only bottom-up market forces at work. So what have those market forces brought us?

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Comments: 42

Apr 15 2016

Neural Bypass Helps Quadriplegic Man Use His Arm

neuralprostheticI have been following and writing about the development of neural prosthetics and brain-machine interfaces as the technology has been advancing over the last decade. These are techniques that read electrical signals from the brain, process those signals through a computer algorithm, and use them to control some external device.

Another milestone has been reached in this technology. Researchers at Ohio State University implanted electrodes on the motor cortex of a man with a mid cervical quadriplegia. He cannot use his hands or legs. The output from these electrodes was then connected to a sleeve over his right forearm that could electrically stimulate his muscles in specific patterns to produce useful movements, like grasping and releasing.

After several hours of practice:

The system provided isolated finger movements and the participant achieved continuous cortical control of six different wrist and hand motions. Furthermore, he was able to use the system to complete functional tasks relevant to daily living.

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Comments: 20

Apr 12 2016

8 Lies About GMOs

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.

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Comments: 28

Apr 11 2016

More Cold Fusion Claims

Aftenpost-img1-470x260Of course it would be awesome if we could actually get heavy hydrogen or other light nuclei to fuse at near room temperatures, outputting tremendous amounts of energy with little energy input, that would be a game-changer for the world. We might finally get our jet-packs, flying cars, and Iron-man suits.

Sci-fi applications aside, it would solve the world’s energy problems in one go. Within 50 years we would be off fossil fuels, would have a zero-carbon energy footprint (CO2 still comes from other sources, like making cement) and the technological applications would likely be stunning.

It is therefore understandable why so many people pursue cold fusion. It is like playing the technology lottery – the odds may be long but we just can’t help playing because the payout is so huge. In fact I don’t mind if serious physicists do serious cold fusion (or low-energy nuclear reactions, LENR) research, as long as they are rigorous and honest about their results.

Unfortunately the cold fusion community has fallen, in my opinion, into a cesspit of pseudoscience. After Pons and Fleishman prematurely announced cold fusion in 1989 (that’s 27 years ago), cold fusion research has been relegated to the fringe. The community became insular, secretive, and suspicious of the mainstream. This made it a playground for cranks and charlatans.

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Comments: 8

Apr 08 2016

Answering Creationist’s Unanswerable Questions

creationist-videoPointing out how completely illogical and unscientific are creationists is something I need to do on a regular basis here. A creationist who regularly trolls the SGU Facebook page recently posted this video, which is a great opportunity to meet my creationist debunking quota.

Like all creationist propaganda, the video does not make any serious or legitimate scientific points. The purpose is just to provide a plausible screen for denying one of the most solid scientific facts every established – that life on Earth is the product of organic evolution.

The video is a collection of “gotcha” ambushes of students and scientists, asking them loaded questions that defy a simple answer (because first you would have to unpack all the false assumptions in the question itself). It’s natural to pause after such a question, while considering how best to approach it. The segments often cut out after the initial partial response followed by a “gotcha” follow up statement by the interviewer.

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Comments: 17

Apr 07 2016

Pig Heart Kept Alive in Baboon

xenofunAbout 3,500 heart transplants are performed worldwide each year. This is the standard of care treatment for end stage heart failure. However, more people need hearts than receive them. About half of the recipients of a donor heart have been on the waiting list for more than a year. About a third for more than two years.

In short, there are not enough hearts to go around. Artificial hearts exist, but only as a bridging technology – keeping people alive while on the transplant waiting list. Stem cell therapy looks promising as a treatment for heart failure, but also is years away. Growing hearts is probably decades away.

Genetically modifying animal hearts is probably the option for a human donor heart replacement that is closest to becoming a reality. Recently researchers report that they have made progress along those lines – keeping a pig heart alive in a baboon for over two years.

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Comments: 4

Apr 04 2016

The NCCIH Draft Strategic Plan

NCCIHThe National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), formerly the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, and prior to that the Office of Alternative Medicine, is developing their strategic plan for 2016-2021. They are seeking public comment, and my colleagues and I at science-based medicine (SBM) will be sending it to them.

The NCCIH is a center at the National Institutes for Health (NIH), which uses federal money to fund biomedical research. The center is largely the child of senator Tom Harkin, who is enamored of alternative medicine (I will use the term CAM for convenience) and wanted a separate office (then center) at the NIH specifically to fund research into CAM therapies.

About his center and its purpose, Harkin has famously said:

One of the purposes of this center was to investigate and validate alternative approaches. Quite frankly, I must say publicly that it has fallen short. It think quite frankly that in this center and in the office previously before it, most of its focus has been on disproving things rather than seeking out and approving.

If anything science should be tilted toward demonstrating that any new claim is false, and only ideas and claims that survive dedicated attempts to do so should gain tentative approval. Harkin gives away the game in this statement – that the purpose of NCCIH is to put a huge ideological thumb on the scale of medical science, to give special preference to exactly those claims in medicine which are least plausible, and then flip science on its head by seeking to approve them, rather than critically testing them.

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Comments: 3

Apr 01 2016

Should We Hide From Aliens

transit-352Given the date today, I had to be careful. Is the Royal Institution investigating quantum astrology? No, but those Brits can be quite cheeky.

When I saw this headline, Lasers could ‘cloak Earth from aliens’ on the BBC website, I thought they might be having a laugh. The alternative was a bit of hyperbole in science news reporting, which is a daily occurrence. The paper on which the item is based was officially published on March 30, so I think it’s legit.

What’s going on here is that two astronomers, David M. Kipping, and Alex Teachey, did a thought experiment – what would it take to disguise the Earth from aliens using the transit method to discover the Earth? Continue Reading »

Comments: 22

Mar 31 2016

The Need for Improved Food Production

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.

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Comments: 62

Mar 29 2016

Engineering A Minimal Genome

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.

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Comments: 15

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