May 05 2015

Open Science

There is a movement to open access to scientific information, and with the relatively new resources provided by the internet and social media, we may be heading rapidly in that direction. However, I don’t think this will be an easy transition and we should consider the possible unintended consequences.

A 2012 commentary by Nosek and Bar-Anan outlined the changes that would open science:

We call for six changes: (1) full embrace of digital communication, (2) open access to all published research, (3) disentangling publication from evaluation, (4) breaking the “one article, one journal” model with a grading system for evaluation and diversified dissemination outlets, (5) publishing peer review, and, (6) allowing open, continuous peer review. We address conceptual and practical barriers to change, and provide examples showing how the suggested practices are being used already.

The Center for Open Science outlines a similar mission:

1-Increase prevalence of scientific values – openness, reproducibility – in scientific practice
2-Develop and maintain infrastructure for documentation, archiving, sharing, and registering research materials
3-Join infrastructures to support the entire scientific workflow in a common framework
4-Foster an interdisciplinary community of open source developers, scientists, and organizations
5-Adjust incentives to make “getting it right” more competitive with “getting it published”
6-Make all academic research discoverable and accessible

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May 04 2015

Homeopathic Rant

Every now and then we get a public peek into the mind of a crank or pseudoscientist. This is not to say that they don’t utter complete nonsense often, but usually in public they try to put a sanitized and rational face on their quackery. An unfiltered rant can be refreshing and illuminating.

Recently a homeopath, Mary English, wrote such a public rant against Simon Singh, who is a science communicator and promoter of rationality. What has English so riled is the fact that Singh is threatening to sue the National Health Service (NHS) for wasting taxpayer money by funding homeopathy.

Singh is an open critic of so-called alternative medicine. He has written about homeopathy before, explaining why it is complete unscientific lunacy. He famously was sued by the British Chiropractic Association for daring to say that they embrace “bogus” therapies (because they do).  He works for a charity, the Good Thinking Society, which has challenged the UK powers-that-be to reconsider their support of homeopathy:

In February 2015, The Good Thinking Society, working with Bindmans LLP, wrote to Liverpool CCG (Clinical Commissioning Group) in order to highlight and challenge the CCG’s decision to approve spending on homeopathic treatments – a decision we believe to be unlawful, and contrary to the best interest of local patients. In April 2015, Liverpool CCG conceded our challenge and agreed to make a fresh decision on the issue.

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May 01 2015

Tesla Introduces the Home Battery

Innovative billionaire, Elon Musk, is introducing the first product designed to be a home battery for the average home - the Powerwall by Tesla. This is a large but shallow and stylish lithium ion battery meant to be attached to the wall of a garage or basement. There are two versions, a 10kWh for $3,500 and a 7kWh for $3,000. That puts it in the range of a typical large home appliance.

This is an interesting move, and is earlier than I anticipated such a product would hit the market. I wonder if the market is ready. There are some indications that it may be.

For the homeowner there are two primary uses of a large home battery, one large enough that you can actually run your home, at least for a while. The first is as a backup device for when the power goes out. That in itself would be a useful function, as anyone who has ever lost power to their home can attest. Even if the power goes out for 12 hours or so before being restored, that is long enough to lose everything in your freezer. A day without power is a massive inconvenience, and can even be dangerous in the dead of winter, which is when most power outages occur in my part of the country. It doesn’t take long for the house to plunge into freezing temperatures.

The second use is as a method for using solar or wind produced energy more efficiently. Peak energy use does not coincide with peak sunshine. Right now that is not a big deal, as homes with solar installation are mostly just giving their solar produced electricity to the grid and then pulling from the grid as needed. However, as solar penetration increases we may get to the point that it is a significant contribution to the grid.

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Apr 30 2015

Neonicotinoids, GMOs, and Colony Collapse Disorder

A new propaganda point has entered the anti-GMO repertoire – that GMOs are killing the honey bees. This claim, like many of their claims, is highly misleading, as the actual cause is incidental to the technology of genetic modification or even its use. This hasn’t stopped headlines like this one from organicconsumers.org: GMOs Are Killing the Bees, Butterflies, Birds and . . . ?

This story follows a common strategy among the intellectually dishonest anti-GMO propaganda machine. The fact is, producing enough food to feed over 7 billion people (and growing) is not easy, and requires intensive high-yield farming. Farming, not surprisingly, is having an impact on the ecosystem. Just cutting down forests to make room for crops can have a huge effect, in addition to displacing native species. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of farming’s effect on the environment is that anytime you want to grow millions or even billions of something, critters will evolve to exploit that food source. Any attempt you make to fight back against those critters will inevitably result in resistance.

We face the same challenge with antibiotics. Crowding into cities, and the growing population of humans meant that bacteria who use humans for their lifecycle exploded, leading to outbreaks and epidemics of infectious diseases. Antibiotics have been a powerful weapon against bacterial infections, but evolution is relentless and has led increasingly to antibiotic resistance among bacteria pathogenic to humans and our livestock. This is a genuine dilemma, as we struggle to come up with new antibiotics, and enforce practices that reduce the emergence of resistance.

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Apr 29 2015

SGU 10 Hour Live Streaming Event

This Saturday, May 2nd, from noon to 10pm Eastern time, the SGU will be having a live video streaming event. This will be a 10 hour marathon to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the SGU.

You can watch the live video feed here. We are planning on recording the stream for later use as well. We will be taking live questions via Twitter at #SGULive.

Come join us in our newly refurbished skeptilair. We will be joined by in studio guests, George Hrab and Brian Wecht, and guests via Skype: Eugenie Scott, Dean Cameron, Phil Plait, Cara Santa Maria, Julia Galef, Richard Saunders, and Joe Schwarcz. There will be some surprise guests as well.

Fill your Saturday with science, skepticism, assorted random geekery, and a celebration of everything SGU.

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Apr 28 2015

Audi’s E-Diesel

Audi has been working on a synthetic diesel fuel and is currently producing test samples, with plans for industrial production. This is potentially a useful technology (depending on the details) but, as is almost always the case, is widely misreported.

For example, Gizmag states: “Audi just created diesel fuel from air and water.” Farther down in the article they do mention that you also need another critical ingredient – energy.

Engadget reports: “The automaker recently produced its first batch of “e-diesel,” a synthetic diesel based solely on carbon dioxide and water — readily available chemicals that are far nicer than sulfur and other typical diesel elements.” They never make mention that the process requires energy.

I don’t think this is a nitpick, because already the Audi story has been mentioned to me by someone who did not understand, until I pointed it out to them, that processes such as this are not a source of energy or fuel, they are simply an energy storage medium. Saying that fuel is made from “carbon dioxide and water,” while not wrong, is incomplete and fosters a fundamental misunderstanding of what is going on.

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Apr 27 2015

Defending Children – See, That Wasn’t So Hard

Last year two similar cases in Canada came to public attention – both involved young girls with terminal blood cancer, but ones that are very treatable. Their cancers would almost certainly result in death if they go untreated, and yet they would have about an 85% chance of survival with standard treatment. Both girls were also members of the First Nations, natives with a history of not being treated well by the Canadian government.

In both cases the family wanted to seek “traditional” treatment instead of completing chemotherapy. However, the “traditional” treatment they were seeking was holistic garbage peddled by a charlatan (who is white, and not a native) in Florida, Brian Clement. Clement is not a doctor, but claims to treat cancer with the usual assortment of popular quackery today. Recently the state of Florida accused him of practicing medicine without a license, but they then dropped the case for unknown reasons. I guess Florida just doesn’t have the political will to protect the public from harmful nonsense.

Clement’s false hope has already claimed the life of one of the girls, 11 year-old Makayla Sault died of her leukemia in January. Her mother was literally lured away from continuing chemotherapy by the promises of Clement.

What is most interesting is that the Canadian courts had an opportunity to intervene and to protect these children. They failed with regard to Sault and it is now too late for her. The second girl, whose name is not public, also was allowed to forgo chemotherapy to pursue traditional Floridian quackery. In November 2014 Ontario court Judge Gethin Edward ruled that the family has the right to deny their daughter standard medical treatment. This was done to respect the rights of the First Nations. I argued at the time, while I understand this is a sensitive issue, the rights of a young girl to live trumps everything else in such cases, and I felt this was a profound failure on the part of Judge Edward.

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Apr 24 2015

The FBI, Forensic Science, and the CSI Effect

The FBI recently acknowledged that over a two decade period prior to 2000 they used a flawed forensic technique in their investigations – hair analysis. As reported in the Washington Post:

Of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Innocence Project, which are assisting the government with the country’s largest post-conviction review of questioned forensic evidence.

That is shocking and disappointing, but I don’t think it’s an isolated case.

Our society has come to expect high tech investigative techniques, especially at the level of the FBI and in high-stakes criminal cases such as murder trials. This is partly due to shows like CSI which showcase such technology, and exaggerate the speed and precision with which forensic scientists can tease information out of trace evidence. This effect may even be affecting juries, who expect any murder trial to be accompanied by such evidence.

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Apr 21 2015

Recent Death from Diet Supplement

Eloise Aimee Parry, 21, died on April 12 after taking 8 diet pills she bought online. The pills contained 2,4-dinitrophenol (DNP), which is essentially an illegal weight loss aid. The case illustrates the failure of current regulations to protect the public from potentially dangerous drugs. There are many factors that contribute to this failure.

First, some background on DNP

DNP is a powerful uncoupler of oxidative phosphorylation – it allows protons to leak across the mitochondrial membrane, bypassing ATP synthesis. Mitochondria are the energy factories of cells; they make energy using oxygen in a process called oxidative phosphorylation, essentially adding a phosphate atom to ADP to make ATP. ATP are the batteries of cells, they store energy in their phosphate bonds and then can release that energy to drive the reactions necessary for cell functions.

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Apr 20 2015

Naturopathy Leaks

In a recent editorial David Brooks makes the point that privacy is important and we should not relinquish it lightly. Among other benefits of privacy, he states:

There has to be a zone where half-formed thoughts and delicate emotions can grow and evolve, without being exposed to the harsh glare of public judgment. There has to be a place where you can be free to develop ideas and convictions away from the pressure to conform.

I agree with this. The law also recognizes this, which is why there is automatic privilege between married individuals. This also came up in discussions of whether or not conversations between the president and his advisers should be private or public, with many making the point that the public’s interests are probably best served if their advice were candid and uncensored. We also recognize the need for attorney-client privilege and the confidentiality of the physician-patient relationship.

At the same time there are benefits to transparency and there are situations in which the public interest is best served by open discussion, even leaking information that some would want to keep private. For example, government communications at some level should be transparent, hence the mini-scandal surrounding Clinton’s e-mails. Courtroom testimony is public, but the deliberations of the jury are private.

Science is one of those things that should be, in my opinion, completely transparent and public. An individual scientist is free to keep their private thoughts private, but scientific deliberations, publications, research, and policy should be not only public but easily accessible.

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