Apr 29 2016

Some Battery Click-Bait

battery-24In an updated version of Dante’s Inferno there is one level of science hell that is specifically reserved for headline writers. In their hell there are endless signs pointing the way out of their torment, but all the signs are misleading or overhyped. They are therefore perpetually devastated by the difference between what they are promised and the reality.

Take the following headline (please): Researchers have accidentally made batteries that could last 400 times longer. They know the average person is going to read this and think they won’t have to recharge their cell phones but once per year (it’s recharge day, everybody). The headline is not technically wrong, it is just deliberately ambiguous in the use of the term “last.”

There are two ways in which batteries “last” – how long do they last on one charge, and how many charge-recharge cycles do they have. Guess which one we are talking about here.

The news item is also genuinely interesting, and would have grabbed my attention even without the click-bait headline. But first, a quick primer on batteries.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 11

Apr 28 2016

What Is Biohacking?

bulletproof-butter-coffeeAfter reading up on biohacking and listening to its proponents, I have come to the conclusion that biohacking is not a real thing. It doesn’t really exist.

Here is how one biohacking site describes what they think it is:

Biohacking is a crazy-sounding name for something not crazy at all—the desire to be the absolute best version of ourselves.

The main thing that separates a biohacker from the rest of the self-improvement world is a systems-thinking approach to our own biology.

You know how coffee feels like a shot of energy to your brain?

Pre-coffee you is sleepy….zzzzzz…

Post-coffee you is WIDE AWAKE!!

The only difference is the coffee in your stomach.

The lesson is this: What you put into your body has an ENORMOUS impact on how you feel.

See what I mean? So, drinking coffee is “biohacking?” If you look at what is considered biohacking it essentially amounts to living a healthy lifestyle through diet and exercise, with the addition of the usual assortment of pseudoscientific nonsense. This is nothing but a rebranding of standard self-help quackery.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 22

Apr 26 2016

Organic Pesticides

pesticidesHave you seen the pro-organic propaganda video with the happy family who switches to organic only food and the pesticides disappear from their urine? It has over 5 million hits as of this writing. This is a core fearmongering strategy of the organic lobby.

Of course, there is no discussion about the absolute level of the pesticides, and the fact that such levels are insignificant and pose no known risk. But there is a deeper deception in this video and many studies looking at the difference in pesticide exposure between conventional and organic produce. They are only testing for pesticides not used by organic farmers. They are not testing for pesticides that are used in organic farming.

The game, therefore, is completely rigged, and the outcome is assured. If they tested only for organic pesticides the results would be flipped.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 7

Apr 25 2016

How Old are Classic Fairy Tales?

beautyMy daughters will occasionally relate some bit of culture from their school, such as a joke or prank, that I recognize from my youth four decades ago. It is amazing to think that these memes have persisted in “kiddy culture” largely unchanged over decades, transmitted largely from older to younger children, though siblings or perhaps schoolmates. Of course, some of these memes were already old when I was a child. How far back do they go, I wonder?

Forget slightly crude jokes, what about classic fairy tales? Many of these tales were first recorded in the 19th century by the Brothers Grimm, but they were German academics who were just collecting folktales, not authoring them. Those folktales existed in oral tradition for a long time prior to being written down, but again, how long?

A recent study published in the Royal Society Open Science seeks to answer that question. The authors, Sara Graça da Silva and Jamshid J. Tehrani, took an evolutionary approach to the question.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 2

Apr 22 2016

Illegal Immigration and the Law of Unintended Consequences

Undocumented immigrantsOne thing I have learned as a science communicator over the last two decades, trying to digest many areas of science, is that stuff is complicated. It is a good rule of thumb that everything is more complicated than you might originally think.

This complexity takes various forms. First, unless you are at the leading edge of expertise in an area, your understanding of that topic is relatively superficial. There is greater depth and nuance than your current understanding, which is likely a necessary simplification.

Second, there are few clean answers in science. Some things, obviously, are well established to the point that we can treat them as facts, but many more things than we might naively suppose are controversial on some level. The evidence is mixed, imperfect, and incomplete and there remain various opinions about how to interpret the data.

As an aside, this is one of my peeves about how science is often communicated. A complex debate is distilled down to, scientists think X (representing just one side of that debate). Each time a new study is published apparently supporting one position, that position is now correct and the others are now wrong. All the nuance is lost.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 80

Apr 21 2016

Huffpo Attacks GMO Bananas

GMO-bananaEric Gimenez, writing for the Huffpo, recently wrote a typical anti-GMO piece, hitting many of the common themes. He focuses on the GMO banana with enhanced vitamin A, but his article reflects the poor logic, tortured arguments, and general anti-science of the anti-GMO crowd.

The GMO Banana

I wrote about the GMO banana controversy here. Bananas are a staple crop in parts of the world, including East Africa where it can represent up to 70% of calories consumed. Vitamin A deficiency is also common in this region. According to National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) acting director Dr Andrew Kiggundu, 52% of children under five in Uganda suffer from Vitamin A deficiency, while iron deficiency accounts for 40% of deaths in this age group.

The idea is to engineer a banana cultivar native to the region so that it produces more beta carotene and iron. The cultivar is already adapted to the region, and the locals are already heavily growing and relying upon this staple crop.

Further, the GMO is being developed by the Ugandan government, NARO, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). This is primarily a humanitarian project created by the local government and farmers.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 21

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?

Continue Reading »

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.

Continue Reading »

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.

Continue Reading »

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.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 8

« Prev - Next »