Jul 10 2020

Make America Sick Again

The graph, by itself, tells much of the story. We are still in the first wave of COVID-19, but the US is seeing a second hump to that wave. We are having the highest number of new cases right now, five months into this pandemic. A few months ago we hoped that by July we would start to see the tail end of this first wave, while we anxiously await a possible second wave in the fall, but instead we are seeing a surge. What is happening?

It’s always challenging to clearly see what is going when we are still in the middle of this pandemic, and our information is always a couple of weeks behind reality. But infectious disease experts and epidemiologists are seeing some patterns and are all expressing the same concerns. First, part of what we are seeing is just the natural course of this pandemic. In the US it largely started in urban centers with airports. NY had multiple introductions of the virus from Europe, for example. For this reason they were hit early and hard, while rural America was largely unscathed.

But the wave has moved through those urban centers into the rest of the US. Part of the problem is that, if you look at pooled US data it looked in May and into June that the death toll was declining and new cases were also declining. This created the false impression that, as a country, we were seeing the end of the first wave and we could start opening up. Plus there were legitimate concerns about the effect on the economy of prolonged shutdown, and understandably people were getting lockdown fatigue. But the total US numbers did not tell the full story. In April, as total US numbers started to go down, if you just removed New York from the data the rest of the 49 states were still going up. New York City, which was hit very early, was distorting the data. In May and June all you had to do was remove NY, CT, NJ, and MA from the data, and the other 46 states were increasing. But the illusion that the first wave was winding down had its effect.

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Jul 09 2020

The Brain’s Filter

If you have not seen this video of students passing basketballs around, watch it now before reading further.

The now famous video, from Simons 1999, is a demonstration of inattentional blindness. There is no trick here, just a demonstration of normal brain functioning. When we are focusing our attention on one type of stimuli we can filter out “distracting” stimuli that doesn’t fit the parameters. In the basketball example you were instructed to pay attention to the students in white, so your brain flagged the students in black as distracting information. The gorilla, which is also black, was therefore filtered out as well (for about 40% of subjects).

Interestingly, often people take pride in having noticed the gorilla, but this is not necessarily a manifestation of having better attention. In fact noticing the gorilla, if anything, might mean you are more distractable and have worse attention (it also can be mostly random chance). The brain is supposed to filter out extraneous stimulation, otherwise we would not be able to function. Those suffering from traumatic brain injury, for example, often complain that they cannot filter out distracting sensory stimuli, so they find noisy or busy environments (like crowds) very uncomfortable. They may not be able to focus on work unless they are in a distraction-free environment. It’s impairing.

In other words – in the experimental setup of the students passing around the basketballs, not noticing the gorilla was an active step of filtration by the brain, not a failure to notice the gorilla. Such inattentional blindness is now experimentally well-established. Actually (interesting story) the first experiments demonstrating inattentional blindness were in 1959, but they were accidental. Paranormal researcher Tony Cornell published a couple of experiments regarding people noticing a subject wearing a ghost costume, and found that surprisingly few people did. He interpreted the results incorrectly, as evidence that a person in a sheet lacked the psi phenomena of a “real” ghost, but now we can look back and clearly see inattentional blindness at work.

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Jul 07 2020

Mystery of the Disappearing Star

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Stars do not just disappear – except when they do.

Using the Very Large Telescope (part of the European Southern Observatory) astronomers have been tracking a massive unstable star. The star is located in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy, which is a distant, small, and metal poor galaxy (PHL 293B – at a distance of 23.1 Mpc ). This is too far away for current telescopes to resolve individual stars, but astronomers can detect the presence of specific stars by looking at the spectral absorption lines. Between 2001 and 2011 they were monitoring a luminous blue variable star (LBV). These are massive blue stars, and this one was believed to be at the end of its life. They were able to infer temperature and other features that suggests the star was in an eruptive phase.

Then, in 2019, astronomers wanted to check back up on this star so they looked for the spectral lines in the same location of Kinman and – they were gone. The star was apparently gone. What could have happened?

The astronomers have put forth two hypotheses. The first is more mundane – if the star was in an eruptive phase, perhaps it shed a lot of its mass, rapidly becoming a much smaller and dimmer star (sometime between 2011 and 2019). This alone would not be enough to explain the disappearance, and so over this same time the star might also have been obscured by dust. This combination of factors could explain the disappearance.

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Jul 06 2020

Feeding Animals Insects

The current world population is 7.8 billion people. We are expected to reach 10 billion by 2057, which, let’s face it, is right around the corner. That is a lot of people to feed. We don’t produce enough food now to feed that many people, and we are already using almost all the available arable land (this is a complex topic, but I go over it in detail here). What are the possible solutions?

Some argue for population control, and there is a reasonable argument to be made for leveling off and stabilizing human populations, even allowing them to drift down a bit. I don’t want to go into detail on this issue here, just to quickly say I reject arguments for radical population control, or things like allowing mass starvation to occur. But I support efforts such as lifting people out of poverty and affording more rights to women, both measures being shown to reduce population increase.

Another offered solution is to reduce food waste, and this is a noble effort. However, there is no magic wand we can wave to make this happen. Food waste is built into the system, and a major cause is the limited shelf life of food. It spoils. But there is unnecessary waste in the system, and we can do a better job of making sure as many calories end up consumed (by people or animals) as possible, and the rest is recycled as fertilizer. But this isn’t going to solve the problem.

This leaves us with food production – we need to produce more calories of food in order to meet growing demand. This is going to require a global effort, and the introduction of new technology. I have argued for the necessity of GMOs in order to meet growing demand for food while minimizing land use. But we have to produce not only more food, we need to produce food smarter – making sure that our resources (especially land) are being used optimally.

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Jul 02 2020

Homeopathy is Impazable

A study by Russian researcher purports to find that a treatment, Impaza, increases penis length during copulation in rats, while the water placebo group and sildenafil (Viagra) did not. The authors conclude: “This effect, together with an absence of motivational actions, suggests that Impaza may be the most valuable treatment for erectile dysfunction.” The study was originally published in the International Journal of Impotence Research, but was later retracted by the editors. The primary reason for the retraction is that the editors discovered that Impaza is a homeopathic product, something that was apparently missed on initial peer review.

This is definitely an editorial fail, but at least it was quickly corrected. To put the failure in context, however, Impaza was not presented as homeopathic, but rather as a “release-active antibody-based” drug. This is code in Russia, apparently, to disguise the homeopathic nature of certain products. It is not uncommon in pseudoscience for proponents to come up with scientific sounding euphemisms for their nonsense in order to hide from the negative association with charlatans and quacks.

Editors and reviewers, however, need to dig deep enough to uncover such pseudoscience. At the very least there was a lack of curiosity on the part of the editors, and insufficient vigilance against the intrusion of pseudoscience.

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Jun 30 2020

Raw Milk is Bad

It often seems that for every modern advance that helps humanity live safer, more comfortable, and more productive lives there are those who claim that advance is a bane to be avoided, perhaps even the plot of a sinister conspiracy. One of the more perplexing examples is raw milk aficionados. These are people who claim, against all evidence, that raw milk is healthier. A new study adds to the pile of evidence that they are wrong.

Most milk consumed in the US and industrialized nations is pasteurized and homogenized. Pasteurization is the process of flash heating raw milk in order to kill bacteria, making the milk safer and extending its shelf life. The process involves heating milk in stainless steel containers to 161° F for 15 seconds then rapidly cooling down to 39° F.  Many European countries prefer ultra-pasteurized milk, which involves heating to 280-300 degrees F for 2-3 seconds. This produces so-called shelf stable milk that does not have to be refrigerated.

Pasteurization undeniably works as advertised. As Mark Crislip summarized over at SBM, the widespread use of pasteurization has reduced milk as a source of human bacterial infection outbreaks from 25% to 1%. Many studies have shown that consuming raw milk is a risk factor for bacterial infection. So why would raw milk proponents claim it is better? They believe that raw milk is more nutritious and tastes better, and contains healthy probiotics.

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Jun 26 2020

Face Mask War

It’s always disappointing (not surprising, but disappointing) when a purely scientific question unnecessarily becomes a political or social one. Whether or not to wear a face mask during an historic pandemic should be purely a question of risk vs benefit – does it work, and is there any downside? The evidence is clear enough at this point that mask wearing helps reduce the spread of COVID-19. David Gorski recently reviewed the evidence, including a recent meta-analysis, and found:

When it came to masks, an analysis of 29 unadjusted and 10 adjusted studies demonstrated that the use of masks was also associated with a large decrease in transmission, both for N95 masks and for disposable surgical masks or similar reusable 12- to 16-layer cotton masks.

Since that review there have been further studies, such as this one, showing that countries who adopted mask wearing early had fewer cases of illness. The benefit, therefore, seems clear. What’s the downside? Pretty minimal. Sure, it may be a pain and a bit uncomfortable, but this is a minor nuisance at worst. People who are hard of hearing and rely on lip reading probably suffer the biggest downside. There are masks with transparent sections over the mouth to facilitate lip reading, however, for those who need to deal with the hearing impaired.

So wear a mask if you are sick, around other people who are sick, or just in public. In some countries it is considered hygiene etiquette, as it should be.

As a side note, there is some confusion because early on the WHO recommended not to wear a mask in public unless you or others were sick. This was not because the evidence did not support it, however, but because there was a shortage of PPE and people were hording. The idea was to make sure that essential workers had enough masks. This is no longer an issue, and the WHO has revised their recommendations, which are now in line with the CDC – wear a mask, even just to go in public.

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Jun 25 2020

Mass Gap Object Discovered

Published by under Astronomy
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Trust me, this is cool. Astronomers have discovered a stellar remnant with 2.6 solar masses, which is within a range of mass called the “mass gap” because of the almost complete lack of such objects in that range.  This is both an astronomy mystery (how do such objects form) and a physics mystery (what forces dominate at this size). Any new data points give us clues to solve the mystery of the mass gap, so this is exciting news.

Even still, yet again I find the headlines and even the popular reporting hyping the find. The BBC headline reads, “‘Black neutron star’ discovery changes astronomy.” No, this is not going to “change astronomy,” unless you count every incremental addition of new information as changing the entire field. Also, calling it a “black neutron star”, while a possibility, is assuming only one possible conclusion. But let’s get into the interesting details.

For quick background, when stars die they leave behind a stellar remnant. When stars run out of fuel they are able to burn (which is partly determined by their mass) they no longer produce the outward pressure of fusion and so gravity takes over and they collapse. If they are large enough (8-15 solar masses) the core collapse results in a supernova. Either way, what’s left behind is a stellar remnant. Small remnants become a white dwarf, a glowing hot ember but without fusion. If the remnant is at least 1.4 solar masses the force of gravity will overcome the repulsive force among the positive proton and negative electrons and the white dwarf will collapse down to a neutron star – in simplistic terms, the electrons and protons will merge into neutrons, so the entire thing is made of neutrons.

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Jun 22 2020

A Green Recovery

I don’t like the headline of this article: World has six months to avert climate crisis, says energy expert. It’s accurate – a climate scientist does indeed say that, but it is focusing on an extreme end of expert opinion, and is misleading without context. I know, headlines are attention grabbers and often not written by the author of the article, I just find it all annoying.

In any case – what is this guy, Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, talking about? His point, which is an interesting one, is that the pandemic provides an opportunity to accelerate reduction in carbon emissions. This is because the world is set to spend “$9tn (£7.2tn) globally” on the economic recovery, much of it focused on job preservation and creation. What if we spend some of that money on job creation in the green energy sector? That is where the “six months” comes from. It is not based on science, on when we spend our carbon budget or when getting to a climate tipping point becomes inevitable. Rather, it is the time frame of determining how those trillions of economic recovery dollars will be spent. Birol argues this is our last realistic chance, from this political perspective, to make the dramatic changes to our economic and energy infrastructure that averting the worst of climate change requires.

He does have a point, although I would argue that it is never theoretically too late. At any point the world could muster the political will to deal properly with climate change. Sometimes we do reach inflection points in public opinion. But the pessimistic view is that this is unlikely to happen with climate change. The political will probably will not manifest until after it is too late.

There are several reasons for my pessimism. One is that the effects of climate change will not generally be felt until years after the carbon release that causes it. We are already, arguably, feeling the effects of climate change, but not in a way that is overwhelmingly undeniable, at least to enough people to make a difference. Further, there are vested interests in the status who that spend a lot of money on disinformation and political lobbying. They don’t have to “win” the argument in the end, only cause enough fear and doubt to delay action.

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Jun 19 2020

News vs Commentary

The line between news and commentary has arguably become more blurred in recent decades. This has implications for libel law, which also reflects the shifting media landscape. A recent lawsuit involving Tucker Carlson illustrates the problem.

Carlson is being sued for defamation by Karen McDougal for a segment in which she claims Carlson accused her of extortion.  She is one of two women that we know of who were paid off to remain silent about affairs with Trump. Here is the money quote from Carlson:

“Two women approached Donald Trump and threatened to ruin his career and humiliate his family if he doesn’t give them money. Now that sounds like a classic case of extortion.”

For background, libel cases are hard to prove in the US. You need to demonstrate that statements were made in public that are claims to facts, that are factually wrong, where the person making the statement knew they were wrong or had a disregard for the truth, that there was malice of intent, and that actual harm resulted. For some statements you don’t have to prove harm, they are “libel per se,” such as accusing someone of pedophilia. The harm is taken for granted. If the target of the alleged defamation is a public figure, then the burden of proof is even higher.

At issue here are whether Carlson’s statements were presented as facts or opinion. Opinion is completely protected free speech, and cannot be defamatory legally. The first part of Carlson’s statement above is stated as simple fact. The second part (“that sounds like”) seems to be his analysis or opinion. Forgetting the other aspects of the defamation standard for now, this question seems to be the crux of the case. Was Carlson making a factual claim he knew to be untrue, or without concern for whether or not it was true? The defamation standard requires more than just being wrong.

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