Archive for June, 2018

Jun 11 2018

The State of Carbon Capture

Published by under Technology

The basic idea of carbon capture is fairly simple – in order to counteract industries that release CO2 into the atmosphere, we develop technologies that remove CO2 from the atmosphere. If these industries exist in near balance, then there will be no net increase in CO2.

When you think about it, we do have to eventually get there – to the point that human activity does not result in a net increase in CO2 in the atmosphere. Any significant amount will build up over time and have an effect. We need to get down to negligible amounts, compatible with homeostasis and indefinite sustainability.

Clearly we are not there now. Currently the world emits about 9.8 gigatonnes (billion tonnes) of carbon per year. That carbon winds up in the air (44%), ocean (26%) and land (30%). Ninety-one percent of these emissions come from fossil fuels: “coal (42%), oil (33%), gas (19%), cement (6%) and gas flaring (1%).”

One obvious way to reduce global carbon emissions, therefore, is to use carbon neutral sources of energy to replace fossil fuels. But no energy source is completely carbon neutral – you still have to build the wind turbines and solar panels, or farm the biofuels. Also, until we find a replacement for cement, that industry will still release massive amounts of carbon. So there is certainly a lot of room to reduce our carbon emissions, but it does not seem that we will reduce them to globally negligible anytime soon.

Carbon capture, therefore, is an attractive idea. However much carbon we remove from the environment (air, water, and soil) gives us a budget of carbon we can afford to release into the environment with other industries. The consensus, however, is that carbon capture technology is no where near being a magic solution to climate change and carbon. At best it will be one of many technologies that inch us toward a carbon-neutral future.

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Jun 08 2018

Séralini Fails Replication

Published by under General Science

Gilles-Éric Séralini is a French researcher who came to fame from publishing a study in 2012 claiming that herbicide-tolerant GMO corn, with or without combination with glyphosate herbicide, increased tumor risk in rats. He used this study to call into question the safety of GMOs generally, and to call for long term feeding studies. His results were embraced by the anti-GMO crowd, and to this day are cited as evidence GMOs are not safe.

One small problem, however, is that Séralini’s study was terrible. It immediately came under intense criticism. Specifically, the study had small sample size, and used a strain of rats known to have a high background rate of tumors. The data, therefore, was full of noise and was essentially uninterpretable. This is probably the reason for the lack of statistical analysis – because there were no significant findings. For these reasons in 2013 the study was retracted. In 2014 the paper was republished in a new open-access journal,  Environmental Sciences Europe, without additional peer-review.

It is pretty clear that Séralini is anti-GMO, and this likely biased his research. But regardless, the study methodology is terrible and the results worthless. But it did serve its (what I believe to be its true) purpose – to stoke fears about GMOs and to provide published “scientific” evidence to support the claims of anti-GMO activists.

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Jun 07 2018

Homeopathy Loses NHS Case

The National Health Service (NHS) in England decided in November 2017 to stop funding homeopathic treatments. That was an excellent decision, made for the right reasons – “lack of robust evidence of clinical effectiveness”. While I think that is an understatement, it is true enough, and is sufficient justification for any modern health care system to abandon homeopathy.

Now a High Court Judge has affirmed that decision by the NHS. Why was a judge even involved? Because the British Homeopathic Association (BHA) sued the NHS over that decision.

Legally, this case was fairly straight forward. The judge was  clear to point out that it was not his job to review the scientific evidence regarding homeopathy. The BHA argued in court that there is “plain evidence that homeopathic treatment does work in particular cases”. That is complete nonsense – homeopathy is nothing but magic potions, with no scientific plausibility, and the scientific evidence clearly shows that it does not work for anything.

But the judge did not have to get into that in court, which is appropriate. It should not be for a judge to make scientific decisions like that. His job was to answer the BHA complaint that the NHS was being unfair in their decision. The judge ruled, however, that the NHS process was “fair and balanced” and that “there was no evidence of ‘bias or predetermination'”.

I do worry when such issues come up before courts or regulatory bodies. It is easy to make the claim of bias against those who are simply following the evidence. It would, for example, be easy to make the case that I am “biased” against homeopathy. After all, I have been regularly trashing the pseudoscience for years. But in reality I am just following logic and evidence. Correctly stating that something is pseudoscience is not a bias when it is the logical conclusion of a fair process.

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Jun 05 2018

Powering Implanted Devices

One of the cutting edge medical technologies that promises to be a game-changer in terms of our ability to affect biological function is the interaction between machines and biology. Of course we already have many medical devices, from cardiac pacemakers to artificial joints. Increasingly sick and aging humans are becoming cyborgs, as we augment and replace broken body parts with machines.

We have only scratched the surface of this potential, however, and the technology is advancing quickly. There are definitely technological hurdles that limit such technology, however, and perhaps chief among them is the need for power.

MIT researchers have recently presented a new method for powering implanted devices that may open the door to a further proliferation of implantable medical devices. They use radio waves as an external power source, which eliminated the need for cumbersome batteries.

Right now power is a major limiting factor for implantable medical devices. We can make small batteries, but they still become the largest part of many devices. Especially as solid state digital technology improves, we can make very tiny electronic devices, and then we attach a relatively large battery to them. Even these “large” batteries also have a limited life span.

There are several possible approaches to this problem. One is to make better batteries, ones that can hold more energy for longer in a smaller package. This is happening, incrementally, but is still a major limiting factor.

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Jun 04 2018

Indigenous Ways of Knowing

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

Science and the enlightenment are under assault from many directions, and in many incarnations, but they all tend to boil down to the same basic idea – other ways of knowing, and a rejection of the rigorous academic standards typified by science and scholarship.

One form of science rejection is being called “indigenous ways of knowing” (IWK), which refers to the traditions and culture of native people, typically historically oppressed by Western aggression and colonialism. Dealing with this topic can be tricky, because often the grievances are legitimate, and calls for a rethinking of the relationship between indigenous people and their former colonizers is appropriate. The problem comes from science and scholarship getting caught up in the process, being treated like just another example of imposed Western culture.

Josh Dehaas, writing for a Canadian paper, Quillette, discusses the situation in Canada, in which many universities are incorporating IWK into their curriculum. He correctly points out the problems with this approach, but the situation is not limited to Canada.

In Africa there is a similar movement, characterizing science as just another form of Western colonialism. This was a huge part of HIV denial in South Africa and elsewhere – treating the concept of HIV as the imposition of a Western idea onto native Africans, and a rejection of African cultural medicine. While HIV denial is on the wane, defense of ineffective prescientific treatments as “indigenous” is still a thing.

We even this a similar phenomenon when it comes to environmental protection. Saying that we should no longer hunt whales can be seen as just another assault on an indigenous way of life. It’s not their fault that Westerners overhunted whales (or cut down the rain forest, or whatever), so why should they pay the price? They have a point, but that point does not change the fact that some whale species are endangered and we shouldn’t be hunting them.

In the end, this is all just another form of post-modernism wrong applied to science – the notion that all “ways of knowing” and all knowledge are relative. No approach has a lock on the truth, not even science.

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Jun 01 2018

Another Advancement in Prosthetic Limbs

I have been following the development of brain-machine interfaces and their application to artificial (prosthetic) limbs. A recent paper documents another incremental but significant advance – combining a new surgical technique for amputation with a prosthetic designed to take advantage of it.

The goal is to close the loop between voluntary muscle control and sensory feedback, which is critical to that control. The way our brains normally work is to constantly monitor various sensory streams in order to create the subconscious and conscious sensation that we occupy, own, and control the various parts of our body.

We may take these phenomena for granted, but they are an active construction of the brain that are critical to proper function. Without the sensation that we occupy our body, we would have “out-of-body” sensations, like we were floating in space, and this would make it difficult to interface with the physical world.

Without the sense of ownership, we don’t feel like a limb is part of us, and it is therefore not incorporated into our internal model of our own body. This is the current state-of-the art for normal prosthetics – they feel like they are attached to the user, but not part of them. It therefore takes more conscious effort to use them, and control is not as good as a normal limb.

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