Nov 27 2017

Renewed Antiscience Legislation

The fight over science in public education continues, and if anything picked up considerably in 2017. Earlier in the year Nature reported on various state laws designed to water down science education or allow for equal time to be given to unscientific views. They report:

Florida’s legislature approved a bill on 5 May that would enable residents to challenge what educators teach students. And two other states have already approved non-binding legislation this year urging teachers to embrace ‘academic freedom’ and present the full spectrum of views on evolution and climate change. This would give educators license to treat evolution and intelligent design as equally valid theories, or to present climate change as scientifically contentious.

New Mexico took a more direct approach – simply scrubbing “controversial” ideas from the state’s science standards. The standards no longer mention “evolution”, human contributions to climate change, or even mentioning the age of the Earth. This is not a back door approach – this is straight-up censorship of accepted scientific facts.

A new Florida bill also includes this problematic language:

Controversial theories and concepts must be taught in a factual, objective, and balanced manner.

This is part of the latest strategy. First, don’t mention any one theory (like evolution) by name. That is likely to trigger a constitutional challenge. Second, make the bill sound like it is promoting something positive, like academic freedom, democracy, or just being fair and balanced.

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Nov 24 2017

Evolution Observed in Darwin’s Finches

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galapagos finchJust two weeks ago I wrote about “Evolution Caught in the Act” – I was writing about fossils that are clearly transitional and occur within a major evolutionary change, like a land animal adapting to aquatic life. Now we have another report that justifies the same title, although this one is in living species.

For this observation we go back to the beginning, to the Galapagos where Darwin made observations critical to his development of evolutionary theory. The Galapagos are a chain is relatively young volcanic islands, far enough from the mainland to provide relative isolation, but close enough for life to find its way there. Most famously, some ancestral finch species found its way to the island. Their descendants then adapted to a variety of food sources, most obvious in the change in beak size and shape, optimized for its new use.

What Darwin observed is that the Galapagos finches filled many of the same niches as other bird families in other parts of the world. He had to puzzle out why on the Galapagos all those niches were filled by finches. He figured out that they must be descended from an ancestral finch, which also means that they have speciated into a large number of different finch species as they adapted to different islands and different food sources.

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Nov 21 2017

How Wikipedia Tackles Fringe Nonsense

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wikipedia2Wikipedia is an interesting experiment in amateur crowdsourcing of information. I think it is a massively successful experiment, but it faces specific challenges. This page on Wikipedia discusses their approach to what information they allow to remain in their pages. They have a number of policies and practices that are meant to act as a quality control filter.

In my opinion they have settled upon a reasonable approach that might even be used as a model in other contexts. They begin with a completely open model – anyone can become a contributor and add information to Wikipedia. This is the crowdsourcing angle – many hands make light work. There are currently approximately 5,505,947 articles on the English language version of wikipedia. Wikipedia was founded on January 15, 2001, so that is almost 17 years. It is hard to imaging creating a reference with that much information by any other method in that much time.

So the wiki model is ideal for quantity, but what about quality. From the beginning there were concerns about the quality of the information – if anyone can post information, how can we know how accurate it is? A 2008 study comparing Wikipedia to other references for historical articles found Wikipedia to have an 80% accuracy rating, compared to 95-96% for other references. However, a 2005 Nature study of science entries found that Wikipedia was almost as good as Brittanica online – with no differences in major errors, and with an average of 4 errors total per article for Wikipedia, and 3 per article for Brittanica.

There haven’t been many studies since then, but a 2012 small follow up study found no significant difference between Wikipedia and other sources. Wikipedia has tightened its editorial policies over that time, so the improvement makes sense.

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Nov 20 2017

The Moon Landing Hoax – Again

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Apollo-17-visorJames Randi has often observed that paranormal beliefs are like “unsinkable rubber duckies.” No matter how many times they are knocked down, they just keep popping back up. That’s because they are not based on facts or logic, but motivated reasoning serving some deeper cultural or emotional need. You can counter them with facts, but that is not addressing the real reason for their existence.

Conspiracy theories are the same. There is a variety of motivations behind them, having nothing to do with the truth. They result partly from hyperactive pattern recognition and agency detection, serving a need for certainty, feeling special, and defending existing narratives from refutation. A well-tended conspiracy theory is like impenetrable armor that can turn away any fact.

The notion that the US never really went to the moon, and that the entire Apollo program was staged for some reason is one such conspiracy theory. Those who promote the moon landing hoax conspiracy theory depend largely on anomaly hunting – looking for anything that they cannot immediately explain, or that looks odd, and then proclaiming that it is evidence for a hoax. So far every one of their alleged anomalies has been shot down.

They claim, for example, that the lighting in photographs from the moon’s surface is uneven, proving stage lighting. Actually, the opposite is true. The unevenness of the shadows is from the unevenness of the surface of the moon itself. But properly analyzed, the photos show that the lighting is, in fact, parallel. This indicates a distant light source, like the sun. To duplicate this effect on earth, while simultaneously duplicating the lack of diffusion (no atmosphere) would have required many bright white lasers, technology that simply did not exist back then. (Lasers were expensive and only available in red.)

So ironically, what the moon hoax conspiracy theorists end up proving is that the moon landing could not possibly have been faked and was therefore real.

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Nov 17 2017

The Ethics of Head Transplants

sergio-canaveroNewsweek, who has been following the story of Italian Neurosurgeon, Sergio Canavero, now reports: “Human Head Transplants Are About to Happen in China: But Where Are the Bodies Coming From?”

I have already discussed the scientific aspects of this claim. They are highly implausible and I doubt that such a transplant is about to happen at all. If it does I predict it will be a dismal failure, and ethically dubious. First, I have to reiterate, that it is far more accurate to call such a procedure a body transplant. The head donor will wake up with a new body. The body donor is, I suspect, dead.

There are three basic hurdles that need to be overcome in order to have a successful body transplant – the surgical attachment, suppression of rejection, and regeneration of the attached neurological tissue. Given that Canavero is a surgeon, I suspect he is excited about the first issue. He may think he has made some advances because he improved his technique for making the attachment. This was never, however, the primary hurdle.

We are already making great advances with organ transplantation and controlling rejection. However, this is still a huge issue. Donor and recipient have to be closely matched, and lifelong drugs are required. Still, the amount of tissue being transplanted here will be a challenge. It opens up, for the first time, the possible effects of tissue rejection on an entire brain. While this is a significant hurdle, our current treatments mean it is not necessarily a deal breaker (it might be, but research would be needed to see).

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Nov 16 2017

John Oliver Nails Trump

Oliver-Trump 2017In the season finale of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver reviews Trump’s assault on truth and decency. If you haven’t been watching this show, you should give it a try. Not only is it funny and entertaining, but on each episode Oliver does a deep dive on something in our society that is not right and can be fixed. His researchers generally do a great job, and I also think Oliver does a good job of not being gratuitously partisan.

His season-long attacks on Trump may not make it seem that way, but I don’t think they are partisan. I also try to keep my personal politics out of my science advocacy, but I think the problems with Trump transcend politics, ideology, and party. In this last episode for the season, Oliver reviews why this is true.

The real problem with Trump is not that he is Republican or conservative – actually you could argue that he is barely either of those things. It’s not even necessarily that he is an anti-establishment populist who wants to shake things up. The real danger of Trump is that he is an anti-intellectual who has been waging war against journalism, expertise, decency, standards, and any notion of objectivity.

For Trump the only thing that appears to matter is the current struggle in which he is engaged – he needs to achieve what he perceives as victory over any adversary, at any cost. Being honest and respecting knowledge and accuracy doesn’t seem to factor in at all.

As a result Trump is willing to sacrifice the basic fabric that is necessary for a functional democracy. He seems to view democratic checks and balances as nothing but an annoyance and obstacle, so eroding that fabric is just another win for him.

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Nov 14 2017

Fact-checking on Facebook

facebook-unlikeLast year Facebook announced that it was partnering with several outside news agencies, the Associated Press, Snopes, ABC News, PolitiFact and FactCheck.org, to fact-check popular news articles and then provide a warning label for those articles on Facebook. How is that effort working out?

According to a recent survey, not so well. Yale researchers Rand and Pennycook found only tiny effects overall, and it’s possible there is a net negative effect from the warning labels. Some people just ignore the labels. Perhaps more significant, however, is the fact that fake news articles that were missed by the fact-checkers were more likely to be believed as real because they lacked the warning label. The fact-checkers could not possibly keep up with all the fake news, so they were overwhelmed and most of the dubious content not only made it through the filters, but benefited from a false implication of legitimacy.

Further, the Guardian reports that this arrangement between Facebook and these news outlets compromise the ability of those news outlets from being a proper watchdog on Facebook itself. If their journalists are being paid by Facebook to fact-check, then they have a conflict of interest when reporting on how Facebook is doing. This conflict is exacerbated by the fact that news organizations are hard-up for income, and could really use the extra income from Facebook.

So it seems that the fact-checking efforts of Facebook were insufficient to have any really benefit, and may have even backfired. Warning labels on dubious news articles may be the wrong approach. It’s simply too easy to foil this protection by overwhelming the system. You could even deliberately flood Facebook with outrageously fake news stories to serve as flack and provide cover for the propaganda you really want to get through. In the end the propaganda will be even more effective.

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Nov 13 2017

Raccoons Are Smart But Not Good Pets

raccoon-AesopsAnimal intelligence is fascinating for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it forces researchers to think carefully about what intelligence is. The comparison might also provide a window into what constitutes human intelligence in particular.

There is no question that humans have intellectual capabilities that no other species has. However, some animals are smarter in certain ways than you may imagine. Certain birds, like corvids (jays and crows) have demonstrated significant problem-solving capability, for example. Researchers are also finding that raccoons may be even smarter than we suspected.

One paradigm of animal intelligence research is known as the Aesop’s Fable test, based on the the story of the thirsty crow. In this tale a thirsty crow came upon a tall pitcher with water at the bottom, but it could not reach down the long neck to the water. So it dropped stones in the pitcher to raise the water level until it could reach. This behavior demonstrates creative problem-solving and some basic understanding of cause and effect. Corvids have the ability to pass this test – they can figure out how to use objects to raise the water level to gain access to water or food.

A recent study performed the same test on raccoons. They were given access to a long tube with marshmallows floating lower down, too low for them to reach. First they were shown how dropping stones would raise the water level. Two of eight raccoons tests were then able to use this effect to gain access to the marshmallows. Statistically this is not as good a performance as corvids, but at least some raccoons are smart enough to pass the test. Continue Reading »

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Nov 10 2017

Glyphosate Not Associated with Cancer

IARC-Headquarters_ExteriorIn March of 2015 the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization (WHO), published their assessment on glyphosate, Monsanto’s popular weedkiller, classifying it as 2a – a probable carcinogen. This was like red meat to the anti-GMO crowd, and even sparked class action suits against Monsanto and may lead to banning use of the chemical in the EU.

There were significant problems with the IARC report, however. First – it is at odds with every other expert review of the scientific literature on glyphosate. I review the evidence here, citing many expert panel reviews, all conclude that the evidence does not support a link between glyphosate and risk of cancer. The IARC conclusion is a clear outlier, which reasonably prompts questions as to why their designation stands out.

We also need to put the IARC classification of 2a – probable carcinogen, into context. This is the same classification that the IARC gave to drinking hot beverages or eating red meat. Overall they tend to err on the side of caution when making their classification.

But there were problems that go beyond where the IARC sets their threshold for “probable.” Two main criticisms have emerged. The first is the lack of transparency. Reuters has published a series of articles on the issue, outlining, for example, that when the EPA reviewed the safety of glyphosate they also published a 1300 + page document that outlines the entire deliberative process. The IARC produced no such document.

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Nov 09 2017

Evolution Caught in the Act

The hypothesis that life on Earth as it is currently found is the result of biological evolution from a common ancestor over billions of years is supported by such a mountain of evidence that it can be treated as an established scientific fact. Further, it is now a fundamental organizing theory of biology.

This, of course, does not stop ideologically motivated denial. There are those who have been systematically misinformed about the evidence, and the nature of science itself. What they think they know about evolutionary theory they learned from secondary hostile sources. One of the common lies they are repeatedly told is that there are no transitional fossils.

This claim amazes me still, because the evidence is so easily accessible. Lists of transitional fossils are easy to find. One of my favorite examples is the evolution of birds, because the morphological transition from theropod dinosaurs to modern birds was so dramatic.

I also have to point out that this evidence represents a successful prediction of evolutionary theory. When Darwin first published his theory the fossil record was scant. Enough fossils had been discovered for scientists to see that life was dramatically changing over geological time, but the puzzle was mostly empty. There were not enough specimens to see connections between major groups. Evolutionary theory predicts that such connections would be found – and they were, and they continue to be.

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