Ronald Bailey looks at the too-good-to-be-true claims made for caloric reduction as a life-extending tool:
Last week, two research teams reported to great fanfare that restricting the calories consumed by rhesus monkeys had extended their lifespans. Calorie restriction is thought to increase longevity by boosting DNA repair. The idea is that the mechanism evolved so that creatures on the verge of starvarion could live long enough to reproduce when food becomes plentiful again. But did the experiments really show the CR works?
In my earlier blogpost on the research results, I noted that some experts quoted in the New York Times were not convinced. Why? Because the difference in actual death rates between the dieting monkeys and the free feeding monkeys was not statistically significant.
This doesn't necessarily derail the notion that calorie restriction may be associated with increased lifespan, but the way this study was performed does not appear to prove anything due to rigging of the data.
If you see spirals of green, pinkish-orange, and blue, you'll want to get your eyes checked . . . the "green" and "blue" are actually the same colour.
Archaeology is one of the branches of scientific study that occasionally comes up with unusual results:
Archaeologists unearth oldest known 3D pornography:
German cavemen carved jubtabulous mammoth-tusk lady
Topflight archaeologists have unearthed a 35,000-year-old figurine carved out of mammoth ivory by prehistoric Germans, depicting a woman with enormous breasts. The find is thought to be the oldest known example of 3D pornography in the world.
Credit: Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen
The find was made in the Hohle Fels Cave in the Swabian Jura area of southwest Germany last year, by Nicholas Conard of Tübingen Uni. He believes that the jubtastic relic is at least 5,000 years older than previously-discovered busty nude cavewoman themed objets d'art, and perhaps indicates that the desire to goggle at saucy imagery of ladies well-furnished in the tophamper department is a basic attribute of modern humanity.
[From the posting by P.Z. Myers] Words fail me. What is a doctorate in homeopathic medicine? A blank piece of paper taped to your wall?
[Anonymous]: No, a doctorate in homeopathic medicine would be a blank piece of paper soaked in a 1:10,000,000 tincture made from the ink of an actual doctor's diploma.
[CJO]: It's in a 6-foot tall stack of blank diploma-sized parchment leaves. Damned if anyone can find it, but it's in there somewhere, trust me.
[W. Kevin Vicklund]: Take a doctoral degree, copy at 1% "darkness", copy the copy at 1%, etc. for a total of 100 copies. The final one is the one taped to the wall.
[JDStackpole]: You heard about the homeopathy patient who died from an overdose?
He skipped taking his meds one day.
Some news on a possible use for Duckweed as a pollution control:
The tiniest flowering plant could prove well-suited to two very big jobs: cleaning industrial animal pollution and providing clean biofuel.
Able to thrive on nutrients in animal waste, duckweed produces far more starch per acre than corn, say researchers. It could be an alternative to corn-based ethanol biofuel, which is disfavored by environmentalists because of waste generated in farming it.
"Based on our laboratory studies, we can produce five to six times more starch per unit of footage," said Jay Cheng, a biological engineer at North Carolina State University.
More than a decade ago, Cheng and fellow NC State forestry professor Anne-Marie Stomp wondered whether fast-growing duckweed, commonly seen in shallow ponds, might remediate animal waste. Excrement from the billions of animals raised every year in America's factory farms has fouled watersheds, especially in the South, and fed oxygen-gobbling algae blooms responsible for rapidly-spreading coastal dead zones.
A real two-for-one deal: cleaning up animal wastes and producing cheaper ethanol than corn. Sounds great . . . until the corn lobby gets their legislative act into high gear.
I've posted (many, many, times) that the BMI is a pseudo-scientific scam, and is actively harming efforts to improve public health (by focusing on a mathematical formula which has no provable connection to actual human healthy weight). Kate Harding has posted a series of photos, showing what "normal", "overweight", "obese" people actually look like.
H/T to Marna Nightingale for the link.
A report in The Register on heating trends in the Atlantic Ocean reveals that airborne dust is a much greater factor than CO2 in the atmosphere:
American scientists say that variations in atmospheric dust levels affect the temperature of the Atlantic ocean far more than global warming. Research indicates that 70 per cent of the change in Atlantic temperature over recent decades has resulted from reduced dust, rather than climate change.
The new analysis comes from scientists in the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Wisconsin. They say that the Atlantic temperature trend has been warmer by approximately a quarter of a degree each decade since 1980: but that most of this is actually because more sunlight is reaching the sea due to reducing levels of dirt in the air above it.
"A lot of this upward trend in the long-term pattern can be explained just by dust storms and volcanoes," says Amato Evan of Wisconsin uni. "About 70 percent of it is just being forced by the combination of dust and volcanoes, and about a quarter of it is just from the dust storms themselves."
Take a moment to wish a happy 95th birthday to possibly the greatest contributor to human life and health in history, Norman Borlaug. If you haven't heard of him, it's not terribly surprising . . . his research and its application have saved the lives of possibly a billion people, but it hasn't been the sort of work that garners a lot of celebrity attention. Unlike most revolutionaries, his Green Revolution measurably added to the health, wealth, and happiness of the world.
From a Ronald Bailey interview in Reason magazine:
Reason: What do you think of organic farming? A lot of people claim it's better for human health and the environment.
Borlaug: That's ridiculous. This shouldn't even be a debate. Even if you could use all the organic material that you have — the animal manures, the human waste, the plant residues — and get them back on the soil, you couldn't feed more than 4 billion people. In addition, if all agriculture were organic, you would have to increase cropland area dramatically, spreading out into marginal areas and cutting down millions of acres of forests.
At the present time, approximately 80 million tons of nitrogen nutrients are utilized each year. If you tried to produce this nitrogen organically, you would require an additional 5 or 6 billion head of cattle to supply the manure. How much wild land would you have to sacrifice just to produce the forage for these cows? There's a lot of nonsense going on here.
If people want to believe that the organic food has better nutritive value, it's up to them to make that foolish decision. But there's absolutely no research that shows that organic foods provide better nutrition. As far as plants are concerned, they can't tell whether that nitrate ion comes from artificial chemicals or from decomposed organic matter. If some consumers believe that it's better from the point of view of their health to have organic food, God bless them. Let them buy it. Let them pay a bit more. It's a free society. But don't tell the world that we can feed the present population without chemical fertilizer. That's when this misinformation becomes destructive . . .
Whaddaya know? Cold fusion is back in the news:
Is the science community warming to cold fusion? It's been 20 years to the day since Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, electrochemists at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, announced the discovery of what they believed to be "cold fusion" (now often referred to as low-energy nuclear reactions, or LENR), a room-temperature nuclear reaction that reportedly generated an unexplained amount of heat. The pronouncement spawned a flurry of excitement about a new renewable energy source, but enthusiasm quickly waned after the result wasn't satisfactorily replicated. Today at the American Chemical Society's national meeting in the very same city, researchers are recapping recent developments in the field — including images of what some believe are telltale signs of reaction-born subatomic particles, as well as documentation of heat, helium, gamma rays and other products from possible low-energy nuclear reactions.
"We have been working for . . . years to know what kinds of questions to address," one of the presenters Antonella De Ninno, a scientist at the New Technolgies Energy and Environment in Italy, said in a statement. "After long term and intensive research, we found ourselves able to give a reasonable . . . explanation."
So far, the US Department of Energy appears unimpressed saying that the evidence "did not conclusively demonstrate the occurrence of cold fusion."
There's an interesting discussion over at Slashdot about those quasi-scientific psychological profile tests. It started with a discussion of a takedown request for a blogger who'd posted the first 75 of 567 questions (with answers) to one of those tests, then quickly branched out into a discussion of the tests themselves:
unlametheweak: The sad thing is that people who lie on the test (and are consistent about it) are the ones that are going to get hired.
Take for example, "It would be better if almost all laws were thrown away". Now considering that this test is for the police force, it's obvious that the Human Resource types aren't interested in hiring a civil Libertarian, however purely philosophical he is in his beliefs.
"I do not always tell the truth"
If you answer "False" to this (like I would), then you would also be weeded out as a liar. Because well, most people lie most of the time, and according to the HR types, if you don't admit to lying then you are just a dishonest liar.
Greyfox: I always lie, therefore I would have to answer "false" to "I do not always tell the truth."
Why do I get the feeling that other than that one question their test would show me to be a model employee?
Thelasko: . . . I suggest that anyone who has to work in an organization that uses these types of tests read The Organization Man by William H. Whyte. . . . I will reproduce here a couple of paragraphs from the "How to Cheat on Personality Tests" chapter:
"By and large, however, your safety lies in getting a score somewhere between the 40th and 60th percentiles, which is to say, you should try to answer as if you were like everyone else is supposed to be. This is not always too easy to figure out, of course, and this is one of the reasons why I will go into some detail in the following paragraphs on the principal types of questions. When in doubt, however, there are two general rules you can follow: (1) When asked for word associations or comments about the world, give the most convential, run-of-the-mill, pedestrian answer possible. (2) To settle the most beneficial answer to any question, repeat to yourself:
a) I loved my father and my mother, but my father a little bit more
b) I like things pretty well the way they are
c) I never worry much about anything
d) I don't care for books or music much
e) I love my wife and children
f) I don't let them get in the way of company work"
You know what is the saddest about these personality tests? This guide to cheating on them was written just a few years after the basic ones became popular (they were developed in the 20's and 30's, came into use and were standardized (and also statistically tested and proven worthless) in the bureaucracy of WWII, and The Organization Man was published in '56), but the cheat guide works perfectly well even for tests developed long after the cheat guide was written.
I posted something on this back in January.
Ronald Bailey reports on day 2 of the International Conference on Climate Change shindig:
From the Stern Review, Goklany took the worst case scenario, where man-made global warming produces market and non-market losses equal to 35 percent of the benefits that are projected to exist in the absence of climate change by 2200. What did he find? Even assuming the worst emissions scenario, incomes for both developed and developing countries still rise spectacularly. In 1990, average incomes in developing countries stood around $1,000 per capita and at aroud $14,000 in developed countries. Assuming the worst means that average incomes in developing countries would rise in 2100 to $62,000 and in developed countries to $99,000. By 2200, average incomes would rise to $86,000 and $139,000 in developing and developed countries, respectively. In other words, the warmest world turns out to be the richest world.
Looking at WHO numbers, one finds that the percentage of deaths attributed to climate change now is 13th on the list of causes of mortality, standing at about 200,000 per year, or 0.3 percent of all deaths. High blood pressure is first on the list, accounting for 7 million (12 percent) of deaths; high cholesterol is second at 4.4 million; and hunger is third. Clearly, climate change is not the most important public health problem today. But what about the future? Again looking at just the worst case of warming, climate change would boost the number of deaths in 2085 by 237,000 above what they would otherwise be according to the fast track analyses. Many of the authors of the fast track analyses also co-authored the IPCC's socioeconomic impact assessments.
Various environmental indicators would also improve. For example, 11.6 percent of the world's land was used for growing crops in 1990. In the warmest world, agricultural productivity is projected to increase so much that the amount of land used for crops would drop to just 5 percent by 2100, leaving more land for nature. In other words, if these official projections are correct, man-made global warming is by no means the most important problem faced by humanity.
Victor sent me a link to this CBC.ca article on a recent theoretical solution proposed by two Montreal researchers:
. . . a question that has long vexed evolutionary biologists: How did a mechanism thought to help build life self-assemble?
Sergey Steinberg, a biochemistry professor at the University of Montreal, found the answer in the ribosome, a relatively large mechanism within the cell that takes RNA instruction and builds proteins.
His discovery, made with student Konstantin Bokov, has been published in the scientific journal Nature.
Scientists have long wondered how chemicals spontaneously came together to create proteins before life itself began.
Steinberg and Bokov's theory fills in a critical step in how life got started four billion years ago, said Stephen Michnick, the Canada Research Chair in Integrative Genomics at the University of Montreal.
A key breakthrough came when Steinberg found that chemicals could spontaneously come together and form something as complex as a ribosome. Previous theories had suggested only simple proteins could form spontaneously.
While the article is certainly interesting in its own right, the comment thread is another Scopes Monkey Trial in the making (comments in reverse chronological order):
Science is surely never perfect, nor can it answer everything at any one time. It evolves and refines itself, as time and experience continues, and as new ideas, evidence and methods come about.
There is a good likelihood that before too long, scientists WILL be able to turn a bunch of mixed molecules in a jar into a medium all-dressed - rising crust and with extra pepperoni - all at the press of a button ! They'll also be able to explain how it's done.
As a favor, to the majority of Canadians, who are Lord Fearing and morel, please stop your antichrist-ian hatred, on these and all other forums, forever.
If your scientists are so great tell me this, can they take molecules ,in a jar and zap them with electricity, and turn them into a salami or a pizza. Nope, that takes God to make protenes, as was predicted in Hosea 13:16.
I will pray for you.
Melo Man wrote:
TheSnowpooch wrote: As a concerned mother of 6, I am blessed for to have been homeschooling my children from birth. This is all more antiChristian hooey, as was predicted in Joshua 14:12
"As a concerned non-believer of a dead-beat sky-wizard, may your 6 children someday overcome the burden of the sins of their mother and find their own truth. "
Melo Man 12:54 (UTC-5:00)
Now that's "anti-christian". Sadly for 6 human beings it's more than hooey.
Hah. The French knew this ten years ago (google ribosome site:.fr). What's really fascinating is what happens when two electrodes and direct current are added to a protein mix dissolved in water, such as the kind that athletes drink. You get hydrogen gas, the same kind as found in stars. If you don't believe me, try it at home using tin foil for the electrodes and a couple of d size batteries. This proves that stars are former planets that caught fire when their inhabitants misused electricity for strange genetic purposes. We must end these Frankenstein like experiments before our planet catches fire too.
According to Michael Wall, people who avoid cooked foods are fighting against evolution:
Raw-food devotees take note: Your diet is not in any way natural. Humans are as adapted to cooking our food as cows are to eating grass, or ticks are to sucking blood.
"Cooking is a human universal," said Harvard primatologist Richard Wrangham at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting here Friday. While cooking kills parasites and other pathogens, Wrangham believes this health benefit is not its primary contribution.
"The fundamental importance of cooking is that it provides increased sources of energy," he said.
And that boost may be what facilitated the leap in size between Homo erectus and modern Homo sapiens. But, cooking may also have helped some modern humans into an obesity epidemic.
Wrangham cited data showing that cooking increases the body's ability to digest starches (as found, for example, in bread, potatoes and bananas). Only about 50 percent of raw starches are digested, compared to 90 percent of cooked ones. The trend, and the numbers, are similar for protein: from 50 to 65 percent digestibility raw to better than 90 percent cooked.
The reason: Heat breaks down starch and protein molecules, making it easier for digestive enzymes to attack them.
Wrangham has a new book coming out later this year, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, where he discusses how cooking may actually have been the big differentiator between humans and our now-extinct near relatives Homo Erectus.
The larger story here, unaddressed by both exhibit and reviewer, is what did that civilisation do with these potentially game-changing insights? The answer is that it marginalised them as mere trinkets and toys for the elite, and set them aside as curiosities mostly incompatible with an Islamic universe ordered by the will of Allah. The 11th century Islamic civilisation armed with a vastly better understanding of geography, medicine, physics, rudimentary mechanics and robotics continued to spread its borders, but largely sat in scientific neutral after the 13th century.
Europe, meanwhile, rediscovered many of the classical themes, philosophies and knowledge that earlier Islamic scholars had been so careful to preserve. And then went on to make practical use of them in commerce, politics, transportation and warfare.
If I get anything out of exhibits like this, it is the opposite of what the designers intended. While I am awed by the intellectual achievements of men like Ibn Said and Al-Jaziri, I am saddened that their patrons did not see any practical social use for their innovations. Islam has squandered its historic intellectual capital, just as it continues to do so today.
Chris Taylor, "Sultans of Spin", Taylor & Company, 2009-02-10
The Science and Public Policy Institute website has a summary of the most obvious errors in Al Gore's movie. While the report was issued in 2007, the errors are still in wide circulation as established scientific "facts", so there is clearly still a need for the other side to be heard:
A spokesman for Al Gore has issued a questionable response to the news that in October 2007 the High Court in London had identified nine “errors” in his movie An Inconvenient Truth. The judge had stated that, if the UK Government had not agreed to send to every secondary school in England a corrected guidance note making clear the mainstream scientific position on these nine “errors”, he would have made a finding that the Government’s distribution of the film and the first draft of the guidance note earlier in 2007 to all English secondary schools had been an unlawful contravention of an Act of Parliament prohibiting the political indoctrination of children.
Al Gore’s spokesman and “environment advisor,” Ms. Kalee Kreider, begins by saying that the film presented “thousands and thousands of facts.” It did not: just 2,000 “facts” in 93 minutes would have been one fact every three seconds. The film contained only a few dozen points, most of which will be seen to have been substantially inaccurate. The judge concentrated only on nine points which even the UK Government, to which Gore is a climate-change advisor, had to admit did not represent mainstream scientific opinion.
Ms. Kreider then states, incorrectly, that the judge himself had never used the term “errors.” In fact, the judge used the term “errors,” in inverted commas, throughout his judgment.
Next, Ms. Kreider makes some unjustifiable ad hominem attacks on Mr. Stewart Dimmock, the lorry driver, school governor and father of two school-age children who was the plaintiff in the case. This memorandum, however, will eschew any ad hominem response, and will concentrate exclusively on the 35 scientific inaccuracies and exaggerations in Gore’s movie.
This is still relevant, as shown by this alarmist headline on the Yahoo.ca home page yesterday:
It will come as little surprise to find that the report dovetails nicely with the agenda of Gore's film. It's also amusing that the page editor couldn't manage to find an appropriate photo of a car in North America driving through floodwaters and had to substitute a European image instead.
An intensive recovery project on a 700-year-old prayer book has revealed previously undiscovered mathematical work by Archimedes:
For seventy years, a prayer book moldered in the closet of a family in France, passed down from one generation to the next. Its mildewed parchment pages were stiff and contorted, tarnished by burn marks and waxy smudges. Behind the text of the prayers, faint Greek letters marched in lines up the page, with an occasional diagram disappearing into the spine.
The owners wondered if the strange book might have some value, so they took it to Christie's Auction House of London. And in 1998, Christie's auctioned it off — for two million dollars.
For this was not just a prayer book. The faint Greek inscriptions and accompanying diagrams were, in fact, the only surviving copies of several works by the great Greek mathematician Archimedes.
An intensive research effort over the last nine years has led to the decoding of much of the almost-obliterated Greek text. The results were more revolutionary than anyone had expected. The researchers have discovered that Archimedes was working out principles that, centuries later, would form the heart of calculus and that he had a more sophisticated understanding of the concept of infinity than anyone had realized.
Archimedes wrote his manuscript on a papyrus scroll 2,200 years ago. At an unknown later time, someone copied the text from papyrus to animal-skin parchment. Then, 700 years ago, a monk needed parchment for a new prayer book. He pulled the copy of Archimedes' book off the shelf, cut the pages in half, rotated them 90 degrees, and scraped the surface to remove the ink, creating a palimpsest — fresh writing material made by clearing away older text. Then he wrote his prayers on the nearly-clean pages.
Very, very cool. It's amazing to think what else may yet be rediscovered, thanks to the paper-saving efforts of medieval monks and the high-tech investigative tools available to modern researchers.
Dr. Joan Girona had a data collection problem. The solution included model trains:
Dr. Joan Girona of the Institute of Agroalimentary Research and Technology in Catalonia, Spain, studies irrigation and the water and nutrient needs of fruit trees. In a recent study, he wanted to measure the absorption of photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) for use in analyzing growth and fruit production issues. Transpiration from fruit trees and overall evapotranspiration in orchards is closely related to absorption of solar radiation by the tree canopy, so this study would help researchers more accurately measure these processes.
The more measurements he could make, the truer Dr. Girona’s results would be, so he tried a few methods to accurately capture the needed data. First he set up a network of 32 sensors at various points on the ground around the fruit trees to measure light as it came from many angles. Dr. Girona and his co-researchers found that the values were too distant from each other for good modeling of sun movement. To get enough measurements in a net of this sort, they would need more than 1200 sensors, along with the associated dataloggers and multiplexers—impossible with the resources available.
As they thought about how to get measurements from so many points, they came up with a way to move the sensors around the measurement area precisely and quickly. They mounted the instruments [. . .] on small-scale model trains and ran the system on carefully laid-out tracks covering a large area around trees in an orchard. They placed metal markers every couple of inches along the track, and electromagnetic detectors on the train sensed these markers and signaled the datalogger to take a measurement at each point.
H/T to "Jeff the S", who thinks Dr. Girona should be nominated for a Nobel Prize for the "Best Use of Model Railroads in Agricultural Research".
[Responding to the question "what turns you off in SF/Fantasy reading:] Egregiously bad science. Backgrounds that don't hang together (vampirism should not be ancient, secret and prone to spreading like a virgin field plague. If starship navigators are rare and die after a dozen trips, there should not be a large population of tramp starships. Ideally, one should not equal two and the standard method of landing a spaceship should not be the crash-landing).
The number one thing that turns me off is when it becomes clear that the author considers most humans a waste of valuable meat. See Bova's Titan where it's clear most of the humans in the Saturn system have no productive value, despite being a collection of scientists annoying enough to have been sent almost 10 AU from home, or David Marusek's Mind Over Ship, which includes this little rant:
"So who needs people? People are so much dead weight. They eat up our profits. They produce nothing but pollution and social unrest. They drive us crazy with their pissing and moaning. I think we can all agree that Corporation Earth is in need of a serious downsizing . . ."
James D. Nicoll, posting to the Lois McMaster Bujold mailing list, 2009-01-17
Martin The Mess: Hmmm...I sort of follow this area of research as an interested amateur (why certain physical features and character traits are considered sexually attractive, and the hormones and genes linked to them), and I can recall a couple other hormones and genes supposedly discovered to be responsible for all these traits. Couple that with the whole "Hey, if we call this the Marilyn Monroe gene, do you think we can get mainstream press coverage" tone of the piece, and the ridiculously named expert "Dr. Frances Quirk", I'm getting a strong whiff of shenanigans off this article. On the other hand, Professor Quirk does indeed seem to be a faculty member at the college in question, according to a quick web search.
Remember a few months ago when Jessica Alba's publicist had a story planted that claimed that scientists had calculated the most perfectly desirable waist-to-hip ratio for a woman, and it exactly matched Jessica Alba's, making her the scientifically-certifiable hottest woman alive?
DaSwankOne: In other news: Rich guys like to have sex with hot and horny girls, giving more attractive women the chance to "trade up" if they want to.
Son of Thunder: Damn! Is there any way we can petition to get this stuff added to the water supply like fluoride?
Not so fast. TFA also says that the hormone is associated with dissatisfaction with their current partner and a tendency toward upwardly-mobile serial monogamy. Fark is already a haven for bitter chronically-rejected beta males, so I doubt that widespread distribution of this hormone would be so great an idea.
(But, y'know, that doesn't include ME or anything. Alpha all the way. I'd explain more but I gotta be at the gym in 26 minutes.)
If you've encountered one of these "personality profile" tests recently, you're not alone. Many employers are using them nowadays as part of their employment screening process. In some cases, it's used as a pre-offer filter, while in other cases they're part of the pre-interview process. In either case, the effectiveness is still controversial:
Many retailers have largely automated the hiring process with online personality tests such as Mr. Smith took. The system cuts the time store managers must spend in interviewing applicants. But the test also is creating a culture of cheating and raising questions for applicants about its fairness — even as it becomes a critical determinant of who gets a job and who doesn't in a stressful era of rising unemployment.
Today, many retailers are cutting their work forces, but that just makes the test even more critical. So many people now are seeking what jobs remain in retail that the test's maker says it processed about 29 applications for every opening in 2008, up from 22 in 2007. Meanwhile, for the retailers, it has become doubly important now to employ only the most productive people.
[. . .]
The more critical the test has become to getting a job, the more applicants are trying to game it. They do so by repeating the test several times, by comparing notes, by consulting an online cheat sheet or by having a friend take the test for them.
[. . .]
Melanie Shebel, who has a blog that often focuses on the alleged unfairness of Unicru, says she's seen a huge uptick in traffic as the economy has worsened and people have grown more frustrated by the job-seeking process. After an anonymous poster on her site put up an answer key to the Unicru test, she took it down, fearing a lawsuit from Kronos. But recently, she says, she re-posted it, after reviewing her legal rights.
Answer keys can also be found on Facebook. There used to be one on Wikipedia, but the site's volunteer administrators took it down after a complaint from Kronos.
The article deals mainly with retail employers, but the practice is spreading to other fields, including banking and software development.
An interesting discussion on the topic starts here on Slashdot.
plasmacutter: . . . the slightest sign of discomfort or non-conformity is construed as some kind of black mark.
Job ad says "we need free thinkers", personality test says "sorry you don't meet the 99.99999999% match we require with our VP's personality." Interestingly the most brilliant and talented people tend to be eccentric. A classic example of mediocrity rising to the top... except now only mediocrity is allowed in the door period.
The academic equivalent would be someone being passed up who knows their stuff but doesn't test well, while an incompetent who's good at telling people what they want to hear gets top marks.
Roughly a decade ago, it was discovered the expansion of the universe is accelerating, not decreasing as expected. This led to the assumption there must be "dark energy" as well as the conjectured "dark matter," because some force must be providing the impetus of the cosmic acceleration. Dark matter, if it exists, is substance in some guise other than stars, planets, nebulae and black holes, and would explain why celestial objects move as if the galaxies contain substantially more mass than can be detected. Dark energy, if it exists, would be roughly the opposite of gravity. Gravity attracts, its effect declining with distance. The conjectured dark energy repels, and increases with distance — the farther the galaxies move apart as the cosmos expands, the more punch dark energy packs, steadily increasing cosmic acceleration. It's just that, um, er, science has only vague indications of what dark matter is and not the slightest clue what dark energy might be. Physics and astronomy departments at leading universities rather cavalierly have embraced an assumption that as much as 96 percent of all mass and energy in existence is dark matter and dark energy, neither of which can be located or explained. We can't locate 96 percent of the universe — but trust us, we're experts!
Gregg Easterbrook, "TMQ: Ministers of defense", ESPN Page Two, 2009-01-06
Ronald Bailey rounds up some new findings on what we've been dismissively calling "junk DNA":
Decoding the human genome found that only about 10 percent of the 3 billion or so base pairs of the DNA in the human genome consists of genes that code for proteins. The remaining 90 percent didn't have any obvious function, so researchers called it "junk DNA."
[. . .] In other words, these apparently long boring stretches of repeat DNA base pairs are central to determining which genes turn on when and by how much. In addition, some of these DNA repeats jump around inside genomes changing the expression of genes and the course of a species' evolution.
Interesting, but this part is definitely scary:
Even more amazingly, biologist Cedric Feschotte and his colleagues at the University of Texas in Arlington have found that some DNA repeats have actually jumped between mammalian and other tetrapod species including African clawed frogs, anole lizards, South American opposums, brown bats, mice and rats. This kind of horizontal interspecies DNA exchange happens among single-celled organisms all the time, but biologists find it very surprising that it can happen between large multicellular species. The repeat sequences have been dubbed "SPace INvaders" or SPIN transposons and may have been carried into these animal genomes by a virus 45 to 15 million years ago.
And this SPace INvasion may have been responsible for a mass mammalian extinction.
As if the ethanol movement didn't have enough problems, now comes a report that diesel fuel can be produced by naturally occurring fungus:
A fungus that lives inside trees in the Patagonian rain forest naturally makes a mix of hydrocarbons that bears a striking resemblance to diesel, biologists announced today. And the fungus can grow on cellulose, a major component of tree trunks, blades of grass and stalks that is the most abundant carbon-based plant material on Earth.
"When we looked at the gas analysis, I was flabbergasted," said Gary Strobel, a plant scientist at Montana State University, and the lead author of a paper in Microbiology describing the find. "We were looking at the essence of diesel fuel."
While genetic engineers have been trying a variety of techniques and genes to get microbes to create fuel out of sugars and starches, almost all commercial biofuel production uses the century-old dry mill grain process. Ethanol plants ferment corn ears into alcohol, which is simple, but wastes the vast majority of the biomatter of the corn plant.
What's even more interesting is this thought: "because the fungus can manufacture what we would normally think of as components of crude oil, it casts some doubt on the idea that crude oil is a fossil fuel."
According to a report from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, we now have a definitive answer to whether nature or nurture matters more:
People wanting to shirk responsibility for their behaviour will be happy to learn they can blame their parents for almost half of it.
An Australian psychologist has aggregated the results of hundreds of studies on human behaviour and found 40 per cent can be put down to human genetics.
"While there had been many studies done on specific behaviours such as alcoholism or smoking, we were interested to see if we could put a figure on the genetic influence on behaviour in general," said Dr John Malouff, from the University of New England.
"We looked at a whole range of normal and problem behaviours, and what we found was that again and again, the genetic component of these behaviours tended to clump around the 40 per cent mark."
He said this definitively makes genetics the single most powerful influence on a person's behaviour over their lifetime.
"If you look at what we know about what causes behaviour, it's hard to find another chunk so large," Dr Malouff said.
What are the chances that the Earth will be destroyed on September 10th? 999 to 1:
Mangano from CERN objected furiously to Ord's presentation, arguing, "I can apply that estimate of a 1-in-1,000 chance to everything." Ord responded that his analysis should only apply to experiments that pose an existential risk to humanity, not to experiments whose outcomes can be ameliorated later. I asked Ord if he could think of another experiment or situation to which he would apply his analysis. He looked surprised for a moment and then reluctantly said, "No." Over canapés after Ord's talk, several of his colleagues expressed glee at the prospect that a philosopher's arguments might derail a $10 billion physics experiment. Personally, I estimate the probability of that happening at less than 1-in-1,000.
As intriguing as Ord's argument is, I am ultimately unpersuaded by it. Why? Largely because the empirical evidence is that the universe has been running trillions of these high-energy physics "experiments" for billions of years without disastrous results. In fact, Ord's colleagues Nick Bostrom and Max Tegmark from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology calculate that the empirical evidence suggests a conservative estimate of the annual risk that LHC-like experiments would destroy the earth is 1-in-a-trillion. At the end of his talk, Mangano reminded the Oxford conferees, "Jeopardizing the future of scientific research would be a global catastrophe." Any theory, model, or calculation that suggests otherwise is clearly flawed.
Just in case, have an extra serving of dessert after dinner on the 9th.
I'm also given to understand that the rules of science begin to bend and even break at the extremes of the universe's scale. Down where everything is subatomic-sized, things tend to be a bit random with mesons, leptons, quarks, brilligs, slithy toves, etc., subjected to Strong Force, Weak Force, Force of Habit, and so on. Meanwhile, in the farthest reaches of outer space, matter, antimatter, dark matter, and whatsamatter are tripping over string theory and falling into black holes. God is not like that. He's famously there in the details, and He is the big picture.
In one way, however, faith in science does come easier than faith in God — if fear is any gauge of how real we believe a thing is. To judge by human behavior, people are not trembling before the Almighty much. But many of those same people are scared silly by science. They are frightened by a climate stuck in the microwave of technological advances, frightened by genetic modifications that may — who knows? — cross cabbages with kings and produce a Prince Charles, and naturally they are frightened by the clouds of mushrooms being grown in the science cellars of Iran and North Korea.
P.J. O'Rourke, "On God", Search Magazine, 2007-03
Jacob Sullum looks at the growing support for mandatory calorie signage in fast food restaurants:
Since they overestimate the demand for nutritional information, advocates of menu mandates also overestimate the impact of making it more visible. "Menu board labeling has the potential to dramatically alter the trajectory of the obesity epidemic in California," the California Center for Public Health Advocacy claims, projecting a weight loss of nearly three pounds a year per fast food consumer. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which began enforcing a calorie count requirement last month, predicts it will stop 150,000 people from becoming obese and prevent 30,000 cases of diabetes during the next five years.
Both estimates are based on a study conducted by New York's health department before the city's menu rule took effect. The researchers asked about 7,300 customers at fast food restaurants in the city whether they had seen and made use of nutritional information, which is typically displayed on posters, brochures, tray liners, or counter mats (as well as on the chains' websites). They also examined the customers' receipts so they could calculate the calorie content of the food they purchased.
This hopeful attitude towards mandatory labelling is a sort of healthcare cargo cult: the practitioners passionately believe that a) people will bother to read the labels, b) that having read, they'll order "better" food, and c) that this effect — should it actually exist — will be permanent.
They'd be just as effective building airstrips.
Ronald Bailey isn't expecting royal honours after Prince Charles ascends the throne:
His Royal Highness, the Dunce of Wales, Speaks Against Biotech Crops
[. . .] There's a tremendous amount of anti-biotech misinformation packed into this interview. First and foremost, farmers in both developed and developing countries will not adopt biotech crops unless they benefit from them, either from greater productivity, fewer input costs, improved sustainability or all three.
Let's consider just a few cases: Biotech insect-resistant corn in the Philippines boosted yields by 37 percent, reduced the costs of insecticide spraying by 60 percent, maintained populations of beneficial insects in the fields, and increased farmers' profits by 88 percent. With regard to sustainability, herbicide-resistant biotech crops make soil saving no-till farming more possible and new varieties of biotech rice reduce the run-off of nitrogen fertilizer that can damage waterways. Finally, His Royal Witless ignores the fact that of the 12 million farmers who have adopted biotech crops, 11 million of them are resource-poor farmers working in developing countries.
For all that some might say that Prince Charles has his heart in the right place, he's clearly got his facts from some alternate universe . . .
Update: Commenter "ChrisH" wraps it up wonderfully well:
Posted by Nicholas at 09:28 AM | Comments (0)
Who'da thunk? Diana was the sharp tool in that toolshed.
I like the "peasants — back to your farms!" tone of some of it. Uh, I think you lost that argument 200 years ago.
But then, this:
dysfunctional conurbations of unmentionable awfulness
My gawd, the man is a poet. I don't even know what it means, but I want to set it to music.
There are very few people who could have played "Yo Mama so..." with Bill Buckley, but apparently Prince Chuck is one of them.
Decent watercolorist, as well, I hear...
Bishop Hill pulls together the story about the famous "hockey stick" graph for the non-mathematically inclined:
There has been the most extraordinary series of postings at Climate Audit over the last week. As is usual at CA, there is a heavy mathematics burden for the casual reader, which, with a bit of research I think I can now just about follow. The story is a remarkable indictment of the corruption and cyncism that is rife among climate scientists, and I'm going to try to tell it in layman's language so that the average blog reader can understand it. As far as I know it's the first time the whole story has been set out in a single posting. It's a long tale - and the longest posting I think I've ever written and piecing it together from the individual CA postings has been a long, hard but fascinating struggle. You may want to get a long drink before starting, and those who suffer from heart disorders may wish to take their beta blockers first.
H/T to Brian Micklethwait.
So much for those theories that perhaps early modern man and Neanderthals interbred:
Scientists who sequenced the mitochondrial DNA of a 38,000-year-old Neanderthal returned no evidence of ancestral interbreeding with our long-lost cousins.
That mild disappointment aside, the study, published today in Cell, is an impressive technical achievement.
"For the first time, we've built a sequence from ancient DNA that is essentially without error," said study co-author Richard Green, a Max-Planck Institute anthropologist, in a press release.
John Tierney tries to quell some fears:
For most of the year, it is the duty of the press to scour the known universe looking for ways to ruin your day. The more fear, guilt or angst a news story induces, the better. But with August upon us, perhaps you're in the mood for a break, so I've rounded up a list of 10 things not to worry about on your vacation.
Now, I can't guarantee you that any of these worries is groundless, because I can't guarantee you that anything is absolutely safe, including the act of reading a newspaper. With enough money, an enterprising researcher could surely identify a chemical in newsprint or keyboards that is dangerously carcinogenic for any rat that reads a trillion science columns every day.
What I can guarantee is that I wouldn't spend a nanosecond of my vacation worrying about any of these 10 things.
Of course, the human mind is optimized for worry so having a mere ten knocked off the worry list only makes room for more concerns to occupy us.
Ronald Bailey pulls out the calculator to do some rough calculations on Al Gore's proposal to produce 100% of America's electricity from renewable energy:
Of course, great-souled visionaries such as Gore do not concern themselves with piddling and mundane issues such as who will pay for this marvelous no-carbon energy future and how much it will cost. Not being burdened with a great soul, I decided to don my green eyeshade and make a preliminary stab at figuring out how much Gore's scheme might cost us.
According to the Energy Information Administration, the existing capacity of U.S. coal, gas, and oil generating plants totals around 850,000 megawatts. So how much would it cost to replace those facilities with solar electric power? Let's use the recent announcement of a 280-megawatt thermal solar power plant in Arizona for $1 billion as the starting point for an admittedly rough calculation. Combined with a molten salt heat storage systems, solar thermal might be able to provide base load power. Crunching the numbers (850,000 megawatts/280 megawatts x $1 billion) produces a total capital cost of just over $3 trillion over the next ten years.
What about wind power? Oilman T. Boone Pickens is building the world's biggest wind energy project with an installed capacity of 4,000 megawatts at a cost of $10 billion, or about $2.5 billion per 1,000 megawatts. For purposes of illustration, this implies a total cost of around $2.1 trillion over the next ten years to replace current carbon-emitting electricity generation capacity with wind power. That's assuming that the wind projects generate electricity at their rated capacity at or near 100 percent of the time. Making the heroic assumption that in fact wind projects will generate power at about one-third of their rated capacity (due to wind variability), this would imply tripling the number of wind power generators. This boosts the total overall cost to more than $6 trillion over the next ten years.
So how does it all compare to current expenditure plans for energy generation?
As a very rough low estimate, Gore's 10-year no-carbon energy plan would cost about $300 billion per year for the next ten years. According to the Brattle Group consultancy, "new and replacement generating plants will cost about $560 billon through 2030, absent a significant expansion of energy efficiency programs or new climate initiatives." That comes to an average of about $25 billion per year over the next 22 years. Gore's proposal is a "new climate initiative" that aims to spend twelve times more than the utility industry would otherwise annually invest in new and replacement generating capacity.
. .. as I did in yesterday's lament about not being able to watch P&T's take on climate change . . . because through the kind efforts of Tom Kelley, I got to watch this episode of Bullshit! . . . and (with the right plug-ins) you can too.
Thanks, Tom! But I'm still going to buy the DVD set when it comes out.
It was probably inevitable that Penn & Teller would get around to doing an episode of Bullshit! on climate change:
[. . .] Thursday's episode on environmentalism opened with a morose-looking Penn Jillette waving a magazine as he recited one ecotastrophe after another — drought in Africa, flooding in Pakistan and Japan, snowless winters in New England and Northern Europe — I snapped to attention. ''It says right here in Time magazine — the weather's gone nuts and we humans are to blame!'' Teller wailed. "We have bleeped up the environment and now we're going to pay for it!''
Yeah, that global warming is pretty bad. You know, Al Gore says — oops, never mind. Turns out Penn's not reading from the infamous Time cover story of 2006 on global warming, the one headlined BE WORRIED. BE VERY WORRIED. No, this Time is from 1974, and the headline is, ANOTHER ICE AGE? And all those violent paroxysms of nature are the pernicious work of global cooling.
Yes, back in the days of disco, the news media echoed with predictions of the world's imminent demise from ice rather than fire. Newsweek warned that temperatures had already dropped ''a sixth of the way toward the Ice Age average.'' By 1985, Life declared, "air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching the earth by one half.''
Too bad I won't get to see it until this season's episodes come out on DVD . . .
Don't read this if you're easily depressed. It's the latest report from Ronald Bailey at the Global Catastrophic Risks conference:
But before becoming too complacent, keep an eye out for reports on the 210-330 meter asteroid Apophis-there's a 1 in 45,000 chance that it could hit the earth on April 13, 2036. Measurements in the next 3 to 4 years will determine just how big a chance of a collision there is.
Gamma Ray Bursts
Technion physicist Arnon Dar warned of another space hazard — gamma ray bursts (GRBs). GRBs were originally detected by U.S. military satellites that were checking to see if the Soviets were testing nuclear weapons. GRBs are beams of highly energetic photons produced when a gigantic star goes supernova. Dar described a GRB beam hitting the earth would be like a kiloton bomb per square kilometer going off at the top atmosphere. He speculated that some of the earlier mass extinctions, such as the Permian extinction in which perhaps 90 percent of all life died out might have been caused by GRBs.
So are there any stars likely to go supernova nearby? Dar pointed out that the gigantic star Eta Carinae at a distance of 7,500 light years has been extremely unstable of late. Eta Carinae is 100 times more massive than the sun and 5 million times brighter. When it goes it will be a hypernova. Dar then gave us the good news: Eta Carinae's axis is pointed away from the earth, so the GRB beam it will generate when it dies will be aimed far from us. However, don't get too complacent about GRBs. Future of Humanity Institute research fellow Anders Sandberg mentioned that some astronomers are worried that we may be looking down the barrel of gamma ray gun when the WR 104 binary located 8,000 light years away goes supernova.
Just to add to your worries . . . we'd get very little real warning that a neighbouring star had gone supernova: the GRB beam would arrive almost simultaneously with the visual or radio wave evidence of the event.
Andrew Bolt rounds up the reports on the first recorded case of Climate Change Derangement Syndrome:
Psychiatrists have detected the first case of "climate change delusion" — and they haven't even yet got to [Australian PM] Kevin Rudd and his global warming guru.
Writing in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, Joshua Wolf and Robert Salo of our Royal Children's Hospital say this delusion was a "previously unreported phenomenon".
"A 17-year-old man was referred to the inpatient psychiatric unit at Royal Children's Hospital Melbourne with an eight-month history of depressed mood . . . He also . . . had visions of apocalyptic events."
(So have Alarmist of the Year Tim Flannery, Profit of Doom Al Gore and Sir Richard Brazen, but I digress.)
"The patient had also developed the belief that, due to climate change, his own water consumption could lead within days to the deaths of millions of people through exhaustion of water supplies."
But never mind the poor boy, who became too terrified even to drink. What's scarier is that people in charge of our Government seem to suffer from this "climate change delusion", too.
I'm still skeptical about the whole "global warming"/"global climate change" thing, and I'm even more skeptical about the demands of activists (and government officials) that we need to radically change our lifestyles in order to combat climate change. It may well be happening, and it might even be significantly due to human action, but to overhaul the entire course of western civilization seems a vast over-reaction to what is not yet confirmed scientific fact.
If the planet is warming up, and if this warming is predominantly due to the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, then we still need to evaluate what the most likely results of this change will be — and not just point to the most extreme apocalyptic vapourings of the most hysterical and imaginative activists. It is not as though the planet has not warmed and cooled over long periods of time in the past (see the little ice age and the medieval warm period, for example).
If it turns out that the planet is warming to a level that makes it difficult for humans to continue to live in certain areas, then some action may well be required, but the sudden stampede of the credulous (and the politically ambitious) to support vast overarching controls over the economy just can't end well: central control of economies has been disastrous in almost every instance, and there's no reason to believe that doing it to prevent/reduce climate change would be any different.
Although the researchers are very careful to avoid drawing any larger claim to a breakthrough, it's still very hopeful:
A cancer patient has made a full recovery after being injected with billions of his own immune cells in the first case of its kind, doctors have disclosed.
The 52-year-old, who was suffering from advanced skin cancer, was free from tumours within eight weeks of undergoing the procedure.
After two years he is still free from the disease which had spread to his lymph nodes and one of his lungs.
Doctors took cells from the man's own defence system that were found to attack the cancer cells best, cloned them and injected back into his body, in a process known as "immunotherapy".
Experts said that the case could mark a landmark in the treatment of cancer.
It's unlikely, even if this therapy proves to be as effective in wider trials as it was in this particular case, that this is the end of cancer as a major health threat. It does, however, encourage hope that cancer will eventually be easily treatable (and, even more beneficially, with relatively minimal intervention in the body).
The Journal of Consumer Research goes out of their way to find out if it really is true that men suffer from short-term poor judgement when looking at pretty girls:
Science proves that bikinis turn men into boobs: Sexy images rob male brain of ability to make wise decisions
You may have known this all along, but now it has been demonstrated scientifically: bikinis make men stupid.
This month’s issue of the Journal of Consumer Research features a paper titled “Bikinis Instigate Generalized Impatience in Intertemporal Choice,” which is a neuroeconomist’s (definition in a moment) way of saying that men don’t make good decisions while checking out pretty girls in bikinis.
It would have been much more surprising if they'd found that men's judgement was not impaired under those circumstances!
Ronald Bailey looks at a new book by Terence Kealey:
Kealey traces the fits and starts of technological progress through stagnant Bronze Age empires like Egypt and Assyria to the technologically innovative small merchant cultures such as the Phoenicians, Philistines, and Lydians that made crucial advances like the alphabet, ironworking, and coins. Technology stagnated under the Romans and surprisingly made headway during the Dark Ages which saw the invention of three-field crop rotation, the heavy plow and the horse collar which lifted food production by more than 40 percent. These inventions arose in areas of northern Europe where farmers sold food to city markets. This meant that they could specialize in growing food and obtain other goods they needed in trade from city dwellers. In the deep countryside where feudalism held sway, crop yields did not markedly improve for centuries. The period also saw the invention of windmills, trousers, butter, barrels, and buttons.
Then came the Renaissance in Italian merchant cities which invented double entry bookkeeping. This advance in accounting enabled enterprises to accumulate debts and credits in their own rights, making them entities separate from any individual. Italians also invented insurance to cover the risks of trading. The first stock exchange opened in Antwerp in 1460. Kealey then takes us to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution which again took off in small trading countries, especially the Netherlands and England. The common thread that he identifies is that technology takes off when individual and property rights are recognized.
Kealey shows in nearly every case the crucial inventions of the past two and half centuries were called forth by markets, not invented by scientists working from ivory towers. These include the steam engine, cotton gin, textile mills, railroad engines, the revolver, the electric motor, telegraph, telephone, incandescent light bulb, radio, the airplane — the list is nearly endless.
All of this is undeniably true, but it doesn't address the constant refrain from the institutional scientific world: that these are all merely "technological" inventions, not pure science. The usual claim is that private enterprise can't or won't fund basic scientific research because there will be no obvious way to profit from the research — and it won't provide the investigator with a temporary monopoly from which to derive the profits to pay for the research in the first place.
There are lots of data points which indicate that government funding in R&D will actually slow down private investment in that area: for the obvious reason that the government has deeper pockets than most private organizations and is not directly influenced by the profit motive . . . if someone else is already working in that area (and you'll eventually get access to whatever they come up with anyway), you're better off to devote your resources to something else.
I found this article to be an eye-opener: I knew that many people seriously over-estimated the value of organic foods, but the situation is much, much worse than I thought:
Myth three: Organic farming doesn't use pesticides
Food scares are always good news for the organic food industry. The Soil Association and other organic farming trade groups say conventional food must be unhealthy because farmers use pesticides. Actually, organic farmers also use pesticides. The difference is that "organic" pesticides are so dangerous that they have been "grandfathered" with current regulations and do not have to pass stringent modern safety tests.
For example, organic farmers can treat fungal diseases with copper solutions. Unlike modern, biodegradable, pesticides copper stays toxic in the soil for ever. The organic insecticide rotenone (in derris) is highly neurotoxic to humans — exposure can cause Parkinson's disease. But none of these "natural" chemicals is a reason not to buy organic food; nor are the man-made chemicals used in conventional farming.
Myth four: Pesticide levels in conventional food are dangerous
The proponents of organic food — particularly celebrities, such as Gwyneth Paltrow, who have jumped on the organic bandwagon — say there is a "cocktail effect" of pesticides. Some point to an "epidemic of cancer". In fact, there is no epidemic of cancer. When age-standardised, cancer rates are falling dramatically and have been doing so for 50 years.
Far too many people believe, strongly, that organic produce is better (for many different values of "better") than non-organic produce. They're willing to pay extra for organic-grown produce, and that's fine for them . . . it's still a (mostly) free world. But they're fooling themselves to think that non-organic foods are worse for them than the organics for which they pay premium prices.
Locally grown produce may or may not be better for you, but if it can be picked closer to full ripeness and take less time in transit to you, it'll almost certainly taste better. Freshness matters a very great deal. But for most of us, the time during which our local farm crops are ready to harvest is very brief.
We planted some tomatoes in our garden a few years ago, almost as an afterthought. Once the tomatoes started to ripen, they were fantastic: the best I'd ever tasted. It was wonderful . . . but the plants all ripened at about the same time, so we weren't able to eat them fast enough. Worse, no matter how good they were, there's a definite limit to how many you can eat. We got sick of eating them before the last one was ready to pick. We probably threw out more than we ate . . . and this was from only half-a-dozen plants.
Since then, I rarely bother to eat tomatoes because the ones that are available through most of the year aren't even a pale imitation of the great tomatoes we grew: they seem to be mostly "wood" with very little flavour.
The article above? It's from The Independent . . . one of Britain's more green-oriented newspapers. That they're willing to poke holes in the common beliefs about organic foods is very heartening.
H/T to SDA.
Steven Pinker has a look at the use and misuse of the term "human dignity" in the realm of bioethics and politics:
Many people are vaguely disquieted by developments (real or imagined) that could alter minds and bodies in novel ways. Romantics and Greens tend to idealize the natural and demonize technology. Traditionalists and conservatives by temperament distrust radical change. Egalitarians worry about an arms race in enhancement techniques. And anyone is likely to have a "yuck" response when contemplating unprecedented manipulations of our biology. The President's Council has become a forum for the airing of this disquiet, and the concept of "dignity" a rubric for expounding on it. This collection of essays is the culmination of a long effort by the Council to place dignity at the center of bioethics. The general feeling is that, even if a new technology would improve life and health and decrease suffering and waste, it might have to be rejected, or even outlawed, if it affronted human dignity.
Whatever that is. The problem is that "dignity" is a squishy, subjective notion, hardly up to the heavyweight moral demands assigned to it. The bioethicist Ruth Macklin, who had been fed up with loose talk about dignity intended to squelch research and therapy, threw down the gauntlet in a 2003 editorial, "Dignity Is a Useless Concept." Macklin argued that bioethics has done just fine with the principle of personal autonomy — the idea that, because all humans have the same minimum capacity to suffer, prosper, reason, and choose, no human has the right to impinge on the life, body, or freedom of another. This is why informed consent serves as the bedrock of ethical research and practice, and it clearly rules out the kinds of abuses that led to the birth of bioethics in the first place, such as Mengele's sadistic pseudoexperiments in Nazi Germany and the withholding of treatment to indigent black patients in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study. Once you recognize the principle of autonomy, Macklin argued, "dignity" adds nothing.
Goaded by Macklin's essay, the Council acknowledged the need to put dignity on a firmer conceptual foundation. This volume of 28 essays and commentaries by Council members and invited contributors is their deliverable, addressed directly to President Bush. The report does not, the editors admit, settle the question of what dignity is or how it should guide our policies. It does, however, reveal a great deal about the approach to bioethics represented by the Council. And what it reveals should alarm anyone concerned with American biomedicine and its promise to improve human welfare. For this government-sponsored bioethics does not want medical practice to maximize health and flourishing; it considers that quest to be a bad thing, not a good thing.
H/T to Nick Gillespie.
Dr. Ayala, a former Dominican priest, said he told his audiences not just that evolution is a well-corroborated scientific theory, but also that belief in evolution does not rule out belief in God. In fact, he said, evolution "is more consistent with belief in a personal god than intelligent design. If God has designed organisms, he has a lot to account for."
Consider, he said, that at least 20 percent of pregnancies are known to end in spontaneous abortion. If that results from divinely inspired anatomy, Dr. Ayala said, "God is the greatest abortionist of them all."
Or consider, he said, the "sadism" in parasites that live by devouring their hosts, or the mating habits of insects like female midges, tiny flies that fertilize their eggs by consuming their mates' genitals, along with all their other parts.
For the midges, Dr. Ayala said, "it makes evolutionary sense. If you are a male and you have mated, the best thing you can do for your genes is to be eaten." But if God or some other intelligent agent made things this way on purpose, he said, "then he is a sadist, he certainly does odd things and he is a lousy engineer."
Cornelia Dean, "Roving Defender of Evolution, and of Room for God", New York Times, 2008-04-29
Ronald Bailey points to some new suggestions for easing the load on doctors and nurses . . . icons to replace medical charts:
Arthur Caplan refutes some common misconceptions:
What is particularly interesting is that many of those raising the question of the ethics of immortality do so with an answer already in mind — "No, it's not right!" Both conservative and liberal writers alike are expressing a lot of moral angst in recent books, articles and opinion pieces about the prospect of people hanging around long, long after the last broadcast of "The Price Is Right" has aired, which could be an eternity.
Why is the prospect of immortality viewed in such a negative light? A bunch of different reasons can be found in the writings of the growing ranks of anti-agers. An often-invoked argument is that using science to create a world of geezers would not only cost a ton of money, it would not be a lot of fun for anyone, especially the geezers. Living longer and longer only means more arthritis, more osteoporosis, more gum disease and more dementia — and who needs or wants that?
Another concern is that it is not right for humans to strive for immortality because it violates the natural order of things. We were meant to live roughly to a maximum of 100 years. Anything longer is way outside what God or evolution had in mind for us.
And those who fret about a world of immortals also worry that not only will it be stuffy and dull since the young will never get a chance to do anything, but it will also be a world full of the vain and self-centered who think themselves worthy of more and more life ad infinitum.
H/T to Ronald Bailey.
This is a repost from the backup blog:
From an article in the current Economist, a report on recent discoveries about the relationship between stem cells and tumour growth:
STEM cells have a controversial reputation, but in truth they are what makes human life possible. Each tissue in the body grows from a particular sort of stem cell. When it divides, one of its daughters remains a stem cell while the other eventually turns into whatever tissue its mother was designed to produce—be it blood, muscle, nerve or whatever. That is how healthy tissues are renewed, and it is now looking likely that it is how unhealthy tissues are renewed, too. Indeed, many researchers think that the underlying cause of cancer is the brakes coming off the regulatory system that stops normal stem cells from reproducing too much. For one of the most important medical discoveries made in recent years is that cancers, too, have stem cells and that these appear to be the source of the rest of the tumour.
This helps to explain why cancers are so hard to deal with. Treatments that kill the bulk of a tumour, but leave the stem cells alive, are only buying time. On the other hand, if all of a tumour's stem cells could be killed then it would torpedo the old wisdom that no patient is ever cured of cancer, but merely goes into remission. True cures for cancer would be possible.
The cancer-stem-cell theory, though plausible, was based on animal experiments and its relevance to humans was untested. But a series of studies reported this week at a meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research, in San Diego, has changed that. They suggest both that cancer stem cells are very relevant indeed to survival, and that going after them is an excellent idea.
You know the current campaign against plastic bags, urging people to avoid using them because they contribute to the deaths of millions of birds and sea mammals? Not so fast:
Campaigners say that plastic bags pollute coastlines and waterways, killing or injuring birds and livestock on land and, in the oceans, destroying vast numbers of seabirds, seals, turtles and whales. However, The Times has established that there is no scientific evidence to show that the bags pose any direct threat to marine mammals.
They "don't figure" in the majority of cases where animals die from marine debris, said David Laist, the author of a seminal 1997 study on the subject. Most deaths were caused when creatures became caught up in waste produce. "Plastic bags don't figure in entanglement," he said. "The main culprits are fishing gear, ropes, lines and strapping bands. Most mammals are too big to get caught up in a plastic bag."
He added: "The impact of bags on whales, dolphins, porpoises and seals ranges from nil for most species to very minor for perhaps a few species. For birds, plastic bags are not a problem either."
The central claim of campaigners is that the bags kill more than 100,000 marine mammals and one million seabirds every year. However, this figure is based on a misinterpretation of a 1987 Canadian study in Newfoundland, which found that, between 1981 and 1984, more than 100,000 marine mammals, including birds, were killed by discarded nets. The Canadian study did not mention plastic bags.
Fifteen years later in 2002, when the Australian Government commissioned a report into the effects of plastic bags, its authors misquoted the Newfoundland study, mistakenly attributing the deaths to "plastic bags".
The figure was latched on to by conservationists as proof that the bags were killers. For four years the "typo" remained uncorrected. It was only in 2006 that the authors altered the report, replacing "plastic bags" with "plastic debris". But they admitted: "The actual numbers of animals killed annually by plastic bag litter is nearly impossible to determine."
But don't worry . . . I'm sure that there'll be another scare along really soon to replace the "plastic bags are evil" meme.
Roger Henry follows the links from the last posting to find that it could, indeed, get worse. I hope this is just really, really deep parody, because it's much more disturbing to think that it might be totally serious:
But I've been wrong before . . .
I now remember why the words "Science Fair" filled me with loathing, back in my high school days. They haven't changed much.
H/T to Craig Zeni.
That is, now that it's official that last year was the coldest in a long time. Ron Bailey has the details:
It's getting cold outside. How cold? As Daily Tech reports:
Over the past year, anecdotal evidence for a cooling planet has exploded. China has its coldest winter in 100 years. Baghdad sees its first snow in all recorded history. North America has the most snowcover in 50 years, with places like Wisconsin the highest since record-keeping began. Record levels of Antarctic sea ice, record cold in Minnesota, Texas, Florida, Mexico, Australia, Iran, Greece, South Africa, Greenland, Argentina, Chile — the list goes on and on.
No more than anecdotal evidence, to be sure. But now, that evidence has been supplanted by hard scientific fact. All four major global temperature tracking outlets (Hadley, NASA's GISS, UAH, RSS) have released updated data. All show that over the past year, global temperatures have dropped precipitously.
I've been a "denier" on the Global Warming/Climate Change issue for quite some time: it's not that man's contributions to climate change don't exist, but I believe they are still miniscule compared to the natural phenomena which have always played their role in climate change. As I've been in the habit of saying over the course of this (bloody cold) winter: "Global warming? Sounds like a good idea to me!"
I strongly suspect, but don't have the formal data to back up my suspicion, that we're actually overdue for an ice age, not a warm period, geologically speaking.
A synopsis of an article at Scientific American indicates there may have been a breakthrough in understanding how much more important the "white matter" of the brain may be:
* White matter, long thought to be passive tissue, actively affects how the brain learns and dysfunctions.
* Although gray matter (composed of neurons) does the brain's thinking and calculating, white matter (composed of myelin-coated axons) controls the signals that neurons share, coordinating how well brain regions work together.
* A new type of magnetic resonance technology, called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), has for the first time shown white matter in action, revealing its underappreciated role.
* Myelin is only partially formed at birth and gradually develops in different regions throughout our 20s. The timing of growth and degree of completion can affect learning, self-control (and why teenagers may lack it), and mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, autism and even pathological lying.
H/T to Sasha Wagner-Adamo for the link.
It's actually called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. There may be some doubt about the accuracy of the original observations, but empirically speaking, I think they were exactly right.
H/T to John Scalzi for using the term and linking to the Wikipedia entry.
. . . I'd have posted some of the great photographs I took last night during the lunar eclipse.
In this world, however, the reality of bitingly cold temperatures, un-gloved hands, and balky camera batteries took their toll on my plans. I froze my butt off standing there in the moonlight, trying to get some worthwhile photos, but it was not to be.
From a point-counterpoint article at The Guardian, Frank Furedi argues that boosting self-esteem has been a wasted effort:
In schools, decades of silly programmes designed to raise children's self-esteem have not improved wellbeing, and the new initiatives designed to make pupils happy will also fail. Worse still, emotional education encourages an inward-looking orientation that distracts children from engaging with the world.
Perversely, the ascendancy of psychobabble in the classroom has been paralleled by an apparent increase in mental health problems among children. The relationship between the two is not accidental. Children are highly suggestible, and the more they are required to participate in wellbeing classes, the more they will feel the need for professional support.
The teaching of emotional literacy and happiness should be viewed as a displacement activity by professionals who find it difficult to confront the many challenges they face. At a time when many schools find it difficult to engage children's interest in core subjects, and to inspire a culture of high aspiration, it is tempting to look for non-academic solutions. Many pedagogues find it easier to hold forth about making children feel good about themselves than to teach them how to read and count. This therapeutic orientation serves to distract pupils and teachers alike from getting on with the job of gaining a real education.
I recently spent three hyper-stimulated hours at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. The Exploratorium is a hands-on museum, with devices and experiments that you usually only find in the proximity of "cool" high school science teachers with missing fingers. Various exhibits involving dry ice, piles of sand and other edu-thrilling materials allow you to observe all sorts of scientific principles. Have you ever spent an afternoon wondering why honeycombs are shaped the way they are? Then it's time you discovered something called television, and the Exploratorium can tell you how it works!
The latest Exploratorium exhibit is called The Mind, and it explores those precious 3 pounds of gray matter that keep our skulls from making a marimba sound when we hit our head on the car door. I learned something I've always suspected: The mind is a cruel, lying, unreliable bastard that can't be trusted with even an ounce of responsibility. If you were dating the mind, all your friends would take you aside, and tell you that you can really do better, and being alone isn't all that bad, anyway. If you hired the mind as a babysitter, you would come home to find all but one of your children in critical condition, and the remaining one crowned "King of the Pit."
Lore Sjöberg, "Don't Turn Your Back on Your Brain", Wired, 2008-02-13
Johnathan Pearce discusses the implicit biases against life extension:
Considering how many health-scare news items there are these days, it makes me want to smile in a wry way when I also read about the supposed problems caused by an ageing, greying, population. The first and obvious question is: if we are all at such risk from obesity, drugs, booze, stress, pollution or the angst of watching Jonathan Ross, why are we living so much longer than our parents or grandparents? If this is what happens when the sky is supposedly always about to fall in, then what must a healthy population be like? And yet there is something in the human psyche, or our culture, that rebels against the happy prospect of a longer life. We are told, or at least have until recently accepted, that three-score years and ten is Man's rightful due (perhaps a tad longer for women); it is almost a hangover from religion to believe that it is impious, even blasphemous, to want to live for much longer. Andrew O'Hagan, writing in the Daily Telegraph today in a moan about how the elderly are treated in Britain — a valid subject — makes this point:
Growing old is now considered more of an option than an inevitability, something to beat rather than be resigned to, something that is thought to take away from one's individuality rather than deepen it.
I don't really know how death, or its inevitability, adds to one's individuality. I think I know what O'Hagan is trying to say: We are unique, precisely because we are mortal. We cannot be replaced, or copied.
The trouble, though, is that I don't see how one's uniqueness is somehow reduced by living for 200 years rather than say, 100, or 50, or 30. Were the ancient Romans — average lifespan about 35 — more individualistic and unique than a 21st Century Brit? How on earth can one measure this? Also, the desire to keep the Grim Reaper at bay surely attests to a love of life, not a denial of its value; if one believed in a craven acceptance of the inevitable, then why do we have doctors and hospitals?
It's Charles Darwin's birthday (he'd be 199 today). The IHS is celebrating:
Hundreds of groups across the United States and the globe will celebrate the date as "Darwin Day" in honor of the discoveries and life of the man who famously described biological evolution via natural selection.
"Darwin Day promotes understanding of evolution and the scientific method," said Matt Cherry, executive director of the Institute for Humanist Studies. "This celebration expresses gratitude for the enormous benefit that scientific knowledge has contributed to the advancement of humanity."
The Darwin Day Celebration is a project of the Albany, N.Y.-based Institute for Humanist Studies, an international educational nonprofit that promotes reason and humanity.
As the folks at Fark say, strive not to be a Fark headline on February 13th.
According to this report, Folic Acid (which was required to be added to all US enriched grain-based products in 1999) has benefits beyond the original hopes:
Every once in a while, the government does something amazing.
Since 1999, all U.S. enriched cereal grain products, such as bread, pasta, flour, breakfast cereal and rice, have been required to be fortified with folic acid — the synthetic form of folate.
The purpose was to reduce birth defects, says Dr. Judith Reichman, gynecologist and "Today" show medical specialist.
But since the FDA mandated the fortification, researchers have found a decrease in the prevalence of high levels of homocysteine, which is linked to heart disease, and a 3 percent per year reduction in mortality from strokes, she says.
And there's more.
There is now some evidence fortified grains reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease.
This is really good news, although the opening sentence reminds me about that old saying about blind pigs and truffles.
Global warming can mean colder, it can mean drier, it can mean wetter, that's what we're dealing with.
- Steven Guilbeault, Greenpeace 2005, as quoted by Canada Free Press
Afterwards, another activist clarified the remark by stating that of course taller can also be evidence of shortness, richer can mean living in poverty, baboons can mean chairs, giraffes can mean pencils and hello Ms. Robinson, your lacy trousers are well buttered with smoked trout, can you hear what I'm writing with my toaster?
"Samizdata Illuminatus", "The Scientific Method is over-rated", Samizdata, 2008-02-05
Whether you're a Global Warming True Believer or an evil Climate Change Denier, you'll find lots of stuff to keep your blood pressure up at Climate Debate Daily, an aggregator of posts on both sides of the Climate Change holy war. It's run by New Zealand philosophy professor Denis Dutton (who also created the Arts & Letters Daily aggregator site).
For the record, I incline to the heretical side of that particular Jihad/Crusade/Inquisition.
An interesting article at the New York Times:
It's Monday morning, and you’re having trouble waking your teenagers. You're not alone. Indeed, each morning, few of the country's 17 million high school students are awake enough to get much out of their first class, particularly if it starts before 8 a.m. Sure, many of them stayed up too late the night before, but not because they wanted to.
Research shows that teenagers' body clocks are set to a schedule that is different from that of younger children or adults. This prevents adolescents from dropping off until around 11 p.m., when they produce the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, and waking up much before 8 a.m. when their bodies stop producing melatonin. The result is that the first class of the morning is often a waste, with as many as 28 percent of students falling asleep, according to a National Sleep Foundation poll. Some are so sleepy they don’t even show up, contributing to failure and dropout rates.
Men are naturally more comedic than women because of the male hormone testosterone, an expert claims.
Men make more gags than women and their jokes tend to be more aggressive, Professor Sam Shuster, of Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, says.
The unicycling doctor observed how the genders reacted to his "amusing" hobby.
Women tended to make encouraging, praising comments, while men jeered. The most aggressive were young men, he told the British Medical Journal.
Previous findings have suggested women and men differ in how they use and appreciate humour.
Women tend to tell fewer jokes than men and male comedians outnumber female ones.
Genetic research is uncovering all sorts of cool things. For instance, did you know that nobody in the entire human race had blue eyes as recently as ten thousand years ago?
The University of Wisconsin press release adds some interesting observations from UW anthropologist John Hawks. To wit:
The findings may lead to a very broad rethinking of human evolution, Hawks says, especially in the view that modern culture has essentially relaxed the need for physical genetic changes in humans to improve survival. Adds Hawks: "We are more different genetically from people living 5,000 years ago than they were different from Neanderthals."
Humans alive today are as different from people living 5,000 years ago as they were from Neanderthals?! Fascinating.
Jacob Sullum outlines the current situation in the war on obesity:
At five feet, nine inches tall and 175 pounds, I have a body mass index (BMI) of 25.9, which makes me "overweight." If I lost seven pounds, I'd have a BMI of 24.9, indicating what the government considers a "normal," "healthy" weight.
Yet that weight is not normal, since two-thirds of American adults exceed it. And judging from the latest research, it is not necessarily healthy either. According to a study recently published by The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), people in the government-recommended BMI range of 18.5 to 24.9 are more likely to die from a variety of diseases than people with BMIs of 25 to 30.
The JAMA study updates research by Katherine Flegal of the National Center for Health Statistics and three other government-employed scientists, who two years ago scandalized the public health community by concluding that the annual death toll associated with excessive weight was far lower than the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had been claiming. The CDC later reduced its estimate from 365,000 deaths blamed on "poor diet and physical inactivity" to 112,000 "obesity-related deaths."
Jacob Sullum reports on the latest shots from the BMI war:
Standing alone, these data do not prove that plumpness is healthy or that thinness kills. But they do cast doubt on the conventional wisdom that everyone should strive for a government-approved weight. In response to Flegal et al.'s research, JoAnn Manson, chief of preventive medicine at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital, tells The New York Times "health extends far beyond mortality rates," which is true enough. In particular, Manson notes that "excess weight makes it more difficult to move about and impairs the quality of life." But that sort of day-to-day impairment is much more obvious than the lurking, lethal risk of a few extra pounds that Manson has been warning people about for years. A 1995 New York Times headline inspired by one of Manson's studies warned that "Even Moderate Weight Gains Can Be Deadly." The story quoted Manson's prediction that "it won't be long before obesity surpasses cigarette smoking as a cause of death in this country." It looks like both of those claims were wrong, which is good news not only for "overweight" people but for anyone worried about the social engineers with plans for making us thinner.
Ronald Bailey has more on the topic of BMI.
Preventing global warming will become our new orthodoxy, anyone who questions its wisdom must be silenced. Better million starve than more greenhouse gasses be emitted. And as for trying to engage in upward social mobility, forget it!! everything will be rationed, and don't you dare complain we must save Mother Earth.
Which is hogwash. Mother Earth can save herself, thank you very much, that's if she needed saving. Earth has been warmer, we're just now reaching the temperatures the earth enjoyed just before the Little Ice Age.
Man made global warming may be happening, but it is within the range of temperature changes over geological history. With or without human activity the environmental will change creating new niches and destroying old ones and sooner or later species specialized for current conditions in the Arctic will die out anyhow, While we should show a decent concern for not trashing the World we live in, neither should we deny that we are part of that World and have a right to be in it and change it to suit our needs and as we harvest the things we need to survive.
Religious tyrants on the Right try to claim evolution and natural selection are not realities.
Tyrants on the left try to prevent natural selection and the environmental change that causes it from happening.
Perhaps this is simply a reflection of the fact that they are in so many ways living fossils, bearers of memes (cultural equivalent of genes) that are not appropriate for a world that has left them behind. Which is okay, if they'd leave the rest of us alone to evolve and enjoy our freedom.
A.X. Perez, "Ecotyranny", Libertarian Enterprise, 2007-11-04
What would our society look like if, as we aged, we didn't suffer the physical infirmities of aging? Given all the money that will be moving into gerontological research in the next ten years, we have some chance to find out for ourselves:
"If we want to hit the high points, number one is, there will not be any frail elderly people. Which means we won't be spending all this unbelievable amount of money keeping all those frail elderly people alive for like one extra year the way we do at the moment. That money will be available to spend on important things like, well, obviously, providing the health care to keep us that way, but that won't be anything like so expensive. Secondly, just doing the things we can't afford now, giving people proper education and not just when they're kids, but also proper adult education and retraining and so on.
"Another thing that's going to have to change completely is retirement. For the moment, when you retire, you retire forever. We're sorry for old people because they're going downhill. There will be no real moral or sociological requirement to do that. Sure, there is going to be a need for Social Security as a safety net just as there is now. But retirement will be a periodic thing. You'll be a journalist for 40 years or whatever and then you'll be sick of it and you'll retire on your savings or on a state pension, depending on what the system is. So after 20 years, golf will have lost its novelty value, and you'll want to do something else with your life. You'll get more retraining and education, and go and be a rock star for 40 years, and then retire again and so on."
As many people have pointed out, the "baby boomers" will have enough political and financial clout to direct a lot of efforts toward the things that concern them . . . and they're all starting to get close to drawing a pension cheque. Living longer isn't as important to most people as living healthier for as long as they live. That's more of a challenge, but with enough attention paid to it, any challenge can be tackled.
Juliet Samuel finds that the put-upon, verbally abused overweight people of America are not taking this lying down:
Listen to any public health official and you'd think obesity was a scientific slam dunk, but studies on the exact causes and effects of weight gain are highly ambiguous. One study of 25,000 men by The Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research, for example, found that a fit fatso is actually healthier than a sedentary skinny: over an eight year period even those technically classified as "obese" (a BMI of over 30) were less likely to die from heart attacks, strokes and cancer than inactive people of normal weight. And many of the studies released as "proof" of America's impending death by gristle fail to take into account confounding variables, like yo-yo dieting, a sedentary lifestyle and fat distribution on the body.
But even if the science were sound, public officials and anti-fat crusaders still confuse bad health with moral depravity. Paul Campos, a law professor at Colorado University and author of The Obesity Myth, claims that this "moral panic" sticks because it finds an "ideological resonance." On the right it appeals to an ascetic attitude; on the left it taps into anxieties about capitalist over-consumption and manipulative force-feeding by corporations.
Unfortunately, the "obesity crisis" has real victims. At 500 pounds, Gary Sticklaufer was judged too fat to make a good adoptive father to his own cousin—despite having adopted and raised several other children without problems. His cousin was forcibly taken from his care. Meanwhile, fat women are regularly told by their doctors that to become pregnant would be irresponsible, despite a lack of medical evidence demonstrating a higher risk for overweight women. And in the UK it's now commonplace to raise concerns over fat children with a view to placing them in foster care. In short, cutting a slim figure is now a moral imperative for responsible parenting, and those who refuse the "cure" to this aesthetic "disease" are summarily punished.
Instead of the rest of the world poking fun at how fat Americans are, the rest of the world is hurrying to catch up:
Between half and two-thirds of men and women in 63 countries across five continents — not including the US — were overweight or obese in 2006.
The Circulation journal study included over 168,000 people evaluated by a primary care doctor.
Experts said the findings were deeply worrying.
Of course, this is all revolving around the increase in BMI numbers, which are not necessarily a good proxy for general health (I've dissed BMI a few times before).
Canada and South Africa are joint leaders in the world-wide waist-expansion sweepstakes:
Just 7% of people in eastern Asia were obese, compared to 36% of people seeing their doctors in Canada, 38% of women in Middle Eastern countries and 40% in South Africa.
Canada and South Africa led in the percentage of overweight people, with an average BMI of 29 among both men and women in Canada and 29 among South African women.
It's not clear that these numbers are totally valid: they encompass a large number of people, but these are the people who happened to visit their primary care provider on a particular day.
Don't expect all your genealogical conundrums to be solved with a simple DNA test:
As ads go, they're pretty alluring: "Find out how you are related to Marie Antoinette" and "Discover your relation to Genghis Khan." With a simple swipe of a swab inside the mouth, consumers are told, they can capture DNA for analysis to trace their ancestors and country of origin.
But researchers say genetic ancestry tests being offered by a growing number of companies have significant limitations in pinpointing a long-dead relative on the family tree or tracking down geographical roots.
"These tests all examine a very small fraction of the DNA in your body and the result is that they can only tell you something about a few of all of your ancestors," said Deborah Bolnick, lead author of a paper on the issue published Friday in the journal Science.
"I think it's just important for consumers to be informed about what the test can and cannot do," said Bolnick, an anthropologist and geneticist at the University of Texas in Austin.
. . . because according to most anti-smoking organizations, if you've ever even smelled tobacco smoke, you've probably already suffered all the health problems:
Action on Smoking and Health: "Even for people without such respiratory conditions, breathing drifting tobacco smoke for even brief periods can be deadly. For example, the Centers for Disease Controls [CDC] has warned that breathing drifting tobacco smoke for as little as 30 minutes (less than the time one might be exposed outdoors on a beach, sitting on a park bench, listening to a concert in a park, etc.) can raise a nonsmoker’s risk of suffering a fatal heart attack to that of a smoker."
TobaccoScam: "30 minutes exposure = stiffened, clogged arteries"
Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights: "Even a half hour of secondhand smoke exposure causes heart damage similar to that of habitual smokers. Nonsmokers’ heart arteries showed a reduced ability to dilate, diminishing the ability of the heart to get life-giving blood."
Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Hawaii: "Thirty minutes of secondhand smoke compromises a non-smoker’s coronary arteries to the same extent as in smokers. ... All of these effects not only increase the long term risks of developing heart disease, but also increase the immediate risk of heart attack."
Go ahead, light one up — smoke a pack — if you can't possibly avoid the health risks anyway, you might as well take up the habit, right?
I nearly dropped this one in as a quote of the day, but I think it's even funnier in context. First, read the story, then read the comment below.
If they don't stop taking all the oil out of the earth as well as other countries setting off nuclear bombs under ground, the pace of Earth Quakes will carry on; the techtonic plates need that oil to make it easier to glide centimeter by centimeter year in and year out. Take that away and you leave no lubricant and nice big holes the earth decides to fill up.
I shudder to think that this comment comes from someone who graduated from high school . . . possibly even college.
Hat tip to Lois McMaster Bujold, who sent the original link to her mailing list.
[T]hink what has happened in technical and artistic trends in the 50 years since 1957. Scientific endeavors have made fantastic strides in quality, complexity and significance. Consumer product quality has increased dramatically — new cars are packed with features unknown in 1957 yet are far safer and more reliable, and the cell phone in your pocket and the computer you're reading this on, to say nothing of the Internet it's transmitted over, would have been viewed as supernatural by the engineers who built Explorer I. At the same time, the quality of art has plummeted. There hasn't been a musical of artistic merit to open on Broadway in many moons — right now, it's all vapid dreck. (In fact, I think the show "Vapid Dreck," based on a remake of a remake, opens at the Brooks Atkinson soon.) And although good books are still written, what truly great novel has been produced in the past decade or two? Fifty years ago, technical stuff was buckets of bolts and art was splendid; now, the technical stuff is splendid and the art is in poor repair. This tells us something — I just wish I knew what.
Gregg Easterbrook, "TMQ: Come Clean", ESPN Page 2, 2007-10-02
A round up of some of the more dubious claims made on behalf of organic farming, with much refutational goodness.
One critical point to note is that conventional farming using genetically modified crops has been reducing its effects on the natural world over time using the findings of science. Since organic is an ideology, its ability use of scientific findings to reduce its impact on the natural world is heavily constrained.
Look folks, eat all the organic food you want. Just don't be fooled into thinking that you're doing something good for your health or for the health of the planet. You're not.
I have always been somewhat dubious about the various claims, but this summary undermines some of the strongest claims. Next thing you know, someone will be busy debunking Biodynamics in wine-making . . . (just in case I'm being too subtle: I think biodynamic wine is a marketing rip-off).
The theory that autism is caused by an extreme version of the "male brain" has won strong support from new research showing that male hormones in the womb are linked to social and emotional skills in childhood.
Scientists at the University of Cambridge have found that both boys and girls who are exposed to high levels of testosterone before they are born are more likely that usual to develop traits typical of autism, such as a preference for solitary activities and strong numerical and pattern-recognition skills.
Though the study included only children who are not autistic, it provides some of the firmest biological evidence yet that the social impairments that characterise the condition may be affected by prenatal hormone exposure.
This in turn backs the theory that autistic people are best understood as having extreme versions of a brain type that is common in the population at large, particularly among men.
The idea advanced by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, who leads the Cambridge team, is that human brains are predominantly attuned either to empathising with others, or to understanding how systems work. Women are more likely to fall into the first group and men into the second, while autistic people are extreme systemisers whose social problems emerge from a fundamental difficulty with empathy.
The model fits with the way in which autism is four times more common among boys than girls and one possible explanation is that male hormones in the womb could promote systemising at the expense of empathy. Very high exposures may thus trigger autism.
I've posted the odd critique of the obsession on the part of public health officials with BMI (here, here, and here for example), but in case you're not persuaded, here's Paul Campos to set you straight:
A particularly clear example of this is provided by the Harvard School of Public Health, which for many years has been pushing a phony claim with great success. The story is simple: That it's well-established scientific fact that being "overweight" — that is, having a body mass index figure of between 25 and 30 — is, in the words of Harvard professors Walter Willett and Meir Stampfer, "a major contributor to morbidity and mortality." This claim has been put forward over and over again by various members of the School of Public Health's faculty, with little or no qualification. According to this line of argument, there's simply no real scientific dispute about the "fact" that average-height women who weigh between 146 and a 174 pounds, and average-height men who weigh between 175 and 209 pounds, are putting their lives and health at risk. Furthermore, according to Willett, such people should try to reduce their weights toward the low end of the government-approved "normal" BMI range of 18.5 to 24.9 (the low end of the range is 108 and 129 pounds for women and men respectively).
It's difficult to exaggerate the extent to which the actual scientific evidence fails to support any of this. In fact, the current evidence suggests that what the Harvard crew is saying is not merely false, but closer to the precise opposite of the truth. For the most part, the so-called "overweight" BMI range doesn't even correlate with overall increased health risk. Indeed "overweight," so-called, often correlates with the lowest mortality rates. (This has led to much chin-scratching over the "paradox" of why "overweight" people often have better average life expectancy and overall health than "normal weight" people. The solution suggested by Occam's Razor — that these definitions make no sense — rarely occurs to those who puzzle over this conundrum). Furthermore, it's simply not known if high weight increases overall health risk, or is merely a marker for factors, most notably low socio-economic status, which clearly do cause ill health.
John Tierney talks to Bjorn "The Skeptical Environmentalist" Lomborg on a walk around New York City:
The effect of the rising temperatures is more complicated to gauge. Hotter summer weather can indeed be fatal, as Al Gore likes us to remind audiences by citing the 35,000 deaths attributed to the 2003 heat wave in Europe. But there are a couple of confounding factors explained in Dr. Lomborg’s new book, Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming.
The first is that winter can be deadlier than summer. About seven times more deaths in Europe are attributed annually to cold weather (which aggravates circulatory and respiratory illness) than to hot weather, Dr. Lomborg notes, pointing to studies showing that a warmer planet would mean fewer temperature-related deaths in Europe and worldwide.
The second factor is that the weather matters a lot less than how people respond to it. Just because there are hotter summers in New York doesn’t mean that more people die — in fact, just the reverse has occurred. Researchers led by Robert Davis, a climatologist at the University of Virginia, concluded that the number of heat-related deaths in New York in the 1990s was only a third as high as in the 1960s. The main reason is simple, and evident as you as walk into the Bridge Cafe on a warm afternoon: air-conditioning.
The lesson from our expedition is not that global warming is a trivial problem. Although Dr. Lomborg believes its dangers have been hyped, he agrees that global warming is real and will do more harm than good. He advocates a carbon tax and a treaty forcing nations to budget hefty increases for research into low-carbon energy technologies.
But the best strategy, he says, is to make the rest of the world as rich as New York, so that people elsewhere can afford to do things like shore up their coastlines and buy air conditioners. He calls Kyoto-style treaties to cut greenhouse-gas emissions a mistake because they cost too much and do too little too late. Even if the United States were to join in the Kyoto treaty, he notes, the cuts in emissions would merely postpone the projected rise in sea level by four years: from 2100 to 2104.
Ronald Bailey quotes at length from a new article at Foreign Policy by Ethan Nadelman:
Global drug prohibition is clearly a costly disaster. The United Nations has estimated the value of the global market in illicit drugs at $400 billion, or 6 percent of global trade. The extraordinary profits available to those willing to assume the risks enrich criminals, terrorists, violent political insurgents, and corrupt politicians and governments. Many cities, states, and even countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia are reminiscent of Chicago under Al Capone — times 50. By bringing the market for drugs out into the open, legalization would radically change all that for the better.
More importantly, legalization would strip addiction down to what it really is: a health issue. Most people who use drugs are like the responsible alcohol consumer, causing no harm to themselves or anyone else. They would no longer be the state’s business. But legalization would also benefit those who struggle with drugs by reducing the risks of overdose and disease associated with unregulated products, eliminating the need to obtain drugs from dangerous criminal markets, and allowing addiction problems to be treated as medical rather than criminal problems.
No one knows how much governments spend collectively on failing drug war policies, but it’s probably at least $100 billion a year, with federal, state, and local governments in the United States accounting for almost half the total. Add to that the tens of billions of dollars to be gained annually in tax revenues from the sale of legalized drugs. Now imagine if just a third of that total were committed to reducing drug-related disease and addiction. Virtually everyone, except those who profit or gain politically from the current system, would benefit.
The amount of harm done in the pursuit of this nonsensical war is far in excess of the harm done (generally to themselves) by drug users. The restrictions on individual liberty required in this "war" are more far-reaching than anything governments inflicted on their people during actual shooting wars, and the benefits are hard to identify . . . but the costs are astronomical.
Update: Of course, the situation in some countries doesn't seem to change, even with western troops on the ground:
According to a recent report from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, 19,047 hectares of poppies were eradicated in Afghanistan this year, 24 percent more than in 2006. Meanwhile, the number of opium-free provinces more than doubled, from six to 13.
Those victories were somewhat overshadowed by the news that the total amount of land devoted to opium poppies in Afghanistan rose from 165,000 to 193,000 hectares, an increase of 17 percent. Due to "favorable weather conditions," estimated opium production rose even more, hitting an all-time high of 8,200 metric tons, 34 percent more than the previous record, set last year.
If even thousands of highly trained soldiers are unable to stem the tide in just one country, what chance do the other "drug warrior" forces have to restrict the supply of drugs to western markets?
Of 528 total papers on climate change, only 38 (7%) gave an explicit endorsement of the consensus. If one considers "implicit" endorsement (accepting the consensus without explicit statement), the figure rises to 45%. However, while only 32 papers (6%) reject the consensus outright, the largest category (48%) are neutral papers, refusing to either accept or reject the hypothesis. This is no "consensus."
The figures are even more shocking when one remembers the watered-down definition of consensus here. Not only does it not require supporting that man is the "primary" cause of warming, but it doesn't require any belief or support for "catastrophic" global warming. In fact of all papers published in this period (2004 to February 2007), only a single one makes any reference to climate change leading to catastrophic results.
These changing viewpoints represent the advances in climate science over the past decade. While today we are even more certain the earth is warming, we are less certain about the root causes. More importantly, research has shown us that — whatever the cause may be — the amount of warming is unlikely to cause any great calamity for mankind or the planet itself.
Michael Asher, "Survey: Less Than Half of all Published Scientists Endorse Global Warming Theory", Daily Tech, 2007-08-29
Ken Holder points us to this little gem of a discovery:
Years of bad data corrected; 1998 no longer the warmest year on record
An example of the Y2K discontinuity in action [. . .] this week detailed the work of a volunteer team to assess problems with US temperature data used for climate modeling. [. . .] While inspecting historical temperature graphs, he noticed a strange discontinuity, or "jump" in many locations, all occurring around the time of January, 2000.
These graphs were created by NASA's Reto Ruedy and James Hansen (who shot to fame when he accused the administration of trying to censor his views on climate change). Hansen refused to provide McKintyre with the algorithm used to generate graph data, so McKintyre reverse-engineered it. The result appeared to be a Y2K bug in the handling of the raw data.
McKintyre notified the pair of the bug; Ruedy replied and acknowledged the problem as an "oversight" that would be fixed in the next data refresh.
NASA has now silently released corrected figures, and the changes are truly astounding. The warmest year on record is now 1934. 1998 (long trumpeted by the media as record-breaking) moves to second place. 1921 takes third. In fact, 5 of the 10 warmest years on record now all occur before World War II.
Links in the original article. Emphasis mine.
Cross-posted from the backup site.
Jon sent me a link which would have been lifted directly from The Onion only a year or so ago, but it's actually from more current times:
First the Rightwing Parody, Then the Leftwing "Reality:" Yes, They're Now Claiming Global Warming *Causes Volcanos, Earthquakes*
The Earth Fights Back, crows this Guardian piece, claiming that the planet has taken all it can take and is now set to go Rambo on us with all the means at its disposal — which includes, somehow, deliberately, willfully inducing earthquakes and volcanoes.
We've parodied this tendency on the left for a while, suggesting — for laughs — that the left would blame any calamity on global warming, even those that obviously could not possibly have any connection to atmospheric warmth, such as earthquakes and volcanoes. Which are of course caused by plate tectonics and pressures beneath the earth's mantle, and couldn't tell if the earth's temperature had increased by 1000 degrees, nevermind 1.
But last year's parody becomes this year's Inconvenient Truth. And the Cult of Mother Gaia, in all its illogical theocratic glory, officially takes the inevitable step towards deistic teleological anthropomorphization.
Jon wrote: "I LOL'd at this comment":
Deism takes a sorta' set-it and forget-it approach to the universe and the "God" of deism isn't anthropomorphic.
Theism is the anthropomorphic (actually it's not that God is man-like, it's that man is God-like, but this just depends on your perspective) and interventionist God.
In both cases they can impose a teleology on their creation.
But anyway, the greens tend to be pantheistic fags. An earth goddess permeating and being one with all her creation and so on and so forth. Real hardcore horse-shit.
They also tend to smell like that too. That would be a "holistic" approach I believe.
BBC News has a brief entry about some research on the effects of aging on the sense of humour:
Grumpy old men may not be able to help it, as age could affect their sense of humour, scientists have found.
A study by Washington University in St Louis found older people find it harder to understand jokes than students.
The authors say the finding should be taken seriously as laughing has been linked to health benefits such as boosting circulation.
The findings were published in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society.
Of course, before you start blaming age for not getting the joke, you might want to consider that this wasn't exactly the definitive study: it only tested 80 people in total, and for that size of sample a 6% variance isn't statistically significant. (Not to mention that — I guess I'm showing my age here — the joke they used for the tests isn't particularly funny.)
H/T to Ian Guild.
"Da Wife" sent along this link to an article about a convergence of environmentalism and (potentially) genetic engineering:
Using modern plant-breeding methods to find new diets for cows that make them belch less is a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, scientists said on Monday.
The key is developing new varieties of food that are easier for cattle to digest and also provide a proper balance of fiber, protein and sugar, said Michael Abberton, a scientist at the UK-based Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research.
This could open up plant-based solutions as alternatives to reducing stock as farmers look for ways to cut methane emissions amid warming climates, he told a briefing on farming and climate change at London's Science Media Centre.
Of course, the article carefully avoids any hint that genetic engineering might be the solution, referring only to "approaches within plant breeding that can lead to reduced emissions".
In some ways, it might be quite entertaining watching this issue be fought out: many of the most devoted believers in man-made climate change are the same people who loudly protest genetic engineering. It would be educational for them to discover that the solution to one of their biggest concerns might well be another of their biggest concerns. (I can almost hear Jon's inevitable response that it would be a massively parallel "paradigm shift without a clutch".)
Steve Chapman channels his inner Gary Cooper and painfully puts forward a few words on the 16,000 words per day issue:
This research torpedoes the popular assumption that incessant yakking is correlated with X chromosomes. Or as Pennebaker told USA Today, with an admirable economy of words, "It's been a common belief, but it just didn't fit." The evidence is convincing enough that neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine, whose book "The Female Brain" cited claims that women speak at triple the rate of men, says those now "can be relegated to the category of myth."
All I can say is that if the average male is putting out 16,000 words every day, then I'm living in a verbal desert. Some guys I haven't met must be gushing verbiage like Old Faithful to make up for the ones I know, many of whom might easily be mistaken for victims of lockjaw.
That is not a description I would apply to many women of my acquaintance. The editorial board on which I serve used to be nearly all-male, but now has a female majority. I can describe the difference in two words: Longer meetings.
I have to admit that I also found the research to be less than 100% convincing, but perhaps it's just my old-fashioned, patriarchal, etc., etc. views of the world causing me to hold such an odd opinion. Chapman finishes off the article with some pithy words of wisdom:
But now I learn that the guys I know are wholly unrepresentative. Apparently for every one of us, there is some long-winded politician, preacher, auctioneer or "Hardball" guest who talks more in his sleep than we do fully awake. I hope not to meet any of them in this life. But if I do, I'll know what to say: Shut up.
The problem, of course, is that I have no idea if any of this is true. My ability to assess the accuracy of his article, as opposed to the "Gee-whiz!" factor, is roughly the same as my ability to assess writing on the subject of 18th century Chinese porcelain. Unless they start claiming the Ming empire was in Peru, I'm pretty much gullible putty in their hands. And I have been taken in before; a physicist of my acquaintance confiscated my copies of The Tao of Physics and The Dancing Wu-li Masters and wouldn't let me have them back even when I threatened to sue.
Jane Galt, "The words, the lovely lovely words", Asymmetrical Information, 2007-06-04
This magazine [the Financial Times] recently presented a rather touching portrayal of Ashton Hayes, a village in Cheshire with the aim of becoming "carbon neutral" — that is, emitting no unnecessary carbon dioxide at all, and perhaps making up for all that troublesome breathing by planting a few trees. That will take some work because the villagers' current emissions of carbon dioxide are about 25 per cent higher than the national average. In an effort to cut this to something more respectable, the villagers are urging each other to switch off unnecessary electrical items, insulate their lofts and trade in big cars for small ones.
This is all laudable stuff, so it feels a little mean to point out that the villagers could dramatically reduce their carbon footprints by bulldozing Ashton Hayes and moving to London. Yes, London: the "big smoke", the richest region in the European Union, is a city whose environmental statistics make it look dangerously like some hippie commune.
Tim Harford, "Undercover Economist: Urban neutral", FT.com, 2007-05-18
If you think the Nobel Prize is too stuffy and formal, then you'll probably find this selection of IgNobel Prizewinners to be just what you're into.
Rizwana Z. sent this link to one of my mailing lists: Satellites solve mystery of low gravity over Canada:
If it seems Canadians weigh less than their American neighbours, they do — but not for the reasons you might think. A large swath of Canada actually boasts lower gravity than its surroundings.
Researchers have puzzled for years over whether this was due to the crust there rebounding slowly after the end of the last ice age or a deeper issue involving convection in the Earth's mantle — or some combination of the two.
Now, ultra-precise measurements taken over four years by a pair of satellites known as GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) reveal that each effect is equally responsible for Canada's low gravity. The work could shed light on how continents form and evolve over time.
In a couple of hundred years historians will be comparing the frenzies over our supposed human contribution to global warming to the tumults at the latter end of the tenth century as the Christian millennium approached. Then as now, the doomsters identified human sinfulness as the propulsive factor in the planet's rapid downward slide. Then as now, a buoyant market throve on fear. The Roman Catholic Church sold indulgences like checks. The sinners established a line of credit against bad behavior and could go on sinning. Today a world market in "carbon credits" is in formation. Those whose "carbon footprint" is small can sell their surplus carbon credits to others less virtuous than themselves.
The modern trade is as fantastical as the medieval one. There is still zero empirical evidence that anthropogenic production of carbon dioxide is making any measurable contribution to the world's present warming trend. The greenhouse fearmongers rely on unverified, crudely oversimplified models to finger mankind's sinful contribution — and carbon trafficking, just like the old indulgences, is powered by guilt, credulity, cynicism and greed.
Alexander Cockburn, "Is Global Warming a Sin?", The Nation, 2007-05-14
Being human means being evolution's bitch. And once you hit 25 or so, evolution thinks survival is a secondary concern to getting those genes back out into the pool.
Jane Galt, "Fitness Cost", Asymmetrical Information, 2007-05-01
Radley Balko reviews the latest findings from the front-lines of the obesity wars:
A comprehensive meta-study from UCLA of 31 other studies of dieters found that 83 percent of people who go on diets eventually put on more weight than before they started. What's more, the wear and tear associated with yo-yo weight loss and gain makes them much less healthy for trying. This would include the low-fat, high-fiber diet recommended by the U.S. government. [. . .]
All of which could mean that all of these calls from ant-fat activists and PR campaigns from the U.S. government encourage people to lose weight aren't just meddlesome. If 83 percent of people who try to lose weight fail, and are less healthy for trying, these sorts of messages could well be doing harm. As the dietitian in the Guardian article suggests, you're far better off just trying to get some cardiovascular exercise several times per week and not worrying so much about weight.
Among the many reasons for North Americans getting fatter is the huge change in our working lives over the past twenty years or so: more of us work in sedentary jobs, yet we still tend to eat as if we were going out to hew coal from the mine every morning. We're programmed by our upbringing to eat "three square meals" every day, and the meals we eat are almost certainly higher in calories than those our parents and grandparents prepared.
Dieting is a mug's game: we're fighting our own genes to avoid adding that extra layer of fat that our prehistoric ancestors needed to survive. To avoid the weight gain, we need to be more physically active. I say this as someone who knows that I'm carrying my own share of extra weight, so this isn't an exercise junkie preaching here . . .
Ronald Bailey quotes at length from Robert Zubrin's article providing the facts and figures debunking the idea that hydrogen is the solution to energy problems:
Neither type of hydrogen is even remotely economical as fuel. The wholesale cost of commercial grade liquid hydrogen (made the cheap way, from hydrocarbons) shipped to large customers in the United States is about $6 per kilogram. High purity hydrogen made from electrolysis for scientific applications costs considerably more. Dispensed in compressed gas cylinders to retail customers, the current price of commercial grade hydrogen is about $100 per kilogram. For comparison, a kilogram of hydrogen contains about the same amount of energy as a gallon of gasoline. This means that even if hydrogen cars were available and hydrogen stations existed to fuel them, no one with the power to choose otherwise would ever buy such vehicles. This fact alone makes the hydrogen economy a non-starter in a free society.
And even if you are among those willing to sacrifice freedom and economic rationality for the sake of the environment, and therefore prefer hydrogen for its advertised benefit of reduced carbon dioxide emissions, think again. Because hydrogen is actually made by reforming hydrocarbons, its use as fuel would not reduce greenhouse gas emissions at all. In fact, it would greatly increase them.
It must have been a dull day in the labs when they cooked up this experiment:
The UK's universities are fast forging a reputation for the kind of ground-breaking research which can only leave lesser seats of learning looking on in awe.
Indeed, hot on the heels of the Aberdeen better darts project, triumphant scientists at Leeds have cracked that most imponderable of posers: how to create the ultimate bacon sarnie.
And the answer? Simple: take two or three back bacon rashers, cook under a preheated grill for seven minutes at around 240°C and nestle between two slices of farmhouse bread around 1-2cm thick. Then eat.
In case you think this recipe is something any self-respecting undergraduate could cook up, you should know that it took four Leeds University Department of Food Science experts 1,000 hours to work their way through 700 bacon sarnie variations.
Any departure from environmental orthodoxy is marked by ad hominem attack, vigorous spread of false information, claims of criminality and mental derangement, and general nastiness. Apparently this is one area where reasonable people cannot disagree.
It's interesting that any entity as complex, changing and difficult to comprehend as the environment should be guarded by organizations that allow no deviation from a single point of view toward what needs to be done. One might have predicted a rather broad range of environmental viewpoints, promoted by an equally broad range of institutions and activist organizations. There is some variation among organizations, of course. But on the subject of global warming, no deviation. That is to say, I am aware of no environmental organization that does not claim global warming is a major threat that must be dealt with now.
Michael Crichton, interviewed by Scott Burgess in "Seven Answers From . . .", The Daily Ablution, 2007-03/28
Jonathan Rauch's latest column is now online at Reason:
Climate change, then, is a reason to do more of what makes sense anyway: reduce coastal vulnerability and strengthen homes to minimize hurricane damage, improve public health and develop drugs to fight malaria, and so on. There is nothing radical about any of this. No rethinking of capitalism is required.
Given how neatly adaptation dovetails with the sustainability agenda, and given its immense potential to relieve whatever human suffering that global warming causes, one might think environmentalists would tout it to the skies. Some do, but many seem to believe that reducing harm distracts from the real job, which is to reduce emissions. In a blog post last year (at gristmill.org), an environmentalist named David Roberts made the point with startling candor. "In an ideal, abstract policy debate, sure, I'd say we should boost our attention to adaptation," he wrote. "But in the current political situation, I don't want to provide any ammunition for the moral cretins who are squirming frantically to avoid policies that might impact their corporate donors."
This is like denigrating HIV treatment and blocking condom distribution in order to discourage promiscuity. And it is every bit as callous and irresponsible. Where climate change is concerned, the truth — and this truth really is inconvenient, or at least sad — is that too many activists and politicians mistake panic for virtue.
In what amounts to a shocking admission that the "science" supporting anthropogogenic global warming is anything but settled and supported by data, we find that post-modernist thinking has been drafted into the service of stopping climate change.
It turns out that AGW is what is called "post-normal science", meaning that old-fashioned ideas like data and testable hypotheses have to be left on the wayside as we march in lockstep toward the Greater Truth demanded by The Times We Live In.
In other words, its our old friend Fake but Accurate, hanging out with the usual crowd. Don't look at the man behind the curtain, and all that.
Robert Clayton Dean, "Truthy science", Samizdata, 2007-03-16
This Toronto Star article was sent to me with the heading "Al Gore was in town recently, wasn't he?":
February was coldest in 28 years
If you thought February was particularly cold, you were right.
Frigid conditions made the month the coldest February in 28 years, according to Environment Canada's senior climatologist David Phillips.
Not since 1979 has February dished up such bone-rattling conditions.
No wonder I kept hearing so many variations of the same joke last month: "Global Warming? It sounds good to me right now!"
H/T again to "Da Wife".
There are very few things which we know which are not capable of being reduc'd to a Mathematical Reasoning, and when they cannot, it is a sign that Knowledge of them is very small and confus'd.
Dr. John Arbuthnot, On the Laws of Chance, 1692
The environmental movement will never forgive Bjorn Lomborg for being right, but as the Christian Science Monitor reported this week, his argument that adaptation to climate change may be more sensible that radical reversals in emissions levels is finding more and more advocates. I believe it's inevitable that environmentalists will gradually become more enthusiastic about Lomborgian adaptationism as they clue in that there's just as much money in it for them and a great deal more political potential; moreover, as the latest IPCC report showed, the steady improvement of climate models has a tendency to shrink the error bars in various measures of calamity and rule out exotic worst-case scenarios, making it harder every year to sell the public on rewinding the economy to the Stone Age. The next stage of the debate will be over whether adaptation should, in general, be allowed to happen at its own pace and guided locally or whether it should be an expensive planned global-governance project.
Colby Cosh, "Recently visited: a roundup for Sunday reading", ColbyCosh.com, 2007-02-18
Experts can be and frequently are wrong. An expert working for the government is no less susceptible to bias or ill motivation as one working for a corporation. Which is why it's foolhardy to rely on their expertise when making top-down policies that affect everyone. In fact, the main difference between the two is that when a private corporation's experts are wrong, the consequences are generally limited to the corporation, its employees, and its investors (there are hard cases, of course. Pollution comes to mind. But hard cases make for bad policy.). When the government's experts are wrong, we all get to suffer the consequences. Which is a good reason to have government making as few one-size-fits-all policies as possible.
There was a time when government experts told us to eat lots of pasta. Not so much anymore. The "experts" at CSPI (who aren't the government, but are far too influential on it) once told us trans-fats were hunky-dory, and encourage restaurants to use them instead of butter and other animal fats. Now they say trans-fats are gelatinous death, and they're urging governments to ban them. Right now, government experts are generally lying to us about secondhand smoke, and using that "expertise" to call for public smoking bans. Same for medical marijuana. Government experts now tell us we're going to die if we don't lose a few pounds. But there's some evidence that dieting may be worse for you than carrying extra weight. There's now overwhelming scientific evidence that daily, moderate consumption of alcohol could add years to your life. Yet government experts continue to advocate top-down policies aimed at reducing alcohol consumption, because for whatever reason, they're more worried about the small percentage of people who abuse alcohol than the exponentially [higher] number of people who could benefit from it.
(It's also interesting how the government's preferred experts so often come to carefully-researched conclusions that call for giving more power to the government.)
Radley Balko, "Experts", TheAgitator.com, 2007-02-18
Climate Cassandras say the facts are clear and the case is closed. (Sen. Barbara Boxer: "We're not going to take a lot of time debating this anymore.") The consensus catechism about global warming has six tenets: 1. Global warming is happening. 2. It is our (humanity's, but especially America's) fault. 3. It will continue unless we mend our ways. 4. If it continues we are in grave danger. 5. We know how to slow or even reverse the warming. 6. The benefits from doing that will far exceed the costs.
Only the first tenet is clearly true, and only in the sense that the Earth warmed about 0.7 degrees Celsius in the 20th century. We do not know the extent to which human activity caused this. The activity is economic growth, the wealth-creation that makes possible improved well-being — better nutrition, medicine, education, etc. How much reduction of such social goods are we willing to accept by slowing economic activity in order to (try to) regulate the planet's climate?
George Will, "Inconvenient Kyoto Truths", Newsweek, 2007-02-12
Elizabeth pointed out these two duelling headlines today: "New genetic link to autism" Toronto Star and, as a counterpoint, "Children's TV 'is linked to cancer, autism, dementia'", The Scotsman. Take your pick . . .
A belated Valentine's Day entry: the brain science of love.
H/T to "Da Wife" for the URL, with apologies for not posting it in a more timely fashion.
Da Wife and Kids made a small batch of this stuff yesterday. I thought they had just made a big mess in the kitchen, but then I started playing with the stuff. It's pretty cool: a liquid most of the time, but compress it or shock it in any way, and it acts like a solid. Very cool.
And who would guess that something as simple as corn starch and water would have a cool name* like "Non-Newtonian fluid?"
Here the hosts of a Spanish science show demonstrate its properties:
Getting back to the title of this post, I can think of other ways to use a wading pool full of this stuff.
Hmmmm... n o n - N e w t o n i a n f l u i d . . .
* I do not consider the popular name to be cool. Not even a little bit.
STATS.org presents the 2006 Dubious Data Awards, including my personal fave:
Both Forbes and the New York Times bit on a study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), which claimed that almost half of the alcohol industry’s revenue (almost 50 billion dollars per year) comes from underage drinkers, who consume over 20 billion drinks a year. For that to be true, the 36 million kids in the 12 to 20 age group must be consuming nearly as much booze as the entire adult population. If this seems unlikely on its face, do the math: If we accept CASA’s claim that nearly half the teenagers in America are drinkers, each of them must each be consuming over 1,000 drinks per year, or almost three drinks a day, for CASA’s numbers to add up.
But still, why let a mere data discrepancy deter you from running a really juicy story, right?
One of the things that "everyone knows" is that women talk more than men. Certainly the perception is very common, but apparently the numbers tell a different story:
Louann Brizendine's book The Female Brain, published last August, featured a number of striking quantitative assertions about sex differences in communication. The jacket blurb claimed "A woman uses about 20,000 words per day while a man uses about 7,000", while the text (p. 14) gave the same numbers in the other order: "Men use about seven thousand words per day. Women use about twenty thousand." Dr. Brizendine gives a set of references in her end-notes, but none of them support those numbers. In fact, no study of any sort has ever measured any numbers at all like these, as far as I've been able to find.
What are the facts about sex and talkativeness? There's an enormous amount of individual variation, and each individual talks more or less depending on mood and context. Against this background of variation, many studies have measured how much women talk, on average, compared to how much men talk, on average. The differences that they find between men and women as groups have always been small compared to the differences among men as individuals or among women as individuals. And more often than not, these small group differences actually show men talking a bit more than women do.
Every dogma has its day, and we've lived long enough to see more than one "consensus" blown apart within a few years of "everyone knowing" it was true. In recent decades environmentalists have been wrong about almost every other apocalyptic claim they've made: global famine, overpopulation, natural resource exhaustion, the evils of pesticides, global cooling, and so on. Perhaps it's useful to have a few folks outside the "consensus" asking questions before we commit several trillion dollars to any problem.
Look, if Republicans had opposed embryonic stem cell research on the grounds that dim-witted government bureaucrats haven't a clue about how to choose between scientific boondoggles and scientific brilliance, then perhaps the stem cell issue wouldn't have cut against them. Instead, conservative Republican pandering to the Religious Right on this issue made them look like uncaring anti-progress know-nothings to most voters.
Ronald Bailey, "Americans Vote Pro-Life: Did stem cells give the Senate to the Democrats?", Reason Online, 2006-11-10
A display of the calm, dispassionate discourse appropriate to scientific inquiry:
Point: "Colorado State University's William Gray, one of the nation's preeminent hurricane forecasters, called noted Boulder climate researcher Kevin Trenberth an opportunist and a Svengali who 'sold his soul to the devil to get (global warming) research funding.'"
Counterpoint: "Trenberth countered that Gray is not a credible scientist. 'Not any more. He was at one time, but he's not any more,' Trenberth said of Gray, one of a handful of prominent U.S. scientists who question whether humans play a significant role in warming the planet by burning fossil fuels that release heat-trapping gases.
'He's one of the contrarians, some of whom get money to spread lies about global warming,' Trenberth said during a break following his presentation at the 31st annual Climate Diagnostics & Prediction Workshop.
Ah, the wonders of the analytical approach. More here.
A short piece in The Register talks about current ideas that the English channel was created in 24 hours
Dr Gupta's theory — outlined in his book Homo Britannicus: the Incredible Story of Human Life in Britain, published next week — challenges the traditional theory that the British and the French had plenty of time to work up to mutual enmity as Blighty and the continent slowly parted company.
Rather, it seems our earliest inhabitants woke up one morning to find their former neighbours taunting them about superior cuisine from the safety of the newly-formed English Channel's far bank, provoking the first Brits to storm off and invent the longbow.
A visualization (with music) of cellular life (Flash presentation).
Hat tip to Rowena, who found it "both perplexing and beautiful".
Alayne McGregor sent these two links to the Lois McMaster Bujold mailing list. I'm sure the findings will be unpopular, if only because they fly in the face of long-held beliefs in certain economic quarters. the BBC reported:
People in lower social classes are biologically older than those in higher classes, according to research.
A study of 1,552 volunteers revealed a low social status can accelerate the ageing process by about seven years.
The UK/US team analysed key pieces of DNA called telomeres which are thought to correlate to biological age.
The scientists, writing in the journal Aging Cell, believe the stress associated with belonging to a lower social class may be to blame.
And the Guardian said this:
Scientists have uncovered evidence of a new class divide: the lower our social standing, the faster we age.
The claim follows the surprise discovery of accelerated ageing among working class volunteers, leaving them biologically older than those higher up the social ladder.
Genetic tests showed that being working class could add the equivalent of seven years to a person's age.
And moving down in the world by marrying someone from a lower social class also added years to a woman's biological age, scientists report today in the journal Aging Cell.
Take the Caffeine Intake test and find out.
Hat tip to Roger Henry.
In shared DNA, a man is actually genetically closer to a male chimp than to a human female (as many women observed, before science). Our brains are configured differently (whether by evolution or intelligent design), and it would follow that our behaviour varies accordingly. We look backwards in time (the only objective way to test propositions about human nature), and find that this has been acknowledged in all human cultures.
David Warren, "Manliness", davidwarrenonline.com, 2006-03-26
[Tim Flannery] suggests that if humanity were facing the threat of cold, rather than heat, the talking would have been over long ago and a strong plan of action would be in place. His point is that Homo sapiens is a tropical species which, having only recently spread to temperate and frigid climes, still thinks like a tropical species. It really fears the cold, but rather likes the heat. The word "warming", therefore, has positive overtones. So perhaps the underlying problem is not so much, as in the case of staying slim, that you have to trade a real sacrifice now for a potential benefit in the future, but that a lot of people who are perfectly willing to believe that global warming is happening don't really see it is a problem at all.
"Cold comfort", The Economist, 2006-03-02
The Register reports that science will not be denied:
Scientists: masturbation not as good as sex
And you thought you just weren't doing it right
It must have been a slow day in the lab to come up with that experiment proposal . . .
Marginal Revolution has a post on one of those "everyone recognizes it" phenomena:
The finding backs the idea that distances elongate in our minds because, over time, we begin to notice more and more minutiae about a route, an idea called the feature-accumulation theory. "As detail accumulates, the distance seems to get bigger," Crompton says.
Here is the full story. Remember the earlier result that if you are going and returning only once, the ride back seems shorter. Furthermore life speeds up as you get older.
Cool. I'd often wondered why the return journey seemed shorter, yet logically couldn't be.
I was taking a intro to genetics class in college, the instructor was using canines as an example of differing morphology in a species. At one point he said "For example, the chihuahua was bred to fight rats", at which point I said "Yeah, and they took home war brides".
Patrick McKinnion, posted to the Bujold mailing list, 2006-02-03
The health care market can cope with change just fine. That is, if the regulatory system lets it. The problem with vaccines isn't that you can't charge enough money for them; it's that vaccines are very useful things, which tempts governments to break the patent. It is thus perhaps wiser for pharmas to invest in a good baldness cure than something that people actually need. But this is not a market failure; it is a government failure.
Jane Galt, Asymmetrical Information, 2006-01-05
We live in a scientific age, and still most people out there do not know how to think objectively or scientifically. Thinking in terms of probability or parsimony does not come naturally to any of us. And even when we do think scientifically, we're still capable of believing in things like alien abductions.
I think we're scientifically more sophisticated today than we have ever been, but there is no evidence that our belief in ghosts, or aliens, or macrobiotic diets, or the power of echinacea to kill colds has decreased. We are as interested in mysticism today as we were five decades go. Or forever as far as I can tell.
Susan Clancy, interviewed by Kerry Howley in "The Truth Is in There", Reason, 2005-12-08
Resupplying the barricade-holders with arguments against introducing soi-disant Intelligent Design in school curricula:
This seems like a good time to go over some of the basic arguments and misconceptions in the evolution debate.
Evolution is just a theory; it's not verifiable or provable, and shouldn't be taught as fact.
Evolution is, in fact, the foundation of the entire science of modern biology and much of modern medicine. No, there is no absolute ''proof" of evolution, but that's not how science works. The evolutionary theory of origin of species is supported by abundant evidence from the fossil record and genetics research — indicating, for instance, that both humans and modern apes are related to primates who lived millions of years ago or that modern birds are related to dinosaurs. And how much scientific evidence is there disproving evolutionary theory? Zero. Yes, there are many unanswered questions about evolution. But the answer to these questions is more scientific research, not filling the gaps with ''God did it."
Opponents of intelligent design are intolerant, closed-minded ''Darwinian fundamentalists" who don't want to allow alternative viewpoints in the classroom. If their position is so strong, what are they afraid of?
Opponents of intelligent design don't want science classrooms to become a platform for pseudoscience. Would it be intolerant for high school health classes to exclude material about the healing power of pyramids or about demonic possession as a cause of mental illness? Is it intolerant not to teach Holocaust denial in history classes?
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