January 15, 2012

Scientific American

Green Army: Communications

Speculations concerning the origin of the world have of late years become the favorite theme of theorists. …
But what, we ask, is the benefit that shall accrue to mankind from the vain attempt to lift the veil from the mysteries of the first creation?
It would only be a barren acquisition to our theoretical knowledge, from which not a single useful result could be expected.

— The Editors, 1868.

Amy Herring, Samantha Attard, Penny Gordon-Larsen, William Joyner, and Carolyn Halpern:
[45 out of 7,870] women (0.5%) reported at least one virgin pregnancy unrelated to the use of assisted reproductive technology.
Although it was rare for dates of sexual initiation and pregnancy consistent with virgin pregnancy to be reported, it was more common among women
  • who signed chastity pledges, or
  • whose parents indicated lower levels of communication with their children about sex and birth control.
(Like a virgin (mother): analysis of data from a longitudinal, US population representative sample survey, BMJ, 17 December 2013)

Daniel Kahneman (1934):
[People] can maintain an unshakable faith in any proposition, however absurd, when they are sustained by a community of like-minded believers.
(Steve Mirsky, Data deliver in the clutch, January 2017, p 84)

Melinda Moyer [Adjunct Assistant Professor, Graduate School of Journalism, City University of New York]:
[A 2007] review of 68 clinical trials … concluded that [antioxidants] do not reduce risk of death.
[When only randomised double blind trials were included] certain antioxidants were linked to an increased risk of death [of] up to 16%.
[The] American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association, now advise [against people taking antioxidants] except to treat diagnosed vitamin deficiency.
(February 2013, p 61, emphasis added)

Dan Baum:
The first law of hydrodynamics is that water flows towards money.
(Changes of State: Searching for California's missing moisture, August 2015, p 59)

Richard Schiffman:
… Cutting the forest for ranches is the largest driver of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, accounting for nearly 70% of clearing. …
[The] rain forest pumps 20 billion tons of water vapor daily into the atmosphere through leaf transpiration …
The Amazon is currently nearly 20% deforested [and the combination] of deforestation, fire and climate change … could transform vast swaths [of what remains] into savanna.
[A] fully deforested Amazon would mean a 50% less snowfall in California's Sierra Nevada, quashing spring runoff vital to the region's agriculture.
(Rain-Forest Threats Resume, June 2015, p 14)

The Editors:
[Since] about 1950 the polygraph has become firmly established in industry and government. …
Many companies retain polygraph examiners not only to investigate specific losses but also to conduct routine preemployment interviews in an attempt to identify applicants with a criminal record, alcoholics, homosexuals or people who are likely to be disloyal to the company.
(Lie-Detecting Hucksters, 1967)

Alexander Lipton & Alex Pentland:
[It is estimated that Bitcoin mining] consumes as much electricity as eBay, Facebook and Google combined.
(Breaking the Bank, p 26)

John Pavlus:
[Producing] a years worth of Bitcoin … requires the equivalent of burning about 11 million tons of coal, [releasing] nearly 29 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Fueling Bitcoin by solar power would require … more than half the entire US's annual utility-scale solar capacity.
(The World Bitcoin Created, Scientific American, January 2018, p 32)

California has voted to set up a firearms violence research centre, and to provide $5 million of funding over the next five years. …
Less than $5 million a year is currently spent on gun violence research.
This is the result of a 1996 amendment, pushed [through] by the gun lobby, that [effectively bans] all federal funding of such research.
(25 June 2016, p 7)

Science Agenda

Board of Editors

Ready. Aim. Investigate.

By the 1960s … more than 50,000 people a year [were dying in motor vehicle accidents.]
[Carmakers] held that [all these] fatalities were [due to driver-error:]
[Cars] don't kill people …
[Drivers] kill people …
[By the mid-1950s, research] had found that deaths could be lowered with simple safety devices such as seat belts.
The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 mandated many of these improvements [and set in] motion a decades-long federal effort to better understand highway safety.
As a result … the death rate per mile traveled has fallen [by] 80% since 1966.
[On present trends,] in two years car crashes will no longer [be] the number-one cause of violent death in the US.
[That] honor will go to gunshot wounds.

The National Rifle Association of America (NRA) has been [remarkably] successful in [obstructing] public safety research into guns.
[In 1996, when] the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that having a gun in the home tripled the chance of a family member [getting shot] representative Jay Dickey of Arkansas added language to federal law … that barred the CDC from conducting [any further] research that might be used to “advocate or promote gun control.”
[Coupled] with a campaign of harassment of researchers [this] effectively halted federally funded gun safety research.

In January, President Barack Obama instructed the CDC to resume studying the causes and prevention of gun violence. …
[Given its track record,] the NRA will [almost certainly] attempt to impede these new investigations. …
{[Commendably,] Congressman Dickey [at least, has changed his mind and now accepts] that firearms research is the best way to reduce the violence.}

The NRA has [misleadingly] framed the debate as a choice between banning all guns and doing nothing.
[This is a false dilemma. …]
We didn't have to ban automobiles to cut roadway fatalities, and we don't have to ban all guns to reduce gun-related deaths.
All [that is needed] is a willingness to
  • examine the causes of violence [and]
  • go where the data lead.

(March 2013, p 6)

Don't Blind NASA to Earth's Climate

{… NASA's Earth science budget [suffered] a nearly 40% cut … during the George W Bush administration. …}
This year congressional Republicans [have again] moved to decrease [its] Earth science budget. …
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas … chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, [has said] that Earth science was not part of the agency's "core mission" and, indeed, that it was not "hard science" at all. …

In June [House Republicans] slashed Earth science funding by $260 million and added extra money for planetary science that the agency did not ask for.
For example, [when] NASA requested $30 million for a robotic mission to [Europa] the House gave it $140 million [instead. …]
[And, when] NOAA requested $30 million for a study of ocean acidification [the] House granted $8.4 million [and] cut NOAA's total budget by about 5% …

Of all federal agencies, [NASA] is best positioned to study the heavens and the major environmental changes that affect our lives on Earth.
Political extremists need to back off … and let the agency do both its jobs.

(September 2015, p 7, emphasis added)

Sham Vaccination

[There have been numerous credible reports that in] its zeal to identify [Osama] bin Laden … the CIA [ran a] sham hepatitis B vaccination program to collect DNA in the [Pakistani] neighborhood where he was hiding.
{[The program initially] started in a poor neighborhood of Abbottabad, no doubt to give it an air of legitimacy.
Yet after the first of a standard series [of three] shots was given, the effort was abandoned so the team could more to bin Laden's wealthier community.
[This proved] that the best interests of the recipients were not the guiding principle of the [exercise — while also] betraying the program for the sham [that] it was.}
The effort apparently failed …

[Since then, villagers] along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border [have] chased off legitimate vaccine workers, accusing them of being spies [and] Taliban commanders [have] banned polio vaccinations … citing the bin Laden ruse as justification.
[In December 2012] nine vaccine workers were murdered in Pakistan [—] prompting the United Nations to withdraw its vaccination teams.
Two months later gunmen killed 10 polio workers in Nigeria …

The distrust sowed by the sham campaign [could delay] polio eradication for 20 years, leading to 100,000 more cases that might otherwise not have occurred …
Leslie F Roberts [Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University]:
Forevermore, people would say this [child was crippled] because the US was so crazy to get Osama bin Laden.

(May 2013, p 6)

Energy, Net Neutrality and Health

US energy policy must be guided by two intertwined goals:
  • guaranteeing the security of the nation's energy supply and
  • limiting runaway climate change.
A tax on the carbon dioxide emissions of fuels is a key to achieving both.
A firm carbon price would encourage individuals and businesses to shift away from carbon-heavy fuels such as petroleum and coal.
It would also encourage the development of next-generation energy sources …
The president and Congress must also end the market-distorting subsidies given out … to industries across the energy spectrum ‒ from coal and oil to wind and solar.
Without a level playing field and a steady price on carbon, companies cannot assess whether advanced technologies such as "clean coal" power plants or electric vehicles will ever make economic sense. …

Net neutrality guarantees the right to speak freely on the Internet without fear of gatekeepers who would block content with which they disagree.
[The FCC should] reverse policies enacted a decade ago … and reclassify broadband Internet service as a telecommunications service. …
[Owners] of broadband Internet lines should not be allowed to interfere with what online content citizens have access to. …

[Obamacare] was never supposed to be the last word in health care reform.
The president and Congress must reach at least three additional objectives for the US to rehabilitate its alarmingly dysfunction health care system:

  1. figure out a way to lower medical costs, which threaten to bankrupt the country …
  2. improve the health outcomes of its patients; and
  3. make health care affordable for businesses and individuals.

These are massive challenges that demand systemic changes to our health care system.
[We] might begin with …
  • rewarding primary care physicians and nurse practitioners … if they keep their patients healthy and out of hospital [and]
  • [targeting] individuals who have asthma, heart disease or diabetes [‒] given that complications from these conditions can be very expensive to treat but are often preventable.
(January 2013, p 6)

The Danger of Opting Out

The Editors:
Libya and Tanzania [have] vaccination rates of 99%. …
[In the US, coverage] is as low as 86% in states such as Colorado and Ohio, and the national average is 91%.
(Wooing the Fence Sitters, May 2015, p 10)

Graphic Science:
{When vaccinations drop below the herd immunity threshold — the proportion of immune individuals needed to prevent widespread transmission — [epidemics] arise.}
[These] threaten:
  • all unvaccinated children,
  • vaccinated children and adults who have weak immune [responses,] and
  • [are potentially fatal to] babies who are too young to get their shots. …
The 2012 US outbreak of whooping cough (pertussis) … infected 42,000 people …
[It] was the largest since 1955.
Rates for two crucial childhood vaccines [—] DTP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) and MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) [—] are falling.
Other rates, such as for polio, are stable.
(June 2013, p 80)

Climate Change Sceptic

Michael Shermer (1954)

Bjørn Lomborg reports the findings of a study sponsored by his Copenhagan Consensus 2012 project in which more than 50 economists evaluated 39 proposals on how best to solve such problems as armed conflicts, natural disasters, hunger, disease, education and climate change.
Climate change barely rated a mention in the top 10 …
Number 12 was R&D for geoengineering solutions to climate change, and number 17 was R&D for green energy technologies.
The rest of the top 30 were related to disease, water and sanitation, biodiversity, hunger, education, population growth and natural disasters. …

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do more about climate change.
But what? …
If you are malnourished and diseased, what the climate will be like at the end of the century is not a high priority.
Given limited resources, we should not let ourselves be swept away by the apocalyptic fear generated by any one threat.

(Climapocalypse!, August 2014, p 69)

There appears to be a general consensus among scientists that global warming is real and human-caused, but I disagree that there is as much consensus about the consequences.
Given the levels of uncertainty in climate models projecting out a century, wouldn't it be prudent to save lives now with the relatively less expensive measures … ?

(Letters, December 2014, p 6, emphasis added)

[Climate change] skepticism was once tenable.
No longer.
It is time to flip from skepticism to activism.

(The Flipping Point, 1 June 2006)









Science talk

Scientific American



  • Six Million in Africa, February, p 53.
    Robert Engelman.

    One of the most rapid fertily declines in history occurred in Mauritius, east of Madagascar.
    The average fell from more than six in the 1960s to 2.3 two decades later.
    Today it is about 1.5, comparable to Europe and Japan. …
    Mauritians were relatively well educated, women as well as men.
    [By] the early 1960s the national government overcame opposition from various groups, including Catholics and Muslims, to successfully promote family planning.
    Within two decades four out of five reproductive-age women were using contraception.



  • Exploded Trust, June, p 8.
    Board of Editors.

    Before it exploded [on 17 April 2013,] the West Fertilizer plant [in West, Texas,] was an otherwise unremarkable piece of the American landscape. …
    The blast damaged or destroyed 150 buildings, including the school and a nursing home.
    Fifteen people died.

    The US is home to around 6,000 fertilizer retail and production plants, 13,500 domestic chemical production plants and tens of thousands of mining and petroleum sties. …
    [These] potentially dangerous industrial sites have been trusted to police themselves.

    Managers at the West plant never registered ammonium nitrate with Homeland Security, even though [their 270 ton] stockpile contained 1,300 times the amount that triggers q mandatory review.
    The most recent emergency planning report that the company filed with the [EPA] stated there was no fire or explosion risk at the plant.
    Owners did inform [state] regulators about the ammonium nitrate, but [their] inspectors issued nothing more than the occasional wrist slap.
    [When] the Occupational Safety and Health Administration last checked [the plant in 1985, the plant's management were cited for five serious violations and fined] $30.

    The incineration of this small town [was avoidable. …]
    The problem is not lack of [regulation.]
    It's a lack of [enforcement.]
    It is a direct consequence of the … late 20th-century allergy to effective regulation of hazardous materials, energy and transportation industries in the US. …
    • Homeland Security employs 242 people to oversee thousands of chemical plants;
    • OSHA relies on about 2,200 inspectors to safeguard 130 million workers at more than eight million work sites …
    • Texas, Pennsylvania and New Mexico each employ as few a a dozen inspectors to monitor thousands of active [oil and gas] drilling sites.
    The 2013 federal budget sequester is further slicing away at these numbers. …

    There is a particular meme in American politics … that regulation is an unnecessary burden …
    [That red tape hobbles] the entrepreneurial spirit.
    But we [must] not forget that … petroleum refineries, chemical plants and fertilizer facilities are as dangerous as they are common.

    Ronald Reagan said that the key to reducing the risk of a nuclear mishap was to "trust, but verify."
    Most local industries may be worthy of the trust their communities place in them.
    Still, we must verify.
    (p 8)

  • Armor against Prejudice, May, p 68.
    Ed Yong (1981).

    Geoffrey Cohen [of Stanford University] asks people to consider what is important to them, be it popularity or musical ability, and write about why it matters.
    The 15-minute exercise acts like a mental vaccine that boosts students' self-confidence, helping them to combat any future stereotype threat.

    In 2003 Cohen visited racially diverse middle schools in California and put his exercise through a randomized [single-blind] controlled trial …
    [He] administered his exercise to seventh graders:
    • half wrote about their own values, and
    • the rest wrote about things that were unimportant to them.
    [Cohen did not know] who was in which group. …

    [By] the end of the term [the] black students … had closed a 40% academic gap between them and their white peers. …
    Best of all, the students at the the bottom of the class [had] benefited most.
    Over the next two years … the students took two or three booster versions of the original exercise.
    Only 5% of the poorest students who wrote about their values ended up in remedial classes or repeated a grade, compared [to] 18% … in the control group.
    Ultimately, the black students' grade point averages rose by [0.25 points (0.4 among the worst performers).]

    A few fractions of a point … might not seem like a huge improvement, but even small changes in confidence — whether positive or negative — [can have compounding] effects.
    Children who do poorly at first can quickly lose self-confidence or a teacher's attention; conversely, signs of modest progress can [encourage greater effort.]
    By intervening early [Cohen hopes] educators can turn vicious cycles into virtuous ones. …

    [When first starting college, students from] minorities [often] worry that their academic peers will not fully accept them.
    [Cohen, in collaboration with Greg Walton, also at Stanford] combated these worries with [an hour-long exercise using] survey statistics and quotes from older students showing that such feelings [were both universal and transient.]
    Three years later … the achievement gap between blacks and whites had been halved.
    The black students were also happier and healthier than their peers who did not take part in [the] exercise. …

    [Along with other colleagues at Stanford, Carol Dweck and Dave Paunesku, Cohen and Walton have] created PERTS (the Project for Education Research That Scales), which allows them to rapidly administer their interventions online.
    [It also allows them to research the relative effectiveness of different programs and combinations of programs.]
    (p 71)

  • Tiny Plants That Once Ruled the Seas, May, p 32.
    Ronald Martin: Professor of Geology, University of Delaware.
    Antonietta Quigg: Professor of Marine Biology, Texas A&M University, Galveston.

    [In] coming centuries … the cocclithophores and other calcifying phytoplankton … may be devastated by [ocean] acidification …
    Although [these] organisms have endured environmental change for hundresd of millions of years, the current influx of carbon dioxide is happening so quickly that they may not be able to adapt … fast enough.

    The loss of these organisms could exacerbate [global] warming.
    Today blooms of … Emiliania huxleyi can cover areas greater than 100,000 square kilometers …
    [They] produce significant amounts of … dimethyl sulfide, which … seeds cloud formation.
    [Clouds] reflect sunlight back into space, cooling the planet.
    Without coccolithophores … more solar energy [would reach the earth's surface. …]

    [For the calcifying phytoplankton of] reef communities …
    • acidification will dissolve their skeletons [and]
    • warming will … surpass the limits of their temperature tolerance (reef species tend to live near the upper limits of their temperature tolerance). …

    As the oceans warm, they may … become increasingly stratified: warm water acts as a lid on … cold water, thus impeding upwelling and circulation.
    Dinoflagellates dominate under such conditions, which could increase the frequency and [extent] of toxic blooms in coastal habitats.
    [These habitats] serve as refueling stops for migratory birds and nurseries for commercially important fish and crustaceans …
    (p 37)

  • The Myth of Antioxidants, February, p 56.
    Melinda Wenner Moyer: Adjunct Assistant Professor, Graduate School of Journalism, City University of New York.

    The Birth of a Radical Theory

    [Free] radicals may be beneficial in some contexts and dangerous in others.
    Large amounts of oxidative damage have … been shown to cause cancer and organ damage, and [to play] a role in some chronic conditions, such as heart disease.
    (p 60)

    [Mice] live longer when they are genetically engineered to produce high levels of an antioxidant know as catalase.

    Shifting Perspective

    Free radicals might, in some cases, be produced in response to cellular damage — as a way to signal the body's [self-repair] mechanisms …
    [Free radicals may be] a consequence of age-related damage [rather than] a cause of it. …
    [Some] free radicals [have been found to] turn on a gene called HIF-1 [which activates] genes involved in cellular repair, including one that helps to repair of mutated DNA.

    [In a comparison] of exercisers who took antioxidants with exercisers who did not [— those] who did not pop vitamins were healthier than those who did …
    [Among] other things, the unsupplemented athletes showed fewer signs that they might develop type 2 diabetes.

    [Exercise] ramps up [the] process of autophagy, in which cells recycle worn-out bits of proteins and other subcellular [debris].
    The [tools] used to digest and disassemble the old molecules [are] free radicals.
    [On the other hand,] autophagy reduces the overall level of free radicals, suggesting that the types and amounts of free radicals in different parts of the cell may play [different] roles, depending on the circumstances.
    (pp 60-61)

Science Talk

Steve Mirsky

  • Out with the Bad Science, 3 August 2018.
    Richard Harris.
  • Big Chicken, 28 September 2012.
    Maryn McKenna.
  • The Climate of Climate Science, 18 October 2017.
    James McCarthy: Alexander Agassiz Professor of Biological Oceanography, Harvard University.
  • Plants Know Stuff, 29 June 2012.
    Daniel Chamovitz: Director, Manna Center for Plant Biosciences, Tel Aviv.
  • If You're Happy, How You Know It, 22 February 2012.
    Roly Russell: Social scientist, Sandhill Institute, British Columbia.
  • The Coming Entanglement, 15 February 2012.
    Bill Joy: Co-founder, Sun Microsystems.
    Danny Hillis (1956): Co-founder, Long Now Foundation.
  • A Second Science Front: Evolution Champions Rise to Climate Science Defense, 16 January 2012.
    Eugenie Scott (1945): Executive Director, National Center for Science Education.
  • Out of Our Depth: Sea Level on the Rise, 8 December 2011.
    Eelco Rohling: Professor of Ocean and Climate Change, School of Ocean and Earth Science (SOES), Southampton University, National Oceanography Centre, Southampton.

    For a current level of [radiative] forcing, so 1.6 W/m^2 net forcing [we are] looking at an equilibrium state … similar to where we were 3 1/2 million years ago [when] sea level [was] at least 15 m, maybe 25 m above the present.
    [That's] the Middle Pliocene and that's where the C02 concentrations were around 400 ppm. …

    [If] we want to look at C02 concentrations considerably higher than that we going to go deeper in time …
    [We're] looking at an ice free planet for example 55 million years ago then sea level would be 60, 70 m above the present, but … that will take an enormously long period to achieve.
    But the 15-20 m is where … for the current climate forcing in the atmosphere today … the climate would like to be, if you give it enough time. …

    [We] are warming the planet so fast [that] we're … creating a disequilibrium and that could lead to very fast steps in the sea level adjustment, in the ice volume adjustment.
    We can get some measure of how fast this could go by looking at last inter-glacial 125,000 years ago [when] the sea level had risen to about 4 or 6 m above the present due to natural circumstances …
    [We] have recently reconstructed the rates at which this happened and [these were] a metre or more per century …
    [We] will eventually achieve [those sort of rates of change] maybe not this century … but certainly in the next century …

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