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Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Paul Krugman discusses the striking lack of carnage in the U.S.

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Paul Krugman has a blog post: the American carnage so visible to our new president does not show up in carnage-related statistics:


Apparently if you tell people falsehoods long enough, they will start to believe it. His whole post is worth reading.

In the meantime, California is fighting another large outbreak of measles, apparently from an Orthodox Jewish community that does not protect their children with immunizations. No deaths reported as yet, worldwide measles kills 15 people per day. The Center for Disease Control (not yet defunded) has a good page on measles, and it includes the effects:

Measles can be dangerous, especially for babies and young children. From 2001-2013, 28% of children younger than 5 years old who had measles had to be treated in the hospital.

For some children, measles can lead to:

  • Pneumonia (a serious lung infection)
  • Lifelong brain damage
  • Deafness
  • Death

In this connection, psychologists at their convention in San Antonio are addressing an important problem: what causes people to reject scientific findings that are based on mountains of evidence? Melissa Healy writes in the LA Times:

In Washington, D.C., revelers and protesters are marking the ascendance of a new president and the populist movement he says he has mobilized.

Some 1,600 miles away in San Antonio, thousands of psychologists from around the world are also marking the dawn of the Trump era by focusing their attention on the thought processes that prompt some people to resist and reject science. Matters for which there is a broad scientific consensus — including man-made climate change, the safety of childhood vaccines and Darwin’s theory of evolution — have been attacked as hoaxes and lies by senior members of the new administration.

Psychologists have come up with a name for this trend: the “anti-enlightenment movement.”

To better understand it, these professional observers of human behavior will draw from a recent election campaign in which fake news exploded, conspiracy theories flourished and derision was heaped on elites of all kinds.

“We were motivated by anxiety,” said social psychologist Matthew Hornsey, who organized a symposium on the issue for this weekend’s annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

The popular rejection of scientific thinking — and sometimes of facts that are plainly evident — didn’t begin with the campaign that brought forth Donald Trump’s presidency, Hornsey and others said. But if anyone doubted its existence before, they could do so no longer.

”We’re asking, ‘What are these biases leading people to resist science? Where do they come from? How do they operate and what can be done about them?’” said University of Oregon social psychologist Troy H. Campbell, who will be speaking at the symposium.

Those questions won’t be easy to answer. Psychologists will have to delve into the guts of human decision-making. They will dissect the ways in which we discount information — however well evidenced — that conflicts with what we want to believe about ourselves and the ways things work. They will examine the role of our social networks, and the cognitive shortcuts we take to interpret scientific conclusions we don’t really understand. They will consider the role that declining trust plays in people’s decision to believe what they’re told.

“People don’t act like scientists, weighing up evidence in an even-handed way,” said Hornsey, a professor of psychology at the University of Queensland in Australia. “When someone wants to believe something — for whatever reason — then they act more like lawyers trying to prosecute what they already want to be true. And they selectively attend to and critique the evidence to be able to do that.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 January 2017 at 10:48 am

A scholarly view of obscenities

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Depending on one’s situation, a lot of obscenities can be heard. Robert Graves, in his wonderful memoir of his experiences in the Great War (Goodbye to All That, well worth reading), tells of the great utility of the word “fuck.” He recounts hearing an airplane mechanic attempting to fix an engine and growing more and more frustrated, until he shouted, “Fuck! The fucking fucker’s fucked!”

Joan Acocella reviews two books on modern obscenities for the NY Review of Books. From the review:

. . . Of course one wants to know the history of the words, and all the books provide it, insofar as they can. Fuck did not get its start as an acronym, as has sometimes been jocosely proposed (“For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge,” etc.). If it had, there wouldn’t be so many obvious cognates in neighboring languages. Sheidlower lists, among others, the German ficken (to copulate), the Norwegian regional fukka (ditto), and the Middle Dutch fokken (to thrust, to beget children), all of them apparently descendants of a Germanic root meaning “to move back and forth.” Sheidlower says fuck probably entered English in the fifteenth century, but Bergen, writing later, reports that the medievalist Paul Booth recently came across a legal document from 1310 identifying a man as Roger Fuckebythenavel. Booth conjectures that this might have been a metaphor for something like “dimwit.” On the other hand, it could have been a nickname inflicted on an inexperienced young man who actually tried to do it that way, and whose partner could not resist telling her girlfriends.

Something to note here is that the word appeared in a legal document. For a long time fuck was not considered especially vile. Cunt, too, was once an ordinary word. A fourteenth-century surgery textbook calmly states that “in women the neck of the bladder is short and is made fast to the cunt.” Until well after the Renaissance, the words that truly shocked people had to do not with sexual or excretory functions but with religion—words that took the Lord’s name in vain. As late as 1866, Baudelaire, who had been rendered aphasic by a stroke, was expelled from a hospital for compulsively repeating the phrase cré nom, short for sacré nom (holy name).

Many exclamations that now seem to us merely quaint were once “minced oaths.” Criminy, crikey, cripes, gee, jeez, bejesus, geez Louise, gee willikers, jiminy, and jeepers creepers are all to Christ and Jesus what frigging is to fucking. The shock-shift from religion to sexual and bathroom matters was of course due primarily to the decline of religion, but Mohr points out that once domestic arrangements were changed so as to give people some privacy for sex and elimination, references to these matters became violations of privacy, and hence shocking.

Though research has not done much for profanity, the opposite is not true. Neurologists have learned a great deal about the brain from studying how brain-damaged people use swearwords—notably, that they do use them, heavily, even when they have lost all other speech. What this suggests is that profanity is encoded in the brain separately from most other language. While neutral words are processed in the cerebral cortex, the late-developing region that separates us from other animals, profanity seems to originate in the more primitive limbic system, which lies embedded below the cortex and controls emotions. As a result, we care about swearwords differently. Hearing them, people may sweat (this can be measured by a polygraph), and, tellingly, bilingual people sweat more when the taboo word is in their first language. . .

Written by LeisureGuy

20 January 2017 at 10:57 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Science

Permaculture farming and the future of food production

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An interesting post by Chris Newman:

I told a story a little while ago and received an interesting comment; here’s most of it:

Local food, organic food, “real” food produces less per unit of land farmed without a demonstrable improvement in nourishment. Do you really want to have to expand the amount of land in cultivation to feed the earth? Wholesale going “local” means having more limited diets. As long as this is limited to zealots and those who want to be accepted by their organic friends, and for whom the amount of their income spent on food is negligible, that’s great. It’s a lifestyle expense. But if you want to feed the prisons, the hospitals, the schools, and do it on a budget, this is an awful, awful approach.

He’s right, but just kinda.

Where he’s right: Organic farming, as it’s commonly imagined and implemented, does have higher costs, lower yields, and more resource requirements because of the lower yields. That’s because organic farming is little more than conventional farming with all the tools taken away. It’s a well-intended but insane way to farm, and it will kill us all if we decide this is the way to “fix” agriculture.


His response includes a number of assumptions, of which I will point out a few to discuss:

  1. He presumes the Organic Shahada: There is no Organic but Organic, and the USDA is his prophet. Or less controversially: Local = Real = Organic = Sustainable = Organic = Real = Local
  2. Methods for producing economically viable yields don’t exist outside of conventional, non-organic agriculture
  3. Going Local means more limited diets without improvements in quality
  4. “Budget” food produced by conventional agriculture reflect their real costs

Let’s address these in reverse order. . .

Continue reading.

I note again that the red herring of whether conventional crops are as “nourishing” as organic crops—that is, whether conventional crops provide less in the way of nutrients and micronutrients than do organic crops. In fact, the nutrient and micronutrient content of conventional and organic foods are much the same, as determined by the plant or animal’s own genetic make-up. The fact that conventional and organic foods have the same nutrient profile is taken as evidence that organic foods offer the same benefits as conventional foods—but that misses the point: Most people buy organic produce not because “organic” means more nourishment but because it means the food will have no pesticide residue. Pesticides are, of course, toxins, including some that are very powerful toxins and particularly affect the young, from in utero through early life. Conventional produce can (and generally does) include toxic residue from pesticides. And organic meat comes from animals not dosed with antibiotics—organic meat provides the same nutrients, but without the dangers posed by dosing animals with antibiotics.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) routinely lists the “Dirty Dozen” foods that have the highest pesticide residues (even after rinsing: all measurements are made after foods are thoroughly rinsed) and recommends that for those foods you purchase those grown using organic methods. (Strawberries always seem to top the list. It’s been years since I’ve had conventional strawberries since I always buy those organically.)

They also list the “Clean Fifteen,” those foods that, though grown using conventional methods, have negligible pesticide (i.e., toxic) residue after rinsing.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 January 2017 at 10:35 am

Dividing Droplets Could Explain Life’s Origin

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A very intriguing idea is discussed by Natalie Wolchover in Quanta:

A Collaboration of physicists and biologists in Germany has found a simple mechanism that might have enabled liquid droplets to evolve into living cells in early Earth’s primordial soup.

Origin-of-life researchers have praised the minimalism of the idea. Ramin Golestanian, a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Oxford who was not involved in the research, called it a big achievement that suggests that “the general phenomenology of life formation is a lot easier than one might think.”

The central question about the origin of life has been how the first cells arose from primitive precursors. What were those precursors, dubbed “protocells,” and how did they come alive? Proponents of the “membrane-first” hypothesis have argued that a fatty-acid membrane was needed to corral the chemicals of life and incubate biological complexity. But how could something as complex as a membrane start to self-replicate and proliferate, allowing evolution to act on it?

In 1924, Alexander Oparin, the Russian biochemist who first envisioned a hot, briny primordial soup as the source of life’s humble beginnings, proposed that the mystery protocells might have been liquid droplets — naturally forming, membrane-free containers that concentrate chemicals and thereby foster reactions. In recent years, droplets have been found to perform a range of essential functions inside modern cells, reviving Oparin’s long-forgotten speculation about their role in evolutionary history. But neither he nor anyone else could explain how droplets might have proliferated, growing and dividing and, in the process, evolving into the first cells.

Now, the new work by David Zwicker and collaborators at the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems and the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, both in Dresden, suggests an answer. The scientists studied the physics of “chemically active” droplets, which cycle chemicals in and out of the surrounding fluid, and discovered that these droplets tend to grow to cell size and divide, just like cells. This “active droplet” behavior differs from the passive and more familiar tendencies of oil droplets in water, which glom together into bigger and bigger droplets without ever dividing.

If chemically active droplets can grow to a set size and divide of their own accord, then “it makes it more plausible that there could have been spontaneous emergence of life from nonliving soup,” said Frank Jülicher, a biophysicist in Dresden and a co-author of the new paper.

The findings, reported in Nature Physics last month, paint a possible picture of life’s start by explaining “how cells made daughters,” said Zwicker, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University. “This is, of course, key if you want to think about evolution.”

Luca Giomi, a theoretical biophysicist at Leiden University in the Netherlands who studies the possible physical mechanisms behind the origin of life, said the new proposal is significantly simpler than other mechanisms of protocell division that have been considered, calling it “a very promising direction.”

However, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 January 2017 at 4:13 pm

Posted in Evolution, Science

Elizabeth Kolbert takes a look at Pruitt

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In the New Yorker:

Either it was a cleverly engineered plan or some kind of cosmic joke: just as the confirmation hearing for Scott Pruitt, the climate denier who is Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, was getting under way Wednesday, on Capitol Hill, two federal agencies—the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—announced that 2016 was the warmest year since modern record-keeping began, in 1880. It was the third year in a row to smash previous records for warmth, a trend that prompted the Times to observe that “temperatures are heading toward levels that many experts believe will pose a profound threat.”

If Pruitt is confirmed, there will probably be no one in a better position to influence—or, more accurately, wreak havoc on—domestic climate policy. Central to the Obama Administration’s efforts to curb global warming has been a set of E.P.A. regulations limiting carbon emissions from power plants. Pruitt, as the Attorney General of Oklahoma, made his views on these regulations known by suing to block them. In the past six years, he filed more than a dozen lawsuits against the E.P.A., in many cases acting in concert with the very industries that the regulations were aimed at. Meanwhile, a super pac close to Pruitt, called Liberty 2.0, was collecting large contributions from these same industries; Murray Energy, the country’s largest coal company, for instance, gave fifty thousand dollars in August.

At confirmation hearings, nominees typically try to distance themselves from the more extreme positions they’ve held by suggesting that these were the equivalent of youthful indiscretions. But if that’s the strategy Pruitt was attempting on Wednesday, he failed. In his opening statement, Pruitt offered the following on climate change: “Science tells us that the climate is changing and human activity in some manner impacts that change. The human ability to measure with precision the extent of that impact is subject to continuing debate and dialogue, as well they should be.” The statement was clearly designed to be obfuscatory, but it was just comprehensible enough to also be clearly wrong. As the Times’ Coral Davenport put it on Twitter, “#Pruitt on #climate: ‘Science tells us climate is changing’ but says extent of human role is up for debate. False.”

Later in the hearing, Senator Bernie Sanders pressed Pruitt on his views about climate change. The exchange went, in part, like this:

Sanders: As you may know, some ninety-seven per cent of scientists who have written articles for peer-reviewed journals have concluded that climate change is real, it is caused by human activity, and it is already causing devastating problems in our country and around the world. Do you believe that climate change is caused by carbon emissions, by human activity?

Pruitt: As I indicated in my opening statement, the climate is changing and human activity contributes to that in some manner.

Sanders: In some manner? Ninety-seven percent of the scientists who wrote articles in peer-reviewed journals believe that human activity is the fundamental reason we are seeing climate change. You disagree with that?

Pruitt: I believe the ability to measure with precision the degree of human activity’s impact on the climate is subject to more debate on whether the climate is changing or whether human activity contributes to that.

The exchange—a bizarre riff on Pruitt’s opening statement—prompted Gizmodo to label the hearing “ a surreal nightmare.” It led Sanders to tweet: “We cannot have an EPA administrator who denies climate science. It is far too late for that.”

Pruitt has come under fire from some Republicans, including, most notably, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 January 2017 at 2:52 pm

Iceland knows how to stop teen substance abuse but the rest of the world isn’t listening

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It is amazing how often something that is scientifically known and demonstrated to work will be ignored in favor of approaches that in fact make the problem worse. (I blogged one interesting example a few days ago.) Iceland took some findings of behavioral science and applied them. Emma Young reports in Mosaic what happened:

Today, Iceland tops the European table for the cleanest-living teens. The percentage of 15- and 16-year-olds who had been drunk in the previous month plummeted from 42 per cent in 1998 to 5 per cent in 2016. The percentage who have ever used cannabis is down from 17 per cent to 7 per cent. Those smoking cigarettes every day fell from 23 per cent to just 3 per cent.

The way the country has achieved this turnaround has been both radical and evidence-based, but it has relied a lot on what might be termed enforced common sense. “This is the most remarkably intense and profound study of stress in the lives of teenagers that I have ever seen,” says Milkman. “I’m just so impressed by how well it is working.”

Read the article for what they did and why. It really is a matter of asking basic questions: Why do teens get high? For the feelings. What causes the feelings? Brain chemistry. Can the same brain chemistry be triggered by other, more benign causes?

Well, there are sports, and learning things, and so on…

It’s quite a fascinating article, and note the many benefits of Iceland’s approach as compared to the approach the US uses (break into people’s houses, steal their possessions through asset forfeiture, lock people up, create cause for cop corruption, and so on). That is, not just lower use of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs, but also the development of more skills and knowledge in teens (who soon will be adults, and probably more successful as a result of a more productive adolescence).

In the context of the article, watch again this video—but read the article first:

Written by LeisureGuy

18 January 2017 at 2:54 pm

Texas Panel on Wrongful Convictions Calls for Ending Use of Unverified Drug Field Tests

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Such recommendations are often ignored, of course. The original panel in the war on drugs initiated by President Nixon recommended that marijuana be legalized, but of course Nixon ignored that recommendation, leading to the damage if not destruction of many lives.

Ryan Gabrielson reports in ProPublica:

Drug field tests are too unreliable to trust in criminal cases, according to a Texas courts panel, which has called on crime laboratories across the state to confirm drug evidence actually contains illegal drugs for every prosecution.

State lawmakers created the Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission in 2015 to research wrongful convictions in Texas and suggest ways to prevent future injustices. The commission named field tests as a significant concern in its final report, released last month, due to their “questionable reliability.”

In Houston over the past decade, the crime lab found that the alleged drugs in more than 300 convictions were not drugs at all. Police had used inexpensive test kits to identify the substances as cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, MDMA, or marijuana, and prosecutors had used those allegedly positive tests to gain guilty pleas.

The commission initially excluded drug cases from its review, but reversed its decision following a ProPublica story, published with The New York Times Magazine, that detailed the central role field tests played in Houston’s wrongful convictions.

Texas criminal courts process roughly 10,000 drug possession convictions a year. Having crime labs check the evidence in each would likely prove expensive, the commission acknowledged. “Despite potential additional costs in implementing this practice, requiring laboratory testing of all drug field tests will reduce the risk of wrongfully arresting and convicting an individual of being in possession of a controlled substance,” the report states.

The 11-member exoneration commission was made up of state lawmakers, a criminal appellate judge, representatives from the state’s defense bar, prosecutors, police, judiciary, and the forensic sciences.

In addition to restricting drug field tests, the commission called for audio recording of police interrogations in all felony cases, tighter rules on testimony from jailhouse informants, and mandatory training for officers in eyewitness identification. It formally submitted the report to the state legislature, where lawmakers can consider turning its proposals into law.

ProPublica spent 2016 examining the widespread use of field tests by police departments and prosecutors across the country. No government agency regulates their use. The patrol officers who perform the tests to make arrests on the street often have little or no training in the use of the tool. Most of the nation’s crime laboratories do not check officers’ field tests when defendants plead guilty. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 January 2017 at 2:25 pm

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