Category Archives: science

Another great book that is going on my Kindle queue is Maggie Koerth-Baker’s Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before it Conquers Us. I am so ridiculously excited to see someone talking about the real costs of fossil fuels, including health and environmental costs. Anyway, another fine author interview on Grist. Yay!


Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing, the popular group-blog where she gets to link to stories about booze-based semiconductors or the science of farting. But her writing has always displayed two traits that give it power far beyond BoingBoing’s geeky precincts: She’s got a knack for explaining really complex science in an unintimidating way, along with a hardheaded Midwestern pragmatism that’s tough to dismiss.

She brings both those qualities to Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before it Conquers Us, her new book about the choices we face in continuing to power our world without wrecking it. It’s a fast, filling read that will arm you with a deeper understanding of the precariousness of our electricity grid, the distinction between efficiency and conservation, and the pros and cons of each of the energy sources we imagine as our savior. Koerth-Baker plants herself firmly in…

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Exposure to chemicals in the environment possible root cause of obesity epidemic

Washingtons blog has a somewhat terrifying article up about our exposure to chemical toxins, and how it may be a major contributing factor to the obesity epidemic.  Many of the chemical toxins contained in plastics and other common household products act as endocrine disruptors in the human body, and can have permanent effects on how our bodies regulate weight.

From the article:

Consumption of the widely used food additive monosodium glutamate (MSG) has been linked to obesity.

Pthalates – commonly used in many plastics – have been linked to obesity. See this and this.  So has achemical used to make Teflon, stain-resistant carpets and other products.

Most of the meat we eat these days contains estrogen, antibiotics and  powerful chemicals which change hormone levels. Modern corn-fed beef also contains much higher levels of saturated fat than grass-fed beef. So the meat we are eating is also making us fat.

Arsenic may also be linked with obesity, via it’s effect on the thyroid gland. Arsenic is often fed to chickens and pigs to fatten them up, and we end up ingesting it on our dinner plate. It’s ending up inother foods as well.

A lot of endocrine-disrupting pharmaceuticals and medications are also ending up in tap water.

Moreover, the National Research Council has found:

The effects of fluoride on various aspects of endocrine function should be examined further, particularly with respect to a possible role in the development of several diseases or mental states in the United States.

Some hypothesize that too much fluoride affects the thyroid gland, which may in turn lead to weight gain.

Antibiotics also used to be handed out like candy by doctors.  However, ingesting too many antibiotics has also been linked to obesity, as it kills helpful intestinal bacteria. See this and this.

 Now, considering that corporate industry is responsible for the majority of these environmental toxins, and has been profiting off the use of them, isn’t it reasonable to suggest that their tax rate should be increased to help alleviate the harms they are causing to the general public?  If the development of diabetes in an individual can be directly traced to his or her exposure to environmental toxins produced by corporate industry, why should that individual be subject to the crushing costs of health care?  Taxes on corporate profits should reflect the extent to which pollution and toxins are destroying our health and our environment.

Facebook, religion and Tim Minchin

A friend of mine posted the following quote to his Facebook status late last night:

If religion were true, its followers would not try to bludgeon their young into an artificial conformity; but would merely insist on their unbending quest for truth, irrespective of artificial backgrounds or practical consequences.
H. P. Lovecraft

By the time he logged back on this morning, the comments were packed with offended Christians, who immediately launched an attack on atheism.  The whole thing got rather contentious, and at some point, someone stated that it would be better if everyone wasn’t so closed of mind.  Of course, this reminded me of one of my favorite Tim Minchin bits, which I posted for the enjoyment of the participants.

Of course, if one Tim Minchin bit is good, then two must be better.

It’s always somewhat startling to me how a simple statement suggesting that religion’s claims of truth might not, in fact, be true, prompts so much righteous indignation.  Finally, in the spirit of the season, here is Tim Minchin celebrating Christmas.  Seriously.


Today in debunking quackery: No demonstrable gender difference in math ability.

Awesome.  This’ll really upset the Bell Curve crowd.

Researchers have done a broad study of math ability across multiple countries, and their totally not-shocking result is that there is no real biological gender difference in math ability, leading to the also totally not shocking conclusion that the differences displayed are social and cultural.

The researchers blew away Larry Summers’ favorite biological hypothesis that he got fired for, which was the “greater male variability” hypothesis.  They also took a swipe at Freakonomics’ Steven Levitt, who argued that same-gender classrooms in Muslim cultures are beneficial for girls.  Turns out that’s not true either.  Here is what they did find:

It’s an interesting, counter-intuitive idea, but it also appears to be completely wrong. The authors say that, upon close examination of the data, girls in these single-gender classrooms still scored quite poorly. The boys in these countries, such as Bahrain and Oman, had scored even worse, but Kane suggests that’s because many attend religious schools with little emphasis on mathematics.

Also, low-performing girls are often pressured to drop out of school and so don’t appear in the statistics, which falsely inflates the girls’ overall performance. The point, says Kane, is that these differing scores don’t point to benefits of gender-separated classrooms or speak to features of Muslim culture as a whole – rather, they’re due to social factors in play in a few countries, and the single-gender classrooms are just a confounding variable.

Indeed, Mertz and Kane were able to demonstrate pretty much the exact opposite of those hypotheses: as a general rule, high gender equality doesn’t just remove the gender gap, it also improves test scores overall. In particular, countries where women have high participation in the labor force, and command salaries comparable to those of their male counterparts, generally have the highest math scores overall.

So…in cultures with greater gender equality, there is not only no gender gap, but all math scores go up.  It’s almost like equality is beneficial or something.

“Alternative” medicine isn’t medicine, and sometimes it’s a death sentence

I’ve been following the story of Steve Jobs’ pursuit of “alternative” treatments to his pancreatic cancer with some interest, mostly because it is an exact replica of the period of time that lead up to the death of my uncle.  Well, an exact replica except for the gigantic personal wealth and fame part….

My uncle was a chiropractor of the more traditional sort.  That is, he truly believed that he could treat and cure disease through chiropractic therapies.  This, of course, made him more likely to believe all sorts of crazy things.  He was a fan of homeopathy, and thought that herbal and vitamin therapy was also curative.  I remember when my grandmother, his mother, was moved to an assisted care facility, he showed up with a gigantic ziploc bag full of bottles of pills made from things like cow urine.  He gave the bag to the nurses and instructed them to dispense them to my grandmother with her meals.  While we were standing in the hallway outside my grandmother’s room, he held his hand out straight towards me in the air with his fingers extended, and explained that he could diagnose which parts of the body were causing problems by which fingers trembled.

My uncle was diagnosed with colon cancer.  They caught it early, and it very likely could have been “cured,” if that’s the appropriate word, by a combination of surgery and chemotherapy.  Instead, he elected to treat himself through a combination of chiropractic, a juice diet, and the aforementioned herbal and vitamin supplements.  He died within a year of diagnosis.  I am still uncertain how I feel about the whole thing.  On the one hand, this was his choice.  Presented with the options of scientifically and medically sound treatments, or total bullshit, he went with the bullshit.  I get it with him.  He was in his sixties at the time, and his entire adult life and sense of himself was based on chiropractic treatment being legitimate and respectable.  On the other hand, he pushed this stuff on other people.  Other people who looked at him in his white doctor coat as a figure of authority, and who likely believed him when he said that he could cure what ailed them.

Apparently Jobs ended up regretting that he didn’t turn to traditional surgical and medical treatments earlier.  It’s a little mind-boggling to me when someone who is so clearly intelligent engages in such destructive magical thinking.  It makes me wonder how many people have died much earlier than they should have, because of irrational beliefs in quack treatments.

Physicist and climate skeptic looks at the math, realizes he’s been kind of a douche

Great story by Kevin Drum at Mother Jones.  The really fun part is here:

So in 2010 he started up the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project (BEST) to show the world how to do climate analysis right. Who better, after all? “Muller’s views on climate have made him a darling of skeptics,” said Scientific American, “and newly elected Republicans in the House of Representatives, who invited him to testify to the Committee on Science, Space and Technology about his preliminary results.” The Koch Foundation, founded by the billionaire oil brothers who have been major funders of the climate-denial machine, gave BEST a $150,000 grant.

But when he got in front of the committee…it all went sideways.

He told them a preliminary analysis suggested that the three main climate models in use today—each of which uses a different estimating technique, and each of which has potential flaws—are all pretty accurate: Global temperatures have gone up considerably over the past century, and the increase has accelerated over the past few decades. Yesterday, BEST confirmed these results and others in its first set of published papers about land temperatures.(Ocean studies will come later.) Using a novel statistical methodology that incorporates more data than other climate models and requires less human judgment about how to handle it (summarized by the Economisthere), the BEST team drew several conclusions:

  • The earth is indeed getting warmer. Global average land temperatures have risen 0.91 degrees Celsius over the past 50 years. This is “on the high end of the existing range of reconstructions.”
  • The rate of increase on land is accelerating. Warming for the entire 20th century clocks in at 0.73 degrees C per century. But over the most recent 40 years, the globe has warmed at a rate of 2.76 degrees C per century.
  • Warming has not abated since 1998. The rise in average temperature over the period 1998-2010 is 2.84 degrees C per century.
  • The BEST data significantly reduces the uncertainty of the temperature reconstructions. Their estimate of the temperature increase over the past 50 years has an uncertainty of only 0.04 degrees C, compared to a reported uncertainty of 0.13 degrees C in the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.
  • Although many of the temperature measuring stations around the world have large individual uncertainties, taken as a whole the data is quite reliable. The difference in reported averages between stations ranked “okay” and stations ranked “poor” is very small.
  • The urban heat island effect—i.e., the theory that rising temperatures around cities might be corrupting the global data—is very small.

Ooops.  You know what they say about facts and their notorious liberal bias.


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