Tyson Adams

Putting the 'ill' back in thriller

Archive for the category “Science”

20 Proven Benefits of Being an Avid Reader

This fMRI scan reveals distinctive increases in brain activity during close reading across multiple brain regions, with strength of activation shown in red for horizontal cross sections of the brain.

This fMRI scan reveals distinctive increases in brain activity during close reading across multiple brain regions, with strength of activation shown in red for horizontal cross sections of the brain.

If TV is the lard developing, heart attacking inducing, entertainment form, then reading is the brain workout. I’ve previously posted about how reading is good for the brain, but science is keen on finding out more, so there is always new research that brings up cool findings. I’m reposting an interesting article I found (here) that lists some benefits from reading with links to the research, proving that reading is good for you.

ENHANCES THE SENSES

Merely reading a word reflecting a colour or a scent immediately fires up the corresponding section of the brain, which empathises with written experiences as if they actually happened to the audience. Researchers believe this might very well help sharpen the social acumen needed to forge valuable relationships with others.

ENABLES LIFELONG LEARNING

In correlation with the previous perk, sensual stimulation makes it easier for aging brains to keep absorbing and processing new information over time. This occurs when the occipital-temporal cortex essentially overrides its own programming and adapts to better accommodate written language.

ALLOWS FOR BETTER SKILL RETENTION

Avid readers enjoy a heightened ability to retain their cognitive skills over their peers who simply prefer other media — even when exposed to lead for extended periods, as indicated by an article in Neurology. It serves as something of a “shield” against mental decay, allowing the body to continue through the motions even when facing temporary or permanent challenges.

IMPROVES CREATIVITY

When educators at Obafemi Awolowo University incorporated education-themed comics and cartoons into primary school classrooms, they noted that the welding of pictures to words in a manner different than the usual picture books proved unexpectedly beneficial. Exposure to these oft-marginalized mediums actually nurtured within them a healthy sense of creativity — a quality necessary for logical and abstract problem solving.

BETTER VERBAL ABILITIES

On the whole, readers tend to display more adroit verbal skills than those who are not as fond of books, though it must be noted that this doesn’t inherently render them better communicators. Still, they do tend to sport higher vocabularies, which increase exponentially with the volume of literature consumed, and may discern context faster.

INCREASES ONE’S STORES OF KNOWLEDGE

Anne E. Cunningham and Keith E. Stanovich’s “What Reading Does for the Mind” also noted that heavy readers tend to display greater knowledge of how things work and who or what people were; once again, findings were proportionate to how much the students in question devoured in their literary diets. Nonfiction obviously tends to send more facts down the hatch, though fiction certainly can hold its own in that department as well.

HIGHER TEST SCORES

Some students obviously don’t perform well on tests despite their prodigious abilities, but in general, findings (such as those offered by the National Endowment for the Arts) show a link between pleasure reading and better scores. The most pronounced improvement, unsurprisingly, occurred on exams focused on analyzing reading, writing, and verbal skills.

REDUCED STRESS LEVELS

According to a 2009 University of Sussex study, picking up a book could be one of the most effective strategies for calming down when life grows too overwhelming — great for both mental and physiological reasons. The University of Minnesota built on these findings and recommends reading some form of literature for at least half an hour every day for optimum relaxation.

IMPROVES CRITICAL THINKING

Fully engaged reading sessions — not just skimming, in other words — actively engage the sections of the brain responsible for thinking critically about more than just texts. Writing, too, also serves as an excellent conduit sharpening the skills necessary for parsing bias, facts vs. fictions, effective arguments, and more.

STAVES OFF DEMENTIA

In a British Medical Journal article, academics at the French National Institute of Medical Research showcased their findings regarding the relationship between a mind occupied by reading and a lower risk of dementia. Obviously, literature isn’t going to act as a cure, but nonreaders are 18% more likely to develop the condition and experience worsened symptoms.

DEMENTIA SETTLES IN AT A SLOWER RATE

Readers genetically or environmentally predisposed to MCI, Alzheimer’s, and other disorders characterized by cognitive decline won’t escape their fate if they live long enough; but not only do their literary habits push back the onset, these conditions also encroach at a more sluggish pace. More than any other way to pass the time, picking up some sort of book (no matter the medium) proves among the most effective strategies for delaying and slowing dementia.

BETTER REASONING

Along with bolstering critical thinking skills, the authors of “Reading and Reasoning” in Reading Teacher noted that literary intake also positively influences logic and reasoning. Again, though, the most viable strategy for getting the most out of reading involves picking apart the words themselves, not merely flipping through pages.

CONFIDENCE-BUILDING

Improved literacy means improved self-esteem, particularly when it involves kindergarten and middle school students whose grades will swell as a result, although high schoolers, college kids, and adults are certainly not immune to this mental health perk. Set realistic reading goals and work toward them for an easy, painless (and stress-free) way to kick up the spirits when confidence starts wavering.

MORE WHITE MATTER

Neuron published a Carnegie Mellon paper discovering how the language centers of the brain produced more white matter in participants adhering to a reading schedule over the period of six months. Seeing as how this particular tissue structure controls learning, it’s kind of sort of a good thing to be building, especially when it comes to language processing.

INCREASES BRAIN FLEXIBILITY

Brain flexibility is how the essential organ stratifies itself, delegates tasks, and compensates for damages, and Carnegie Mellon researchers believe reading might serve as a particularly excellent way to encourage this. These discoveries of how the brain organizes itself beg for further insight into the autism spectrum and other conditions that may stem from poor neurological communication.

IMPROVED MEMORY

The physiology of reading itself contributes to better memory and recall, specifically the part involving bilateral eye movement. However, it holds no influence over implicit memories: most of the benefit comes when recalling episodic memories.

BUILDS RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN PARENTS AND CHILDREN

Kids and parents who read aloud together enjoy tighter bonds than those who do not, which is essential to encouraging the healthiest possible psychological profile. Along with the cognitive perks, these sessions build trust and anxiety-soothing comfort needed to nurture positive behavior and outlooks.

BETTER LISTENING SKILLS

Listening skills improve reading, and reading improves listening skills, particularly when one speaks words out loud instead of silently. When learning a primary or secondary (or beyond) language in particular, fostering interplay between the two ability sets makes it much easier to soak up vocabulary and grammar.

AN EASIER TIME CONCENTRATING

Once again, any bookish types hoping to claim the full benefit of this cognitive phenomenon gain it via close reading and analysis, not skimming, speed reading, and skipping. Because the activity is far from passive, it challenges the mind to focus, focus, focus: which certainly carries over into other areas of life!

ALLEVIATES MENTAL HEALTH DISORDERS

Psychology professionals in the United Kingdom and United States gravitate towards bibliotherapy when treating non-critical patients, thanks to studies printed up in the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy. The practice involves prescribing a library card, which recipients use to check out one of the approved 35 self-help books for 12 weeks; as a supplement (not a replacement) to conventional therapy, it has proven extremely valuable to the clinically depressed and anxious.

Bonus: It’s Good for Author’s Brains Too!

Yes, who’d have thought that writing could be good for the brain? Slaving away writing seems to be like practicing sports or music, stimulating the brain to be better. Dr Martin Lotze used fRMI to look at novice and experienced writers’ brains – probably to steal ideas for a new book – and how they worked in different writing activities. Some regions of the brain became active only during the creative process, i.e. not while copying, with brainstorming sessions lighting up the vision-processing regions. It’s possible that they were, in effect, seeing the scenes they wanted to write.

But the two groups differed slightly in how their brains worked whilst being creative. Novice writers activated their visual centres, whilst experienced writers showed more activity in regions involved in speech. “I think both groups are using different strategies,” Dr. Lotze said. It’s possible that the novices are watching their stories like a film inside their heads, while the writers are narrating it with an inner voice. Experienced writers also had a region called the caudate nucleus become active, the part of the brain involved in skills that comes with practice. In the novices, the caudate nucleus was quiet, showing that practice works the brain.

Some other articles to read:

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/your-brain-on-books/

http://theairspace.net/commentary/stanford-researchers-reading-jane-austen-a-truly-valuable-exercise-of-peoples-brains/

http://news.stanford.edu/news/2012/september/austen-reading-fmri-090712.html

To block or not to block: that is the question.

funny-graphs-untitled2

The internet is a wonderful place to find information on just about any topic you can imagine and few you can’t. From the latest scientific study to the grumpiest cat, from insightful commentary to rule 34: the internet has it all. The problem is that not everyone is rational, logical, nor well informed, and they still have internet connections and the ability to make webpages and comment on social media.

As someone who tries to share science and knowledge with people, I love to engage and discuss topics. If I can help someone understand or learn something about a complex topic, then I feel like I’ve accomplished something. The more science communicators out there doing the same thing, the slightly better the world becomes. This better understanding leads to better decisions, better ideas, better inventions, better cat photos.

The problem is that not everyone appreciates being told that they are mythtaken or wrong. Others are adamant that they aren’t wrong. People will argue against the overwhelming scientific evidence on topics like climate change (real, man-made, we need to do something about it), genetic modification (breeding technique, cool innovation that is more precise and has great potential), modern medicine (seriously!?!), evolution (as solid a theory as gravity), and even the shape of the Earth (yes, flat-Earthers still exist). This anti-science nonsense is thankfully on the losing team, they just aren’t playing with a full deck.

It is these science deniers that are the most frustrating to deal with on social media and the internet. There is no evidence you can show them that won’t be dismissed – often as a conspiracy – and there is no rationality to their arguments. But they can also be very convincing to people who don’t know enough about a topic, which is how myths get started. And that is dangerous, once myths are started they are very hard to get rid of. So it is actually important to make sure that the science deniers aren’t existing in an echo chamber, which the internet has facilitated to some extent – I’m looking at you Alex Jones, Mike Adams and Joseph Mercola!

These science deniers can be a menacing drain of time, effort and inner calm. The easiest way to deal with them would be to block them, excise the wound, possibly burn the evidence of their existence. But then the science deniers have won. Their echo chamber is just that little bit more echo-y. But the echo chamber is going to keep echoing regardless, as discussed above. But won’t somebody think of the children!

I really hate blocking people on social media. The science denier drivel may pollute my newsfeeds, but blocking them also leaves me open to my own echo chamber. Sure, I might think I’m good at picking good information from bad, but if my thinking is never challenged, how can I be confident I’m not falling for confirmation bias? I guess this is the Catch 22 of the modern age, but with more cats.

Is science broken?

With the rebirth of Cosmos on TV, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and the team have brought science back into the mainstream. No longer is science confined to the latest puff piece on cancer research that is only in the media because a) cancer and b) the researchers are pressuring the funding bodies to give them money. The terms geek and nerd have stopped being quite the derogatory terms they once were. We even have science memes becoming as popular as Sean Bean “brace yourself” memes.

Sean dies

This attention has also cast a light on the scientific process itself with many non-scientists and scientists passing comment on the reliability of science. Nature has recently published several articles discussing the reliability of study’s findings. One article shows why the hard sciences laugh at the soft sciences, with the article talking about statistical errors. I mean, have these “scientists” never heard of selection and sample bias? Yes, there is a nerd pecking order, and it is maintained through pure snobbishness, complicated looking equations, and how clean the lab-coat remains.

purity

As a science nerd, I feel the need to weigh in on this attack on science. So I’m going to tear apart, limb by limb, a heavy hitting article: Cracked.com’s 6 Shocking Studies That Prove Science Is Totally Broken.

To say that science is broken or somehow unreliable is nonsense. To say that peer review or statistical analysis is unreliable is also nonsense. There are exceptions to this: sometimes entire fields of study are utter crap, sometimes entire journals are just crap, sometimes scientists and reviewers suck at maths/stats. But in most instances these things are not-science, just stuff pretending to be science. Which is why I’m going to discuss this article.

A Shocking Amount of Medical Research Is Complete Bullshit
#6 – Kinda true. There are two problems here: media reporting of medical science and actual medical science. The biggest issue is the media reporting of medical science, hell, science in general. Just look at how the media have messed up the reporting of climate science for the past 40 years.

Of course most of what is reported as medical studies are often preliminary studies. You know: “we’ve found a cure for cancer, in a petri dish, just need another 20 years of research and development, and a boatload of money, and we might have something worth getting excited about.” The other kind that get attention aren’t proper medical studies but are spurious claims by someone trying to pedal a new supplement. So this issue is more about the media being scientifically illiterate than anything.

Another issue is the part of medical science that Ben Goldacre has addressed in his books Bad Science and Bad Pharma. Essentially you have a bias toward positive results being reported. This isn’t good enough. Ben goes into more detail on this topic and it is worth reading his books on this topic and the Nature articles I previously referred to.

Many Scientists Still Don’t Understand Math
#5 – Kinda true. Math is hard. It has all of those funny symbols and not nearly enough pie charts. Mmmm, pie! If a reviewer in the peer review process doesn’t understand maths, they will often reject papers, calling the results blackbox. Other times the reviewers will fail to pick up the mistakes made, usually because they aren’t getting paid and that funding application won’t write itself. And that’s just the reviewers. Many researchers don’t do proper trial design and often pass off analysis to specialists who have to try and make the data work despite massive failings. And the harsh reality is that experiments are always a compromise: there is no such thing as the perfect experiment.

Essentially, scientists are fallible human beings like everyone else. Which is why science itself is iterative and includes a methods section, so that results are independently confirmed before being accepted.

And They Don’t Understand Statistics, Either
#4 – Kinda true, but misleading. How many people understand the difference between statistically significant and significance? Here’s a quick example:

This illustrates that when you test for something at the 95% confidence interval you still have a 1 in 20 chance of a false positive or natural variability arising in the test. Some “science” has been published that uses this false positive by doing a statistical fishing trip (e.g. anti-GM paper). But there is another aspect, if you get enough samples, and enough data, you can actually get a statistically significant result but not have a significant result. An example would be testing new fertiliser X and finding that there is a p value of 0.05 (i.e. significant) that the grain yield is 50kg higher in a 3 tonne per hectare crop. Wow, statistically significant, but at 50kg/ha, who cares?!

But these results will be reported, published, and talked about. It is easy for people who haven’t read and understood the work to get over excited by these results. It is also easy for researchers to get over excited too, they are only human. But this is why we have the methods and results sections in science papers, so that calmer, more rational heads prevail. Usually after wine. Wine really helps.

Scientists Have Nearly Unlimited Room to Manipulate Data
#3 – True but misleading. Any scientist *could* make up anything that they wanted. They could generate a bunch of numbers to prove that, for an example of bullshit science, the world is only 6000 years old. But because scientists are a skeptical bunch, they’d want some confirming evidence. They’d want that iterative scientific process to come into play. And the bigger that claim, the more evidence they’d want. Hence why scientists generally ignore creationists, or just pat them on the head when they show up at events: aren’t they cute, they’re trying to science!

But there is a serious issue here. The Nature article I referred to was a social sciences study, a field that is rife with sampling and selection bias. Ever wonder why you hear “scientists say X is bad for you” then a year later it is “scientists say X is good for you”? Well, that is because two groups were sampled and correlated for X, and as much as we’d like it, correlation doesn’t equal causation. I wish someone would tell the media this little fact, especially since organic food causes autism.

Other fields have other issues. Take a look at health and fitness studies and spot who the participants were: generally they are university students who need the money to buy tinned beans and beer. Not the most representative group of people and often they are mates with one of the researchers, all 4 of them. Not enough participants and a biased sample: not the way to do science. The harder sciences are better, but that isn’t to say that there isn’t limitations. Again, *this is why we have the methods section, so that we can figure out the limitations of the study.*

The Science Community Still Won’t Listen to Women
#2 – When I first wrote this I disagreed, but now I agree, see video below (I’d still love to hear from someone without a penis on this one). There is still a heavy bias toward men in senior positions at universities and research institutes, just like all other aspects of society. This is gradually changing, but you have to remember what age those senior people are and what that generation required of women (quit when they got married, etc). That old guard may have influence, but I doubt it is as large as implied, and they’ll all be dead or retired soon where their influence will be confined to the letters to the editor in the newspaper. And I’d question how much this influence has on “listening” to women in science, because if there is a field that encourages knowledge and evidence over other aspects, then science is it. After seeing the video below, especially the way the question was asked, I think it is clear that the expectations for women create barriers into and through careers in science (the racism is similar and is one I see as a big issue). So it starts long before people get into science, then it continues through attrition.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t an issue with equality still to be dealt with. That old guard isn’t dead yet and their influence will hang around like old people smell for a while to come. But this issue isn’t confined to science and I think science is better placed than many other fields. I won’t go into the preferred areas of study issue, as maths, engineering, science, social science, humanities, etc, all have massive differences in their sex ratios that would need an entire uninformed rant on.


Fast forward to 1:01:31 for the question and NGT’s answer (sorry, embed doesn’t allow time codes).

It’s All About the Money
#1 – D’uh and misleading. Research costs money. *This is why we have the methods section, so that we can figure out the limitations of the study.* Money may bring in bias, but it doesn’t have to, nor does that bias have to be bad or wrong. Remember how I said above that science is an iterative process? Well, there is only so big a house of cards that can be built under a pile of bullshit before it falls down in a stinky mess. Money might fool a few people for a while (e.g. climate change denial) but science will ultimately win.

Ultimately, science is the best tool we have for finding out about our reality, making cool stuff, and blowing things up. Without it we wouldn’t be, this article wouldn’t be possible, we wouldn’t know what a Bill Nye smack down looks like. Sure, there is room for improvement, especially in the peer review process and funding arrangements, and science is flawed because it is done by humans, but science is bringing the awesome every day: we have to remember that fact.

Other rebuttals:

http://www.reddit.com/r/badscience/comments/1veyhu/cracked_again_6_shocking_studies_that_prove/cero5qj

http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/is-science-broken/

I think you’re Mythtaken: Guns #2 – The second armour-piercing round

After a recent discussion about gun myths, I realised that my last blog post hadn’t covered anywhere near enough of the myths that are floating around (this article will mainly be about US guns, but parallels from the resources and science cited can be drawn to other countries). This is obviously because stuff is much easier to make up than to research, just ask Bill “tides go in, tides go out” O’Reilly. One of the big problems with research in the US on guns is that the National Rifle Association has effectively lobbied to cut off federal funding for research and stymieing data collection and sharing on gun violence. As a result there are a lack of hard numbers and research often tends to be limited in scope. Scope: get it? So like a lost rabbit wandering onto a shooting range, or a teenager wearing a hoody, it’s time to play dodge with some of these claims.

Myth: Guns make you safer, just like drinking a bit of alcohol makes you a better driver.

The myth I hear the most often is that guns make you safer;  just like the death penalty is a great deterrent, surveillance cameras stop crime, and the internet is a good source of medical advice. The problem with this myth is that people like having a safety blanket to snuggle. What they don’t realise is that guns don’t make you safer, they make you 4.5-5.5 times more likely to do something stupid to someone you know and love than be used for protection.

I want to be clear here: there’s nothing wrong with going shooting at the range, or hunting vermin. The problem is thinking that you can use a gun for self-defence, when it actually makes the violence problem worse. That gun escalates the violence because people have it there: why not use it? To wit the criminals enter into an arms race and a shoot first policy.

Owning a gun has been linked to higher risks of homicidesuicide, and accidental death by gun. For every time a gun is used in self-defense in the home, there are 7 assaults or murders, 11 suicide attempts, and 4 accidents involving guns in or around a home. 43% of homes with guns and kids have at least one unlocked firearm, and in one experiment it was found that one third of 8-to-12-year-old boys who found a handgun pulled the trigger, which is just plain unsafe.

As for carrying around a gun for self-defence, well, in 2011, nearly 10 times more people were shot and killed in arguments than by civilians trying to stop a crime. In one survey, nearly 1% of Americans reported using guns to defend themselves or their property. However, a closer look at their claims found that more than 50% involved using guns in an aggressive manner, such as escalating an argument. A Philadelphia study found that the odds of an assault victim being shot were 4.5 times greater if they carried a gun. Their odds of being killed were 4.2 times greater.

It is even worse for women. In 2010, nearly 6 times more women were shot by husbands, boyfriends, and ex-partners than murdered by male strangers. A woman’s chances of being killed by her abuser increase more than 7 times if he has access to a gun, and that access could be the woman keeping one around just in case her attacker needs it. One US study found that women in states with higher gun ownership rates were 4.9 times more likely to be murdered by a gun than women in states with lower gun ownership rates; funny that.

There is also the action hero delusion that often gets trotted out when talking about guns for self-defence. The idea is that everyone is a good guy, so give them a gun and you have a bunch of action heroes ready to fight off the forces of evil. This has worked so well that all governments are thinking of getting rid of the military….

The reality is that the average person is not an action hero and would fail miserably in a high stress situation with actual bad guys. You only have to look at the statistics:

  • Mass shootings stopped by armed civilians in the past 30 years: 0
  • Chances that a shooting at an ER involves guns taken from guards: 1 in 5

I’ve seen several examples cited of “citizens” shooting someone who looked intent on killing everyone they could (with a gun…). But in every instance the “citizen” was actually an off-duty police officer, or a person in law enforcement, or someone in the military. In other words, the people who stop mass shootings or bad-guys with guns, are trained professionals.

There have also been a few studies done that claim X million lawful crime preventions, therefore guns must be good; notably by researchers Lott and Kleck. To say that their research is flawed is like saying Stephen King has sold a few books. Lott’s work has been refuted for extrapolating flawed data. Kleck’s research has similarly been refuted by many peer reviewed articles:

Myth: Guns don’t kill people, people kill people, quite often with a gun, because punching someone to death is hard work.

If this myth were true we wouldn’t send troops to war with weapons. I get where people are coming from with this myth, because the gun itself is an inanimate object and is only as good or bad as the person using it. Yes, I did just quote the movie Shane: thanks for noticing. But here is the thing, in a society we are more than just a bunch of individuals, we are a great big bell-curve of complexity. So when you actually study the entire population you find that people with more guns tend to kill more people—with guns. In the US, states with the highest gun ownership rates have a gun murder rate 114% higher than those with the lowest gun ownership rates. Also, gun death rates tend to be higher in states with higher rates of gun ownership. Gun death rates are generally lower in states with restrictions such as firearm type restrictions or safe-storage requirements.

ownership-death630
Sources: 
PediatricsCenters for Disease Control and Prevention

Gun deaths graph: The three states with the highest rate of gun ownership (MT, AK, WY) have a gun death rate of 17.8 per 100,000, over 4 times that of the three lowest-ownership states (HI, NJ, MA; 4.0 gun deaths per 100,000).

The thing is that despite guns being inanimate objects, they affect the user/owner’s psyche. It’s like waking up one morning with a larger penis or bigger boobs: you not only want to show them off, you act differently as a result. Studies confirm this change in behaviour. Drivers who carry guns are 44% more likely than unarmed drivers to make obscene gestures at other motorists, and 77% more likely to follow them aggressively. Among Texans convicted of serious crimes, those with concealed-handgun licenses were sentenced for threatening someone with a firearm 4.8 times more than those without. In US states with Stand Your Ground and other laws making it easier to shoot in self-defence, those policies have been linked to a 7 to 10% increase in homicides.

Now people also like to try and red herring the argument against guns by pretending that video games or mental health is the problem. The NRA tried to claim video games were to blame after the Newtown shootings. Of course we’d be able to see this relationship by looking at gun ownership versus video game playing, like by comparing the USA to Japan.

United States Japan
Per capita spendingon video games $44 $55
Civilian firearmsper 100 people 88 0.6
Gun homicidesin 2008 11,030 11

Sources: PricewaterhouseCoopersSmall Arms Survey (PDF), UN Office on Drugs and Crime

The thing is controlling guns has been shown to work, although there are other factors in play, and policing is still key. But when gun control has been shown to reduce firearm deaths by 1-6 per 100,000 then the case is pretty much closed.

Myth: They’re coming for your guns to stop our freedom and tyranny and democide and Alex Jones said so and aliens made me do it!

As I stated above, the statistics on guns and gun violence is hazy. No one knows the exact number of guns in America, but it’s clear there’s no practical way to round them all up (never mind that no one in Washington is proposing this). Those “freedom” loving gun owners – all 80 million of them – have the evil government out-gunned by a factor of around 79 to 1. If government were coming for the guns, you’d think they’d have done so before being this grossly out-gunned.

guns-owned630Sources: Congressional Research Service (PDF), Small Arms Survey

Yes, 80 million gun owners is a minority! I find it interesting that from 1989 to 2000 there was a decline in gun ownership of 46% to 32%. Now the decline in ownership rebounds to hover between 34 and 43% for 2000-2011 (notably the high point in 2007 was after the Virginia Tech shooting which the NRA did a lot of campaigning around), which shows why the decline didn’t continue. Now compare those rates of ownership to the recent report from the US Bureau of Justice Statistics sums up the rates of gun violence. You can clearly see a decline in gun violence from 1993 to 2000 before a plateau that has pretty much held since. This is confirmed by other studies. This is an important take home point: all the research shows violence and gun violence is on the decline. The idea that people need a gun for protection is becoming more and more ridiculous. This is despite the global decline in violence, and trends seen in countries like Australia (more Aussie stats here). On a side note, in the last lot of statistics you see that the more female, educated, non-white, and liberal you are, the less likely you are to own a gun. 

So scare campaigns may work to boost sales of guns for a while, but overall, most people don’t want or need a gun. The long term trend has nothing to do with the government coming for the guns and everything to do with people realising they don’t need one and prefer to read a good book, or watch a movie, instead of going to the range.

The simple fact is that more guns in society is the best predictor of death, thus it is time to rethink the reasons for owning a gun, especially if that reason is in case you have to John McClane a situation.

Another mythbusting gun article: http://thinkprogress.org/gun-debate-guide/#moreguns

More science:

http://www.amjmed.com/article/S0002-9343(13)00444-0/abstract
http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.2013.301409?journalCode=ajph
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1447364/pdf/0921988.pdf
http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/hicrc/firearms-research/guns-and-death/
http://www.kellogg.northwestern.edu/faculty/dranove/htm/Dranove/coursepages/Mgmt%20469/guns.pdf
http://www.theatlantic.com/national/print/2011/01/the-geography-of-gun-deaths/69354/
http://edition.cnn.com/2012/07/30/opinion/frum-guns-safer/
http://www.crab.rutgers.edu/~goertzel/mythsofmurder.htm
http://islandia.law.yale.edu/ayers/ayres_donohue_article.pdf
http://islandia.law.yale.edu/ayres/Ayres_Donohue_comment.pdf
http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2003/10/double-barreled-double-standards

http://www.jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/johns-hopkins-center-for-gun-policy-and-research/publications/WhitePaper020514_CaseforGunPolicyReforms.pdf

Talent, ability and being awesome

born writer

Born to write? Born to be an athlete? Born to be a rocket scientist? People love to talk about “natural” ability or talent as the be all and end all of achievement. Since I actually own a genetics text book – it props up my DVD collection on the shelf – and once watched someone do manual labour, I feel qualified to comment on the talent vs. work debate.

Genetics is a big, complicated, topic, so I’m going to provide a facile overview of it. Genetics is that thing that means some people have higher baselines, are higher responders to training/learning, and are likely to achieve more (see this and read this for sports examples). For some the opposite is true, they have low baselines, don’t respond well to training/learning, and are likely to suck no matter what they do. There isn’t much you can do about your genetics, unless you happen to have a time machine and can play matchmaker to get better parents.

But that isn’t to say that you shouldn’t try to get good at stuff. Until you are tested and start training, you don’t really know what your “ability” is. And just because you might continue to suck, you will suck less than you did before, which means you will be better than those around you who didn’t even try. Take an example from sports – because people actually do science on athletes, the arts talk about their feelings too much – athletes tend to live longer than normal because they are more likely to be fitter, which lowers cardiovascular mortality. You don’t get fit sitting on a couch, watching TV, snacking on corn chips, in your underwear: you have to train.

So let’s take this into the writing field. You may have been born with a massive brain, nimble fingers, and an imagination that rivals college students tripping on acid, but that doesn’t mean much if you never learn to read, or write, or are too poor to have access to materials for writing, or the persistence to share that writing with the world. All that talent and ability counts for nothing if you don’t do something with it. You have to train. The difference between the talented individual and the untalented individual can often just be a lot of hard work by the untalented. I mean, who has sold more books: James Paterson or any of the Booker Prize winners?*

But let’s not get carried away. We have to acknowledge that any “talent” is a GxE interaction (genetics by environment interaction). Genetics, or that innate ability, is still a factor that we can’t dismiss, but so is the environment. So all of that skill development and training will come more easily, more quickly, and possibly progress further for some, but that isn’t an excuse for not doing the hard work.


See also: http://emilyjeanroche.blogspot.com.au/2014/02/WritingSkills.html

* Not that I’m insinuating that winning a Booker Prize actually makes you a talented or good writer. I actually use those prize lists to figure out what not to read.

Sony exits ebook biz

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there are these things called electronic books now, e-books for short. Now these are brand new (invented 1971, possibly as early as 1949) and understandably the devices to read them are even newer (first e-reader released 1998). So it may come as a shock to many of you that quite a few people read e-books on e-readers now instead of paper books. It will come as even more of a shock to you that the Sony e-reader has become a thing of the past.

That’s right my fellow book lovers – lovers in the adoration sense, not in the brace yourself, oh yeah, uh-huh, uh-huh, chikka bow-wow, sense – it appears that Sony has decided it doesn’t want a dedicated e-reader, in fact it doesn’t even want an e-book store. They have announced that they are pulling out and customers are being transferred to the Kobo store.

Of course, I don’t think anyone is particularly surprised by this decision. Raise your hand if you’ve ever actually seen a Sony e-reader. Now keep it up if you’ve actually owned one. If you can see anyone with their hand still raised, I’d question how you manage to turn people’s web cams on. Sony has been playing at the bottom end of the market for e-readers and e-books for quite a while now. The chart below from Goodreads shows Sony were picking up Kobo’s scraps in the market.

So what does this mean for us readers? Well, it means the big dedicated e-readers remain, the Kindle and Nook. It also means Kobo could pick up a bit more of the e-reader and e-book market. But that isn’t particularly interesting to me, I’ll discuss why in a moment. What is interesting is the Sony e-reader is probably the victim of the modern device market.

I read an interesting tech article that was discussing mobile phones. They pointed out that the companies making money on phones weren’t actually making money on the phone sales, especially at the mid to lower price points, but instead cashing in on the app stores and downloads. The phone is a loss leader for the software business they run. Nokia and their deal with Microsoft is a classic example of this, with Nokia battling to compete for market share and profits.

Translate that to e-readers and the same thing applies. It was even worse for Sony, as the other competitors were/are selling their Kindle, Nook, Kobo, etc, as a loss leader to get people using their store or affiliates. This meant that the big stores attract the users, who buy the associated tech, which locks them to the stores (to some extent at least), leading to e-book sales profits. Terrific! As long as you don’t think too hard about the slave labour making the devices.

The reason I don’t find the market positioning of the e-reader devices of much interest is down to a few things. The first is a little statistic that has been showing up in surveys from Goodreads and The Pew Institute; namely that 29-37% of people read books on their phone (23% on a tablet). A dedicated reading device is only really in the book space now because the e-reader screen has less eye fatigue. At the moment! Watch this bubble burst as phones and tablets eat away at the readability technology, such that e-reader screens become redundant. Mobile devices also don’t have to be linked to any one e-book store, so interesting times are on the horizon.

Another view on e-readers future: http://techland.time.com/2013/01/04/dont-call-the-e-reader-doomed/

Nye vs. Ham: science vs. nonsense

nye vs ham

There is a general rule in arguments: don’t argue with stupid people, they drag you down to their level and beat you with experience. That is pretty much the problem scientists and experts have when debating anti-science proponents – such as creationists, anti-vaccinators, anti-GM campaigners, climate change deniers, etc. Yet Bill Nye the Science Guy decided that, in the interest of science and education, he would debate a creationist.

The debate started with Bill Nye and Ken Ham stating a 5 minute opening piece. Then Ken went into his 50 minute argument, which is when my cushion really started to earn its keep protecting my desk from damage.

I really find it hard to fathom how anyone can be credulous of Ham’s statements. In his 50 minutes he used all sorts of logical fallacies, most notably his videos of “creationist scientists” as argument from authority. But it wasn’t this that really got the lump on my forehead rising, it was the use of “evidence” for his argument that simultaneously refuted the arguments. One example was the phylogenetic tree for dogs. Ham argued that the rise of Canis lupus familiaris from a wolf (yeah, just one, let’s just let that one go through to the keeper) was what you would see from biblical predictions of dogs speciating after the global flood 4,000 years ago. Just one problem. Teeny tiny. The figure showed dogs evolving from a group of wolf ancestors over the course of 14-15,000 years.

He didn’t just do this once, he did it repeatedly. Another example arose when he was talking up one of his creationist pals who helped design a satellite (or something, didn’t really care because it was irrelevant). He used the example of how scientists had been debating how old the universe was: they couldn’t agree on the age. The part he left out about that particular debate was that the age of the universe was somewhere around about 13.8 billion years old (+ 37 million years), and they had a bunch of data they were trying to make sure they had the errors accounted for. The debate was about the difference in the confidence range (or error margin) between the Planck satellite measures and the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe measures. The error margin is 6,000 times greater than the age of the Earth that Ham claims. The Earth’s age is still 2 million times older than Ham’s claim, yet he uses this example as if to give credence to his claims.

Now Nye did his best in his 50 minutes to show that Ham’s claims were flawed, but also how evidence and scientific observation and prediction work. Others have claimed, and I agree to an extent, that Nye’s mistake was to try and cover too much ground. If he was talking to a receptive audience he would have destroyed Ham and had the crowd eating out of his hand. But at a creationist museum, with a bunch of science deniers, it would come across as too much information and too confusing. Although Nye’s last couple of minutes pretty much killed the entire debate, with trees, rocks, size of the universe, distance from stars but limits of how fast the light can travel, all showing that the Earth and Universe are much much older.

The first rebuttal saw Ham carrying on about “you weren’t there so you don’t know.” Brian Dunning had a great take on this particular argument:

There is a rumor that Bill Nye @TheScienceGuy debated evolution with Ken Ham. Not true. It did not happen, because you weren’t there.

In this first rebuttal, Ham again used evidence that rebutted his own claims, especially when talking about radio-carbon dating. Showing that measurements have error margins, or can be somewhat imprecise, doesn’t negate the fact that the measurements are still many orders of magnitude outside of the age of the Earth claimed by Ham. Then he moved onto saying that the bible is right, everything else is wrong (let’s just ignore that the bible isn’t even consistent with itself, let alone the fact that it is a translation of a translation, thus literal interpretation isn’t supported by biblical scholars).

Nye then rebutted Ham’s statements. His classic put down was for the claim that every animal and humans were vegetarian until they got of the ark: lion’s teeth aren’t really made for broccoli.* Ba-zing!

Next Ham tried to point out that creationism isn’t his model (then he blames secularists for scientists). This is true, there are other nutters who came up with this crap. But Ham tried to pretend that “scientists” came up with the various creation models (NB: just because a scientist said something, doesn’t make it science or scientific). Then he talks about species and kinds and how Nye was confusing what a kind was. Easy to do when the idea of a kind is bullshit and unsupported by any actual science.

Nye then tore apart the claims about the rise of species from kinds using the basic math involved. He also called bullshit on the ship building skills of ancient desert people. The main point in this rebuttal was that Ham hadn’t addressed Nye’s point adequately, and that Ham’s claims aren’t supported by the majority of religious people, let alone scientists.

My desk and forehead had had enough by this stage, so I didn’t watch the Q&A section, but it can be viewed here.

The point I wanted to make from this was that Ham had a huge advantage in this discussion. I’m not talking about the home team venue, nor the credulous crowd, I’m talking about the lack of need for evidence. All Ham had to do, and pretty much what he did, was seed doubt in science and then declare “creationism wins” (which might as well be “God did it”). This is the problem with any debate with anti-science: the scientists have to prove their case with evidence and logical reasoning; the anti-science side only has to sow some doubt. And that doubt can vary between legitimate claims through to flat out lies, it doesn’t matter. So Nye shouldn’t have taken the debate.

But Nye was right to take the debate.

Hang-on. Have you hit your head against your desk a few too many times during that debate?

No. Bill Nye is a well known and respected science communicator. He went into the belly of the beast to stand in the echo chamber and sow some doubt (how’s that for a metaphor-fest?). As he stated himself, Nye knows that America (and the world, but let’s allow him his patriotism) needs science and innovation for the future of society. Creationism and other anti-science nonsense undermine this. If no-one challenges the group-think and echo chamber of the creationists (et al.) then they will continue to be mislead and misinformed by people like Ken Ham. You can’t have someone reject evolution yet rely on germ theory for modern medicine. You can’t have someone reject radio-carbon dating yet use medical imaging. That is incompatible, that is a rejection of reality, and it leads to stupid stuff happening that curbs development of new technologies and advancements to society.

Other opinions on who won:
Shane proposes that Nye needed to pick a couple of points to hammer home. This feeds into science communication research that shows you can get distracted from the main narrative with too many points. 

Christian Nation have Bill Nye winning the debate 92% to 8%. 

Update: Richard Linski has blogged about the debate and Ham’s use of his E. coli evolution work. Not surprisingly, Ham completely misrepresented the work. As I said above, Ham did this with many examples in his presentation. It is important that people realise just how deceptive Ham’s statements and claims are.

Update: It is clear that many of Ham’s supporters were not listening to Bill Nye and are wilfully ignorant. This Buzzfeed article (yeah, I know, Buzzfeed) brings up a lot of the points that Nye addressed, explained clearly and simply, showing they didn’t listen to Nye, and slept through school.

Update: This article makes a nice statement that ties into some of my points about why Nye took the debate. To quote:

It brought new attention to YEC (Young Earth Creationism) to exactly the people we need to see it- the large swath of Christian and other religious parents who think of Intelligent Design or Guided Evolution or some other pseudo-scientific concept when they imagine “teaching the controversy“. These people are embarrassed by people like Ken Ham. They know the earth isn’t 6000 years old, and they understand just how impossible it is to square that belief with observable phenomena.

Update: The ever awesome Potholer54 just posted a video on one point about evolution and Ken Ham’s rebuttal of his own arguments. Worth watching.

* Okay, not the best point to make, as teeth aren’t definitive of diet, but if the comment is viewed as being representative of animal physiology overall, then it is a very valid putdown of the vegetarian claims.

Mythtaken: Shark Attack Deaths

Ever since Spielberg made us scared of seeing any more Indiana Jones films, people have felt better about blaming him for the hysteria around sharks.

shark tears

Recently in my home state of Western Australia there has been a decision made to cull sharks because some people have been killed by them. Clearly we should blame sharks for just wanting a hug and not humans for dressing up like shark food. This is a stupid decision and I’m about to outline why we can’t even tell if there have been more shark deaths, let alone whether a cull would actually work, let alone whether you’d know if the cull does anything. It all comes down to statistics. Well, that and media beat-ups to sell advertising space.

You’d honestly think that there had been a change in the number of people dying in Australia from shark attacks in order to justify a shark cull. Well, the official stats show there hasn’t been an increase in deaths from shark attacks. In fact the deaths are so low the noise around the long term average of 1.38 deaths per annum (2000-2012), that any increase or decrease in deaths are impossible to assign any significance to (see chart below). Three deaths in a year (2000): could be an anomaly. Zero deaths the year after (2001): likely to be regression to the mean. Number of deaths from the most ferocious animal on the planet: bees; 10 per year.

Graph of Aussie shark attacks 2000-2012. Blue is total encounters, yellow is non-fatal, red is fatal. Trend lines for total and fatal.

Graph of Aussie shark attacks 2000-2012. Blue is total encounters, yellow is non-fatal, red is fatal. Trend lines for total and fatal.

What you do see in the data is a slight increase in the number of attacks. If you look at the number of attacks and fatalities since 1900, there has been a general increase in the number of shark attacks, but a decrease in the fatalities from shark attacks. It’s almost as though there are more people in the world and more of them bobbing up and down in the ocean in seal costumes, possibly on a tasty cracker.

graph 2 shark attacks since 1900 by decade

International Shark Attack File data, Florida Museum of Natural History

Now this is interesting for the world and Australia, as it appears that despite our best efforts as humans, sharks aren’t taking revenge for the 100 million of them we kill each year. But this is about a shark cull in Western Australia: what’s happening there? Well, these tables say it all really:

Unprovoked Cases Since 1791:

State # Cases Fatal Injured Uninjured Last Fatality
NSW 243 68 (27.9%) 120 55 2013 Coffs Harbour
QLD 251 82 (32.7%) 151 18 2011 Fantome Island
WA 92 20 (21.7%) 57 15 2013 Gracetown
SA 48 18 (37.5%) 23 7 2011 Coffin Bay
VIC 45 9 (20%) 27 9 1987 Mornington Peninsula
TAS 15 3 (20%) 8 4 1993 Tenth Is, Georgetown
NT 10 2 (Duh) 6 2 1938 Bathurst Island
Total 704 202 (28.7%) 392 110 (Revised  28/1/2014)

Provoked Cases Since 1832:

# Cases Fatal Injured Uninjured
Total 190 15 129 46

Western Australia accounts for ~13% of shark attack deaths. When we look at 2012 data we see that WA is having a greater proportion of the Australian attacks and accounts for all the fatalities in Australia. The terms “bigger population”, “longer coastline”, “more cashed up bogans come to mind.

Australian Shark Encounter Statistics for 2012:

State Cases Recorded Fatal Injured Uninjured
NSW 5 0 3 2
QLD 1 0 1 0
SA 1 0 1 0
WA 5 2 2 1
VIC 1 0 1 0
TAS 1 0 1 0
NT 0 0 0 0
TOTAL – Unprovoked 14 2 9 3
TOTAL – Provoked 8 0 5 3
All Cases 22 2 14 6

So there is no actual proof that there are any more deaths occurring from shark attacks, definitely no trend toward more deaths, but a significant increase in the number of media reports on those deaths (citation needed). Even on a state by state basis there isn’t any death trend. But there is a trend towards more shark incidents. What we are actually seeing is an increase in the number of people dressing up like seals/shark food (scuba divers and surfers).

Circumstances affecting shark / human interactions:
The number of shark-human interactions occurring in a given year correlates with human population increases and the amount of time humans spend in the shark’s environment. As Australia’s population continues to increase and interest in aquatic recreation rises, it would realistically be expected that there will be an increase in the number of shark encounters.

Let’s put that in perspective, Australians have a 1 in 3,362 chance of drowning at the beach and a 1 in 292,525 chance of being killed by a shark in one’s entire lifetime. In Australia there are 1.38 deaths per year from sharks, 121 deaths per year from drowning at the beach, and 1,193 deaths per year from driving. We’re more likely to die from all the stupid shit we do, than from sharks. So why have a shark cull?

There is no real reason to have a shark cull. We already kill 100 million of the things annually anyway. What we actually need to do is look at where the sharks are looking for food, has their food moved, if so due to what, and are we seeing less shark food available such that sharks are looking for alternate foods. The shark cull with drum lines and nets is actually likely to kill off dolphins, turtles, rays, and endangered shark species, which is why fisheries researchers don’t support the cull.

Update: I neglected to mention that other states in Australia have been using baiting and nets, in the case of Queensland, since 1962, and since 1937 in New South Wales. Reports are not complimentary of the Queensland nor New South Wales programs. To quote:

…the Fisheries Scientific Committee is of the opinion that the current shark meshing program in New South Wales waters’ adversely affects two or more threatened species, populations or ecological communities and could cause species, populations or ecological communities that are not threatened to become threatened.

And (okay, I’ve cherry picked this a bit, read the whole report on how we are overfishing, killing shitloads of sharks, destroying the fisheries and adding baiting on top of this):

The main pressures on grey nurse sharks appear to be fishing activities and shark control programs……. The biological susceptibility of sharks to over fishing, evidence for increasing fishing pressure and lack of information have given rise to increasing concern about the sharks and rays of the Reef.

Essentially shark baiting, whilst paling in comparison to the 100 million sharks killed for their fins annually, is another pressure that endangered species don’t need. Especially when the baiting is still killing other endangered animals, not just sharks.

For more, read these articles:

https://theconversation.com/wa-shark-frenzy-how-to-stop-a-runaway-train-22669

http://www.nature.com/news/australian-shark-cull-plan-draws-scientists-ire-1.14373

http://www.taasfa.com/No-Shark-Nets.html

https://theconversation.com/western-australias-shark-culls-lack-bite-and-science-21371

https://theconversation.com/cull-or-be-killed-is-this-really-the-solution-to-stop-shark-attacks-3961

http://tysonadams.com/2013/10/16/mythtaken-shark-attacks/

http://tysonadams.com/2011/10/24/shark-attack/

Can’t we all just get along: DTB vs E-book

Print vs ebook infographic
The big take home from this infographic is that readers are more interested in reading, not on the format it comes in. I also found it interesting that people read slower on an e-reader (which I’d guess is because the screen is smaller and requires more ‘page turns’ which breaks reading flow) yet those using e-readers read an average of 9 more books per year (24 vs 15).

In summary: reading is good, go and enjoy a good book.

Will individuals respond differently to homeopathic remedies prepared with unboiled vs. boiled water?

I recently watched a debate between Ben Goldacre and Peter Fischer on homeopathy. During the course of the debate, an audience member asked, “If water has a memory, how come you’re not sick every time you drink water out of the tap?.

A homeopathic practitioner answered (paraphrased) that boiling the water resets the memory and that homeopathic remedies are only effective when using boiled water. He makes another comment implying that if a remedy were prepared with tap water, it wouldn’t be effective.

I realize the above related question (“Does water have a memory…?”) is nearly identical. I’m trying to ask it another way as it’s possible to persist with the water memory concept despite the other question’s answer. One could simply say (my hypothetical response),

“Well, we don’t know how it works and perhaps it isn’t by the known mechanism of how water behaves… but trials indicate that it works, nonetheless and that’s all I need.”

Since the audience member in the video indicated tangible predictions, I’m interested if they’ve ever been put to the test. Thus, my question is:

Has a trial ever been conducted in which homeopathic remedies prepared from both unboiled and boiled water were compared against one another in terms of patient response?

If there is another way to answer this question please go for it.

Answer:

It really doesn’t make any difference if the water is boiled or not, homeopathy doesn’t work.

The Minimum Dose and Avagadro’s Number The second and most controversial tenet in homeopathy is that remedies retain biological activity if they are diluted in a series (usually in a 1:10 or 1:100 diluent–volume ratio) and agitated or shaken between each dilution. Hahnemann began this process to reduce toxicity, but later he claimed that this “potenization” process extracted the “vital” or “spirit-like” nature of these substances (2). The limit of molecular dilution (Avagadro’s number) was not discovered until the later part of Hahnemann’s life; by then homeopaths all over the world were reporting that even very high potencies (dilutions lower than Avagadro’s number) produced clinical effects. The implausibility of such claims has led many to dismiss any evidence of homeopathy’s effectiveness as artifact or delusion (3). http://www.annals.org/content/138/5/393.full

But lets pretend for a moment that water does have memory. The aspect of boiling has not been researched. A search of Google Scholar nets no results for boiling and homeopathy. When referring to “how-to” guides of preparations it becomes obvious that homeopaths are merely after clean or unpolluted water to make their preparations in.

Ingredients … 1/2 or 1 litre of boiled water (distilled water may be bought at pharmacies in some countries, if you want that, and bottled, rinsed water is commonly sold in groceries too)

Another example:

Preparing your own bottle: Boil the glass bottle and dropper in filtered water for 15 min. and let it cool completely. Fill it just to the neck with filtered or distilled water.

So clearly the idea that boiling is the only way to reset the water is not backed up by the practices employed by homeopaths themselves. This combined with the fraudulent claim that water retains memory shows that this is another misdirection to allow justification.

Is GM corn toxic?

According to Vendomois et al, 2009:

these data highlight signs of hepatorenal toxicity, possibly due to the new pesticides specific to each GM corn.

Monsanto, the manufacturer of two of the studied strains of GM corn, responded, dismissing the article, particularly by criticizing the statistical methods used. Is Monsanto’s criticism valid?

Have their been additional studies done that either support or refute the claim that genetically-modified corn has toxic effects?

Answer:

The simple answer is no.

GM corn has the BT gene that allows lower use of pesticides due to increased or the RR gene that allows the use of glyphosate for weed control. Neither of these alterations have any impacts upon the production of sugars or proteins in the plant. http://www.ca.uky.edu/entomology/entfacts/ef130.asp

The problem that can arise is from the pesticides that are now used on the crops and the timing of their application. These pesticides are known to harm mammals and if the dose is high enough can cause problems. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2793308/

Generally though, because you are removing pests and weeds the plants tend to be healthier so they are less impacted by pathogens, thus better for consumption. http://www.acsh.org/factsfears/newsID.962/news_detail.asp

There is an issue with using corn as a feed supplement in animals though. Corn is not a complete food source and is generally low in protein, especially tryptophan. This means that a feed mix is required, not just straight corn meal. http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/ansci/beef/as1238w.htm

Another issue is that corn can cause Pellagra. This is due to the niacin and B12 being bound in the corn starches and not being released in normal digestion. Tryptophan is also low in corn and can cause Pellagra.

So the problems often cited with GM corn are actually just problems with corn itself. Neither are harmful, if used correctly in a balanced diet, but pesticide residues are of concern. For more see this: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1046/j.0960-7412.2002.001607.x/full

Another point that should be made is that the paper cited is from a notorious “research” group who produce shoddy science in order to further their biased agenda against GM technology. The big problem with the paper is that it uses the wrong sort of analysis and the data has already been analysed by two other papers and found to say the opposite of what this paper says. Essentially, if you do a statistical test with a 95% confidence margin, you are saying that you have one chance in twenty of being wrong because of natural variability. So if you measure 20 variables with separate tests, you are likely to have one be a false positive result. Measure 40 with separate tests, 2 false positives. This is what the research group did, set up the stats to generate lots of false positives, instead of analysing the data correctly with tests that account for this problem. It should be noted that this is a common problem/tactic with anti-GM research papers.

Additional question: The ACSH source claims Studies Indicate GM Crops Are Safer and Healthier, but last time ACSH reported their funding, they were co-funded by what are now GMO companies. Currently they are not open about their funding at all. Therefore, their independence cannot be established. Can you back up the claim by research where all funding sources are open and independent? – gerrit

Reply: Of course there is plenty of independent data. gmopundit.blogspot.com/ has an entire series devoted to the safety studies of GM crops. The highly respected journal Nature had an entire edition devoted to the topic. But that is beside the point, the underlying mechanism of the Bt is not one that works on humans (it is even sprayed on organic farms). We don’t have an alkaline stomach to activate the chemical (ditto some insects it doesn’t impact either) which means it can’t do anything. So the concerns are completely misplaced.

Is EPA-approved insecticide (clothianidin) responsible for killing off bees?

recent article in NaturalNews claims that last year there were leaked documents exposing that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) illegitimately approved toxic pesticide clothianidin for use, while being aware it might kill bees.

Now, the article says, there’s a new study by Purdue University that confirms that clothianidin is actually killing off bees, and that it’s spread has become systematic in the entire food chain.

The entire report is available online via PubMed: Multiple Routes of Pesticide Exposure for Honey Bees Living Near Agricultural Fields

The article goes on to warn about the consequenses of all this:

Without bees, which are now dying off at an alarming rate due to exposure to clothianidin and various other insecticides and fungicides, one third or more of the food supply will be destroyed, including at least 100 varieties of fruits and vegetables that rely on bees for pollination.

The claim is that if people in US don’t do something to stop the bees from dying, at least one third of the food supply (in the US) will be destroyed. Because bees are dying. Which is the caused mainly by clothianidin. Which is in use because of EPA’s failure or corruption.

Is this information accurate? Or does the article misrepresent the situation somehow? Is the study legitimate?

Related: Are Bees Disappearing and Why

Answer:

Clothianidin is similar to imidacloprid, being of the same chemical group of insecticides and both being linked to bee population decline (Colony Collapse Disorder – CCD).

There is controversy over the role of neonicotinoids in relation to pesticide toxicity to bees and imidacloprid effects on bee population. Neonicotinoid use has been strictly limited in France since the 1990s, when neonicotinoids were implicated in a mass die-off of the bee population. It is believed by some to account for worker bees’ neglecting to provide food for eggs and larvae, and for a breakdown of the bees’ navigational abilities, possibly leading to what has become generally known as Colony Collapse Disorder.

Low concentrations of imidicloprid and clothianidin have impacts upon bees’ ability to forage and return to the hive.

The results show that almost all the control honey bees returned to the hive, and started again visiting the feeder between 2 to 5 hours after the release. Honey bees fed with the concentration of 100 ppb also returned to the hive, but they returned to visit the feeder only 24 hours after the release. Honey bees fed with 500 ppb and 1000 ppb completely disappeared after the release, and they were not seen during the following 24 hours, neither at the hive nor at the feeding site.

But neonicotinoid insecticides are only one of of many things impacting upon bees, and most research indicates that it is a combination of factors that is behind CCD.

The most recent report (USDA – 2010) states that “based on an initial analysis of collected bee samples (CCD- and non-CCD affected), reports have noted the high number of viruses and other pathogens, pesticides, and parasites present in CCD colonies, and lower levels in non-CCD colonies. This work suggests that a combination of environmental stressors may set off a cascade of events and contribute to a colony where weakened worker bees are more susceptible to pests and pathogens.”[20] Applying proteomics-based pathogen screening tools in 2010, researchers announced they had identified a co-infection of invertebrate iridescent virus type 6 (IIV-6) and the fungus Nosema ceranae in all CCD colonies sampled. (Quoted from Wiki, original USDA report linked above)

So this issue is much larger than any one chemical group and is about environmental management and pesticide usage in general. Most insecticides will kill bees, especially with direct contact. Bees are only one of several pollination vectors in the world, so while they are important, this scare campaign is misguided. What is actually needed is further understanding of CCD, bee breeding programs and management strategies that will actually deal with this issue.

Also, as a general rule of thumb, just about anything that appears on Natural News is likely to be wrong.

Update: A paper published in the middle of last year has some interesting results that could indicate a/the driver of CCD in horticulture. Essentially the article shows that bees don’t just forage on one farm, instead collecting pollen from the surrounding area as they see fit. As such, they come back with all sorts of pollens and all sorts of pesticides and fungicides. It is this combination of pesticides and fungicides in the bees’ found that appears to make the bees a bit sick, so they are more likely to get lost whilst foraging or get infected with mites and fungi. Note the lack of worry about clothianidin and other neonicotinoids, but rather the fungicides being the big problem. To quote:

Our results show that beekeepers need to consider not only pesticide regimens of the fields in which they are placing their bees, but also spray programs near those fields that may contribute to pesticide drift onto weeds. The bees in our study collected pollen from diverse sources, often failing to collect any pollen from the target crop (Fig. 1). All of the non-target pollen that we were able to identify to genus or species was from wildflowers (Table S1), suggesting the honey bees were collecting significant amounts of pollen from weeds surrounding our focal fields.

This indicates that beekeepers and horticultural farmers don’t appear to be respecting withholding periods for agricultural sprays the way they should. Partly because the bees are foraging where they don’t expect them to and partly because they haven’t correctly planned sprays and pollination. It will be interesting to see if these results are backed up by more causative work, although I’m not sure it will apply to broadacre farming (does that mean CCD is mainly a horticulture and small hectare farming issue?).

Update: reasonably balanced TED talk on CCD:

Global warming and mild winters

Does global warming make for milder winters? What about specifically North America?

(You often hear people extol global warming for giving us mild winters. Is there evidence of a causal link?)

Two examples claims of global warming causing mild winters in New York, and Tibet are linked in the comments. However, my question is whether this is a global phenomenon.

Answer:

This is a tricky question to answer because weather, what you experience at your house right now, is not really that same thing as climate, the patterns of global air and sea movements that bring weather.

So milder winters can be a possibility in certain locations, as they will be exposed to an overall warming of the entire atmosphere. But colder winters can be experienced.

Since the mid 1970s, global temperatures have been warming at around 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade. However, weather imposes its own dramatic ups and downs over the long term trend. We expect to see record cold temperatures even during global warming. Nevertheless over the last decade, daily record high temperatures occurred twice as often as record lows. This tendency towards hotter days is expected to increase as global warming continues into the 21st Century.

Vladimir Petoukhov, a climate scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, has recently completed a study on the effect of climate change on winter. According to Petoukhov,

These anomalies could triple the probability of cold winter extremes in Europe and northern Asia. Recent severe winters like last year’s or the one of 2005-06 do not conflict with the global warming picture, but rather supplement it.

Weather being a local response to climatic conditions means that you have to understand what has changed in the climatic patterns in your region. What are your local weather drivers? How have they changed since the 1970s?

Thus, you could end up with some areas experiencing colder winters; due to greater moisture levels in the air, more precipitation of snow, greater heat loss at night due to clear skies, etc. Or you could have an area that will experience milder temps in winter due to warmer air currents, warmer oceans, localised heat island impacts, etc.

For further information you should investigate the weather and climate agencies publications for your area.

Reading habits over time…. well, one year

I’ve just come across some interesting research on reading habits by the Pew Research Center. It shows what many readers already knew, that e-books continue to grow in prevalence for readers. But there are also less readers. Although, I will state that comparing 2012 to 2011 and drawing conclusions about people who have read at least one book is always troubling. Might as well be comparing New Year’s weight loss programs prior to February first.

Also: One book? In a year? That isn’t a reader, that’s someone who got an unwanted Xmas present.

Anyway, in 2012 75% of US adults (+16) had read at least one book, down 3% on last year. Print books were generally less popular in 2012 across all age groups not still in school (I guess students get to count class assigned books in a survey), and were read by 67% of US adults, down 5%. E-books were 7% more popular, with 23% of adults having read one in 2012, with all age groups embracing them, especially in the 30-49 age bracket. Audio books were slightly more popular (2%) at 13% in 2012, which would be interesting to relate to the rise of Audible and similar online audio book businesses.

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I guess now the question is, how do these data compare to avid readers? I’m betting avid readers have a closer split of ebooks to paper books in their reading.

Mythtaken: Shark attacks

A while back I wrote a post on how sharks aren’t the deadly monsters attacking people all the time that we think they are. Now I’m not suggesting that we all go and hug sharks, they only like to be touched by cleaning fish, nor that we jump in to swim with them, they play tag far too roughly for delicate humans. What I’m suggesting is that we really need to start worrying about stuff that is actually a concern rather than stuff that is just wild gesticulations in front of a camera for ratings.

So here is a list of things that kill more people than sharks annually:

funny-sharks-things-that-kill-more

 

Picture from: http://themetapicture.com/things-that-kill-more-people-than-sharks/

Welcome to Science – from Zen Pencils

I was having a conversation last night with someone who was questioning why science? Doesn’t it get in the way of creativity? I’ve never seen it that way, I think Heinlein, Assimov and the like would agree with me. Zen Pencils did the comic below which encapsulates why science very nicely.
zp131007

Book Reviews: Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

Bad ScienceBad Science by Ben Goldacre
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It has been a while since I’ve blogged one of my book reviews. I guess that is part of the parenting manual that I didn’t read: hobbies are no longer priorities. There have been plenty of good books pass before my eyes since my last review, but I felt content just to let a short sentence, a star rating and an update to my Twitter feed to promote a good read.

This is slightly different. Ben’s book made me annoyed.

I’m a science nerd. I prefer to read the original research papers rather than the media coverage of them, as it is always terrible, usually based on a half-arsed press release and never links to the actual research. I am constantly amazed that in our modern age of computers, internet, vaccines, satellites and zero calorie drinks that people still believe in stuff that wasn’t plausible 200 years ago. And that’s why Ben’s book annoyed me. He made it painfully obvious how deliberate some of the misinformation campaigns have been.

I knew homoeopathy was rubbish (magic water droplets on sugar pills, or as I prefer to call it, a placebo), I knew that complimentary medicine is the term for stuff that hasn’t ever been proven to work, I knew anti-vaccine campaigners clearly didn’t remember that my dad’s generation had polio victims everywhere, I knew that “Big Pharma” are a mixed bag of good and bad science. So if I knew all of this already, why am I annoyed? Because I didn’t realise just how culpable the news media were and how media liaison and PR companies are straight up lying to people.

You see, I always thought, and this is still mostly true, that most media get science wrong because they don’t understand it and it isn’t easy to do the background research to check a press release on a study. I see this as not having the specialist science reporters doing the science journalism (imagine if a science journalist reported on climate change from the beginning, we’d have emissions at zero by now). But with Ben’s section on the MMR “controversy” and the “nutritionists” in the media, he paints a very clear picture of culpability that the media needs to address, or as Ben points out, people will just go to science blogs written by actual scientists in that field.

Excellent book and a must read for anyone who still reads newspapers or watches the TV news.

View all my reviews

PS: Yes, I’m also guilty of not publishing results, like most scientists I know. I make no excuses, I’m a terrible person.

Mythtaken: Good versus Popular

popular-good-and-bad

Plenty of what’s popular isn’t good, and plenty of what’s good isn’t popular.

There is a school of thought and snobbery that says anything good is not popular and anything popular is not good. I regard this as a myth. I can’t remember any good stuff that wasn’t popular, because who is going to remember stuff that wasn’t popular and good? Well, it is a little more complicated than that.

Back when I was in high school the music scene changed. No longer were pop bands like New Kids On The Block acceptable on the radio, now it was Grunge and heavier, alternate styles of rock that ruled the airwaves. In 1991  Nirvana released the seminal Nevermind, Pearl Jam released Ten, Soundgarden released Badmotorfinger, and thus the reign of Seattle and Grunge music began. Add to that the release of Guns ‘n’ Roses last decent album, Use Your Illusion (1 and 2), and the cross-over metal album that forced the Grammys to include a new Hard Rock/Metal category, Metallica’s black album, and you can see that it was a good year to be a pimply teen music fan.

At the time you couldn’t talk about music without talking about Nirvana or Grunge. With the release of Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream, the follow-up albums from Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and the influx of punk bands like Greenday and The Offspring, alternative music like Grunge was KING. Unless you looked at the charts.

The best-selling song of 1991?
Bryan Adams – (Everything I do) I Do It For You.

Best selling album of 1991?
In Australia, Daryl Braithwaite – Rise; in the USA, Maria Carey – The Human Dog Whistle.

Okay, so some easy listening pop music snuck through with some sales, but Nevermind and the single Smells Like Teen Spirit must have been top 10, right? Nope. Nirvana’s single didn’t make a dent in the charts until 1992, and even then it only cracked the top 50 in Australia (#46) and was #32 in the USA. Of course, rock and metal have never sold singles as much as albums, but Nevermind still only got to #17 in Australia and was beaten by frikin Garth Brooks and Michael Jackson in the USA.

Alright, maybe this is just a once off. The Beatles were huge, right? They combined good music with popularity. Well, in the UK, yes, but in the rest of the world, not so much.*

Before I end up beating you over the eyeballs with this example further, I’ll come to my point: popular has nothing to do with good. Sure, there are examples of good art also becoming popular. The examples I used were still very popular music acts whose influence will continue long after we’ve forgotten what a Bieber is.  But people were still more likely to own an album by Garth Brooks or Vanilla Ice than Smashing Pumpkins.

This is why I think that good art is often remembered more fondly after the fact than at the time. Good art stands the test of time, influences others and finds new audiences. Popular art is often shallow, or is transient, which means the audience has forgotten it when the next popular thing comes along.

To quote Neil Gaiman, make good art. Make good art and popularity will be someone remembering your work long after you’re gone.

NB: Sorry for not including other countries’ album charts, more can be found here.
Some other blogs on the same topic: http://americantaitai.com/2012/11/02/good-vs-popular/

http://scottberkun.com/2009/being-popular-vs-being-good/

NB: This article is referring to Survivorship Bias, which is a form of sampling bias, and can be a form of logical fallacy.

* I wasn’t aware when I wrote this article of the actions of the US record label Capitol Records. It appears they did their best to make sure The Beatles weren’t popular in the US. I’d like to say I’m surprised by the things done by The Beatles’ own US record company, but tales of this sort seem to be all too common.

Serif and sans-serif fonts

I don’t like to claim a lot of expertise in formatting, layout and graphic design. That isn’t to say I can’t do it, nor that I haven’t produced a couple of my own publications and newsletters. But I found myself in an argument recently defending using both serif and sans-serif fonts, which is like arguing over what colour black you want to wear to a metal concert (that’s a no-brainer: the darker one).

Anyway, there are plenty of anal retentive science nerds like me who have gone and done research into what fonts work best for which applications. There are actually a surprising number of research studies on fonts and readability.

First, let’s define what is meant by serif and sans-serif fonts. (From Scribe Consulting) Consider the following characters. The first is set in Georgia, a lovely serif font. The second is set in Verdana, an easy-to-read sans-serif font.

serif sans-serif
    serif     sans serif

Notice the small decorative flourishes at the ends of the strokes in the left character. These are called serif. The right character does not have these strokes and is said to be a sans-serif font. Sans is the French word for without. So I could be currently sans-pants.

The most common examples of these two font types are Times New Roman (serif) and Arial (sans-serif). Bleeding Cowboys would be an example of an overused serif font that is for try-hards, whilst Comic Sans is an overused sans-serif that shows a lack of taste.

Now there are some simple rules of thumb when it comes to using serif and sans-serif fonts, which are backed up by science. The first rule is that thumbs only hit the space bar. The second rule is:

Use serif for printed work

Serif fonts are usually easier to read in printed works than sans-serif fonts.

This is because the serif make the individual letters more distinctive and easier for our brains to recognise quickly. Without the serif, the brain has to spend longer identifying the letter because the shape is less distinctive.

The commonly used convention for printed work is to use a serif font for the body of the work. A sans-serif font is often used for headings, table text and captions.

The third rule is:

Use sans-serif for online work

An important exception must be made for the web. Printed works generally have a resolution of at least 1,000 dots per inch; whereas, computer monitors are typically around 100 dots per inch. Even Apple’s much vaunted retina display is only around 300 dots per inch — much lower than print.

This lower resolution can make small serif characters harder to read than the equivalent sans-serif characters because of their more complex shapes.

It follows that small on-screen text is better in a sans-serif font like Verdana or Arial.

Can probiotics improve my intestinal health?

Yeah, you know that whenever a title/headline asks a question you can almost guarantee the answer is no. In this case the question is also an interesting way of asking about having the blocked up innards of a red faced, bowl gripping, battleship bomber. The most talked about probiotic is Yakult and its patented strain of “good” bacteria. I wonder if “bad” bacteria have a three day growth and shifty eyes?

In terms of the probiotic Yakult, which has “6.5 billion healthy bacteria in every serve,” there was a 2010 review conducted by the European Food Safety Authority. This was a separate study called to support those made on intestinal health claims (which have been covered by Johan already).

The EFSA panel concluded that a cause and effect relationship had not been established between the consumption of the Lactobacillus casei strain Shirota and maintenance of the upper respiratory tract defence against pathogens by maintaining immune defences. This shouldn’t be that surprising considering that 6.5 billion bacteria is 0.0065% of the 100 trillion or so bacteria in the intestines.

The food constituent, Lactobacillus casei strain Shirota, which is the subject of the health claim, is sufficiently characterised. The Panel considers that maintenance of the upper respiratory tract defence against pathogens by maintaining immune defences is a beneficial physiological effect. The applicant identified a total of 12 references as being pertinent to the health claim. These included nine human intervention trials and three animal studies. In weighing the evidence, the Panel took into account that there was no human study from which conclusions could be drawn for an effect of Lactobacillus casei strain Shirota consumption on upper respiratory tract infections, that one human study did not support an effect of Lactobacillus casei strain Shirota consumption on the immune response to influenza vaccination, and that there was a lack of evidence for an effect of Lactobacillus casei strain Shirota consumption on the immune system that could relate to the defence of the upper respiratory tract against pathogens.

Yakult is supposedly backed by a signficant body of science. The number of scientific papers is certainly large, however, most of them are related to in vitro and in vivo experiments, with some human clinical trials done on cohorts (e.g. 123). The trials also tended to use much larger daily consumptions of bacteria, in the order of 40–100 billions of probiotic L. casei Shirota (sorry, links are now behind a paywall in the UK), far above the single bottle concentration of approximately 6.5 billion.

An example of the studies performed shows that the claims are borderline, with both placebo and Yakult treated constipation groups showing improvements (improved constipation 56% vs. 89%, p=0.003) in the second week, or the claims are based on small sample sizes (n=20). This shows why the EFSA concluded as they did.

So, save your money and wait until there is either some conclusive science or you run out of vegetables. In the meantime, this article is of interest on this topic.

Update: The Lancet recently published a paper on antibiotic-associated diarrhoea and Clostridium difficile diarrhoea which showed that multistrain preparations of lactobacilli and bifidobacteria did nothing. This is another example of how the previous smaller studies that have shown benefits are being overturned by more conclusive studies. I could go into the statistical and methodological reasons for this, or you could all thank me for not doing so. Thanks to Ross from Skeptically Challenged for the paper.

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