Tyson Adams

Putting the 'ill' back in thriller

Archive for the tag “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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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:




The Periodic Table of Storytelling

Sometimes my worlds collide and produce awesome stuff. Today I present science smashing into writing and producing a revision of the periodic table of elements (did you know that the periodic table should actually be seen as cylindrical?).

Apparently this gem has been doing the rounds of the internet for at least a year, which shows you how out of touch with reality kids makes you. But recently the Periodic Table of Storytelling has become interactive, with James Robert Harris taking his design of storytelling tropes to the next level. Serial killer name aside, James has created a fun tool that is worth checking out.


James has also developed a few other narrative media that are worth checking out, such as the hero’s journey using Star Trek. See the rest of his webpage here: http://www.designthroughstorytelling.com/design-through-storytelling

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


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.


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:



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.

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:



We think we’re smart


XKCD nails it again.

Within science fiction and the wider society there is this idea that we’ll find aliens. I always find it funny when humans talk about discovering “other” intelligent life in the universe. Just a wee bit arrogant to consider ourselves intelligent. Yes, I do realise that I’m arguing that point using technology based on quantum mechanics, probably being read on a device that weighs less than 200g and fits in your pocket, linked by a distributed network, connected by orbital satellites. Science: it works….. bitches.

But I would continue my argument by saying that to some people that amazing interface of technology, that is allowing this blog post to be read around the world, might as well be explained as “magic, magic, magic, magic, magic, god did it.” I certainly couldn’t explain how quantum mechanics works, nor how it applies to communications technologies, let alone how it manages to stream all of my favourite porn media to my phone. Thus Arthur C Clarke’s third law – Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic – holds true for the vast majority of people on this planet.

Now the argument against Clarke’s third law is that technology isn’t magic. In fact, in the entire history of human civilisation, with all the things that have been attributed to magic, all the great mysteries of the universe, once investigated, have turned out to be not magic. But I’m talking about the knowledge gap between the average person and the specialist in the field who develops all this cutting edge stuff that allows other specialists to do cool stuff; like making a hoverboard. We are surrounded by everyday items that most of us would struggle to explain the concept of how they work – magnets, how do they work? – let alone understand the complexities involved – magnets, this is how they work.

Douglas Adams brilliantly satirised this idea in his novel Mostly Harmless. Arthur Dent crash lands on an alien planet where the local humanoid populace are rather backward in comparison to us humans. Arthur comes from a planet of television, cars, planes, computers: all sorts of neat stuff. But he doesn’t know how any of it works, nor how to go about reverse engineering any or it. So he becomes the sandwich maker.

Essentially, we point to all of our human achievements to show how smart we are, but in reality most of us haven’t the first clue about any of those achievements. We just aren’t as smart as we would like to think.

Now compare this to aliens. Humans are pretty proud of having gone to the moon, cashing in on all 12 of us who have done so, but to be visited by aliens requires interstellar travel. That requires technology we probably haven’t even dreamed of yet (possibly not, e.g. warp). An alien race that can do that is so far beyond human achievement and intelligence. Thus,  I’m suggesting that even at our best, we would be babbling morons in comparison to an intelligent life-form that has managed interstellar travel.

Sure, the aliens that decide to cross interstellar space may be the Cleatus of their species. Their technology may actually have reached the point of sentience and doesn’t require anything of its “makers”. But think of how advanced such a species would be, not to mention how arrogant (rightly or wrongly). There is no reason for them to look upon Earth and see humans as intelligent (e.g. climate change and reality TV). There is also no reason to believe that we’d even notice these aliens. An intelligent life-form travels between star systems, has the technology for that not to have taken billions and billions of years, and some dude with an out of focus camera is going to be the only person to see them?

So I think that humans are rather egotistical to think of ourselves as intelligent life in the universe. I also think that it is arrogant to believe that an alien species would regard us as intelligent. I also think that we’d have little chance of encountering intelligent alien life unless they wanted to be encountered. This is just my view, but the main thing is, Neil DeGrasse Tyson agrees with me (or is that I agree with him?):

sagan on tech

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.

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:








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?


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.

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.


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.

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:



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.

Science Fiction Follies



8. Robots must be super strong and unstoppable until they come to a flimsy wooden door.

9. Robots must be compatible with all computers, even Windows.

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.

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.

I think you’re mythtaken: Guns

Nerd cred if you can name this gun correctly.

Nerd cred if you can name this gun correctly.

There are a lot of guns in the world. The figure is something like 639 million firearms, or to put it another way, one gun for every 9 people on the planet. Yet the average person knows diddly squat about guns. People probably have a better idea of how Nicki Minaj managed to become a star than express knowledge about guns. Most of our knowledge is likely to come from movies:

Or professional Russians:

As an author I really wanted to make sure I didn’t base my gun knowledge upon misinformation, otherwise I’d have to work as a reporter covering the gun debate. So here are a few myths to be busted.

Machine guns are not monsters of death
They may fire great big bullets at hundreds of rounds per minute but machine guns really are given the fashion magazine airbrushing treatment. A great big gun letting off a whole lot of explosions in a short amount of time has a habit of getting hot. Really hot. We’re talking change the barrel over every minute hot! Yes, that’s right, at the maximum rate of fire your machine gun needs a new barrel every minute to keep firing without causing problems – which I imagine as a gigantic explosion like Bugs Bunny sticking his finger in the end of Elmer Fudd’s shotgun. But it isn’t just the barrel changes, most of the time you aren’t actually firing the machine gun at people, you’re firing it at super mean looking inanimate objects, or as the military call it, suppressive fire (250,000 rounds for one kill!!!). Essentially the machine gun is a tool that performs a very different role from the one gun noobs think it does. Well, unless you don’t mind the thing catching on fire (yes, I know that isn’t technically a machine gun):

Guns aren’t really death machines
For death machines, these gun things really don’t kill enough people. In science we talk about effects, rates and how to blow up stuff with the things you find under the kitchen sink, as such it is hard to look at the gun deaths and gun injury rates and not think guns kinda suck at their job. The USA use guns to kill roughly 30,000 people a year, one third of those are homicides, but that is less than half the people they injure with guns, roughly 65,000. But that isn’t really fair, because not every time a gun goes off is it being used to shoot at someone else or a particularly nasty piece of paper. If you just look at homicides and attempted homicides, guns are still only getting the job done 21% of the time.

Guns suck for self defence
Not everyone can have Chuck Norris camped out in their house for self defence, nor carry Steven Segal around where-ever they go. But as mentioned above, guns really do suck at their job. Whether it is only being 23% effective in legal interventions, or the fact that you’re 4.5 to 5.5 times more likely to be shot for carrying a gun, you really start to think running away looks like a better option, even if you are as fat as Steven Segal has gotten lately.

Handguns are about as accurate as the horoscopes
A handgun is a really convenient weapon to carry around with you, but if the side of a barn is more than a few metres away, you’re not particularly likely to hit it. Even cops can’t hit much with these things, even when the bad-guy is less than 15m away. Half the problem is that bad-guys shoot back, which means you don’t stand around collecting holes, you run for cover, which really ruins your accuracy. But I’ve already mentioned that guns suck at their job, well, your handgun might hit the bad-guy 55 times and still not kill them.

Guns sure do help kill people
As much as guns suck at their job, as I’ve just pointed out, guns still do a better job of killing than many of the other methods we’ve devised for killing each other. Sure, people love their tools to kill one another, but guns are a really good tool to use for killing one another. I can’t wait to see the military being sent off to war with hammers and cars instead of a gun.

Being shot doesn’t mean you can fly
The trick to flying is throwing yourself at the ground and missing. So being shot clearly can’t make you fly. Don’t know why people think that shooting someone can disobey this simple fact, let alone Newton’s Laws of Motion. But what good is a trope if it isn’t always on display?

Semi-auto rifles are not assault rifles
Every time someone refers to a semi-auto rifle as an assault rifle, or worse, the made up term assault weapon, a puppy dies. You don’t want all the puppies to die do you? Well then, it is time to learn the difference between the military configured select fire rifle, called the assault rifle, which is capable of fully automatic and (sometimes) burst fire, and the civilian one trigger pull, one shot, semi-automatic rifle. I know, they may look the same to the untrained eye, but some people think cars are all the same thing too.

Mags, clips, high capacity…
While we’re on the topic of rifles, I have a dictionary and an abacus for people talking about magazines, clips and high capacity mag clips. A magazine is something you read, a clip is something you watch and high capacity is a Japanese train at rush hour. Different guns have different sizes of magazines (which may or may not be loaded with a clip), which means 30 rounds may be high capacity for one gun and normal capacity for another. Also, when one of these these rifles go through 700 rounds per minute and even soldiers only carry 210 rounds, from a standard 30 round magazine, then no gun fight is really lasting that long.

It’s a suppressor not a silencer!
Remind me, is +120 decibels loud or quiet? It sure is a lot quieter than a normal gunshot sound (+160db), but calling it “silent” is like calling bagpipes a little annoying. When the best suppressors on the smallest calibre weapons still manage to be as loud as a jack hammer or AC/DC, then suppressors have again gotten the Hollywood make-over. But 30db is a decent drop from ear splitting to “say what” territory, so I’d say these things should be compulsory.

There is no smell of cordite
If someone describes the smell of cordite in the air after a gun fight, you either know that the book is set before 1950 or that there is a sub-plot about a time traveller who comes from the past to assassinate a future self. It seems really odd that so many books use the time traveller sub-plot, because it is usually a one off. It would be far more interesting if this was built upon more, maybe have Gengis Khan show up to knock down a wall, or something, as well.

Less guns are a good idea
Shooting is fun, hunting is very primal, but at some point your neighbours start to get worried when you look more like you are going to war than to the shooting range. Aside from guns sucking for self defence, they also suck at not shooting your loved ones, are handy for suicide, and unless you are in a warzone, more guns in society equals more gun violence. But it is also worth thinking about what gun figures actually mean, like 300 million guns in the US, enough for one for every American despite there being only about 80,000 gun owners. Sounds like a lot, but that means each gun owner has a rifle, a handgun and a shotgun, which is clays, targets and pistols at the local range on the weekend. Perfectly reasonable to go shooting, just not at your local school.

Update: another mythbuster article:


Election 2013: Australian House of Reps and Climate Change

Normally I don’t talk politics. It really hurts my head when I repeatedly bash it against the desk when listening to politicians speak. Being apolitical I see little point in discussing what a bunch of self-serving failed lawyers do on a daily basis. Regardless, I’ve reblogged this post from uknowispeaksense – a fellow science nerd – as he has done a very good breakdown of both the houses of Australian parliament and where they stand on climate change.

Being a scientist, I find the current political inaction on climate change to be unacceptable. I find the denial of climate science to be akin to disputing gravity. Then again, I’m sure we could find politicians that would argue pigs can fly if there were enough votes in it.  The science is settled. So I think it is important that people know where their politicians stand on what is quite possibly the most important issue to face humanity.

Also, this link has position statements of various parties.

Note: Senators’ positions here.

In September this year, 2013,  Australians will head to the polls to exercise their democratic right and vote in the federal election, with each eligible voter hoping the party of their choice wins enough seats to govern for the next 3 years. Recently, Australian politics has seemingly become much like American politics with the right shifting to the extreme right and what were formerly centre left shifting slightly to the centre. In the process, the issue of climate change has become highly politicised. The idea of this page, is to highlight where each party and some selected individuals stand on climate change. In particular, I am interested in whether they accept the science or not.

Recent climate change is real, it is happening now, it is caused by humans and it is serious. This is not up for debate because the science is settled. Every major national scientific body in the developed world and the tens of thousands of scientists researching the climate accept this as fact. In my opinion, and many others, it is hands down the most important global issue and challenge facing humanity, and urgent action is required…now.

In order for global initiatives to be implemented to tackle the threat of climate change we must have governments who are prepared to act, and that means we must first have governments that accept the science. So how does our current crop of politicians stack up? To find out, Hansard, party websites, individual websites, press releases, newspaper, radio and television interview transcripts were searched for definitive statements made by our politicians that demonstrate that they either accept the science or not. Where a definitive statement wasn’t apparent, but the Member had mentioned some aspects of climate change, I emailed the Member requesting clarification of their position.  Where no response was provided, the Member was classified as “no data” or “insufficient data”. Two Members made no mention of “climate change” or “global warming” at all in the places searched. They have been placed in the denier category. Retiring politicians (as at February 16, 2013) have been excluded.

An example of a definitive statement accepting the science on climate change is this one from Steve Irons, the Liberal Party Member for Swan, who when rising to speak in parliament on the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme Bill 2009 and associated Bills (CPRS2009), said…

“I accept the premise that climate change exists and that greenhouse gas emissions are contributing to the accelerated rate of climate change. There is evidence to support this and I lend my weight to those arguments.”

The link for that speech is here. An example of a definitive statement or statements rejecting the science is this barrage from Warren Truss, the National Party Member for Wide Bay as reported in the Australian newspaper.

”It’s too simplistic to link a finite spell to climate change.”

”These comments tend to be made on hot days rather than cold days.

”I’m told it’s minus one in Mt Wellington at the present time in Tasmania.

”Hobart’s expecting a maximum of 16.

”Australia’s climate, it’s changing, it’s changeable. We have hot times, we have cold times…

”The reality is that it’s utterly simplistic to suggest that we have these fires because of climate change.”

This is the usual grab bag of inane throw away lines, or variations of, one can find on any climate denial website.  So, just how many of our politicians accept or reject the science of climate change?

Position on the science of climate change of current Australian mambers of the House of representatives n=150

Position on the science of climate change of current Australian members of the House of Representatives. n=150

What is clear from this graph is that the majority of Members accept the scientific consensus on climate change and have made definitive statements to that effect. When we break it down into party affiliations v position, we get an interesting look into the politicisation of the issue.

Position on the science ofclimate change of Members of the House of Representatives by political party affiliation. n=144 (6 retiring)

Position on the science of climate change of Members of the House of Representatives by political party affiliation. n=144 (6 retiring)

The striking thing about this graph that should be immediately apparent, is the fact that nearly every Australian Labor Party Member  has made a definitive statement accepting the science of climate change. For the conservatives, the split is nearly 50/50. This can be broken down further…

Position on the science of climate change by Coalition Members of the House of Representatives by political party affiliation n=59

Position on the science of climate change of Coalition Members of the House of Representatives by political party affiliation n=59

No real surprises here that the Nationals, being the representatives for large areas of “the bush” are climate change deniers. Their constituents tend to be highly conservative. Please note: retiring members and those for which there is no data have been excluded from this graph.

So, who accepts the science and who doesn’t? What is clear is that if you are of the right, there’s a good chance you are in the wrong. Here is a complete breakdown of the results with each member and their position.

Current sitting Members of the House of Representatives and their position on climate change science.

Current sitting Members of the House of Representatives and their position on climate change science.

It’s probably fitting that the leader of the opposition, with a bit of help from alphabetisation, tops the list of deniers. This is the man who wants to lead the country and he refuses to accept the science of climate change. Remember, it is Abbott who claimed that “climate change is crap.” Now I’m sure there are supporters of Mr Abbott who will find quotes about his direct action plan to tackle climate change and hold this up as evidence that he is serious about the climate however, this is the man who will say anything for political expediency.

The thing that really bugs me about the list of deniers, is the presence of those National Party Members. While it isn’t surprising, these 8 people are supposed to represent Australian rural communities and have their best interests at heart. Climate change is likely to have very severe impacts on agricultural production in Australia. The CSIRO State of the Climate 2012 report states…

Australian average temperatures are projected to rise by 0.6 to 1.5 °C by 2030 when compared with the climate of 1980 to 1999. The warming is projected to be in the range of 1.0 to 5.0 °C by 2070 if global greenhouse gas emissions are within the range of projected future emission scenarios considered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. These changes will be felt through an increase in the number of hot days and warm nights, and a decline in cool days and cold nights.

Climate models suggest long-term drying over southern areas during winter and over southern and eastern areas during spring. This will be superimposed on large natural variability, so wet years are likely to become less frequent and dry years more frequent. Droughts are expected to become more frequent in southern Australia; however, periods of heavy rainfall are still likely to occur.

These changes will require mitigation and adaptation activities to be undertaken not just by the agricultural producers, but also the communities in which they exist, and without government support, many will go to the wall. One wonders if a government full of climate change deniers will be able to make the important decisions that will secure Australia’s food future? For an insight into the potential challenges faced by agricultural producers in the future, as well as what will be required to adapt and mitigate, it is well worth reading the 2012 paper by Beverly Henry et al titled, Livestock production in a changing climate: adaptation and mitigation research in Australia. From the abstract…

Climate change presents a range of challenges for animal agriculture in Australia. Livestock production will be affected by changes in temperature and water availability through impacts on pasture and forage crop quantity and quality, feed-grain production and price, and disease and pest distributions. This paper provides an overview of these impacts and the broader effects on landscape functionality, with a focus on recent research on effects of increasing temperature, changing rainfall patterns, and increased climate variability on animal health, growth, and reproduction, including through heat stress, and potential adaptation strategies.

Full text available here. It’s not just livestock. It’s across the board. What will wine growers do in the face of earlier springs, increased risk of fungal diseases and changes in the microbiology and chemistry of winemaking? What will apple and stone fruit growers do to cope with a decrease in the efficacy of natural pest predators due to phenological changes in host species? Will wheat farmers be able to rely on a government full of climate change deniers to provide adequate R&D funding to combat lower yields? One need only look to Queensland to see what ideological climate change denial from a government looks like.

So, here are a few examples of the kinds of statements made by the deniers in our parliament. Remember, these people are ignoring the advice of tens of thousands of experts from around the world who are all saying the same thing, and they want to make decisions on your behalf, that won’t just affect you, but your children and grandchildren as well.

“The Prime Minister and her ministers have repeatedly declared that the “science is settled” and there is no need for further debate on how to respond to the environmental challenges from climate change. A Nobel Prize-winning scientist told me recently that “science is never settled” and that scientific assumptions and conclusions must always be challenged. This eminent Noble Laureate pointed that had he accepted the so-called “settled science”, he would not have undertaken his important research, which challenged orthodox scientific propositions and led to new discoveries, which resulted in a Nobel Prize.” Julie Bishop

That was Julie Bishop appealing to authority…the wrong authority.

“We are after all only talking about models and forecasts. Just as an aside, when the weather bureau cannot reliably tell me what the weather is going to be like tomorrow and then tells me that in 100 years there are going to be sea level rises of a metre as a result of climate change, I think I am entitled to exercise a level of caution in deciding whether to accept everything that is put to me about weather, climate and long-term trends.” Darren Chester

Darren Chester, failing to understand the difference between short-term weather forecasts and long-term climate trends. Scarily, he then goes on to discuss how wonderful it would be to dig out and burn all the brown coal in the Latrobe Valley. For the uninitiated, burning any coal is bad, but burning brown coal specifically is very bad. It burns much cooler than anthracite  due to higher water content and less lithification and so you have to burn more of it to produce the same amount of energy.

“As I rise to speak on the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme Bill 2009 and related bills, I do so wondering whether the debate is being driven by alarmists or scientists. Are we debating this subject from a scientific standpoint or are we being caught up in the emotion of the times? We do live in an uncertain world and it is understandable why it can be easier to accept statements at face value rather than questioning what we are being told. I have been reading Professor Ian Plimer’s book on his response to the global warming debate. It makes for very interesting and illuminating reading, and I would recommend it to any member entering the debate on global warming.”Joanna Gash

Joanna Gash basing her uneducated and ill-informed opinion on the writings of a non-expert who has never published a single peer-reviewed paper on the subject of climate change and who is the director of seven mining companies. Can you say “vested interests” Joanna?

“To say that climate change is human induced is to overblow and overstate our role in the scheme of the universe quite completely over a long period of time. I note that the member for Fraser came in here today with a very strong view about how human beings have been the source of all change in the universe at all times. He has joined a long line of Labor backbenchers I have spoken about in this place before—amateur scientists, wannabe weather readers, people who want to read the weather, people who like to come in here and make the most grandiose predictions about all sorts of scientific matters without even a basic understanding of the periodic table, or the elements or where carbon might be placed on the periodic table. So the member for Fraser has joined this esteemed group of people who seem to be great authorities on science.” Alex Hawke

Alex Hawke, also confusing weather with climate but doing so in a spectacularly arrogant way. I love it. He’s not just saying, “I’m an idiot” but rather “I’m really an idiot and you better believe it! So there!” Who wants to ask Mr Hawke where carbon is on the periodic table? I know I do.

“As the only PhD qualified scientist in this parliament, I have watched with dismay as the local and international scientific communities and our elected leaders have taken a seemingly benign scientific theory and turned it into a regulatory monolith designed to solve an environmental misnomer. With a proper understanding of the science, I believe we would not even be entering into this carbon tax debate. To put it simply, the carbon tax, with all its regulatory machinations, is built on quicksand. Take away the dodgy science and the need for a carbon tax becomes void. I do not accept the premise of anthropogenic climate change, I do not accept that we are causing significant global warming and I reject the findings of the IPCC and its local scientific affiliates.” Dennis Jensen

Dennis Jensen, legend in his own lunchtime appealing to his own non-authority and single-handedly dismissing the honest, dispassionate work of tens of thousands of real scientists from around the world. At this point I should point out that Dennis Jensen does indeed have a Phd….in materials engineering on ceramics. Next time it starts raining cups and plates I’ll be sure to look him up. Oh, and he is also tied in with the Lavoisier Group and according to Wikipedia, boycotted parliament the day Kevin Rudd apologised to the Stolen Generation. I know that isn’t relevant to climate change but hey, if he’s a racist arsehole then everyone has the right to know about it. Anyway, I strongly urge my readers to check out the rest of his parliamentary rant. It is a cracker. Every single paragraph is filled with…well….crap. Who voted for this clown?

“Perhaps more concerning is the evidence that suggests climate scientists have engaged in manipulation of data, routine alienation of scientists who dispute the theory of anthropogenic global warming and the overall culture of climate change science that encourages group think and silences dissent.”Don Randall

Don Randall, reflecting on a newspaper article about “Climategate”no less. Obviously 9 independent investigations into “Climategate” all finding no wrong doing isn’t enough for the wilfully ignorant. For a good roundup of the whole saga, skepticalscience is the place to go.

These were just a few of the deniers and their ill-informed statements that I randomly selected. Having read through so many speeches and transcripts and media releases, I can attest that these are representative of the other deniers in the list. For me, the mind boggles when it comes to climate change denial. Presumably, these politicians are meant to be rational people. The appeals to the authority of non-experts really confuse me. It is akin to getting a plumber instead of an electrician to rewire your house. They wouldn’t get a vet to perform the brain surgery some of them clearly need. Why do they think the opinions of non-experts has any weight when it comes to climate science? It is completely irrational.

I guess it may seem to some that I am picking on the conservatives…and that would be correct, but I also have one or two big questions to ask of the ALP. If you all accept the science behind climate change as you claim and see fossil fuel combustion as the primary cause of recent climate change, why do you subsidise the fossil fuel industry to the tune of billions of dollars every year? Why not use that sort of money to develop the renewable energy sector and get us off our dependence on coal quicker?

This year’s election, if recent polling results carry through to September, is going to be won by the conservatives. Their leader, who admits to lying, who is on the record as holding different policy positions based on political expediency, is surrounded by men and women who are irrational in their non-acceptance of the science of climate change, many of them failing to grasp simple concepts such as the difference between weather and climate. Some of them suffer heavily from arrogance and one inparticular the Dunning-Kruger effect. A number of them have links to the mining industry and right-wing think tanks that are funded by mining companies and/or have mining executives on their boards. I wonder where their royalties loyalties lay? Is it with the people who have elected them, or their mining mates? I think I know the answer and it isn’t we the people. But then you’ve got the ALP subsiding the very industries they are claiming are the problem. Decisions decisions. For some, the decision might be about the lesser of two evils. Choose wisely.

Thanks to John Byatt for his valuable assistance with data collection.

If any politicians read this and feel they have been misrepresented, please feel free to contact me at unknowispeaksense@y7mail.com preferably with a definitive statement and I will make the necessary corrections and publish your response.

I have done the same thing for the Senate here.

Check out the National Party’s disconnect here.

Tyson Says: A point I should make about the results here, which was also made on The Drum last night: The Labor Party doesn’t allow for crossing the floor or dissenting public comment. Now, it isn’t like there aren’t penalties in the other parties for doing so, but this point needs to be considered when viewing the statistics.

Essentially, where it has all of Labor politicians on board with climate change, that is actually a party stance, not the individuals. I know from first hand discussions that there are Labor politicians who don’t believe in climate change science, but they won’t go on record as such because the party room has voted against them.

This is partly why we see such pathetic policies and hypocritical positions (e.g. mine coal like it is going out of fashion whilst claiming coal is to blame). Remember, politicians don’t care about science or facts, they care about making their supporters happy. Just don’t think that the voting public are their key supporters, because they certainly didn’t donate tens of millions to their party.

See why I’m apolitical?

Watch 62 Years of Global Warming in 13 Seconds

(via Climate Central)
From our friends at NASA comes this amazing 13-second animation that depicts how temperatures around the globe have warmed since 1950. You’ll note an acceleration of the temperature trend in the late 1970s as greenhouse gas emissions from energy production increased worldwide and clean air laws reduced emissions of pollutants that had a cooling effect on the climate, and thus were masking some of the global warming signal.

The data come from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York (GISS), which monitors global surface temperatures. As NASA notes, “All 10 of the warmest years in the GISS analysis have occurred since 1998, continuing a trend of temperatures well above the mid-20th century average.”

Cardio vs. weight lifting for weight loss

There are a lot of people who either claim that cardio or weight lifting is the key to losing weight. For example an article questioning the need for cardio or an article claiming that cardio is the key to weight loss.

The cardio folks usually point out the “afterburner” effect, where the body continues to burn calories even after the workout. And weight lifting people mention that muscles burn more calories than fat, so more muscle is the key.

Are there studies showing if either one is true? Or are both needed? And what about interval training?


This is a tough question to answer as there are a lot of ifs and buts.

Weight loss is all about caloric deficit, expend more energy than you consume and you lose weight. Most people do this by dieting, but the body tends to readjust the resting metabolic rate so that you don’t lose too much reserves. Thus exercise plus diet is needed for weight loss to be effective.

How effective is ‘Diet Only’ versus ‘Diet plus Exercise’ for Weight Loss? Most studies demonstrate that when diet (caloric restriction) and physical activity are combined in a weight management program, encouraging results in weight loss occur. Donnelly and colleagues (2009) explain that a weight loss program design may create an energy deficit (e.g., 500 to 1500) composed of exercise (e.g., 250 kilocalories/day) and caloric restriction (e.g., 250 kilocalories/day) for the daily caloric deficit total (500 kilocalories in this example). In studies where investigators introduce an energy deficit of 700 to 1000 kilocalories per day, ‘diet only’ and ‘diet plus exercise’ result in similar losses. Donnelly explains that this is due to metabolic adaptations that “diminish any additive effect of energy expenditure from physical activity on weight loss”. However, in investigations where the energy deficit is 500-700 kilocalories/day, the ‘diet plus exercise’ group is about 20% greater than the ‘diet only’ intervention.

So weight loss needs to be related to your activity and diet in order to understand your basal metabolism. But weight loss isn’t just about bodyweight as it is about losing bodyfat (as muscle is useful for maintaining basal metabolism and body function). When you calculate this you are able to figure out how many calories need to be removed from the diet in order to lose fat. See here. There are also strategies that can change your metabolism.

Exercise is usually broken down into two categories: cardio and weight training. There are many benefits to both and generally both are recommended for long term health. Weight training is known to burn fat.

This study is the first to directly show that resistance exercise increases adipose tissue lipolysis and thus contributes to improved body composition. This boost in lipolysis is apparently due to the excitatory effect of resistance training on specific hormones (e.g., epinephrine, norepinephrine and growth hormone). As this study design was completed with trained male subjects, it is hoped that the methods and procedures will be completed with other subject populations (e.g., females, untrained persons, youth, seniors, overweight, etc.) in future research.

For cardio training, there is obviously fat burning taking place. The amount of fat burning that occurs is related to the intensity of the cardio.

In summary, that data clearly show that exercise intensity is the main factor in determining the magnitude and duration of EPOC following aerobic exercise. Thus, when developing a cardiorespiratory exercise prescription for weight maintenance and weight loss, the influence of exercise intensity on EPOC and its potential contribution to total caloric expenditure should be taken into consideration.

The same is true of weightlifting (from the same article):

The data on resistance training and EPOC suggest that EPOC is distinctly influenced by the intensity of the resistance training program.

The actual amount of post activity “fat burning” will be related to the intensity and duration of the exercise done. Weightlifting has advantages in terms of encouraging muscle satellite cell accumulation that sustains and grows muscle. Cardio has the benefit that it can be performed for longer durations than weightlifting. So the essential answer will come down to the individual and their strength and fitness.

Essentially any exercise program should incorporate both cardio and weight training for weight loss, especially targeting fat loss.

For more articles on fitness and metabolism see here.

Further question: Hey, do you think I can get the source on your statement that “the body tends to readjust the resting metabolic rate so that you don’t lose too much reserves.”? I’m rather curious about this. – Joel Cornett

Reply: Joel, there is a lot of research related to metabolic rate and how it changes under dieting and exercise regimes. It is quite a complex topic because it depends upon many factors. Someone who has just started dieting will be different from someone who is active already in terms of responses. Here is one paper that looks at the overweight people and weight control. I linked to Kravitz’s other articles that cover some of the athlete side of metabolism in the last link.

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