Thursday, September 30, 2010

Book Review – Denialism

During my last round of book buying, I found a book amidst the science section with a title that fit perfectly with many of the topics I've written about. It is Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives by Michael Specter.

I remembered hearing about it somewhere before so I picked it up. When I got home, I checked out the reviews on and almost decided to return the book. It's not that it has a bad rating (3/5 stars), but many of the top rated reviews said that, while the topic is certainly important, it lacks the rigor to support the danger implicit in the subtitle and worse, failed to get much into why denialism exists and what should be done about it.

But for some reason (probably laziness) I kept it and after finishing my last book, I did my general roll of the dice to determine what I'd read next from my pile and this book ended up being the scientifically selected winner. It's taken me almost 2 months to get through it, but now that I have, I think this book is one of the more important ones in the conversation.

The book starts out with Specter's thoughts on what may be part of the reason for why the rejection of science has become so commonplace. He suggests that it is due to some large failures of science that have caught the public eye. Specifically he cites things like the Challenger disaster, Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island, and Vioxx (the latter being the main focus). As he puts it
Thirty years ago nobody discussed the principal motive behind scientific research: nobody needed to. It was a quest for knowledge. Today, the default assumption is that money matters most of all, and people tend to see science through the prism of commerce.
The rest of the book is spent addressing several of the major forms of denialism.

The first is that of vaccines causing autism. In it, there is a very telling quote from Jay Gordon, Jenny McCarthy's pediatrician.
Let me state very simply, vaccines can cause autism. . . . The proof is not there yet. It will be found
Belief first. Evidence later. This is a hallmark characteristic of denialists.

The entire chapter is laced with success of vaccination efforts and the costs of not vaccinating. Although Specter never comes right out to say it, the message is clear: We cannot let unsubstantiated (or worse, disproven) fears stop us from using methods that we know save far more lives than they even hypothetically cost.

Specter's next target is what he calls the "organic fetish" and the scare over genetically modified foods. This is a topic I haven't gotten much into, but Specter makes many good points in the chapter. All food is genetically modified by hundreds and thousands of years of artificial selection. But by adding genes to add nutritional value as well as growth, we can and have improved the quality and quantity of food we produce. Given that "natural" foods haven't been fortified with extra vitamins, GMOs are in reality much better for us than the organic ones. In addition, they are designed to last longer and need less pesticides which are harmful to both our health and the environment. It's pretty much wins all around, except perhaps for a loss of some flavor.

While a loss of flavor vs a gain of nutrition isn't a huge problem in the US, where we don't have much of a problem getting balanced meals (whether or not we choose to is a different story), other nations don't have that luxury. GM foods would allow for poor nations to produce enough food of sufficient quality to feed their people. But many nations have chosen to ban GMOs because of the fear-mongering of the anti-GM crowd and instead, will let their residents starve. I think this is one of the many points Specter makes that really back up the claim made in his subtitle. When fear trumps progress, people die in the meantime.

The "alt-med" fad was the topic of the next chapter. From homeopathy to nutritional supplements, Specter addressed the effectiveness of each and concluded that few were of any value (of those that he did concede were some vitamins, calcium, and folic acid for pregnant women). And worse, many were outright harmful. One example he cited was that of Ephedra, a drug that "boosts adrenaline, stresses the heart, raises blood pressure, and is associated with an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, anxiety, psychosis, and death." Which is probably why the FDA finally banned it, causing outrage in the alt-med community, because, yet again, "[b]elief outranks effectiveness."

The bigger problem I, and Specter see, is that this nonsensical belief takes funding away from research that has true potential. In no case is this more true than the alt-med one, in which the denialism camp has fought so hard, they've conned the US government into funding a major scientific organization, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), to review treatments that have already been demonstrated not to work.

This organization does operate scientifically, doing rigorous tests and coming to valid conclusions, the point is that these reviews shouldn't need to be done in the first place. Instead, we now spend $121 million annually to tell ourselves what we already knew: None of these "medicines" work. Thus far, the NCCAM has not approved a single treatment. Compare this amount with the funding for autism research from the government in a year which is only $118 million. Bunk science gets more funding?!

The last of the body chapters was on the need to recognize geographical background (or race) as an important consideration in medicine and how the taboo of race has largely prevented research into how differences in people of different lineages affects their responses to medicines. Again, the message is clear: while we deny the science, people die.

Specter concludes with a somewhat hopeful note. He discusses the potential of synthetic biology, real Intelligent Design of organisms, to change our manufacturing processes and potentially assist in everything from energy production, to cleaning up the atmosphere, to creating medicines. It's a rather utopian ideal, but the message is clear for anyone that's been paying attention; this could be our future. Are we going to let fear take it away?

Overall, I think the book was extremely well written. My worst criticism is that it didn't go far enough. Many of the points could have been spelled out even more instead of letting readers draw the conclusions that the material points them to. After all, the people that most desperately need to read such a book, can't seem to draw intelligent conclusions for themselves. Without this, the book is little more than preaching to the choir, but I think this stems from another major point that Specter didn't address, which is the root cause of denialism.

While I agree that fear is a major component of it, I think there's another component that was completely overlooked which is that of the general level of scientific ignorance in the world. But such points weren't really the topic of the book. After all, the subtitle was "How irrational thinking hinders scientific progress", not "Why is there irrational thinking". Ultimately, I think the latter is a far thornier topic and there's no single answer. Rather, there are many, only one of which Specter touched on. I'd love to see another book on that latter topic though. I think this, along with such a book on the "why", as well as some other books illustrating other harms of pseudoscience could easily be bundled together to make one of the most important arguments for rational thinking today.

So while others may criticize this book for its incompleteness, I think it's fine. It fulfilled the goals set out by its subtitle. There definitely need to be more, but that's the job of other books.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Texas Loses out on Education Funds

I hope Texans are embarrassed right now. They've got a huge ass for a governor.

In 2009, when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act started handing out funds to stimulate the economy, a sizable chunk of this was earmarked for schools. But what did Governor Rick Perry do?

He accepted the money and then cut school funding by an equal amount. In other words, he pocketed the money to use for the state's rainy day fund, bypassing the earmark.

Seeing this was more than a bit of a dick move (although it's happens all the time), Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Austin added an amendment to a more recent federal handout making sure Texas couldn't pull the same trick again.

So what did Perry do? When applying for $830 million for schools, Perry wrote in on the application that the feds had no right to tell Texas how to use the money it was being given and they could shove it. He told the Austin American-Statesman that he would, "look for ways around the requirement that the Texas governor assure that the state would maintain a level of education spending for the next three years."

Naturally, Texas' application was turned down. So where does that leave schools?

Apparently, 14,500 education related jobs are in danger in Texas due to budget shortfalls. The money was to follow a Title I distribution which would give the majority of the funds to areas with the poorest students so it would invigorate the highest need communities.

This coming after promoting creationism and "performance-based payment for teachers" which fails to take into account the difficulties of certain areas and demographics, thereby making a bad problem worse.

Education in Texas is looking more and more like a joke lately. As I finish my certification, I look more and more at areas I'd consider teaching. Texas is definitely on the list of places not to even consider.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

UT Posts: 9/1 - 9/9

The Race to Stellar Formation - A look at how feedback mechanisms in star forming regions can impede further formation.

Ultraluminous Gamma Ray Burst 080607 – A "Monster in the Dark" - A gamma ray burst hidden behind a cloud of gas in its home galaxy tells us about conditions in early galaxies as well as hinting at an explanation for "dark" GRBs.

How to Crash Stars Together - A look at the conditions necessary for stellar collisions to become likely.

The Black Hole/Gloublar Cluster Correlation - Study reveals relationship between mass of SMBH and number of globular clusters in galaxies.

The Origin of Exoplanets - Do exoplanets form in disks like our solar system, or do they form independently?

Two New Asteroids To Pass Earth This Week - Two newly discovered asteroids swing by the Earth, closer to us than the moon.

Aesthetics of Astronomy - A look at how the public interprets astronomical images.

The Other End of the Planetary Scale - What's the distinction between small stars and large planets?

Does Tidal Evolution Cause Stars To Eat Planets? - Tidal bulges by "hot Jupiters" could cause orbital decay.

Do Stars Really Form in Clusters - And what does it even mean to be "in" a cluster?

Follow-up studies on the June 3rd Jupiter Impact - What did we learn about the object that struck Jupiter on June 3rd, 2010?

Friday, September 03, 2010

Cutting Grass on the Moon

I cut the grass today.

This is nothing exceptional really. I do it every week or two. But today, I found it rather challenging. For some reason, it took decidedly longer than usual.

I suspect that it was due to me cutting areas I'd already done because I was having a great deal of trouble telling where I'd already cut. Usually I do this by looking to see where the grass was suddenly an inch shorter, or by looking for the depressions caused by the wheels on the grass.

Today, both were exceptionally hard to find.

So what was different? Certainly it wasn't he grass. It's the same yard I've mowed over and over. The lawnmower didn't suddenly get lighter and not leave any impressions.

There was only one thing that changed: The time of day. Today, I cut the grass near noon. Usually I cut the grass in the early morning. But aside from it being nice and cool in the morning, how could the time of day possibly make a difference?

To answer this question I had to think about the moon.

If you've ever looked at the moon through a telescope, you may have noticed that there's certain times that it looks better than others. Generally, the best times are near the quarter moons (1st and 3rd) where the moon is half-lit from our vantage point.

The reason that these times are especially good is that the sun is striking the visible surface at a shallow angle. As a result, any topological changes that are above a nearby surface will cause long, sharp shadows. This is especially important in craters where crater rims are often raised slightly above the nearby terrain and can cast shadows into the bowl of the crater. Meanwhile, the opposite side of the crater will receive sunlight and be well lit.

This alternation of light and dark provides a sharp contrast to help define the features and make them stand out. When the moon is in the full phase, the sunlight is beating straight down making the shadows small and contrast almost non-existent.

The same thing happens when I'm cutting the grass. At noon, the Sun is at it's highest point making even the minor shadows that something as diffuse as grass can cast rather minimal. In the early morning hours, the sun is sill lower on the horizon, but strikes the grass at a shallow angle allowing for greater contrast. The grass I haven't cut can cast a shadow on that I have. Furthermore, the wheels will create additional low lying areas that can also pick up shadows and stand out.

With this in mind, I think I'll avoid cutting the grass near noon in the future. The only problem with that is, now I'll have to wake up early. And us astronomers are naturally nocturnal.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

TV Review - Bad Universe

Oops. I'm on the fail wagon. I only just got around to seeing Phil Plait's Bad Universe. Tardy. I know.

Overall score: Solid A.

Phil's enthusiasm, as always shows through and the show is a ton of fun because of it. Right from the very beginning the viewer hits the ground running with the doomsday scenario of an asteroid hitting the Earth. It jumps then, to simulating an impact and the resulting crater, to simulations of a nuke on an asteroid, through other tests, and finally a solution. The road is paved with tons of explosions.

But in the end, I felt... dizzy. While all the information was there, it didn't feel especially organized. It jumped between asteroids of varying sizes, compositions, and even to big nasties that weren't asteroids. Not that all these topics aren't important do discuss, but I often felt it kept going back and forth.

And worse, something very important was left as merely a single line that got brushed off. This isn't the exact quote, but I think it's pretty close:

"The damage from an impact comes from its kinetic energy which is determined by its mass and more importantly, its velocity."

Yep. KE = 1/2mv2. See that squared term? That means that the velocity is gonna get real important, real fast. And that paraphrase I just gave, is the entire story of velocity in this show. There's an obvious reason for this though: The vast majority of the asteroids that could hit us are all from the same groups and the velocity range is narrow. The mass range isn't. So obviously that's what the focus would have to be on, but the jumpiness I mentioned earlier left it hard to get a clear picture of what size will do what damage.

Here's the breakdown:

Beachball = ~60 ft across
Stadium = Miles across
Few Miles across = No more dinosaurs

Great. But what about that HUGE gap between stadium and dinosaur killer? There was a ton that could be talked about there that would have been really great to get a real grip on how size corresponds to damage because it's not exactly easy given that mass doesn't scale linearly with size (given it's dependent on volume and all).

Obviously, there's quite a bit that had to be left out for the sake of time and to be fair, that was a perfectly reasonable thing to leave out. Because what the main focus of the show wasn't what the dangers and effects are, but what we can do to stop it. When viewed in that light, that's why I can give the show such a high approval rating despite not liking that some of the science was left out; The show achieved its goal.

In the meantime, there were some great lines. Working "epic fail" into a serious show = win.

But the best line in the whole show, one that makes me glad I wasn't drinking anything at the time, came from Dan Durda. As they're about to test the effect of a kinetic impactor on a large, spherical rock, Phil makes a joke about how it looks like they're about to make the Death Star. Without missing a beat, Dan responds, "Yeah, so let's blow this thing and go home." For those not fanboy enough to get the response, go watch this.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Solar Storms Follow-Up

On Friday, I wrote about some really poor science writing from Yahoo. While most of the garbage was stuff that an obviously clueless writer on Yahoo's part tossed in, but the base of it came from this article. It claimed solar scientists were worried about the upcoming solar cycle being the worst in 100 years and that trillions of dollars in damage could be the result.

I left a comment pointing out the gross misrepresentation of the position of scientists and the likelihood of such an event and the author, David Reneke, responded by shoving his foot even further down his throat.

Go take a look at it and see if you can figure out all the problems with his response before my reply makes it through the moderation queue. (HINT: There's not a single paragraph that didn't have major problems!)

PS: Does anyone know where this guy teaches? His personal website notes that he teaches at a college level, but doesn't mention where. Given the shoddy grasp of what people are saying and the sloppy sensationalism, I'm of a strong mind to write the head of his department.

UPDATE: Three days later and my reply still hasn't made it through the moderation queue. So I'll outline the problems here:

1) The author doesn't understand the English language. He claims he said "'could be' not 'will be'". But let's look at what he really said:
"Huge Solar Storms to Impact Earth", "the Earth will be hit", "solar storms that will cause the Sun".... Where's that uncertainty?

The only place a "could" pops up is when the author talks about the effects. In other words, he's saying the storm will happen, but the effects of it are where the uncertainty lies.

2) The author quote mines and conflates arguments. The quotes he has are universally in regards to the effects of a massive outburst. Yet he takes them out of context and presents them as if they're talking about this solar cycle. They're not.

3) The author provides no sources for the main point of the article. He names "space weather conference in Washington DC attended by Nasa [sic] scientists, policy-makers, researchers and government officials", but what is that really talking about? It's not whether or not it may or may not happen, but rather, every source he cites is in regards to the worst-case-scenario planning.

4) The author ignores contrary sources. I provided two sources from NASA's solar science department that show the main tracers of solar activity are predicting the next solar cycle's activity is going to be lower than the last solar cycle which flatly contradicts his premise. Yet he still asks "where’s the reference source?". Herp derp.

5) The author engages in baseless sensationalism. Since the above points show that the author has no basis for saying this storm will occur, the entire point of bringing it up is nothing but alarmism. It's bad journalism.

Conclusion: This guy doesn't understand basic astronomy or journalistic standards. I'm still looking for contact information on some of his supervisors to try to make sure this guy doesn't continue to get a national platform for his gibberish.