Category Archives: Science

Nasa’s ‘holy grail’: Entire new solar system that could support alien life discovered

Scientists have found a new solar system filled with planets that look like Earth and could support life, Nasa has announced.

At least three of the seven planets represent the “holy grail for planet-hunting astronomers”, because they sit within the “temperate zone” and are the right temperature to allow alien life to flourish, the researchers have said. And they are capable of having oceans, again suggesting that life could flourish on them.

No other star system has ever been found to contain so many Earth-sized and rocky planets, of the kind thought to be necessary to contain aliens.

Peer review: Bad science justifies second-hand smoking bans?

From Jacob Grier at Slate:

We Used Terrible Science to Justify Smoking Bans

For three anti-smoking advocates—local physicians Richard Sargent and Robert Shepard, and activist and researcher Stanton Glantz from the University of California at San Francisco—this sudden drop in heart attacks was proof that smoking bans usher in extraordinary benefits for public health. “This striking finding suggests that protecting people from the toxins in secondhand smoke not only makes life more pleasant; it immediately starts saving lives,” said Glantz in a press release sent out by UCSF.

Newspapers ran with the story, credulously assuming that the correlation had been truly caused by the smoking ban. “The bottom line of Helena’s plummeting, then soaring, heart attack rate is painfully obvious,” warned an op-ed in the New York Times. “Secondhand smoke kills.” The BBC projected that “[banning] smoking in public places could prevent hundreds of deaths from heart disease.” Wire services carried the result around the globe, and even the conservative Wall Street Journal cited the result as an important finding.

When the Helena study and its heirs were originally published, a few scientists noted that the results were wildly implausible and the methodologies deeply flawed. So did a handful of journalists, including Jacob Sullum writing for Reason (to which I am also a contributor) and Christopher Snowdon in England. Yet their criticism was generally ignored. Studies reporting miraculous declines in heart attacks made global headlines; when better studies came along contradicting those results, they barely registered a blip in the media. …

There were good reasons from the beginning to doubt that smoking bans could really deliver the promised results, but anti-smoking advocacy groups eagerly embraced alarmism to shape public perception. Today’s tobacco control movement is guided by ideology as much as it is by science, prone to hyping politically convenient studies regardless of their merit and ostracizing detractors.

This has important implications for journalism. More.

Yes, the winds were favourable for pom pom-waving, unfortunately.

Of course, if science communicators keep getting away with it, they will keep doing it. Science really can be high tech voodoo using numbers. And then it must be kept in place by fear, not trust.

On a personal note: I found the anti-second hand smoke campaign rolled out across Canada some years ago disturbing. One government-sponsored ad featured women who were dying of cancer, whose husbands had smoked. The clear implication was that the wife got cancer (implication terminal) because the husband smoked.

The problem is, we don’t usually know that. Smoking greatly increases a person’s chance of lung cancer but not all lung cancers are caused by smoking. And second-hand smoke damage necessarily depends on many factors, including how much time a person spends involuntarily inhaling how much smoke.

I have never smoked, disapprove of the practice for many reasons, and support smoking bans in public places, as well as crackdowns on sales to minors and smuggling.

But I am concerned about using science to pretend we know more than we do, using voodoo numbers. That could lead to later family problems: = Dad killed Mom because he smoked. Science PROVES it! = We hate Dad. = [that’s just great when Dad is old and sick and needs family support]

Please. The world is full of problems for which we have a much clearer trail of cause and effect. – O’Leary for News

See also: The skinny on salt, veggie oil,, skim milk, whole foods. Nutrition science is nearly baseless but it rules.
Sitting does not increase overall mortality risk.

Ten tips for spotting a fake science news story

From Alex Berezow at American Council on Science and Health, including,

5) The article is sensationalized; i.e., it draws huge, sweeping conclusions from a single study. (This is particularly common in stories on scary chemicals and miracle vegetables.)

9) The article is about evolutionary psychology. More.

The “huge, sweeping conclusions” problem is especially scandalous in fields like nutrition, which is already a mess.

And, as noted elsewhere, evolutionary psychology does not explain puzzling human behavior. It offers Darwinian explanations for conventional behavior, with no insight that exceeds the results of applying common sense.

Evo psych is big in pop science media precisely because it’s so easy. Just call your town Bedrock, build a story about it on some recent evo fluff, and suddenly everyone understands the place just like it was home… Hmmmm?

See also: Darwin’s wastebasket: Time perception, evolutionary psychology, and Donald Trump

Berezow’s own story: A scientist shares his cyberbullying story


Science writing in an age when we ran out of pom poms to wave

Oceanographer on the crisis of trust in science

Further to: Geologist on why a scientists’ march on Washington is a bad idea, oceanographer Helen Czerski writes at Guardian:

Now, in the age of Google, the frontiers of knowledge are misleadingly comprehensible rather than inaccessible. Their very accessibility means that we may not see the complex context before arriving at each nugget of information and often, we don’t want to. One of the most contentious statements of 2016 was “Britain has had enough of experts”, but perhaps a more useful starting point for debate is “have people have had enough of complexity”? It applies to science as well as politics. The problem is that the world really is complex. And the other problem is that no-one has time to deal with all that complexity – it’s tiring and frustrating to try, and denial or straightforward trust are often the easiest coping mechanisms. Simple explanations are easy to remember, and satisfying to understand. But in the complex modern world (especially with topics like genetics, climate, nanotechnology and more), they may often be wrong. So what should we scientists do? Instilling confidence in the scientific landscape (by making science easily accessible) and honestly conveying the best judgement based on the available evidence seem to be conflicting aims.

We need to earn trust in the scientific system in a new way, one that is transparent and open and human. That requires consciously re-building the ties between science and society, but not by inventing a new kind of lofty ideal. It’s simpler than that: this is about conversations. It means taking individual time to talk to others: our neighbours, our Facebook friends, and also the people we might normally shy away from – anyone who is part of the fabric of our society. And it’s not just about talking. It’s about listening, and responding in a respectful way. We need to put ourselves in places where we’re not comfortable, and let others judge the content for themselves. I’m starting to think that “media training” for scientists often misses the point, because it implies that there’s a difference between talking to an interviewer and talking to anyone else. What we need is to have confidence that strong positive dignified behaviour (in any and every environment) is what will make the world a better place. If you can do that with your argumentative neighbour, you can surely manage it in a radio interview. The same skills are important: not scoring points but honest evidence-based debate. Demonstrating good behaviour is one of the most powerful ways of instilling confidence in the scientific system. If we can’t convey every nuance of our protocols and analysis, we can at least convey the spirit in which we work. More.

In any event, one does not create more trust by saying, Believe me or else! Bill Nye, for example, would criminalize dissent from human-caused global warming claims.

If Nye’s “or else!” doesn’t materialize, he has no other argument. That is, it is very difficult to revisit evidence-based arguments with people after one has resorted to empty threats against them.

See also: Geologist on why a scientists’ march on Washington is a bad idea An increasingly typical (but usually unspoken) response to “I Marched!” is, “Who cares?” Why not save the jet fuel by staying home and helping educate the community? Especially if your big thing is the environment?

In a free country, scientists can march, if they want. But they should really apply the scientific method to the question of whether that is the best way to reach people today.

Study Claiming Video Games ‘Train’ Players for Real-World Violence Retracted

A 2012 report on the effect of violent video games on players has been retracted by the publisher.

Communication Research has officially retracted a report entitled “‘Boom, headshot!?’: Effect of Video Game Play and Controller Type on Firing Aim and Accuracy” by Jodi L. Whitaker and Brad J. Bushman. The report claimed that “first-person shooter” video games could have a lasting effect on players; for instance, that playing these games might be able to “‘train’ a person to shoot a gun,” and “influence players to aim for the head.”

The retraction is due to variable irregularities within the study, which suggest that the numbers therein may have been skewed toward the desired conclusion.

Natural selection making ‘education genes’ rarer, says Icelandic study

A study from Iceland is the latest to raise the prospect of a downwards spiral into imbecility. The research from deCODE, a genetics firm in Reykjavik, finds that groups of genes that predispose people to spend more years in education became a little rarer in the country from 1910 to 1975.

The scientists used a database of more than 100,000 Icelanders to see how dozens of gene variants that affect educational attainment appeared in the population over time. They found a shallow decline over the 65 year period, implying a downturn in the natural inclination to rack up qualifications.

But the genes involved in education affected fertility too.

What? Is no political party the “party of science”?

<em>Coffee</em> Tins New Republic intern Eric Armstrong thinks that no U.S. party deserves the crown, at any rate:

The time has come for Democrats to remove the beam from their own eyes, so to speak. Taking up the mantle of scientific liberalism—that is, adopting an evidence-based view of reality in pursuit of progressive policy—would serve both the strategic purposes of the Democratic Party in the menacing face of Trumpism, as well as the existential interests of humanity.* More.

Oh, wait. No political party is likely to survive just taking an evidence-based view of matters. That’s supposed to be the role of science as such.

You know what they say about party policy and strategy: It’s like sausage; if you are going to eat it, best not to ask what all goes into it. One can at least hope that most of it can be swallowed, more or less.

Unfortunately, Armstrong’s list of Democrat science fails reads like a list of all the subjects on which he is convinced that his view is entirely and unalterably correct, for example:

So, what’s the harm in entertaining anti-science views when it comes to so-called alternative treatments like homeopathy? After all, people should be free to throw their own money away. And since there are no active ingredients, homeopathy can’t really hurt anybody, can it? In fact, homeopathy is so ineffective at doing, well, anything at all, that science geeks across the world have staged massive collective “overdoses” of homeopathy in order to demonstrate its impotence. To date, not one person has been harmed—or healed, for that matter—from any of these mass ingestions. But the fact that it doesn’t work is exactly what makes it so dangerous. Many pharmacies sell homeopathic and other alternative remedies alongside real medicine. Consumers are entitled to a reasonable expectation that treatments sold in modern pharmacies have at least demonstrated a modicum of efficacy beyond placebo. Selling snake oil on the same shelf as real drugs betrays that trust. This is a consumer protection issue if there ever was one. Democrats should be all over it.

It does not sound as though Armstrong has ever heard of the placebo effect, one of the best attested effects in medicine (people start to get better when they feel better). One wonders how his party would justify cracking down on aromatherapy, etc.  Doubtless, wiser heads would prevail.

* Note: Please, political parties, just govern in the interests of your own constituencies in your own nations and leave the rest of the world to cope with the existential interests of humanity as we see them. Our tastes in a-crock-a-lypses may differ from yours and we can’t vote where you live.

See also: Nature: Scientists stunned by Trump victory Really? What does that say about the scientific method?

Parkinson’s patients learn to use placebos?


New Scientist’s about face on the placebo effect

Britain becomes first country to approve ‘three parent babies’

Britain’s fertility regulator has decided that “three-parent baby” treatments can go ahead, opening the way for parents to be treated as early as next spring. This landmark decision makes Britain the first country in the world to offer licenses for this treatment. Earlier this year, a baby was born in Mexico through the technique.

The board of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) had been tasked with deciding whether clinics should be allowed to apply for permission to carry out mitochondrial replacement therapy (MRT). “It is a decision of historic importance,” said Sally Cheshire, chair of the HFEA.

The evolutionary psychology behind politics


A thought-provoking explanation that’s worth reading twice – NM.

Welcome to the homepage of Anonymous Conservative. I know why you’re here. The world is getting weird. People betray their own and call it intellectual. Morality is now a mark of stupidity, and backward thinking. Strength of character is evil, while weakness and patheity are noble traits to aspire towards. Women are beginning to look like men, and men are becoming more like women. And people who wouldn’t last two seconds in a state of nature are telling us all that we need to destroy our society in a myriad of creative ways, yet nobody seems to notice. I see it too.

Something has gone bizarrely wrong, and you want to find out what it is. This site is dedicated to a simple theory in Evolutionary Biology which explains why all of this is happening in our society. Called r/K Selection Theory, this concept explains why we have two political ideologies, why productive societies will inevitably decay into immoral cesspools of failure and then collapse, and why we will inevitably rise again.

America Is Unprepared For The Bioterror Threat Of Gene Editing

For all its national security focus on terrorism, America is deeply unprepared for future terror threats that could come from emerging biotechnologies, says an Obama administration advisory committee.

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) recently issued a public letter to the administration, calling for a renewed and expansive biodefense strategy. While noting that the world has had to contend with plenty of natural microbial threats, such as the Zika virus, the letter highlights the dangers in new, “exponential” advances in bioengineering if maliciously or improperly used. These involve everything from relatively cheap, speedy gene-editing methods like CRISPR to techniques that now allow scientists to create synthetic DNA from scratch.

The Real War on Science

The Left has done far more than the Right to set back progress.

My liberal friends sometimes ask me why I don’t devote more of my science journalism to the sins of the Right. It’s fine to expose pseudoscience on the left, they say, but why aren’t you an equal-opportunity debunker? Why not write about conservatives’ threat to science?

My friends don’t like my answer: because there isn’t much to write about.

Union of Concerned Scientists inconsistent as apocalypse marketing agency

This happens all the time; denialists just refuse to see it.

Further to a recent account of cyberbullying of GMO scientists, Brian McNicoll writes at Townhall:

Hysterical predictions that haven’t panned out have taken a toll on the credibility of scientists, and one would think environmentalists would want to be more careful about how they state their case going forward. Just 39 percent have “a lot of trust” in information received from climate scientists, according to a Pew Research poll released this week. Only 28 percent say they believe climate scientists understand the causes of global warming, and 19 percent say climate scientists know what should be done to address it.

One thought that comes to mind: If there really were a worldwide climate apocalypse, would not more people be experiencing it? The current situation looks more like: Poor and vulnerable people are suffering from local climate changes they lack the resources to cope with.

The big picture is murkier and more complex. It is worth remembering that much of the Netherlands is below sea level and held in place by dykes. But then the Dutch have engineers…

In any event, apocalypse (a-crock-a-lypse?) marketers do not even need to be consistent:

The Union of Concerned Scientists curiously seeks to enforce what it sees as the consensus view on climate but refuses to acknowledge the solid consensus view that genetically modified organisms are safe. It says genetically engineered crops “have the potential to cause a variety of health problems and environmental impacts.”

Its brethren in the scientific community can’t even pretend to go along with this. One called UCS’ stance “at best wildly misleading and at worst an all-out fabrication.” Another wrote: “It would be nice if a leading, highly trusted scientific group held itself to the same evidence-based standards it holds others, but that is not the case.” More.

It’s not so hard to understand. The only way that Chicken Little can keep his game going, in the end, is by creating real fear instead of fake fear: Fear, for example, of career ruin, reputation loss, fines, and imprisonment. And, historically, that is how he has done it.

Incidentally, Union of Concerned Scientists got started during the Viet Nam war, which could be the reason their rallying cry seems to be A-crock-a-lypse Now!

See also: A scientist shares his cyberbullying story: The anonymity that the internet offers can free academic scientists of the restraints that would typically govern their public behaviour. So trolling becomes the new peer review.

And Bill Nye think cientits who doubt human-caused global warming should be jailed. Sure, like Galileo.

It might surprise people who get their science history from Joe Bullroar and Bimbette Fluffarelli of Airhead TV, it was not at all clear centuries ago that Galileo and Copernicus were correct about the basic structure of the solar system. Many respected astronomers thought them obviously wrong for evidence-based reasons. It took decades to be sure who was right.

A scientist shares his cyberbullying story

Alex Berezow

From Alex Berezow at American Council for Science and Health:

I first learned about GMOs as a sophomore microbiology major in college. (They weren’t called GMOs then; they were simply referred to as “transgenic crops.”) I remember feeling exhilarated — the sort of thrill that only accountants or geeky academics can usually understand — at how basic knowledge of DNA sequences was leading to a huge technological revolution. The opportunities were limitless.

Years later I entered journalism. And I saw breathtaking ignorance and vitriol aimed at scientists like me coming from supposedly educated people. Never in a million years would I have anticipated that our passion for science would be used as a bludgeon or as a scarlet letter.

That is the milieu in which we find the current GMO “debate,” which in actuality has devolved into a vicious, relentless assault by organic food activists against the biotechnology community. It doesn’t matter if you are a professor, industry scientist, journalist, or private citizen; if you support biotechnology, anti-GMO activists will harass you using their keyboards as weapons of mass defamation.

Their goal is straightforward: Biotech scientists must be destroyed professionally. Failing that, they must be destroyed emotionally.

There’s actually a word for this. It’s called cyberbullying. More.

<em>Coffee</em> Tins

Indeed. One way of seeing the matter is that the internet empowers almost everybody, including trolls, windbags, fiends, and cranks. The only group it does not empower is traditional gatekeepers of information, which is why traditional big media are slowly going out of business.

The anonymity that the internet offers can free academic scientists of the restraints that would typically govern their public behaviour. So trolling becomes the new peer review. One must just cope.

Patchy Ausstechformen

But there is a bright side: At least we know that that’s the type of person the guy really is, which may help us in the long run.

See also: How to deal with cyberbullying: Coping with the shamestorms of social media. First, grow an alligator hide.

Yik Yak: Digital dorm room or cyberbullying? Words on social media are stripped of voice and context.

Yes, we need to crack down on cyberbullying But victims must help! Stop being victims!

It used to be only celebs and politicians could just trash people on line
Not now.

Public shaming on the internet: Good? Bad? Think before we retweet? There is strength in numbers for good or ill.

Follow UD News at Twitter!

Science pollution: The epidemic of positive results

Patrick J. Michaels of the Cato Institute asks at Investors Business Daily: “Is modern science polluted?”

What constitutes “bad science”? It’s the epidemic of positive results, in which a researcher reports that the data support his or her prior hypothesis. Stanford’s Daniele Fanelli has shown a distressing increase of positive results in recent decades, something that can’t be true in the real world. Think about it — we are not suddenly becoming more intelligent and getting everything right. What’s happening is that scientists are responding to incentives.

Usually, hypotheses are put forward in some grant proposal. Financial backers don’t like negative findings, because negative findings don’t support the work that they’ve funded. Supervisors lose face and researchers can lose their funding.

There’s an additional wrinkle on this that neither the authors nor anyone else has discussed. What happens when the government massively funds something that really isn’t science?

By “science” I mean “hypotheses that can be subjected to stringent tests.” The philosopher of science Karl Popper said science that couldn’t be tested is really just “pseudoscience.” Popper criticized philosophies claiming the scientific mantle that are used to explain pretty much everything.

His favorites were psychoanalysis and Marxism. If he were alive today he would see parallels when prominent climatologists explain pretty much every and any weather anomaly — a big rainstorm, a big drought, lack of snow, or a big blizzard — as “consistent with” the effects of global warming. It’s a good bet that climate science, which is primarily the generation of unverifiable prospective models (after all, the future isn’t here yet) would have made Popper’s list. More.

And one symptom is the current wars on falsifiability and objectivity.

But how can the system change? The best hope just now might be the new, innovative journals like PeerJ, who offer alternative methods for peer review, for example. Crashed costs, via the internet, will surely help.

See also: First China, now Iran, for science fraud Of course, the Iranian problem is slightly different from the one we discussed with China because the papers bought in Iran may be better than the ones the students would have written. It’s the students that are fakes, not necessarily the data.