seeking knowledge and laughter, putting a bullseye on inaccuracy


Science and Technology

From 1990, by Carl Sagan...

We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology. This is a clear prescription for disaster. It’s dangerous and stupid for us to remain ignorant about global warming, say, or ozone depletion, toxic and radioactive wastes, acid rain. Jobs and wages depend on science and technology

26 years of stupidly ignoring the science of global warming. But the larger point of being science illiterate is well illustrated by this passage:

As we settled into the car for the long drive, he told me he was glad I was “that science guy”—he had so many questions to ask about science. Would I mind? And so we got to talking. But not about science. He wanted to discuss UFOs, “channeling” (a way to hear what’s on the minds of dead people—not much it turns out), crystals, astrology. . . . He introduced each subject with real enthusiasm, and each time I had to disappoint him: “The evidence is crummy,” I kept saying. “There’s a much simpler explanation.” As we drove on through the rain, I could see him getting glummer. I was attacking not just pseudoscience but also a facet of his inner life.

And yet there is so much in real science that’s equally exciting, more mysterious, a greater intellectual challenge—as well as being a lot closer to the truth. Did he know about the molecular building blocks of life sitting out there in the cold, tenuous gas between the stars? Had he heard of the footprints of our ancestors found in four-million-year-old volcanic ash? What about the raising of the Himalayas when India went crashing into Asia? Or how viruses subvert cells, or the radio search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or the ancient civilization of Ebla?

The original is here.

Addiction as Moral Failure

I almost always enjoy reading Evgeny Morozov's articles - even when I don't agree, I generally admire his capacity for thought and acerbic wit. In this case, an article reacting to "mindfulness," he makes a point I have been slowly arriving at - understanding addiction in the modern economy.

Some view it as an illness and many as a moral failure but I continue to think of it as a battle where we are each increasingly outgunned. Take addiction to unhealthy foods, for instance. Those manufacturing the foods have spent billions of dollars, likely hundreds of billions or more, to arrive at just the right combination of fats, carbs, salts, etc. to capture our brain and make it want more more more.

Our brains are not magical - they are hackable. They are very slow to evolve whereas food science progresses incredibly rapidly, leaving us with the incredibly challenging choice of how to deal with temptation.

But more science suggests that we have a limited amount of will power - though we can focus and improve it. But even at best, we find ourselves with worse and worse odds when being surrounded by gadgets, foods, flashing signs, whatever - all calibrated to elicit specific responses from our brains that we are increasingly ill-equipped to deal with.

Enter Morozov's quote:

We must subject social media to the kind of scrutiny that has been applied to the design of gambling machines in Las Vegas casinos. As Natasha Dow Schüll shows in her excellent book Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, while casino operators want us to think that addiction is the result of our moral failings or some biological imbalance, they themselves are to blame for designing gambling machines in a way that feeds addiction. With social media—much like with gambling machines or fast food—our addiction is manufactured, not natural.

At some point, we have to collectively find a way of dealing with how brain science puts us, as individuals, at a disadvantage relative to those who are pulling the strings and attempting to manipulate us. We do have some agency but few individuals will be able to hold out as further uncover the mysterires of how our brain works.

Now excuse me while I eat another 2 pounds of sour patch kids.

More Unscience of Medicine

Found a couple more stories relating to how screwed up our medical system is -- specifically how it is profoundly unscientific due to pressures to be profitable.

As I have recently noted, modern medicine has serious shortcomings in the scientific method department. Another article in The Atlantic reminds us that many of the peer reviewed studies published aren't even written by the authors but are instead ghost written by third parties.

The mechanics of the ghostwriter’s job are fairly simple, David says. Early on, a medical-communications agency and its pharmaceutical-company sponsors will agree on a title for an article and a potential author, usually an academic physician with a reputation as a “thought leader.” The agency will ask the thought leader to “author” the article, sometimes in exchange for a fee. The ghostwriter will write the article, or perhaps an extended outline containing the message the company wants to transmit, and send it along to the physician, who may make some changes or simply sign it as written and submit it to a journal, usually scrubbed of any mention of the ghostwriter, the agency, or the pharmaceutical company. David says he rarely even sees the published articles he writes.

And Newseek covered Dr. Ioannidis, who I wrote about last week.

Medical "Science"

The November, 2010, issue of The Atlantic has a stunning article about the damning ineffectiveness of medical studies. Damning.

I recently noted an article revealing shoddy studies at the University of Minnesota, a school for which I have very high regard. In the field of medicine, it seems that the profit-motive has gone toe-to-toe with the Hippocratic Oath... the Oath may not be knocked out, but medical studies are gamed by the companies pushing drugs and submitted to privatized, rubber stamp Institutional Review Boards before being published in peer-reviewed journals. The whole enterprise is shameful.

As profiled by The Atlantic, Dr. John Ioannidis is revealing just how screwed up the system is and how it leads to a crapshoot for Doctors who cannot know the best course of action for their patients.

He’s what’s known as a meta-researcher, and he’s become one of the world’s foremost experts on the credibility of medical research. He and his team have shown, again and again, and in many different ways, that much of what biomedical researchers conclude in published studies—conclusions that doctors keep in mind when they prescribe antibiotics or blood-pressure medication, or when they advise us to consume more fiber or less meat, or when they recommend surgery for heart disease or back pain—is misleading, exaggerated, and often flat-out wrong. He charges that as much as 90 percent of the published medical information that doctors rely on is flawed. His work has been widely accepted by the medical community; it has been published in the field’s top journals, where it is heavily cited; and he is a big draw at conferences. Given this exposure, and the fact that his work broadly targets everyone else’s work in medicine, as well as everything that physicians do and all the health advice we get, Ioannidis may be one of the most influential scientists alive. Yet for all his influence, he worries that the field of medical research is so pervasively flawed, and so riddled with conflicts of interest, that it might be chronically resistant to change—or even to publicly admitting that there’s a problem.

Read the full article - I cannot do it justice.

What I think about is conversations in Public Policy grad school, when we discussed how to structure the necessary trials for new medicines. Should it be controlled by the companies who stand to gain from approving the treatments? The knee-jerk reaction is absolutely not, for obvious reasons. But the main alternative would be for tax dollars to pay for these studies -- amounting to a massive taxpayer subsidy for costs that should be incurred by those developing the drugs. Perhaps a solution where the drug studies are funded by those who stand to profit from the medicine but designed and controlled by independent labs.

I'm not enough of an expert to know the best structure for solving this problem, but the pendulum has clearly swung far too far in favor of the private sector companies producing these treatments. Washington DC's obsession with the private sector solving every problem, no matter how poorly suited to markets to solve, has clearly set back medical science.

Science Done Poorly

Those of us who regularly defend science and get pissed at those who don't understand science should beware the pitfalls of _bad_ science. As in, when big pharma is perverting science in the holier name of profits. Mother Jones has an article that hits close to home -- the University of Minnesota's dark side.

Update: I encourage readers to also see my medical "science." post.

Scientific Stupidity

This story illustrates the disconnect Americans have with science and public policy.

From NPR: Dishes Still Dirty? Blame Phosphate-Free Detergent.

In a nutshell, dishwasher detergent can no longer uses phosphates, the magical ingredient that makes dishwashers so effective, even with very soiled plates.

Seventeen states banned phosphates from dishwasher detergents because the chemical compounds also pollute lakes, bays and streams. They create algae blooms and starve fish of oxygen.

Enter some Texas lady:

But dirty and damaged dishes are turning many people into skeptics, including Wright.

"I'm angry at the people who decided that phosphate was growing algae. I'm not sure that I believe that," Wright adds.

She's not sure she believes that??? What the fuck does she know about phosphates in waterways? Almost nothing, I'll bet.

What she does know is that she has to rinse dishes before putting them in her friggin dishwasher and some pots have to be washed by hand. She knows that this is just about the greatest inconvenience she'll encounter in her life, and therefore phosphates could NOT POSSIBLY cause algae blooms. I would have paid money to see a quick follow up question posed to her: "Sure, you doubt the science... one question: What is an algae bloom?"

Listen people, the science is what it is. Phosphates are fucking up our waterways. Dumping megatons of carbon into the atmosphere is changing the climate in ways unprecedented in human history. If you are too fucking content with your lifestyle to be bothered making changes that will allow future generations to do things like fish or live along present-day coastline, then that is your problem, not a problem with the science!

Sports Illustrated, Genetics, and Evolution

A few weeks ago, Sports Illustrated ran a fascinating cover story about evolution, genetics, doping, and sports. I think the insights into human evolution will be interesting even to those who are generally uninspired by sports.

It notes that all human are fundamentally built to be distance runners... and they mean distance! In fact, there is an argument that running was fundamental to our human development.

Even our large brains developed because we ran, growing only once our endurance enabled us to gorge on animal fat and protein. We are who we are—the only sweating, largely hairless bipedal mammals—because we ran. As Lieberman puts it, "Endurance running is hardwired into our anatomy and physiology."

The article goes into a great discussion of investigations into why the Kenyan runners have succeeded so well at long distances ... and it seems far more behavioral than genetic.

The discussion turns to brain injuries and what we can predict based on genetic markers and predisposition to slow healing from brain trauma:

The more ApoE has been studied, though, the more it has been associated not only with Alzheimer's but also with the ability of the brain to heal from all manner of trauma. People with ApoE4 variants who hit their heads in car accidents, for example, are more likely to have permanent damage or to die than those who have other variants. And a series of small studies suggests that athletes with ApoE4 variants who get hit in the head are more likely to recover slowly and to suffer greater dementia later in life. It is not entirely clear how ApoE affects brain recovery, but the gene is involved in the inflammatory response of the brain after injury, and people with the ApoE4 variant appear to take longer to clear their brains of a particular protein called amyloid, which floods in following head trauma.

I highly recommend the whole article, but I also wanted to note that our intelligence evolved because of our ability to maintain a high-fat and high-protein diet... from our ability to hunt animals. Those who argue that eating meat is inherently unnatural are wrong. Not only is it tasty - it was essential to our human development. Now, I do agree with those that argue much of our modern meat industrial complex is unhealthy, but that is different from arguing we should simply avoid meat because eating other animals is somehow wrong.

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