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Science & Technology

Thoughts on science, technology, energy, and policy intersecting these spheres.

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.

Free Pills in your Water

Let's talk water. But first, if you are the sort of person that freaks out at the thought of being a science experiment, you probably should not read further. On the other hand, if you take a more relaxed approach to life and recognize the thousands of small threats surrounding us, continue.

Tap water has a ton of pollutants -- or perhaps contaminants is the better word -- in it. Government policies, generally from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), have greatly cleaned up water supplies. The problem is that we are constantly creating new problems -- by introducing everything from tons of pharmaceuticals to agricultural weedkillers into our water supply.

A study from the Environmental Working Group shows that the EPA is not keeping up. No surprise there - we just went through 8 years of an administration that figured we don't have to regulate the environment because the magical market fairy would do it (apparently Republican economists have totally missed the who "externality" revolution in their field).

In an analysis of more than 22 million tap water quality tests, most of which were required under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, EWG found that water suppliers across the U.S. detected 260 contaminants in water served to the public. One hundred forty-one (141) of these detected chemicals — more than half — are unregulated; public health officials have not set safety standards for these chemicals, even though millions drink them every day.

EWG's analysis also found over 90 percent compliance with enforceable health standards on the part of the nation's water utilities, showing a clear commitment to comply with safety standards once they are developed. The problem, however, is EPA's failure to establish enforceable health standards and monitoring requirements for scores of widespread tap water contaminants. Of the 260 contaminants detected in tap water from 42 states, for only 114 has EPA set enforceable health limits (called Maximum Contaminant Levels, or MCLs), and for 5 others the Agency has set non-enforceable goals called secondary standards. (EPA 2005a). The 141 remaining chemicals without health-based limits contaminate water served to 195,257,000 people in 22,614 communities in 42 states.

Until the government catches up and sets standards for the other contaminents, what can you do? The Atlantic's "Pipe Dreams" answered that question... sorta. Let's start with this: don't turn to bottled water! Bottled water is often no different, but comes with all the problems of trucking heavy plastic bottles (water is actually kinda heavy) across the country so you can over pay by a factor of 100 compared to your friendly muni water supply.

Water filters - from the Brita in my fridge to the reverse osmosis contraption at my parents' house, miss some of the pharmaceuticals. Sadly, the solution appears to be, don't dwell on which pharmaceuticals you are ingesting with your water, hope they are in such small doses that they are harmless, or perhaps even that you will get superhero powers from them. Maybe it will give you a big enough brain to comprehend why Americans have to take so many damn pills.

Apparently, there is a solution - distillation. But that sounds more complex than anything I want to get involved with.

Space is Cool

Data Recovery Made Easier

A few years ago, when a previous laptop had problems, I used a linux boot cd for the first time to recover data before wiping the laptop and restoring it to factory condition.

Just did it again for a friend. Now, it is much easier thanks to Ubuntu. Bookmark this tutorial on using an Ubuntu boot CD to start a recalcitrant computer and save your data!

Wall Street Formula

Wired ran a math story about Wall Street - exposing the equation that killed the economy. For a complex subject, it was quite accessible - the discussion about risk alone makes it worth a read.

Bond investors also invest in pools of hundreds or even thousands of mortgages. The potential sums involved are staggering: Americans now owe more than $11 trillion on their homes. But mortgage pools are messier than most bonds. There's no guaranteed interest rate, since the amount of money homeowners collectively pay back every month is a function of how many have refinanced and how many have defaulted. There's certainly no fixed maturity date: Money shows up in irregular chunks as people pay down their mortgages at unpredictable times—for instance, when they decide to sell their house. And most problematic, there's no easy way to assign a single probability to the chance of default.

Seeing is Believing after Hundreds of Years

Jerry A. Coyne, author of Why Evolution is True (a book on my wish list), wrote a stunning review of two books relating to evolution and the struggle Christians have in coming to terms with it. The February 4, 2009, The New Republic ran "Seeing and Believing: The never-ending attempt to reconcile science and religion, and why it is doomed to fail."

I think this article is a must read for just about anyone. Those who think there is any doubt regarding the truth of evolution should take the 10-15 minutes this article will take to read. Those who have accepted it as fact should also check it out because it is a really good examination of why many religious people have not been able to accept it.

That said, I think the premise of the review is 100% wrong. More on that toward the end of my review of the review...

First, I don't want to spend a lot of time on this point, but it is why I have recommended the Evolution on Trial documentary and why I look forward to reading Why Evolution is True. The point is that there is no doubt, life on Earth evolves and humans come from a common ancestor with much of that life.

Delving quickly into so-called Intelligent Design thought, the biggest "duh" moment of the review is the obviousness of how Intelligent Design both fails and requires the more controversial creationism to hold together.

One of Miller's keenest insights is that ID involves not just design but also supernatural creation. After all, the designer has to do more than just envision new creatures; he must also place them on Earth. And if that is not creationism (a label that IDers loudly reject), I do not know what is.

Nonetheless, these (un)Intelligent Design people try to dispute evolution by claiming there are gaps and that some parts of cells are too complex to have evolved. Hogwash. Scientists have explained how the complex functions evolved.

In a devastating dismantling of ID, he [Miller in Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul] takes the "scientific" claims of ID seriously and follows them to their illogical conclusion. In clear and lively prose, Miller shows that complex biochemical pathways are cobbled together from primitive precursor proteins that once had other functions but were co-opted for new uses.

Further, the fact that we humans eat and breathe through the same hole in our head is evidence for either incredibly stupid design (choke on anything lately?) or a single digestive pipe in sea creatures that evolved into a dual purpose to allow us to live on land.

But there are gaps that defy our understanding this year. Does that mean that we are incapable of discovering a materialistic (meaning non-magical) explanation? This is the logical extension of what so many religions seem to argue.

the view that if we do not yet comprehend a phenomenon completely, we must throw up our hands, stop our research, and praise the Lord. For scientists, that is a prescription for the end of science, for perpetual ignorance.

But the larger point of the review is that science and religion are incompatible. Which I dispute.

I will agree that science and religion serve different purposes.

We do not have "faith" in Darwinism in the same way that others have faith in God, nor do we see Darwin as an unimpeachable authority like Pope Benedict XVI or the Ayatollah Khamenei. Indeed, since 1859 a fair number of Darwin's ideas have been disproven. Like all sciences, evolution differs from religion because it constantly tests its assumptions, and discards the ones that prove false.

Further, though there is mutual antagonism from some quarters against the other, scientists are considerably less likely to blindly follow their beliefs. Though Michelle did not enjoy this part as much, I loved the section where Coyne examines the ways in which scientists could be provided with evidence of divine intervention in our lives:

There are so many phenomena that would raise the specter of God or other supernatural forces: faith healers could restore lost vision, the cancers of only good people could go into remission, the dead could return to life...

But these phenomena do not manifest themselves. On the flip side, scientists and atheists sometimes argue that if religions would just stop believing in things like resurrection or a God that answers prayers (I was going to also suggest virgin birth, but we do know of several species that can do this now) then they would not be incompatible with science.

One can believe that God created immutable laws of physics and does not intervene and there is nothing science can say about that. Coyne rightly points out that this is not compatible with most religions because they make empirical claims about the world - many of which have been disproved (history of the Earth, for instance). To say that religion is compatible with science if it just stops making such claims is disengenuous. Therefore, religion is not compatible with science (though science is compatible with some religions).

But.......this is where I disagree and go all "liberal arts" on Coyne.

No one takes a truly literal reading of the Bible. Some are more literal than others, believing in Noah's Ark or that we should literally stone adulterers to death (though we are all fortunate they are fewer in number than those who merely use the Bible to justify their annoyance at the "gay lifestyle"). Throughout history, the commmon understanding of what is allegorical and what is literal has changed (resulting in frequent disagreement among the myriad groups who use "The" Holy Bible as their defining text).

Some things have been conveniently glossed over - such as passages justifying slavery or infanticide. At one point, the church absolutely refused to believe that the Earth was not the center of the universe or that the Earth revolved around the sun. If this heresy could be seamlessly integrated into the Bible, which continued to put us at the center of "His" domain, then evolution and future scientific discoveries may yet be integrated into religion without a fundamental change in faith.

There are other aspects of religious belief that may incorporate evolution. God's image - maybe we are all made in God's image: Single backbone for most species, symmetry in nearly all life, there are many unifying characteristics of life that should allow those who want to believe we are made in God's image to keep believing it. That humans are solely made in God's image will likely have to be left with the center of the universe beliefs as a historical relic.

Regarding a personal God that is involved in our lives, this is nothing that science could ever prove or disprove so long as people are willing to believe that there is some larger plan that we are not meant to grasp. This is fundamentally an idea that science could never prove or disprove because science does not deal with something that is explicitly not understandable.

Maybe it is just "new" science is incompatible with religion. If you give religion a few hundred years (clearly 150 is not enough...) it will mostly stop disputing well settled scientific facts. This is why few currently preach that the sun revolves around us or that lightning bolts are hurled by a vengeful (and slutty) God. And why most Christians today look on in horror at those who refuse to give modern medicine to their children, preferring instead to pray for health.

There is always hope (perhaps faith?) that we can stop wasting time arguing about things that we can know (evolution, climate change) and get on to the debates over what to do about them (where science is somewhat less helpful - and yes, I'm talking about climate change as I don't think anyone is seriously arguing we should put our efforts into using evolution to spur an X-men race of witty people).

Dawkins in Oklahoma

(The Scientist, not the Safety) - thanks to daddYman for alerting me to this video.

No Fool Zone

It has been too long since I put up some quotes.

Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.

Richard Feynman - From lecture "What is and What Should be the Role of Scientific Culture in Modern Society", given at the Galileo Symposium in Italy, 1964 - Source.

I think this really applies to how we have to live in this post-fact society.

Mercury in High Fructose Corn Syrup

Mercury is one of the those substances which is dangerous in any amount. And it collects. It isn't like Vitamin C, which has practically no residence time in the body (you need more vitamin C every day). Mercury hangs out. And if something eats you, it gets your mercury.

Knowing this, one would think that common foods and drinks would not have even trace amounts of mercury in them. This is why we have a Food and Drug Administration, right? This is why generally trust the food we buy at the supermarket - because someone, somewhere is making sure the stuff we can buy in the supermarket isn't poisoning us (assuming we use it responsibly - remember, there is no responsible amount of mercury in your daily diet).

So it with some surprise that high fructose corn syrup sometimes has mercury in it. Whoops. As if there were not enough problems with high fructose corn syrup, now we find that manufacturers sweeten it with poison.

Hat tip to moldy blue cheese curds.

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