The Physics Police

The Physics Police

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Not So Habitable Early Universe

Abraham Loeb published a preprint titled The Habitable Epoch of the Early Universe.

He argues that early-forming stars could have cooked enough heavy elements rocky planets to form by 15 million years after the big bang. Ambient cosmic temperature would allow for liquid water on the surface of these planets. He claims that life could arise on such planets!

I'm skeptical of his model showing star formation this early, but let's grant that some few such early rocky worlds could have existed.

It turns out this "habitable epoch" is still far too short for the evolution of life to occur.

His Goldilocks epoch of 100 < (1 + z) < 110 corresponds to a time t after the big bang where:


That only leaves 2.317 million years for life to form in liquid water. Nowhere near enough time.

Even if we grant that single-celled life could miraculously evolve this quickly, and important precursor of life simply isn't present. Life needs an ordered source of energy to run its metabolic processes. The Sun or geothermal vents, for example.

This planet would not have a slow-burning sun by definition, because it lies in an active star-forming region. It would also lack geology because, again by definition, it's heated by the cosmic background.

Putting aside those problems, the paper draws an incorrect conclusion about the anthropic principle.
The possibility that the chemistry of life could have started in our universe only 15 Myr after the Big Bang argues against the anthropic explanation for the value of the cosmological constant.
Assume we have some "fossil" of life from 15 million years after the Big Bang. How does this argue against the fine tuning of lambda being explained by selection bias (the anthropic explanation)?

It may have been far from zero for these fossil creatures, but it's still close to zero for us.

No new mechanism for our value of lambda is being offered by these or any short-lived fossils.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Scaring Women for Profit

Laura Kiesel is a freelance journalist who recently wrote an article for Salon called Toxic tampons: How ordinary feminine care products could be hurting women. She argues that "dangerous chemicals" inside tampons and pads are being ignored. She's focuses mostly on dioxins.
... products such as maxi pads, tampons and douches ... contain potentially harmful ingredients including ... dioxin, which has been identified by the World Health Organization as a Persistent Organic Pollutant, a toxic chemical that persists in environments for long periods of time.
This information comes from a document titled Chem Fatale compiled by Alexandra Scranton of Women's Voices for the Earth. This document, too, focuses on dioxins but lists several preservatives and other ingredients found in feminine hygiene products that are allegedly bad for you.

I suspect the emphasis on "dioxins" has something to do with the way that word sounds. Even if you don't know what dioxins are, you must know they're dangerous! After all, it rhymes with "toxins". Of course they are actually toxins, as Kiesel and Scranton so forcibly point out.

But the question is, are they found in tampons, and at what concentration? Chem Fatale cites a 2002 study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives titled Exposure assessment to dioxins from the use of tampons and diapers.

This study detected very, very small traces of dioxins in both cotton and pulp products.
The refined exposure analysis indicates that exposures to dioxins from tampons are approximately 13,000-240,000 times less than dietary exposures.
It would be astounding if no dioxins could be detected, because these chlorine-containing organic molecules are easily detected in extremely small quantities. For better or for worse, dioxins exist wherever life is found, which is to say the entire surface of the Earth. If you want to live absolutely free of any dioxins, go find a planet without life, or better yet, a universe without chlorine.

Despite the inconsequentially low concentration of dioxins found in tampons, Scranton argues that there is still cause for concern.
However, the study authors did not account for the unique and highly permeable tissues of the vagina, and how that vaginal exposure may be different or even more potent than the dietary route of exposure.
If Scranton had actually read the study, she would have learned that dioxin exposure was calculated using the partition coefficient of dioxins in the tampon. That is, how much of the dioxins can leak out and be absorbed into the body. The study assumed 100% intake of bioavailable dioxins! It made no assumption whatsoever about the permeability of anyone's privates.

Not only is the concentration of dioxins in tampons low compared to dietary sources, but the bioavailability is low, too. Remember that mucous membranes in the gut are highly permeable in order to absorb nutrients! Bioavailability of nutrients and dioxins alike are increased by chewing, saliva, stomach acids, the mechanical churning of the gut, etc.

The study's methods are actually quite sound, and its conclusion is clear. Tampons are safe.
Our analysis indicates that the use of either tampons ... does not contribute significantly to dioxin exposures in the United States.
So, if tampons don't contribute significantly to dioxin exposure, then why make a fuss about it? Such unscientific fear mongering seems designed only to scare women. Now why would a group called the Women's Voices for the Earth (WVE) want to scare women?

Well, you can download their Non-Toxic Shopping Guide, which has 17 pages of reasons, from Archipelago Soy Wax candles to Zulu Lux Gluten-Free lipstick.

Laura Kiesel is correct when she says that WVE are "taking aim at the $3-billion-a-year feminine care industry". But their "aim" isn't to inform or improve women's health.

It's to get in on the profit.

This story is being picked up by websites like Reader Supported News. I find it especially ironic when this crowd, which usually remembers to "follow the money", is so quick to believe lies told to them by this small business.

For-profit lies aren't at all monopolized by big business and the political Right.




Laura Kiesel was kind enough to respond to my email, and put forth a defense of her article.

She argued that the 2002 study is:
... over a decade old. In the world of science, a decade is ancient history. This is why I searched for more recent studies and referred to the EPA report from just last year that concluded that dioxins could have serious health effects at even ultra-low levels of exposure--which you conveniently left out of the recap in your blogpost, probably because it would have completely undermined your stance
As it happens, I left this calculation out for brevity, not because it undermines my anything.

The quote about "ultra-low levels" actually comes from an Environmental Health News article by Marla Cone which, like the link in her article, refers to the 2012 EPA document Reanalysis of Key Issues Related to Dioxin Toxicity.

This document concludes (on page 44) that the No Observed Adverse Effect Level (NOAEL) is greater than 0.32 ng/kg-day. Those are your ultra-low levels, right there.
 
The 2002 study may be old, but it's the only shred of evidence Kiesel or WVE have cited, so I will continue to address its implications. The tampon brand with the highest concentration of dioxins was sample D from Table 4 on page 26 with 0.247 pg/g dioxin and weight 4.04 g.

Assuming 100% absorption by a 60 kg female, the dose from one tampon per day would be:

(4.04 g) * (0.247 pg/g) / (60 kg-day) = 0.00001663 ng/kg-day

That's about 20,000 times smaller than the NOAEL from the 2012 EPA document.

Nothing to be afraid of.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Solar Power the World

Renewable energy is great. Producing more of the world's energy from renewable sources is crucial to reducing carbon emissions. In the long run, as fossil fuel prices rise, investments made in renewable energy will pay off.

Solar power is a promising renewable energy source. The last decade has seen a lot of investment in solar power. It has even been encouraged by government refunds here in the US. This has been especially effective, because it lessens the prohibitive up-front cost.

There's this popular info-graphic depicting the surface area required to power the wold with solar.


The first problem I'd point out is that the image is an equirectangular projection, which means it skews the relative area of different points. That's quite the wrong choice of map projection!

Second, this comical depiction ignores the problem of transmission. By concentrating the solar power generation far from population centers, loss during transmission would be staggering. Also, why not piggyback on the existing power grid infrastructure?

Pedantry aside, as I mentioned above, the challenge facing solar clearly isn't limited surface area, but up-front cost.

I gathered some statistics and did a little linear interpolation in order to hazard a guess at the price of photovoltaic solar panels per square foot in 2030, as indicated in green on this info-graphic.

((2030 - 2009) * ($2.90 - $1.94) / (1990 - 2009)) + $1.94 = $0.88

Then I calculated the cost in today's dollars to place an order for enough solar panels to power the world in 2030.

($0.88 ft-2) * (496805 km2) = $4.71 trillion

That sounds like a lot, but it's only a quarter of the projected GDP of China by that date.

Another important challenge to solar powering the world would be what to do about night time. Maybe we can all get electric cars. They could store power by day, and releasing some back into the grid at night.

This would, however, depends on significant improvements made in electric battery and/or fuel cell technology. While I think these are hugely worthy research goals, I can't help but think of the energy storage biology has already invented.

The cost to produce a calorie of heat from ethanol is about 1.01 calories of input in the form of farming, transportation, processing, etc. If those inputs could be supplied by photovoltaic power during the day, they would drain half of produced electricity, but provide a supply of ethanol to be burnt, carbon neutral, during nighttime.

This is also too good to be true, because you'd finally run into that surface area problem. There may be plenty of land available for photovoltaic, but presumably not enough land to grow crops enough to produce all that ethanol.

I guess we'll have to keep our fingers crossed for that energy storage breakthrough.

Actually, I've heard of one clever idea called solar thermal, where mirrors reflect sunlight to heat a giant tank of water, which is large enough to stay hot and provide some power throughout the night.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Maillard Overreaction

The Millard Reaction is a chemical reaction between amino acids and sugar. It's responsible for the "golden brown and delicious" quality of baked foods Alton Brown so admires. It creates a wonderful panoply of chemicals, many of which are very good eats. Some less so, as evidenced by the acrid taste of charred meat.

One of these molecules, called 4-Methylimidazole (4-MeI), was studied in 2007 by the National Toxicity Program. In this study, rats and mice were exposed to very high doses in their food.
There was clear evidence of carcinogenic activity of 4-methylimidazole in male and female B6C3F1 mice based on increased incidences of alveolar/bronchiolar neoplasms.
These results were only seen for mice in the highest dosage groups, 625 μg/g and above.

In 2011, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) set the "No Significant Risk Level" (NSRL) of 4-MeI 29 μg per day. In accordance with Proposition 65, a big scary cancer warning must be printed on consumables that exceed the NSRL.

This posed a problem for Coke and Pepsi, which both use caramel color. These sodas contains more than the NSRL level of 4-MeI per bottle. Both companies had to change their ingredients or risk having a cancer warning slapped on the label.

It isn't clear to me how OEHHA arrived at this ridiculously conservative NSRL for 4-MeI. Thanks to Dr. James Coughlan via Chris Hamble for this calculation demonstrating its absurdity:
... the amount of 12-ounce cans a woman would have to drink, a day, for the rest of her life, in order to get to the carcinogenic levels of 4-Mel would top 37,000 cans. And for men, a whopping 95,000 cans.
That's an extrapolation based on the National Toxicity Program study, accounting for concentration and body weight. A 12-ounce can of soda is 335 grams. If that can contains 29 μg of 4-MeI, than the NSRL concentration for a beverage is 0.0866 μg/g. That's 86.6 parts per billion, if you like.

In reality, the FDA, European Food Safety Authority, and Health Canada all consider caramel color safe. This is because the dose of 4-MeI you get from the food additive equivocal to that you ingest from roasted foods, baked goods, grilled meats, etc.

It's even in coffee! Lojková et al. looked for 4-MeI in several off-the-shelf coffee products.

4-MeI ranged from 0.35 to 0.77 μg/g in roasted coffee from around the world.

That's between 4.04 and 9.98 times the NSRL concentration! So, does that mean...?

Yes, coffee is toxic sludge.

Anyway, Coke and Pepsi are both transitioning to a new, low 4-MeI formulation of caramel coloring.

In July, a watchdog group called the Center for Environmental Health conducted tests on Pepsi and Coke from all over the country. They found bottles sold outside California still contained traditional caramel color. These results were published July 3rd, accompanied by an hysterical press release and online petition demanding that Pepsi "clean up" the ingredients ahead of schedule.

The Associated Press ran a story based on this press release, which was quickly picked up by junk news outlets. I call them junk because they distort their readers impression of a story with misleading headlines. One such headline reads US group finds ‘worrying’ carcinogen levels in Pepsi. Nobody ever said the word "worrying" except the anonymous poster of this story. Nevertheless, this misleading headline appears on 1,720 web pages!

Junk syndication like this is how several people I know get their news. If you ask me, this does far more damage than drinking a goddamn Pepsi.

If you take away one lesson from all this, let it be a healthy distrust of headlines, especially from junk news outlets. They're incessantly deceptive.

And as always, be wary of black and white health claims made in absence of dosage. Some things give rats cancer in high doses. That doesn't mean they will necessarily harm humans in low doses.

We can be glad OEHHA is doing its best to protect our health without believing alarmist nonsense.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Baking with Splenda

Splenda is the trade name for sucralose, an artificial sweetener. There are people out there who make a living by creating a fear-driven market for "chemical free" foods, include sugar substitutes like Stevia extract, Agave nectar, etc.

Sayer Ji is one such snake-oil salesman. His latest post is Sucralose's (Splenda) Harms Vastly Underestimated: Baking Releases Dioxin. He claims that a newly published study:
... reveals an extensive array of hitherto underreported safety concerns, not the least of which is the formation of highly toxic chlorinated compounds, including dioxins, when Splenda is used in baking...
The study in question is Sucralose, a synthetic organochlorine sweetener: overview of biological issues by Susan Schiffman, author of several Nutri/System Flavor books. It's safe to say she has a horse in the game, which explains the extreme lengths this critical review goes to expose any potentially harmful effects of sucralose. She describes potential byproducts from cooking with sucralose including "dioxin-like polychlorinated biphenyls" (dl-PCBs).

Her source for this claim is Unintentionally produced dioxin-like polychlorinated biphenyls during cooking by Shujun Dong which examined the byproducts from cooking with and without sucralose.

B1 is beef plus soybean oil. BS4 is B1 plus added Sucralose. BP5 is B1 plus 1,3-DCP.
The results clearly show that overall, the same (or fewer!) dl-PCBs were produced with the addition of sucralose, whereas a different organochlorine molecule (1,3-DCP) did cause higher dl-PCBs.

This demonstrates that knowing a molecule is an organochlorine does not imply it will necessarily result in elevated dl-PCBs as a byproduct of cooking. Chemistry is more complicated than that! This is sort of addressed in the conclusion of the study:
Sucralose and 1,3-DCP are only model chemicals for chlorine-containing compounds, which may be used during daily cooking processes. Thus, appropriate use of chlorine-containing additives and flavorings during cooking could help reduce the risk of human exposure to dl-PCBs.
You know what else is a chlorine-containing compound? Salt!

Salt is a chlorine-containing compound = deadly toxic sludge.
Oh no! Quick, buy some Agave nectar!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Mice Like it Hot

Mice like it hot. According to an article in Nature, they prefer 30°C to room temperature (21 °C).

In a recent study, tumor growth was faster and immune responses to cancer were suppressed in rats housed at room temperature compared to those housed at 30 °C.
Oh no, cold causes cancer!!! Tell Obama to ban ice cubes and short shorts!
Hold it right there, crazy voice in my head! The Inuit people are famous for their low incidence of cancer, and they look pretty cold to me.

Inuit dude is chillin' like a villin'.

Kathleen Kokolus, co-author of the study says that warmer animals also produce smaller litters.
Oh no, heat causes infertility!!! Tell Obama to ban water heaters and wool underpants!
Not so fast, crazy voice in my head! The multiple birth rate is 3.457% in humans, so litter size isn't much of an issue. Being one of the hottest countries in the world has not stopped the Niger from having a total fertility rate of 7.16 (average births per woman).

Lady is perspiring in Bondoukou, Niger.

Not everything that happens to mice in the lab has profound implications for humans.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Vaccines Work

Rich Stossel of NaturalNews posted an article titled Historical data shows vaccines are not what saved us in which he argues:
If you look at the historical data on vaccination efficacy, you'll see that they are not responsible for the decline in disease in the last hundred years at all.
He is echoing an argument by Andrew Weil (a quack who got busted selling fake flu remedies) that vaccines are ineffective because the diseases they aim to prevent were already on the decline when each vaccine was introduced. Since none of the below vaccination programs were the first attempt at eradicating their respective diseases, this trend should not be surprising.

However, we don't have to look at historical data to learn the effectiveness of a vaccine. Clinical studies test vaccine effectiveness. Ineffective vaccines aren't given to the public. Weil's argument is contradicted by every clinical study showing vaccines to be effective!

Anyway, Stossel goes on to cite a list of anecdotes copied verbatim from a 2002 anti-vaccination website by Ian Sinclair. This plagiarized evidence is supposed to convince the reader that vaccines played no role in the decline of certain infectious diseases.

In addition to debunking most of these claims, I'll try to explain the rhetorical tools used by Sinclair.

The first tool in Sinclair's deception tool belt is taking big numbers out of context.
In 1871-2 England, with 98% of the population aged between 2 and 50 vaccinated against smallpox, it experienced its worst ever smallpox outbreak with 45,000 deaths...
This argument calls into question the efficacy of the smallpox vaccine. After all, how did so many vaccinated people die? Actually, from this argument, we can't assume any vaccinated people died.

The cited document actually reports 44,800 smallpox deaths and that 97.5% of the public aged 2 to 50 were vaccinated, leaving 2.5% unvaccinated, conspicuously ignoring old people.

The population of at the time England was 31,629,299, so there would have been 17 unvaccinated people for every one that died from smallpox! Sinclair expects his audience to miss this numerical slight of hand, as not everyone has an intuitive grasp on large numbers.

Smallpox vaccine is now 95% effective, though it may not have been so effective in the past.

In his next point, Sinclair again relies on the ignorance of his audience.
In Germany, compulsory mass vaccination against diphtheria commenced in 1940, and by 1945, diphtheria cases were up from 40,000 to 250,000.
When I see "Germany" and "1940" in a sentence, I immediately think of WORLD WAR II. Don't you? If you saw Schindler's List, you probably aren't surprised by the diphtheria outbreak.

In fact, the mass movement of children to camps and neglect of immunizations were the actual cause of this tragic epidemic. Lou Minatti also has some choice words on this topic.

Next, Sinclair performs a different sort of magic trick, conjuring someone out of thin air.
In 1967, Ghana was declared measles-free by the World Health Organization after 96% of its population was vaccinated. In 1972, Ghana experienced one of its worst measles outbreaks with its highest ever mortality rate. (Dr. H. Albonico, MMR Vaccine Campaign in Switzerland, March 1990)
This claim is completely made up! "Dr. H. Albonico" is not a real person. Apparently, he's a fictional character who supposedly self-published an article titled Vaccination campaign against measles, mumps, and rubella. A constraining project for a dubious future? which does not exist.

In reality, the measles vaccine works. Even in Ghana.

Sinclair seems to have been on quite the fictional roll, so he made up another fact, but this time, he also invented a whole new organization!
In the UK between 1970 and 1990, over 200,000 cases of whooping cough occurred in fully vaccinated children. (Community Disease Surveillance Centre, UK)
There is no such thing as the "Community Disease Surveillance Centre" in the UK, or anywhere.

In reality, the whooping cough vaccine is highly effective, but the protection decreases over time. That's why it's important to get a booster shot every few years.

Now, Sinclair moves on to special pleading.
In the 1970s, a tuberculosis vaccine trial in India involving 260,000 people revealed that more cases of TB occurred in the vaccinated than the unvaccinated. (The Lancet 12/1/80 p73)
The BCG vaccine for tuberculosis had variable efficacy, depending on geography. Not every attempt at vaccine making is a success. Nobody claims that vaccines saved us from TB. Antibiotics did!
In 1977, Dr. Jonas Salk, who developed the first polio vaccine, testified along with other scientists that mass inoculation against polio was the cause of most polio cases throughout the USA since 1961. (Science 4/4/77 "Abstracts")
The polio vaccine is one of the greatest vaccine success stories! There was a small risk of infection with live virus vaccines, which are no longer used. For a thorough explanation, see the Rogue Medic.
In 1979, Sweden abandoned the whooping cough vaccine due to its ineffectiveness. Out of 5,140 cases in 1978, it was found that 84% had been vaccinated three times! (BMJ 283:696-697, 1981)
The most important and effective way to control pertussis is vaccination. Following suspension of immunisation there was an increase in reported cases of pertussis in Sweden. That is why Sweden is highly involved in development of improved pertussis vaccines.
The February 1981 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 90% of obstetricians and 66% of pediatricians refused to take the rubella vaccine.
This study of hospital workers in Los Angeles concludes that means must be found to ensure greater employee acceptance of vaccine. Why? Because vaccines work.
In Oman between 1988 and 1989, a polio outbreak occurred amongst thousands of fully vaccinated children. The region with the highest infection rate had the highest vaccine coverage. The region with the lowest infection rate had the lowest vaccine coverage. (The Lancet, 21/9/91)
The case of Oman demonstrates how response to the oral vaccine can vary widely within individual countries. Yes, vaccines efficacy can very due to a number of circumstances. So what? Everywhere you see decline in polio (most of the world), vaccinations are the cause.
In the New England Journal of Medicine July 1994 issue, a study found that over 80% of children under 5 years of age who had contracted whooping cough had been fully vaccinated.
By the 1980s, whooping cough incidents in the United States were almost zero. Vaccination is what saved us. In recent years, however, opting out of vaccination has lowered many states below the herd immunity, which is 92%. No surprise, those are the states in which outbreaks tend to occur.

This is why anti-vaccine misinformation is so dangerous. It only takes one out of ten gullible people to ruin heard immunity for a disease that is difficult to control, like whooping cough.

Please, don't be fooled by Rich Stossel, Andrew Weil, or Ian Sinclair into being that gullible person.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Protecting the Gray Wolf

I care about saving endangered species. A lot. Protecting biodiversity is imperative to human survival. That's why one of my favorite laws is the Endangered Species Act. This law aims to "halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction, whatever the cost." I dare say signing this bad-ass law was the best thing Richard Nixon ever did.

Here's how it works. When a species is listed as endangered, a recovery plan is created. This plan describes objective, measurable criteria to tell how well a species is recovering. The end goal is that species are successfully recovered and delisted.

When a species gets delisted, it's time to break out the champagne. Delisting is a declaration that we've successfully saved a species from the brink of extinction! This is not to make light of the serious business of continuing to protect all species, especially those recently delisted. Rather, it's an opportunity to show the Fish and Wildlife Service some well-deserved appreciation.

Recovery of the Gray Wolf is a wonderful yet complex example of such success. There are three distinct populations of wolves in the United States.

I will refer to the yellow areas as Great Lakes and Rocky Mountains, and to the blue area as Southwest.

The Great Lakes population was first listed as endangered in 1967, followed by the Rocky Mountain population in 1973, and finally the Southwest population in 1976.

In 1978, the whole species was listed as endangered, since each of its subspecies populations were also listed as endangered. Makes sense, right? If all the subspecies of Gray Wolves are endangered, then the whole species of Gray Wolves is endangered, too.

Well, technically, this is not how the Endangered Species Act is supposed to work. The Gray Wolf, as a whole species, is not endangered, given its abundance across the whole arctic range! So, it shouldn't be listed as endangered, just because the subspecies which happen to lie in the United States are, themselves, threatened.

By 2012, both yellow populations had recovered by the measures described in their respective recovery plans. Accordingly, they were delisted. Champagne time! But, since the majority of subspecies of Gray Wolf are now delisted, it makes even less sense to keep the species, as a whole, on the list. Taxonomical specificity is important to prevent exemptions, which nobody wants.

So, in June of 2013, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a rule to delist the species, on the whole, while maintaining the endangered status of the Southwest population. Sounds reasonable, right?

Well, not according to Richard Steiner, who is adamant that wolves should remain on the endangered species list. He acknowledges the restoration of those yellow populations. But he tells his readers "this success is about to be undone" by the proposed rule.

This demonstrates a lack of understanding of how the Endangered Species Act is supposed to work. Remember that, to the end of species recovery, delisting is the goal. A baseball player's running of the bases is not undone when he reaches home plate and goes back to the dugout.

Steiner talks about the "horror of wolves ... being caught in traps and snares" as though such illegal activity would be condoned by the proposed rule. It most certainly would not. In the yellow regions, states are already in full control.
Across the subspecies' range any legal take is regulated by provincial or state law to maintain sustainable wolf populations...
Steiner says that "people tend to fear and hate that which they don't understand", which is true. That's why he confuses his readers with emotionally compelling non-arguments rather than explain the real reasons for delisting. If you don't know why the Gray Wolf species is being delisted, it sounds scary!

Leda Huta thinks that the proposed rule means the Fish and Wildlife Services are abandoning Gray Wolves. They aren't. Under the proposed rule, they would continue to protect the Southwest endangered population. The proposed rule does not change the status of the yellow populations.

Delisting does not "turn the clock back", as Huta claims. It marks our progress forward.

Hunta also mentions how inhumane trapping can be. I dislike trapping for this reason. There are better methods for population management. But this isn't an argument against delisting. It's an argument for humane management! It's also an issue for states to decide on their own.

Megan Gannon posted on LiveScience that Gray Wolves may lose endangered status. In this headline, the verb is the problem. Wolves lose nothing by our taxonomical classification. Federal protections for the three distinct populations are not being changed.

However, some people believe wolves should be reintroduced to Colorado, Utah, and California. This would expand their territory, and be super awesome. I want this to happen. Sadly, delisting the Gray Wolf on the species level might make this more difficult. Does that tempt me to dislike the proposed rule? Sure, it's tempting.

That's where integrity comes in. The original classification on the species level was a mistake. This taxonomical mistake needs to be corrected. My love for wolves doesn't trick me into taxonomical dishonesty. Furthermore, it's clearly not worth it to abuse the Endangered Species Act to support one's political viewpoint. For the law to remain respected and effective, it must not be abused.

I don't need to condone Steiner's emotional non-arguments, or his slight-of-hand tricks of misinformation in order to be a good environmentalist.

My love for wolves goes back to childhood, when my pretend Native American name was Black Eagle Wolf. This love doesn't make Leda Huta's dishonest claims any more true.

So I show appreciation for the hard work done by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

I'm glad the Gray Wolf is being delisted and will continue to roam these United States.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Rats, Oreos, and Drugs

The science media circus has pitched its tent around a Connecticut College News article claiming:
Connecticut College students and a professor of psychology have found “America’s favorite cookie” is just as addictive as cocaine – at least for lab rats.
This is, of course, a false conclusion. The research by Joseph Schroeder and his students actually shows that "conditioned place preference" can be accomplished by administering addictive drugs or a food reward.

No direct comparison was made between the drugs and food.

In the presentation abstract, the researchers draw a subtly different conclusion than the article:
These findings suggest that high fat/sugar foods and drugs of abuse trigger brain addictive processes to the same degree and lend support to the hypothesis that maladaptive eating behaviors contributing to obesity can be compared to drug addiction.  
Maladaptive eating behaviors can be compared to drug addiction. This is fairly obvious, for anyone who has ever seen someone eat a whole pint of ice cream. Or eaten one, themselves.

Nobody would question the fact that food is a profound motivator. Motivation and reward are involved in addiction. But the claim that one substance is "just as addictive as" another requires evidence. This research provides no such evidence. They didn't even look for it.

Here's how the study was conducted:
On one side of a maze, they would give hungry rats Oreos and on the other, they would give them a control – in this case, rice cakes... Then, they would give the rats the option of spending time on either side of the maze and measure how long they would spend on the side where they were typically fed Oreos.

They compared the results of the Oreo and rice cake test with results from rats that were given an injection of cocaine or morphine, known addictive substances, on one side of the maze and a shot of saline on the other. Professor Schroeder is licensed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to purchase and use controlled substances for research.

The research showed the rats conditioned with Oreos spent as much time on the “drug” side of the maze as the rats conditioned with cocaine or morphine.
This is called "conditioned place preference" and is a staple of High School science projects. The conditioning worked equally well for both drugs and Oreos, so they are both equally addictive, right?

Wrong!

All that has been demonstrated is that drugs and Oreos both work equally well for conditioned place preference. You can't extrapolate from this to addiction!

Rats are smart. They quickly identify areas on a maze with reward. It could be cheese. It could be a shot of morphine. It could be a chocolate chip cookie. Or an oatmeal cookie. Or an Oreo cookie.

If the rats ran the maze equally well for cheese as Oreos, would we, by the transitive property of addiction, conclude that cheese is "just as addictive" as cocaine? I think not.

If you wanted to actually compare Oreos to drugs, you would have to administer Oreo plus the saline control on one side of the maze, and drugs plus the control cracker on the other side. The researchers didn't perform this test.

Why not? Because they weren't studying the relative addictive properties of drugs and food in the first place. They were studying the nucleus accumbens!
Stimulation of the nucleus accumbens by addictive substances, including high fat/sugar foods triggers expression of immediate early genes, the measurement of which can be used as an indicator of cellular activation. 
Their experimental design was setup to demonstrate this hypothesis.

But "Nucleus accumbens C-Fos expression is correlated with conditioned place preference" isn't a headline that pops. So they added misleading language into their conclusion, and hooked up with Amy Martin, the Manager of Media Relations at Connecticut College.

Together, they produced this garbage news article, which was quickly picked up by the media.

Now, we have crazy headlines like Will Oreos Be Outlawed Next? and Lab rats find Oreos more pleasurable than drugs. This isn't just annoying and wrong. It's dangerous. The constant stream of bad science from the media harms people's brains. Bad science teaches people bad thinking patterns. The end results are bad decisions that harm individuals and the society as a whole. This is not just about one brand of cookies. It's not okay to lie to people and call it science.

Injecting Oreos with drugs because, why not?

Oh, and where was this study published, you ask?

Nowhere. It's not peer-reviewed. It's unpublished.

It's not even science.

It's careerism and dishonesty.

Okay, now I want Oreos.

UPDATE: I called Deborah MacDonnell, the Director of Public Relations at Connecticut College, and voiced my concerns about the article. She told me that "Connecticut College stands behind [Joseph Schroeder's] research." So much for their reputation.

Weight in an Elevator

According to their website, Science World is a Canadian nonprofit that engages people in science and inspires future science and technology leadership. They are famous for something called ambient marketing, where they put up entertaining and often funny posters and other types of media in an urban setting. Clearly, their goal is to get people's attention on science. I like it.

However, some of their media boast dubious scientific claims. I also found one that was simply incorrect. This scale was placed inside an elevator:

You weigh less on the way down.

The purpose of this seems to be drawing attention to the Elevator Problem. This physics thought experiment considers the effect of Newton's second law on the forces felt in an elevator. When you are accelerating upward, you feel heavier. When you are accelerating downward, you feel lighter.

This particular ad confuses velocity for acceleration.

Consider a trip from the 2nd floor to the 3rd floor. When the doors close, you are rest, using the building as a reference frame. You are also at rest, hopefully, before the doors open again. On this trip, the elevator had to accelerate upwards to begin moving, then decelerate, to stop.

This happens when you drive a car, too. Going from stop light on 2nd street to the stop light at 3rd street, you hit the gas to accelerate, drive one block, then hit the break to stop. When you hit the gas, if you drive anything like I do, you can feel your head pushed back into the headrest. When you hit the breaks, your head is pushed forward a bit.

Saying that "you weigh less on the way down" is like saying your head is pressed against the headrest going towards downtown. That's silly, because the same is true going the other way. It's not which direction you're moving, it's which direction you're accelerating!

On the way down, you weight less, then more.

On the way up, you weigh more, then less.

Since this bothered me enough to blog about it, clearly their marketing campaign is a success.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Glyphosate and Aflatoxin

Misrepresentation of science really pisses me off. I'm tired of talking about GMOs. These days, though, the topic is just too ripe with science abuse for me to ignore. Sayer Ji of Green Med Info is one of the worst offenders.

In a recent blog post titled Study Links Roundup 'Weedkiller' To Overgrowth of Deadly Fungal Toxins, he references a study published by an Argentinian team in the Journal of Environmental Science and Health which concludes:
... that these Aspergillus flavus and A. parasiticus strains are able to grow effectively and produce aflatoxins in high nutrient status media over a range of glyphosate concentrations under different water activity conditions.
It's not surprising that fungus can grow in high nutrient media, with or without the presence of an herbicide. You see, glyphosate isn't simply a poison. It's a chemical that interferes with the production of aromatic amino acids in plants, and only in plants. It is not a fungicide, so it doesn't kill fungus!

The interesting thing about this study is that the growth of these fungi was actually increased by glyphosate. This stimulation of soil biology is a feature of glyphosate, not a bug. The proliferating fungi attack dying weeds, completing the nitrogen cycle.

It's also important to notice that while growth was stimulated, aflatoxin production was not:
Aflatoxin B1 production did not show noticeable differences among different pesticide concentrations assayed at all aW in both strains.
So, why did glyphosate stimulate these fungi to grow, anyway? It's possible that growth stimulation may have been nutritional, not enzymatic. Before administering the glyphosate, fungi were starved overnight to halt their growth. This is standard practice in microbiology to establish an adjacent control colony which experienced identical conditions.

If the growth-limiting nutrients in this study were phosphorus or carbon, then digestion alone could explain the stimulated growth. Yes, fungi can eat glyphosate!

That raises the question, what were the concentrations of glyphosate used in this study?
The glyphosate increased significantly the growth of all Aspergillus section Flavi strains in different percentages with respect to control depending on pesticide concentration. At 5.0 and 10 mM this fact was more evident; however significant differences between both concentrations were not observed in most strains.
That unusual unit mM stands for millimolar. So, is this dose environmentally relevant?
(10 mM) * (169.07 g/mol) = 1,691 mg/L = 1,691 ppm
That's a thousand times larger than the tolerance on corn forage, 13 ppm!

So, we certainly can't conclude anything about human exposure, in food, from this in vitro study.

Nevertheless, Ji concludes that glyphosate is:
... seriously undermining the quality of our global food supply, and may help to explain recent observations that GM corn heavy markets, such as the U.S., have a significant aflatoxin problem.
This is a strong accusation, not at all justified from this one study. Let's take a look at another, older study published in 2007 by the USDA. Like the Argentinian study, this one looked at fungi aflatoxin production in a Petri Dish. They didn't find any.
No aflatoxin production was detected on water agar regardless of strain or glyphosate treatment.
They also tested glyphosate on soil fungi. It didn't effect them, and they explained why.
In soil, no effect of glyphosate was observed on the recovery of A. flavus cfu from soil regardless of rate, formulation or time after treatment. Glyphosate is readily bound by soil colloids and less material would be bioavailable to interfere with growth.
Finally, they looked for significant contamination in real-life corn fields. They didn't find any.
Although mycotoxin contamination was minimal in the 4 years of this study, there was no evidence that rotation of corn with cotton had any affect on reducing inoculum potential in soil and there was no consistent effect of glyphosate on propagule density of A. flavus. 
Clearly, the use of glyphosate on corn crops doesn't put humans at risk from aflatoxin poisoning.

Then, what does cause dangerously high aflatoxin production? According to Cornell:
Water stress, high-temperature stress, and insect damage of the host plant are major determining factors in mold infestation and toxin production. Similarly, specific crop growth stages, poor fertility, high crop densities, and weed competition have been associated with increased mold growth and toxin production
Weed competition! Hey, you know what's good at fighting weeds? Herbicides.

Herbicides kill plants, not fungus.

Or people!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Titanium Dioxide

The motto of the shock blog Green Med Info is "education equals empowerment". Its founder, Sayer Ji (one of the worst human beings alive), has a degree in Philosophy with a specialty in existential phenomenology. Naturally, this makes him an expert in the study of molecular biology. Did I say expert? I meant dangerous know-nothing.

In a recent post, he asks the villainous and leading question Why Is The Food Industry Poisoning Us With Trillions of Nanoparticles?

The short answer is, of course, they're doing no such thing!

The nanoparticles in question are titanium dioxide, a white pigment used as a food additive. These particles are manufactured using chemical processes from rocks called ilmenite and rutile.

Nanotechnology is not involved in their manufacture. However, the resulting molecules are small. Normal people call that a "powder" but I guess you can call them "nanoparticles" because many are 100 nanometers in size.

Of course, lots of things we eat are less than 100 nanometers in size. When you caramelize sugars with heat, for example, carbon nanoparticles are produced. Is the food industry poisoning us with grilled onions and caramel candy? Other nanoparticles commonly found in nature include water ice in clouds, smoke from a fire, volcanic ash, ocean spray, fine sand and dust, and even viruses.

Clearly, particle size alone is no way to evaluate food safety.

Let's take a look at the science.

The recent study cited in this post is titled Effects of titanium dioxide nanoparticles in human gastric epithelial cells in vitro, and was published by a Portuguese team in the journal Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy.
Our results demonstrate for the first time that nanoparticles induce tumor-like phenotypes in human gastric epithelial cells.
As the title suggests, it examined the effect of titanium dioxide nanoparticles on cell lines taken from human stomach lining, which are a specialized type of skin cells. The "tumor-like phenotypes" observed were DNA damage, oxidative stress, and increased cell proliferation. Sounds scary, right?
 Well, don't worry. These results are completely irrelevant to dietary sources! There are two major differences between the form of titanium dioxide that makes white pigment used in foods, and the stuff exposed to in this study.

First, the nanoparticles used in this study are engineered, industrial grade particles smaller than 25 nanometers, and have regular geometric shapes. The food additive particles are largely around 100 nanometers, and have irregular shapes. The biological action of these two, very different products are not comparable.

Second, the concentrations of nanoparticles in the study are ludicrously high. DNA damage and oxidative stress were seen only at a 15% solution. That's a really high concentration, environmentally unrealistic when compared with the 0.1% concentration in many whitened food products. Some products have much less, like Nestle Original Coffee Creamer, for example, which only has 0.004% titanium dioxide.

Cell proliferation, on the other hand, became significant around 6%.

Still, we know that oxidative stress, DNA damage, increased cell proliferation are involved in the formation of cancer, right? So, does this study show that high concentrations of engineered titanium dioxide nanoparticles are a carcinogen?

No. Here's the problem with that interpretation. The study used AGS cells, which are line of human stomach cancer cells. Yes, cancer cells. (Remind you of Séralini?)

To attribute the "tumor-like phenotype" of these cancer cells to the act of drowning them in white pigment is just ridiculous!

They were cancer before you painted them white!

In my opinion, the cell proliferation is easily explained by the oxidative stress. This is a well known phenomena, and makes sense for tissues that need to quickly regrow after being damaged. The stomach lining exactly fits that bill. Except, in this example, since titanium is so easily chelated, cell death is minimal. This results in a weird situation for these cells, indeed.

Consider, though, how contrived is this experiment. Results relied on nanoparticles of just the right size (25 nanometers) and shape (Degussa showed dose-response, Sigma did not). Statistically significant results were seen only at extremely high concentrations (6% solution).

Sounds like a lot of fine-tuning, doesn't it? Wait, there's more!

The team's first attempt failed to find increased cell proliferation:
First, we used RPMI supplemented with FBS for the suspension of TiO2 nanoparticles. This treatment caused no alteration on cell proliferation. These results are explained by the effect of the protein adsorption ability of metal oxide nanoparticles on the cytotoxicity.
FBS stands for fetal bovine serum. Basically, this is the food they used to wake up the starved cells, so they would keep growing. When they performed the experiment the first time around, the presence of proteins in the FBS prevented the nanoparticles from causing cell damage.

These proteins seem to be sticky to the nanoparticles used. They act like sponges, having a tenancy to round up nanoparticles. Like a sort of molecular lint roller, this seems to have been enough to prevent any significant damage to the cells.

Consider that, inside your gut, there are a lot of proteins and other potentially sticky things, like bacteria. After all, it's pretty messy in there! This same protective effect would likely keep your cells from absorbing too much titanium, even if you chugged a tall glass of white paint.

Consider, also, that your gut epithelium is a type of tissue called a mucous membrane. It secretes a mucus made up of, among other things, mucin proteins. These presumably act as an effective barrier protecting the stomach lining from damage due to ingested nanoparticles.

After all, evolution has adapted the gut to handle nanoparticles from ingested dust, dust, soot, and dissolved metal oxides in water.

Nanotechnology is new, and its development and use should be performed cautiously, especially when human exposure is possible.

Let's not get distracted by fear mongers like Sayer Ji, frantically grasping at straws in order to push their anti-science, anti-medicine agenda.

Titanium dioxide is far better than the zinc- and lead-based pigments it replaces.

In reasonable quantities, it's safe to ingest, just like iron oxide, or any other trace mineral.

Before I end this post, I want to share one more funny story involving titanium nanoparticles.

Rightfully published in the "rumors" section of MSN News is an article by Sally Deneen titled Toxic nanoparticles are entering the food supply. The article includes this tangled paragraph:
Titanium dioxide, a common additive in kid-tempting candies, marshmallows, icing and more, says this study, was found in recent studies to inflame rats' lungs when non-food-grade nano-sized titanium dioxide is inhaled, Kavanagh said. Whether eating it causes problems is being investigated in animal studies, he said, all of which tend to use high doses.
As the article disclaims, this study, too, uses engineered titanium dioxide particles, less than 25 nanometers in size, administered in high doses. At least, for the sake of relevance, it's performed on mammals, not cancer cells.

Of course the article does get everything else wrong. The results were negative for rats. It was the lungs of mice, not rats, where an effect was identified. Also, inflammation was not directly measured, but inferred from the ratio of neutrophils to other types of white blood cells.

In this study, too, we see the same shady pattern, where they didn't get desired results, so they tuned the experiment to fit their preconceived conclusion:
The first round of in vivo studies involved three independent labs, all of which used SD rats that were exposed to either TiO2-P25 or TiO2-A in DM. None of the treatment groups reported statistically significant changes in lung inflammatory parameters relative to DM controls; therefore, the scope of the consortium studies was expanded to include another rat strain (F344) and another species (mouse, C57BL6).
Rats didn't work? Let's try more, different rats. Oh, and mice too. Because, why not, right?

Three different doses were administered to the poor mice, 10, 20, or 40 micrograms. This was mixed with 100% ethanol and sprayed into their lungs. Sorry, mice. A statistically significant raise in neutrophils was only seen at the highest dose.

For fun, let's scale up this dose proportionately from a 25 gram mouse to a 75 kg human.

How much Nestle Original Coffee Creamer would I have to inhale, to inflame my lungs?

((40 µg / 25 g) * (75 kg)) / ((0.04 µg/mg) * (1,000 kg/m³)) = 3 Liters

That's a lot of coffee creamer to snort!

Don't try this at home.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Fluoride and IQ

In October, 2012, Anna Choi from the Harvard School of Public Health published a paper in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives titled Developmental Fluoride Neurotoxicity: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.

This paper performed a meta-analysis of 27 studies from China, where the groundwater sometimes contains unsafe levels of naturally occurring fluoride. There paper finds a clear correlation between geographical regions with high levels of fluoride and lower IQ.

In January, 2013, the story was misappropriated by Joseph Mercola (the worst human being alive) in a Huffington Post article titled Harvard Study Confirms Fluoride Reduces Children's IQ. He uses the Choi paper to frighten readers into believing water fluoridation is unhealthy (it isn't), going so far as to call it "public murder".

I'm sure my readers can spot the fallacy in the Mercola article. It confuses exposure to HIGH levels of fluoride with the LOW levels added by water fluoridation. In the U.S., the target concentration of fluoride to 0.7 ppm. This places public water supplies within the "low dose" category for every single one of the studies used in the Choi meta-analysis.

Therefore, it's brutally false to claim this paper as evidence for any danger from 0.7 ppm fluoride.

The meta-analysis found the opposite to be true.

Water fluoridation, up to 0.7 ppm, is associated with higher IQ!

Remember, too, that correlation does not equal causation. Choi will be the first one to tell you that confounding variables can mask causation, or exaggerate a correlation when little or no causation is present, at all.

For example, high fluoride levels in water is an indicator of high levels of heavy metals, like lead and mercury, which have well-studied neurological effects. In the Harvard press release, Choi's co-author Philippe Grandjean even hints at this:
Fluoride seems to fit in with lead, mercury, and other poisons that cause chemical brain drain...
(I strongly object to the kitschy phrase "brain drain", but oh well.)

The other major flaw with the Choi meta-analysis is that it doesn't adequately control for other environmental sources of fluoride. For example, take the Guizhou province, where 10.5 million cases of dental fluorosis were reported in 2001. There, coal burning was suspected as the culprit for this poisoning, but it was later discovered that 85% of the air fluoride was due to local clay added to the fuel.

It stands to reason that regions where water fluoride is high, clay fluoride is also high. So, fluoride doses will be exaggerated due to the practice of mixing clay with coal. Not to mention dietary sources of fluoride, and fluoride as an environmental pollutant.

Clearly feeling the heat, Harvard released a statement on the fluoride paper in which they disclaim:
These results do not allow us to make any judgment regarding possible levels of risk at levels of exposure typical for water fluoridation in the U.S.
Anyway, studies have been done on the intelligence of rats, which show a lack of effect of chronic (high-level) exposure to fluoride:
Chronic ingestion of fluoride at levels up to 230 times more than that experienced by humans whose main source of fluoride is fluoridated water had no significant effect on appetitive-based learning.
Not to mention the mountain of evidence showing water fluoridation to be safe...


Sadly, this is far from the end of the story. The anti-science myth that water fluoridation will lower children's IQ was touted heavily in the political battleground of Portland, Oregon. There, legislation was recently introduced to add safe levels of fluoride to the public water supply.

After public outcry, this measure was put to a vote. Portland voters rejected the proposal to fluoridate by a 60% majority. Tellingly, one voter told the USA today:
I don't want chemicals in my water. I know that there are really no known health risks with it, but there's a lot of things we find out later in life really do have health risks.
Here, we see science illiteracy in two forms.

First, there's the derogatory use of the word "chemicals", which demonstrates a popular fallacy called the appeal to nature. The implication is that the presence of fluoride in water is unnatural. However, as we saw in the Choi paper, China has a huge health problem with naturally occurring fluoride! The quote above demonstrates total ignorance of this fact.

Fluoride isn't some mysterious "chemical". It's just a fluorine anion. Fluorine is one of the top 20 most abundant elements in the Earth's crust. It's hardly unnatural. It's found in seawater at 1.3 ppm. Life has had to deal with low levels of fluoride since its beginning.

Second, although this voter is aware of no health risks from water fluoridation, she remains skeptical. She opposes water fluoridation on grounds of the precautionary principle. Perhaps she doesn't know that the practice has been in place for over 50 years! Really, precaution is an excuse. She's made up her mind that fluoride is bad, and no amount of evidence can meet her impossible standards. This is called denialism.

This voter may be well-meaning, if not critically-thinking, but her hypocrisy is two-fold.

First, she presumably trusts the government to remove toxic levels of certain elements from the drinking water (chlorine, arsenic, lead, mercury, and selenium), but has a knee-jerk reaction against the addition of just this one element: fluorine? Why...? (Special thanks to Kyle Hill.)

Portland already teats water with chloramine (LD50 = 935 mg/kg) for disinfection. Where is the huge billboard demanding this deadly toxin to be taken out of Portland's water supply?

Second, She probably drinks vitamin D milk (LD50 = 619 mg/kg), eats pasta enriched with iron (LD50 = 30 g/kg), uses iodized table salt (LD50 = 14 g/kg), and eats cereal fortified with zinc, etc. Why isn't she worried that these toxic chemicals are being added to her food?

Oh, right, because they're healthy...

Well, so is fluoridated water:
Today, even with the widespread use of fluoride toothpaste, mouth rinse, and professional fluoride treatments, fluoridation has been shown to reduce tooth decay by 18-40% among children and by nearly 35% among adults.
This is the point that anti-fluoridationists want you to forget.

Water fluoridation is healthy for teeth!

The dental health of Portland residents has been put at quantifiable risk by scientific ignorance.
 
Ironically, too, they've made a risky choice in the name of precaution.

Some voters may have voted against fluoridation because they were worried about their IQ points...

Fred Armisen expresses concern over his IQ points.

Well, so am I!

Just, for different reasons.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Dimock Debacle

A while back, the Los Angeles Times ran an article by Neela Banerjee titled Internal EPA report highlights disputes over fracking and well water.

The article reports on a slideshow, produced by Isotech titled Determining the origin of methan and its effect on the aquifer which concludes:
Methane is released during the drilling and perhaps during the fracking process...
They were able to determine the source of methane by a technique involving isotopic analysis. Gasses like methane and ethane contain carbon. The amount of carbon-13 in these gasses works as a sort of fingerprint, and can be used to identify the source of the gas.

Isotech ruled out any biogenic source for the methane in 11 of the sampled wells, demonstrating that their gas contents originated in the Marcellus Shale, and Upper and Middle Devonian.


I'll be the first to say that the presence of Marcellus and Devonian gasses are in these wells is likely caused by fracking, for reasons below. It is worth mentioning, however, that the data in this report was very, very spotty. The report is NOT a peer-reviewed study. In each location, data recording started after drilling, so a causal connection can't be made. In addition to being spotty, some data may have be cherry-picked, as cautioned on slide 26:
Data was selected on basis of the most representative of well conditions. Due to incomplete data description, in some cases data may not be representative of the well or the data was not plotted...
Despite these shortcomings, I think it's safe to call this evidence of well contamination due to fracking operations, especially in light of the following corroborating evidence.

In 2009, within the time frame of the report, the Pennsylvania DEP submitted a modification to consent order and agreement where they stated:
Gesford 3 and Gesford 9 Wells which the Department had already determined to have insufficient/improper casing.
At least two wells in the area were known to have bad casings, which can obviously allow gas to leak, and possibly get into nearby wells.

Sadly but predictably, anti-fracking bloggers ran amok with this story. Their false claims include conspiracy to censor the report, and that the results show dangerous levels of contamination.

They even got Yoko Ono walking around carrying a jug of brown water!

Steve Horn of Counter Punch said in Inside the Censored EPA Fracking Water Study that:
The PowerPoint's conclusions are damning.
Wait, what about these conclusions are so damning? See for yourself, in the infamous slide 25.

This slide shows methane at 65 ppm, while slide 5 shows the threshold limit value is 1,000 ppm. Arsenic levels are shown to be less than 10 ppb, which is the EPA standard for drinking water.

So, the drinking water is safe. The contamination is anecdotal, and was known about back in 2009.

Let's not take things too far. Let's not be like Mr. Sautners, who rejected the scientific evidence placed right in front of him, when the EPA told him his drinking water was safe. Sorry, no monetary settlement for you, Mr. Sautners!

We should also avoid the mistake of Tammy Manning from Franklin Forks, Pennsylvania. Back in 2011, her well water started to look brown. She had it tested and found unsafe levels of methane. Even after a science-based, fact-finding effort by the DEP definitively showed that fracking operations were not responsible for the methane in her water, Manning continued to blame others for her poor well quality.

Maybe there's another, natural explanation for the brown water in Manning's well?

I don't know. Maybe you've heard of a little storm called Hurricane Irene...

Oh.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Fukushima Fish

In 2012, Robert Hotz of the Wall Street Journal published an article U.S. Tuna Has Fukushima Taint.

It reported on the findings of a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science titled Pacific bluefin tuna transport Fukushima-derived radionuclides from Japan to California.

The paper found tuna, caught off the coast of California, contained radioactive isotopes of cesium from the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Hotz made it clear that this 3% increase in radioactivity "posed no public-health hazard" to sushi lovers.

Nevertheless, the news frightened many people.

In response to this "anxiety and concern" caused by confusion about dosage, Nicholas Fisher (one of the authors of the paper) published a followup, Evaluation of radiation doses and associated risk from the Fukushima nuclear accident to marine biota and human consumers of seafood.
We showed that doses in all cases were dominated by the naturally occurring alpha-emitter 210Po and that Fukushima-derived doses were three to four orders of magnitude below 210Po-derived doses.
Let me try to put this in perspective. One serving of this "Hot Tuna" gives you 5% of the radiation dose you'd get from eating a banana. We are exposed to natural, background radiation all the time, ultraviolet light from the Sun, radionuclides in food, cosmic rays (to which our exposure is greatly increased by air travel), medical test such as X-rays, and especially, the Earth itself (all rocks contain radionuclides)! What matters is dosage.

Yes, I'm going to keep beating this dead horse, because of how important it is. The paper also calculates that a year's worth of tuna consumption (post-Fukushima) would be equivalent to one extra dental X-ray. Dosage matters.

On a flight from Los Angeles to New York, your body is hit by more cosmic rays than usual, because, way up in the sky, there's less of Earth's atmosphere above your head, to protect you. This extra exposure is equal to 8 years of (post-Fukushima) tuna consumption. Dosage matters.

All too often, in comments on news articles, I see users impudently screaming about how:
NO LEVEL OF RADIATION IS SAFE
This is a pernicious and foolish myth. It's contrary to both scientific evidence, and common sense. Did I mention that dosage matters? Seriously, take off the tinfoil hat for a second. I have something important to tell you. Dosage matters!

Where does this moronic idea come from? The second paper presents a good guess:
Fears regarding environmental radioactivity, often a legacy of Cold War activities and distrust of governmental and scientific authorities, have resulted in perception of risks by the public that are not commensurate with actual risks.
Anyway, there are good reasons to avoid eating too much tuna. Any fish that eats other fish (shark, swordfish, tuna) contains relatively high levels of heavy metals, such as lead an mercury. The FDA advises pregnant women to avoid eating too much of these fish, because of a real danger these heavy metals pose to the health of their baby.

I find it offensive, even dangerous, to stir up fear of inconsequential radiation when there are real human health concerns to address, such as mercury.

It baffles me that a Californian can have the gall to complain about radioactive fish, considering:
While the earthquake killed more than 15,000 people, no deaths have been blamed on the nuclear disaster that followed. [Source]
How tremendously insulting must this seem to the family of someone who died in the earthquake? How outrageous and petty must this complaint seem, especially, to residents of Fukushima, who remain displaced from their homes in the exclusion zone?
... more than 100,000 people have had to evacuate towns surrounding the plant. [Source]
Californians need to have some damn perspectives before they complain about contaminated fish.

Ann Werner is one of the worst offenders I've seen. In her blog post titled Radioactive Bluefin Tuna Caught Off California Coast, she goes on about nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and bleeding, the effects of radiation poisoning. Obviously, this is done to scare her more credulous readers. She indicates the FDA's assurance that the food supply is safe, but claims "one has to question if this is true" like she's some kind of skeptic. She's no skeptic. She's a fool and self-righteous fear monger.

Like many similar anti-science articles, Werner focuses on this quote by Nicolas Fisher:
We found that absolutely every one of them had comparable concentrations of cesium...
Which is from the year-old Wall Street Journal article. She makes no mention of the recent paper by Fisher et al. I have great empathy for Fisher, who seems to be doing his best to inform, but his message seems to be falling on deaf ears, and his quote continues to be misappropriated.

This epidemic of misinformation is very upsetting. It's enough to make me wonder, why are liberals so readily accepting anti-science in the name of environmental protection? In addition to leftover Cold War paranoia, as I mentioned above, I think something insidious going on.

I think environmentalism has lost its way by disconnecting from science. I happen to be an environmentalist. I also happen to reject irrational fear of nuclear power, genetically modified food, vaccines, and the responsible use of pesticides. In order for environmentalism to work, the movement has to maintain credibility. This trend of anti-science is devastating to that credibility.

I've seen people accused being "sheeple" for their rational interpretation of facts. Those accusers are the true sheeple, but their message is a useful one. We environmentalists need to "wake up". We need to reject the naturalistic fallacy. We need to stop conflating unnatural with unhealthy. We need to recognize the importance of dosage. We need to let our opinions be informed by the science, instead of tedious, ignorant alarmists like Ann Werner.

You hear that, Ann?

That's the Physics Police, come knockin' at your door!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Enhanced Driver's License

Digital privacy is a hot-button issue right now. While I think it's good for people to be engaged in the issue, but I've also seen some irrational fear, and fear mongering, too. This Mother Jones article by Dana Liebelson is not helping:


The article contains a lot of misinformation about the new Enhanced Driver's License (EDL).

First, the headline. For brevity, I cropped out the parenthetical claim that and "Anyone With $40" can stalk you. This is the price of an Electronic Product Code (EPC) reader. This devices can remotely read EDL numbers (a randomly assigned ID number used only for border crossing, which contains no personal information, whatsoever). The headline claims that, by reading this number, you can stalk people. You can't.

Being able to determine whether or not someone is near by doesn't help you pursue them, approach them stealthily, harass them, or persecute them with unwanted and obsessive attention (those activities being the definition of stalking). What are you going to do, hold out your EPC reader, at arms length, and hope your victim walks close by? I think Liebelson misunderstood the quote by Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director at the ACLU of California:
If you carry one of these licenses in your wallet or purse, you can be tracked and stalked without your knowledge or consent.
If the government put up thousands of EPC readers, all over public spaces, they could track a person's movements using their EDL. This isn't going to happen. Video cameras, on the other hand, do pose this risk to privacy. Anyway, Senate Bill 397 clearly limits the use of this card is to border crossing, not track people inside the US.

What if the government changes their mind, and puts up EPC readers everywhere? Or, what if lots of EPC readers get put up by someone else? Well, since the card is optional, you can just destroy it. Don't let Ozar's fear mongering confuse the issue. EDL is a convenience for people who cross the border daily, that's all.

The article also addresses the potential for identity theft, by cloning the EDL:
Unlike with passports, which are encrypted, anyone ... can replicate the number to steal the owner's identity.
But the bill calls for:
... reasonable security measures, including tamper-resistant features to prevent unauthorized duplication or cloning ...
Electronic passports already employ an anti-cloning technology, known as Public Key Infrastructure (PKI). There is no reason to believe that this technology won't be used in California.

Similarly, California EDLs will probably employ Random Unique Identifier (RUID), another technology used today in electronic passports. This technology prevents arbitrary tracking by responding with a different, random identifier each time it's accessed. This would allow the EDL number to be an encrypted "payload" associated only with a random, unique identification number.

In other words, you can't be tracked by your $40 stalker, even if it were practical!

But what about the government tracking me? Well, they already track border crossings... right?

This is just electronic automation.

Weirdly, the article cites a study from 2009 in which Washington State's EDLs were tested to see if they could be read even inside their protective sleeves. The article reports that they can be read from 50 feet away, but as you can see on page 5, it says 57 cm (just under 2 feet). With such a short range, there would be little point to wall, ceiling, or floor mounted scanners.

Not that it matters, because this still-burgeoning technology has advanced a lot in the past few years (PKI, RUID). There will always be Luddites, standing in the way of progress, preaching fear to the credulous.

Don't be fooled by Nicole Ozer or Dana Liebelson.

This technology is nowhere near as dopey as they want you to think.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Chimp + Pig = Human

We can all have a good laugh at this silly article on Phys.org, called A chimp-pig hybrid origin for humans. This fanciful speculation is based on morphological similarities between humans and pigs, and was proposed by Eugene McCarthy, who has a Ph.D. in genetics. One doesn't need a degree in genetics to know it's wrong.

Nobody in their right mind would believe humans are a product of a single hybridization event between a chimp and a pig. Even Jimmy Kimmel made fun this idea. I find it interesting, though, to ask why this seems so impossible? After all, we don't doubt the origin of the liger and mule, both hybrid animals between two different species.

I think we intuit that, for a hybrid to be possible, the two crossed species must be closely related. Lions are like tigers, donkeys are like horses, but pigs aren't very much like chimps.

This intuition is correct, because the latest common ancestor between human and pig lived more than 85 million years ago. There were, like, dinosaurs roaming the Earth back then. Compare this to lions and tigers, which diverged less than 2 million years ago. Horses and donkeys, more like 4 million years. Such a huge separation in time makes hybridization impossible.

Taxonomy reflects this difference, too. The liger and mule are hybrids of different species in the same taxonomical genus. But pig and human come from different orders entirely. While both from the class mammalia, humans are in the order primate, pigs are in the order Laurasiatheria, along with cows, bats, whales, etc. I mean, pigs have two-towed, cloven hooves. Ain't no way that's gonna work. One can rule out any possibility of hybridization from this huge taxonomical difference.

Then there are molecular reasons to reject the hybrid hypothesis, too. Chimps have 48 chromosomes, whereas pigs only have 38. Hybrids between two species with different chromosome number is possible. Donkeys, for example, have 62 chromosomes, while horses have 64 chromosomes. As you might have guessed, mules have 63 chromosomes.

In addition to pointing to the impossibility of any such hybrid, molecular evidence also disagrees with the ludicrous hypothesis. Human and chimp genomes are 96% identical. If this hybridization theory were correct, much of that 4% would be accounted for by pig DNA. The human genome has been thoroughly studied. There is no (uniquely) pig DNA in it, anywhere.

Even if a pig-chimp hybrid were possible, there's a damn good reason why it  cannot explain human evolution. I don't know, maybe you've heard of it, a little something called THE FOSSIL RECORD. Human evolution was gradual process, from our split with chimps about 6 million years ago, to australopithecus, homo habilis, homo heidelbergensis, and finally, and finally, homo sapiens.

Evolution works. It one of the most well supported theories in all of science. The idea that some damn pig got up in there, and fast-forwarded human evolution from some chimp-like ancestor goes against the foundation evolution; gradual change over time.

You see, what McCarthy proposes is not just laughably implausible, but something much more sinister. He proposes a backwards, anti-evolutionist argument called macro evolution. His website is called macroevolution.net. It also looks like 1995. His "arguments" for a porcine human origin read like an Onion article. His only defense is the rhetorical device called argument from ignorance.
Proponents of the idea that humans are closely related to apes (and not to pigs) often speak as if their case has been proved beyond doubt. But, of course, it has not. The wide acceptance of this idea may actually be due to the lack of any competitive theory.
His website is just silly. It's enough to suspect the entire persona of Gene McCarthy is a clever farce.

My god, what if...? No... no, it couldn't be... What if McCarthy, himself, isn't even human being, at all? What if he is, himself, a pig, pushing the pig agenda? That photograph of him could be nothing more than a pig in a people suit, posing with two innocent child actors!

We're looking for the pig-man, Dr. Eugene McCarthy.
Proponents of the idea that McCarthy is a human being (and not a pig) often speak as if their case has been proved beyond doubt. But, of course, it has not. The wide acceptance of this idea may actually be due to the lack of any competitive theory.
The porcine origin of Eugene McCarthy is an idea which, to quote McCarthy himself,
... should be taken seriously.
Or not.