The Physics Police

The Physics Police

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:
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, 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 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.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Arsenic Rice

Earlier this month, a Discover Magazine blog post appeared with the headline Toxin Found in Most U.S. Rice Causes Genetic Damage. Use of the word "toxin" place of "arsenic" bothers the heck out of me, but I digress.

This blog post reports on the findings of a study in Nature titled High arsenic in rice is associated with elevated genotoxic effects in humans.

This study found "elevated genotoxic effects" in subjects who consumed rice with concentrations of arsenic as low as 200 μg/kg, which is approximately equal to 200 parts per billion.

This study was conducted in India, so what about U.S. rice, as mentioned in the blog headline?

Last year, Consumer Reports tested a variety of brands of U.S. rice for arsenic. From their results, I calculated the average total arsenic in U.S. rice is 227 ppb.

Does that mean eating rice is dangerous? Not really, because in the study, the daily intake of rice was in excess of 540 grams. You can expect zero health effects from U.S. rice, unless you eat a lot.
540 grams * (200 ppm / 227 ppm) = 475 grams per day
That's about a pound per day, or 30% daily intake of calories. Some people may eat this much, but that's a lot of rice, if you ask me.

Like other heavy metals, arsenic will accumulate in the body if intake exceeds the body's ability to excrete. As with fish, which can be high in heavy metals, maybe don't eat rice every single day.

If you do eat rice everyday, you might avoid rice grown in areas like Texas, which have high levels of arsenic in the ground. To compare brands, check out those Consumer Report results.

Don't be afraid to eat rice.

It's good for ya.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Fracking and Arsenic

Katie Colaneri recently blogged on the NPR website with the headline New Study Examines Link Between Fracking and Arsenic Contamination.

Her post begins with commentary on a ProPublica piece New Study Finds High Levels of Arsenic in Groundwater Near Fracking Sites by Theodoric Meyer.

These articles refers to a paper with the lengthy title An evaluation of water quality in private drinking water wells near natural gas extraction sites in the Barnett Shale Formation by researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington.

The paper's abstract claims:
Lower levels of arsenic ... were detected at reference sites outside the Barnett Shale region as well as sites within the Barnett Shale region located more than 3 km from active natural gas wells.
Which is not surprising, because concentrations of heavy metals in groundwater tend to differ between geological regions. Not to mention, these reference sites are on top of a completely different aquifer (Nacatocha) than the fracking-adjacent wells (Trinity and Woodbine), as described on page 5.

Also, there were only 5 reference sites measured in the study. Statistical significance can't be satisfied with such a small sample size. The authors even admit this:
...our sample size is too small to make definitive conclusion. page 11
Anyway, by comparing apples to oranges (i.e. not controlling for geology/aquifer), the authors fail to address the:
...potential impact of natural gas extraction activities on groundwater quality in aquifers overlying the Barnett Shale ... page 6
Which they claim is the goal of the paper! The observed variation in arsenic (and other heavy metals) is easily explained by the lack of a control for geology and aquifer

The authors should have looked for changes in each well over time. In fact, this information is available from the Texas Water Development Board. I know the authors are aware of this data source, because they used it in further, poorer analysis:
Concentrations were significantly higher in active extraction areas compared to reference samples and historical samples. page 9
Hey, they're comparing apples to oranges again! They have averaged data from all wells in all counties. Then, they compared this to averaged data from fracking-adjacent wells. That's stupid! Why not find the changes on a per-well basis, and see if there is a statistically significant result?

My guess is, they tried that, and it didn't work, so they resorted to unjustified grouping by country. Maye they even did a bit of hand-picking in order to come up with their desired outcome?

But here's the most astounding part of this study. Take a look at this graph:

(Red marks are mine.)

This graph is accompanied by no statistical analysis, whatsoever! This is how you know they're liars. They went to the trouble of graphing distance vs. arsenic concentration, but buried it on page 26 (of 28), and didn't perform a correlation analysis, which is necessary to achieve one of the three goals of the paper:
... evaluating the relationship between water quality and geographic proximity to natural gas extraction activities. page 6
The data didn't fit their preconceptions, so they just skipped the statistical analysis. Wow.

The mountain of problems like bogus historical data, faulty methods, cherry picking facts, hiding statistics, lack of proper controls, and small sample sizes force me to conclude one thing.

This paper is junk science.

If the Katie Colaneri's headline were true, we'd see these red-circled points lying somewhere along the red line. So, as it happens, no such link exists between arsenic levels and proximity to fracking wells!

The high levels of arsenic in these people's wells is real, but natural, caused by the local geology.

At least Theodoric Meyer's headline is only misleading. It implies some link between "high levels of arsenic" and the nearby fracking sites, without coming out and saying it.

Katie Colaneri's headline is just a lie.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Bill Nye the Anti-GMO Guy

I like Bill Nye. I watched his show as a kid. Recently, I watched the Genetically Modified Foods episode of his show The Eye of Nye. This episode is kind of old, having first aired June 5th, 2005.

Surprisingly, it was weightily anti-GMO, something I wouldn't have expected from Bill Nye, who claims to be a card-carrying skeptic.

I first got worried when it started off with this mistaken claim:
If we genetically modify out food, say by taking a gene from a fish, and putting it into the tomato, we're creating a whole new species. [3:00]
Obviously, since the GMO fish can still breed with wild fish, it isn't a new species. It's a new variety. How did the editors, let alone Bill, miss this?

Then, in a discussion about the benefits of GMO, this text was displayed:
Critics charge: the nutritional value of Golden Rice is less than 10% of the daily Vitamin A requirement. [10:25]
Months before this episode aired (March 27th), a study was published showing an improved strain which provides 100% daily Vitamin A requirement in just half a cup of Golden Rice. Maybe this study was published too late to be included in the episode.

These two mistaken facts are minor, but the tone of the episode is troubling. In one sketch, a television host interviews a corporate representative, who explains how a fish gene is used to keep tomatoes from freezing. The host responds by asking:
But, isn't that kind of creepy?
To me, the creepy thing is the manipulative nature of the sketches in this episode. Later in the sketch, a man in a corn-cob suit comes out and attacks the corporate executive. Clearly, he's the bad guy, so the viewer can reject his arguments.

This is priming the audience with bias, not science.

A later sketch show this exchange between a teacher and his students:
Teacher: Yes, children, but who underwrites the science, though?
Student: Missus Incorporated, makers of genetically engineered food.
Teacher: Yes, so they've really got us by the shorts on this one. [18:25]
The implication is that the food-safety assessments performed by companies seeking approval for GMO crops are deceptive, because they are self-funded.

This particular conspiracy theory is quite popular. It's also very wrong. This just isn't how GMO regulation works, at least, not here in the United States.

GMO regulation is, of course, complex. You can read a good summary here or here.

Importantly, governmental agencies employ real, live scientists to fill the role of peer reviewer. Bad science is going to be noticed.

Also, while the bills are paid by the company seeking approval, the science is often performed by independent labs. These labs stake their reputation on providing accurate results, not convenient results.

In order for this conspiracy to work, you'd need independent labs, governmental bodies, and GMO producers to all share in a game of deception. With scientific studies publicly accessible, deception could be unraveled by anyone seeking to reproduce their results.

This has never, ever happened, despite plenty of petty claims to the contrary, many of which I've blogged about in the past.

This episode of The Eye of Nye contains conspiracy theory, manipulative appeals to disgust, and a literal (not to mention insulting) caricature of the rational argument for GMO food, who gets attacked by a giant ear of corn.

Not very scientific of you, Bill Nye.

At risk of being pedantic, I also want to point out a factual error in the Be Skeptical interview:
The thing with the corn-borer is, somehow, it had the potential to effect the monarch butterfly population, having to do with milkweed that grows near the corn.
Bill is confusing two different issues. BT corn produces an endogenous insecticide, which targets the corn-borer. This modification is separate from glyphosate resistance, which allows farmers to spray the herbicide on their fields to kill weeds.

Milkweed is commonly used to create a buffer zone around fields, as a sort of wall to keep out worse weeds. Monarchs eat exclusively milkweed, so loss of this plant reduces their food supply.

Not surprisingly, significant milkweed habitat loss has been attributed, in a 2012 study, to herbicide use on farms. But lets not mistake the gene conferring glyphosate resistance for the cause of milkweed habitat loss. The cause is herbicide use.

Even if glyphosate had never been invented, different herbicides would be in use today, and milkweed habitat would still be on the decline.

Protecting milkweed and thereby monarchs is important, and has nothing to do with GMO safety.