The Physics Police

The Physics Police

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Thomas Bøhn Biased

Thomas Bøhn is an anti-GMO activist. He's calls himself the "Senior Scientist", which is to say program coordinator, for a Norwegian non-commercial foundation called GenØk. They claim their vision is of the safer use of biotechnology. This reads to me as the disuse of biotechnology.

Bøhn is the lead author on a paper to be published in Food Chemistry which claims to reject the hypothesis that GM soybeans are "substantially equivalent" to non-GM soybeans. This conclusion is based on miniscule nutritional differences they consider statistically significant.

Their analysis is incorrect because it misuses a statistical test called one-way ANOVA. This test requires that the responses for a given group are independent and identically distributed normal random variables. In other words, this test requires the only difference between the GM and non-GM soybeans is their management practice. This assumption is incorrect.

Farmers do not randomly adopt one management practice over another! They do so with careful consideration. As a result, many important confounding variables are unaccounted for in the Bøhn paper, including soil quality, available water, local whether, and all other conditions a farmer might deem important to selecting a management practice.

The small variations in nutritive content between the samples is easily explained by variations in farm conditions, and cannot be attributed to any one management practice.

You can read about many other systemic and emblematic flaws in this paper in an extensive review by Amelia Jordan on Skepti-Forum.

Tetanus Vaccine in Kenya

Neonatal tetanus is a preventable and often fatal infection among infants in Kenya. Vaccinating women of child-bearing age is effective at preventing this disease. Antibodies pass from the mother through the placenta to the fetus. This protects both mother and child from tetanus infection as a result of injury during childbirth. Sadly, this results in 110,000 deaths per year in Africa.

A vaccination campaign lead by the Kenyan Ministry of Health in collaboration with the World Health Organization was undertaken last week. This program aimed to vaccinate two million women of reproductive age in sixty high-risk Kenyan districts.

Meanwhile, head of the Catholic Church in Kenya John Cardinal Njue was busy sewing deadly paranoia. During his xenophobic rant to news reporters, he had this caution for his congragation.
Let us be very careful, and weight very carefully the agendas -- I mean the proposals -- that come or be sent by people from elsewhere. (Source)
Nice Freudian slip, there, Cardinal. Seemingly unbeknownst to this feckless monster, that agenda had by people from elsewhere is to save babies from dying.

This media circus seems to have started when Catholic Health Commission of Kenya Chairman Paul Kariuki Njiru sent a letter to Kenyan newsrooms asking these frantic, leading questions.
Is there a tetanus crisis on women of child-bearing age in Kenya? If this is so, why has it not been declared? Why does the campaign target women of 14 - 49 years? Why has the campaign left out young girls, boys and men even if they are all prone to tetanus? In the midst of so many life-threatening diseases in Kenya, why has tetanus been prioritized? (Source)
My readers should already know the banal answer to all these foolish questions. Cabinet Secretary for Health Mr James Macharia met church leaders to explain, you know, why all those babies have been dying, and how the vaccination campaign is designed to stop all those babies from dying.

Njue has since expressed he is not opposed to the tetanus vaccine program, he just wanted a clarification on why it was taking place. I don't believe this excuse for a damn second. He sent his letter to Kenyan newsrooms, not the ministry of health! The questions he asked in that letter were dripping with distrust and ignorance on a topic that, if he was truly curious, could be resolved by five minutes searching on the Internet.

Not only that, but check out this excerpt from the same letter.
Information in the public domain indicates that Tetanus Toxoid vaccine (TT) laced with Beta human chorionic gonadotropin (b-HCG) sub unit has been used in Philippines, Nicaragua and Mexico to vaccinate women against future pregnancy. Beta HCG sub unit is a hormone necessary for pregnancy ... The ongoing tetanus vaccination campaign bears the hallmarks of the programmes that were carried out in Philippines, Mexico and Nicaragua. We are not certain that the vaccines being administered in Kenya are free of this hormone.
This pernicious myth about forced-sterilization was dreamed up by pro-lifers back in 1995 and was roundly refuted at the time. No HCG vaccine was ever tested on humans without their consent.

The idea that HCG is being secretly tested in Kenya is easily dispelled by Professor Gursaran Prasad Talwar of the Indian National Science Academy. In 1992 he worked to develop an HCG-based family planning vaccine, and flatly rejects the despicable conflation of his work with the WHO tetanus vaccination program.
It had some sort of similarity with the tetanus vaccine. The birth control vaccine I developed was the beta sub-unit of hCG that generated anti-bodies that prevented pregnancy in women, but also, protected them against tetanus...

In our new vaccine, we have replaced tetanus toxoid by another carrier LTB, which would avoid the misinformation that has been associated with the valuable tetanus vaccination. (Source)
Clearly, some "information in the public domain" should not be blindly trusted.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Pierce Brosnan and the Navy

Let me preface this post by saying that I like whales. Star Trek IV, and all that. I like cetaceans, too. Pretty much any mammal that lives in the water full time has my respect.

Now, I recently saw this video where Pierce Brosnan says:
Together, we can save the whales.
Sounds good to me! So how are we going to accomplish this? Well, the video is paired with a Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) petition which asks the Secretary of Defense to:
Protect whales during the Navy's routine training and testing exercises
Well, that sounds reasonable and in line with the NRDC mission statement:
We strive to protect nature in ways that advance the long-term welfare of present and future generations.
The NRDC claim go on to claim that sonar and explosives testing kill whales, and that:
The Navy's Environmental Review concedes it could kill nearly 1,000 marine mammals.
That may sound like a lot, but one should also consider the big picture. More than 650,000 marine mammals are killed by commercial fishing each year.

Anyway, this number of 1,000 marine mammals seems to come from a 2011 NBC article by Miguel Llanos. For reference, he lists the website, which is an entire website dedicated to hosting information about the Training and Testing Environmental Impact Statement. This makes sense because the report is truly humungous. Just section 3.4 on marine mammals is 394 pages long!

Strangely enough, you won't find the number 1,000 marine mammals anywhere in this long document. Hmm, suspicious. Instead, the synopsis at the very beginning says that:
The use of sonar and active acoustic sources are not expected to result in mortality, although the potential for beaked whale mortality coincident with use of sonar and other active acoustic sources is considered. The Navy has requested two annual beaked whale mortality takes under the MMPA as part of all training activities combined to account for any unforeseen potential impacts.
So that number was only exaggerated by 500 times, no big deal. But wait, if he didn't get the number from the document, where did it come from?

Well, the NBC article has it wedged in with a bunch of hyperbolic remarks from one Zak Smith, an attorney for, you guessed it, the NRDC! Apparently, this guy has been spreading this false claim about the Navy's report for years.

Neither Miguel Llanos nor Pierce Brosnan seem to have cared enough about saving the whales to check the facts. Not even a little. They got duped into making a 100-mile mountain out of a 2-foot mole hill.

In other words, the Navy's annual take authorization of 2 accounts for only 0.0003% of the 650,000 marine mammal deaths each year.

Clearly, there are bigger fish to fry!

But seriously, this episode amounts to nothing more than a political attack on the Navy. Now, I don't much like military spending, myself. Put me in charge and I'd give half the pie to NASA in a heartbeat. My goal isn't to fight against political viewpoints that I'm opposed to. I share both environmentalism and anti-military-industrial-complex viewpoints with Zak Smith and the NRDC.

Where I part ways with these activists is the lying lies they tell in order to gain attention. Not to mention donations to their contrived cause.

Some people might ask, what's so bad about a little white lie?

I'll tell you what's so bad about it. People can tell. People who aren't on board can sense the self-righteous denial. By telling lies, you miss the chance to get them on board which you might have with a reasoned argument. They may not literally be able to do the math, but emotionally, people can detect the red flags of rhetoric and phony activism. It's a turn-off. It doesn't help save the whales.

Antagonizing and making ignorant demands at the Navy doesn't help save whales, either. It gives them less reason to care if they feel like they're being treated like the enemy. Clearly, they've put a lot of time and effort into this report. Why make an enemy out of a potential ally?

I'm sick of this nonsense.

I want people to be better environmentalists, dammit! Mindlessly clicking on hollow petitions makes a mockery of environmentalism. The popularity of this particular scam betrays a grievous lack of skepticism in the movement.

If we want to follow the NRDC mission to protect nature in ways that advance the long-term welfare of current and future generations, we're going to need to stop mindlessly believing celebrities, and start thinking for ourselves.

Check your facts, Mr. Bond!

Monday, March 3, 2014

Kepler Past, Present, and Future

The Kepler mission is one of most interesting things that has happened in science in my lifetime. The spacecraft was launched in 2009 and spent its first 4 years staring, unblinking, at a tiny patch of stars in the constellation Cygnus.

Before this mission, we didn't know for sure that planetary systems were common around other stars. True to the Copernican principle, once it started looking, Kepler caught all sorts of planets transiting in front of their host stars. These transits cause the stars light to dim slightly, and the Kepler team reports these as candidate exoplanets.

Follow up on these candidates is performed by ground-based telescopes, which carefully measure the redshift of the starlight from the candidate's star. Changes in the redshift can betray small changes in velocity due to the gravitational tug of the planet on its star.

The sensitivity of these ground-based telescopes is quite impressive. For example, the HARPS spectrograph in Chile can identify radial-velocity shifts as small as 0.3 m/s. For comparison, the Earth's gravity perturbs the Sun by only 0.1 m/s. This puts us right on the edge of being able to confirm Earth-like planets.

Last week NASA announced the confirmed identification of 715 "confirmed" exoplanets. This announcement is huge because, before it was made, the list of confirmed exoplanets numbered only 975. In fact, Kepler now accounts for 57% of all confirmed planets.

However these 715 exoplanets were not confirmed by spectroscopy. The paper in which this list was published calls them "confirmed" citing a false-positive rate less than 1%. They were able to rule out false positives by looking for systems with multiple planet candidates.

Because planetary systems tend to form in a tight disk, we sometimes see the whole system edge on. This means that we're likely to see multiple planets transiting in front of the star. This fact helps distinguish multiple planet systems, busy with lots of transit events, from false positives, where spurious data look like single, isolated transit events.

Part of what makes this technique possible is how common are multiple planetary systems, like ours. In other words, the Copernican principle makes hunting exoplanets a little bit easier.

One of the greatest things about this new planet list is that it includes over 100 Earth-size planets.
Geoffrey Marcy has predicted that the Milky Way galaxy contains something like 40 billion Earth-sized planets within their star's habitable zone.

You may ask, how do you get 40 billion Earth-like planets from just 100 Earth-sized planets? One thing to keep in mind is that, by chance, we only see a few of the Kepler stars edge on to their planetary ecliptic. Most planets orbit in an ellipse that doesn't eclipse their star in our line of sight.

Also, the Kepler viewing area is only a tiny fraction of the sky. I couldn't find this number anywhere else, so I calculated it myself:

115.6 / 41,253 = 0.28%

So there are still plenty of planets out there, just waiting to be discovered! And visited...?

Sadly, last year Kepler suffered failure the second of four reaction wheels. With only two working reaction wheels, it can no longer keep oriented in space, which requires three wheels, one for each dimension of space. This mechanical failure caused an early end to it's planet-finding mission.

Or so it seemed, until NASA came up with what they're calling the K2 mission. By keeping the sun in the X-Y plane, they can do a pretty good job keeping the space craft on balance using just two reaction wheels. The catch is, Kepler will be limited to the field of stars in our ecliptic. It will also have diminished precision, but will still be able to discover lots of new planets.

Let me explain why I think this is a good idea!

So far, we've been finding exoplanets in a patch of the sky where, if there was anybody home, they couldn't easily see our planetary system, because our ecliptic is pointed in a different direction.

But Kepler will now be pointed at stars who see our ecliptic edge on.

If anybody's home around these stars, they could detect Earth by the same transit method.

Neighbors worth knowing something about, right?