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Member since: 2002
Number of posts: 35,166

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Ethics and Science Literacy in the American Social and Political Landscape


"“SCIENCE DOESN’T PROVE ANYTHING!” he typed in all caps from his tablet halfway around the world, connecting wirelessly, utilizing satellites orbiting the earth in the lower atmosphere, to me, on my tiny wireless phone, sitting on a bus with a small combustion engine that amazingly makes it move at high speeds towards my destination, in order to illustrate why he doesn’t believe in the theory of evolution. As much as it may appear to be a caricature of the lack of scientific literacy in America, this is an event that happens on a nearly daily basis to science communicators and science popularizers all over the country. Sir Isaac Asimov often lamented on the mantra of “My ignorance is just as good as your knowledge,” a state the electorate is, ironically, devolving into. As a culture, we have now begun to cater to this ideology by insisting on false balance over rational discourse, anecdotes over evidence, ideology over education. To myself and many of my colleagues, this is the most pronounced and dangerous problem in America today, and the place it needs to be addressed and remedied is in the classroom.

There is currently an epidemic in this country that seems harder to cure every day, it grows rapidly out of control and becomes the overriding force of the American dialogue, consuming all sense of reason and rationality in its stead. The concept at the core of this epidemic is that ethics and science are in polar opposition, and in order to be an ethical human being, you need to oppose science as an idea in and of itself, lest you be labeled an enemy by a moral majority of your peers. When the news media conducts an interview with a leading geologist, discussing the current state of plate tectonics and the current prediction models for earthquake activity in the Bay Area of California, they feel compelled to also have a guest named Jim-Bob from Pasadena, who believes that the earthquakes are really caused by demons celebrating the rampant homosexuality in San Francisco, and the only way to save ourselves is to embrace God. This is nearly the level of false balance we’ve fallen to when discussing science in America.

Nowhere is this problem more apparent than in three of the most politically and ethically charged scientific discussions in living memory. These dialogues revolve around the science of genetic engineering of seeds in agriculture, anthropogenic climate change, and vaccines and immunizations. Each of these issues has a major ethics component that people use to argue against sound science, as if they aren’t compatible with one another. In each of these topics, the false balance that people demand is the scientist discussing the science, and the layman who disagrees for ethical reasons, to be regarded as equals.

When we look at the overriding discussion on genetic modification of seeds, a major component of modern agriculture, we see a stark illustration of the poor science literacy in the public consciousness. The concept of genetic modification, without delving into the hard science, is really the process of selecting desirable traits through gene manipulation, rather than generations of cross breeding. It’s typically a more focused method that allows for less chance of error in the end product than traditional breeding methods. The primary argument against this concept is often that it isn’t “natural.” They have in their minds that scientists are taking needles and injecting harmful chemicals into seeds, and the public in general is terrified of chemicals. This highlights the lack of understanding of chemicals, and that everything on earth is made of chemical compounds, as well as the whole idea of dose and dilution. There are many substances that at a certain dose can cure an illness, while at a higher dose can kill the patient. This is common knowledge amongst the educated scientific community, and is what many see as a failing of our education system where the general public is concerned. The false balance typically used to stir the emotions of the people that don’t know any better is to point at the idea of anything created by a large corporation must be detrimental. They typically spread these messages on iPads and Windows based computers, ironically, without any such ethical qualms.



A very good read, and rather important in regard to finding a real road to progressive action.

Oil train derails near Mosier in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge


"A multi-car oil train derailment Friday in the Columbia River Gorge near Mosier sent up a massive plume of black smoke and stoked long-standing fears about the risks of hauling crude oil through one of the Pacific Northwest's most renowned landmarks.

Ten cars derailed and some oil was leaking, said Jennifer Flynt, spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. It wasn't immediately clear whether the oil had reached the nearby Columbia River.

"We don't know whether there's any environmental damage including whether there's spillage to the Columbia," Flynt said.

Two cars caught fire, said Hal Gard, an Oregon Department of Transportation rail safety official.



Oil trains should not be in the Gorge. This was bound to happen, but...

How to flunk out of the University of Google



I want to share with you my strategies for flunking out of the University of Google.

This is one instance where flunking is a good thing. A graduate of the University of Google chooses to accept only information that supports his or her position, and ignores or dismisses information in conflict with it. A graduate of the University of Google will not be able to answer the question “What kind of evidence would change your mind on this subject?” It’s insidious, because once their opinions are formed in this way, they tend to identify with other people who share those opinions, and any new information that comes their way will either be accepted or rejected on the basis of which position they’ve already taken (the cultural cognition effect)


Flunking out requires a decent amount of work, and the willingness to accept that you might be wrong about a subject from time to time. You’ll need to become more aware of your own cognitive biases, and have some strategies for overcoming them.

So as a preliminary step down the road to science literacy, I’ve put my thoughts on this together into a guide to learning about a subject in which you have no background. It’s an exercise; please don’t shortcut the process and go to Wikipedia, or you’ll miss the whole point.



A very good read, indeed.

Portland Public Schools Lead Scandal Continues To Grow (Updates)

Email Shows Top Officials in Portland Public Schools Knew About Lead Danger in 2012

"An email obtained today by WW appears to contradict Portland Public Schools chief operating officer Tony Magliano's claim that he was previously unaware of test results from 2010 to 2012 that found elevated levels of lead in the water at 47 PPS buildings.

Over the weekend, Magliano told WW he didn't know about the tests showing elevated lead levels at 47 schools between 2010 and 2012.

But the newly obtained email was sent to Magliano and five others on Oct. 24, 2012, by Erin Barnett, who works in the district's communications office.

It called for a meeting to discuss putting warning labels on sinks in schools with high levels of lead.



Portland counted on ineffective lead filters to keep schoolchildren safe

"Since 2001, Portland Public Schools has counted on water filters as the sole means of protecting students and teachers from hundreds of drinking fountains and faucets that tested high for lead emissions.

But officials have relied upon water filters designed only to make water look, taste and smell better — not to remove lead.

Portland uses Pentair-brand filters that aren't certified for reducing lead to acceptable levels, according NSF International, the body charged with testing and certifying filters deemed effective at removing lead from water.

A certified filter is guaranteed to cut lead levels as high as 150 parts per billion down to 10 parts or less, said Rick Andrew, NSF's expert on drinking water treatment. The federal "action level" is 15 parts per billion.



Dozens of Portland schools had high lead levels in drinking water; here are some of the worst (searchable database)

"Portland Public Schools has tested for lead in water at 87 schools since 2009 and found at least one drinking fountain or faucet emitting water with lead levels above the Environmental Protection Agency's "action level" of 15 parts per billion at 51 of them, records show.
Jefferson High and Grout Elementary had the most tainted water sources, at 15 and 13 respectively.

You can look up the lead testing results at any Portland school using The Oregonian/OregonLive's searchable database.

The highest lead readings -- as high as 16 times the federal threshold -- were found at Jefferson High, Marshall High, Kelly Elementary and Vernon School, all in 2012.



And now there is a radon issue, too!


It should be noted that Jefferson and Grout serve a great percentage of lower SES families. So no surprise there.

If your local district hasn't done testing, or hasn't reporting testing to the public, please jump on them.

Oregonians, please voice your displeasure to PPS. Thank you..




Today, European lawmakers gather in Brussels to attempt to subjugate my continent once more, this time by pressuring us to forswear the scientific innovations that have revolutionized agriculture around the world.

This new offensive comes from the European Parliament’s Committee on Development, which has prepared a draft resolution that “urges the G8 member states not to support GMO crops in Africa.” It has received surprisingly little attention in the press and it may receive a vote as early as June 6.

As a Kenyan farmer who participates in the daily struggle to grow food in a land that doesn’t produce enough of it, I have a short message for the well-fed politicians who would consider supporting this neo-colonialist measure: “Leave Africa alone.”

Your hostility to GMOs already has set us back a generation. Please don’t take a step that could impoverish us for another generation by discouraging African governments from accepting important crop technologies that farmers in so many other places take for granted.



Anti-GMO, the new colonialists.

AP Story In NYT: Portland Parents Decry Officials Over Lead at 2 Schools


"Parents sometimes shouted as they criticized officials over high amounts of lead in drinking water at two Portland schools, while the head of the district promised an independent investigation into the contamination.

Some parents grilled a panel of Portland Public Schools administrators and government water officials after tests in March revealed elevated levels of lead in 14 of 92 water sources at Creston K-8 School and the Rose City Park School. They faulted school officials for failing to warn people not to drink the water and follow through on previous signs of problems.

"I have a third-grader who's been drinking from the fountain with the highest lead level all year, and last year and the year before was drinking from one of the other ones," parent Judy Burke said. "So for three years of his 9-year-old life has been drinking this water."

The district said it will provide bottled drinking water for students and staff at all its schools through the end of the school year, until tested can be done this summer, which happens every 15 years. The district placed bags over water fountains at all schools Friday, Superintendent Carole Smith said.


Petaluma Fear Mongering About Glyphosate Leads To Need For Body Suits And Respirators.



Having used the alternative herbicides over the past two months, DeNicola said crews have needed to apply the treatments more often to achieve similar results. The plants are also likely to regrow, since the root remains alive underground.

The treatments are also said to be extremely pungent during application, with several workers complaining of eye irritation and one experiencing respiratory problems, DeNicola said. Those attributes have required the use of new protective equipment, something that was not required with Roundup.

“It’s frustrating being out there using something labeled as organic, but you have to be out there in a bodysuit and a respirator,” he said.



No, a rat study with marginal results does not prove that cell phones cause cancer ...

No, a rat study with marginal results does not prove that cell phones cause cancer, no matter what Mother Jones and Consumer Reports say


To be fair, NaturalNews includes Adams’ usual conspiracy-mongering about vaccines, GMOs, and the like, linking them all to “government coverups,” but when you are a mainstream publication like Consumer Reports or Mother Jones and your headlines and much of your text are not that far removed from something published on NaturalNews, you are doing it wrong. As Matthew Herper put it writing for Forbes about the reporting on this study, “Yesterday’s cell phone cancer scare scares me a little about the future of journalism.” In fact, if you look at some of the stories linked to above, you’ll note that many of them include notes at the end mentioning something like, “This article was updated to reflect criticism of the study’s conclusions by outside researchers.” That’s the press jumping first and being forced to backtrack under reasonable criticism. Unfortunately, none of them seem actually to make it very clear specifically how the stories were altered in response to criticism, which is bad.


Still, from the standpoint of basic science, specifically basic physics and biology, the likelihood that radio waves can cause cancer is incredibly unlikely, or, as I like to put it, not quite homeopathy-level implausible but damned implausible nonetheless. Indeed, from a biological standpoint, a strong link between cell phone use and brain cancer (or any other cancer) is not very plausible at all; in fact, it’s highly implausible. Cell phones do not emit ionizing radiation; they emit electromagnetic radiation in the microwave spectrum whose energy is far too low to cause the DNA damage that leads to mutations that lead to cancer. While it is possible that perhaps heating effects might contribute somehow to cancer, most cell phones, at least ones manufactured in the last decade or so, are low power radio transmitters. It is also necessary to acknowledge the possibility that there might be an as-yet-undiscovered biological mechanism by which low power radio waves can cause cancer, perhaps epigenetic or other, but the evidence there is very weak to nonexistent as well. Basically, based on what we know about carcinogenesis, a postulated link between cell phones and cancer is highly implausible.

In the absence of better basic science that nails down a heretofore-undiscovered potential biological mechanism by which exposure to radio waves could cause cancer, I have a hard time managing to muster any enthusiasm about recommending more studies than the ones that are already going on, particularly in light of various recent studies that we’ve examined that purport to find a link between cell phones and cancer but really do not, as described in these posts dating back to 2008, listed for your convenience if you want more in-depth information and discussion:


In other words, as a skeptic who’s probably the most open-minded (perhaps almost to the point of my brains falling out) to the claim that cell phones cause cancer, I still consider the claim, on basic science considerations alone, so incredibly implausible as to be an incredible, albeit not quite physically impossible, claim. I base this opinion on a preponderance of evidence that shows that brain cancer incidence is not increasing, inconsistent cell culture and animal studies that suffer from publication bias and when considered in the context of Bayesian prior plausibility are in fact negative, several epidemiological studies that failed to find a cell-phone cancer link, and the fact that the only epidemiological studies that claim to find a cell phone-cancer link have come from one group in Sweden whose principal investigator is known for being an expert witness in lawsuits against mobile phone companies.



It's best to go to the link to get the full picture.

Here's another piece on this study:

Underwhelming Cell Phone Rat Study



Whether one agrees fully with the author or not, at the end of the day, I hope everyone sees how the media blew this story with unnecessary hyperbole, and a nearly complete lack of context.

KevinMD: I am a doctor, but I didn’t cause the opioid epidemic


"Let’s get this straight. I am a doctor, but I didn’t cause the opioid epidemic. That is not exactly what you hear in the media these days. After all, doctors are the ones with the prescription pads, and someone must be to blame.

The truth is that death from opioid abuse is on the rise. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported some frightening statistics. Deaths from opiates have increased by 137 percent since 2000. In 2014 alone, more than 28,000 people died from opioid use, and more than half of them died from the use of prescription pills. This is a four-fold increase in opioid-related deaths over fifteen years.

We need an American detox.

It is not surprising that people are angry. They should be! These deaths are preventable and by all accounts unacceptable. The U.S. government is looking into ways to calm the opioid epidemic, but their approach may be a misfire. Right now, they have targeted doctors as the smoking gun. It would be more effective to make doctors their allies, instead of the scapegoats.

Instead, you see advertisements posted in Times Square and other venues featuring children in pain. The inflammatory slogans read: “Would you give your child heroin?” Doctors are seen as drug pushers instead of caregivers trying to relieve obvious pain. Parents are being judged for wanting to relieve their children’s pain. Where does the discussion of actual medical care come into play?



A worthy read, IMO.

The snot-spattered experiments that show how far sneezes really spread (Nature Journal)

Mathematician Lydia Bourouiba uses high-speed video to break down the anatomy of sneezes and coughs — and to understand infectious disease.

"So, how do you get your research subjects to sneeze on cue?

“That's a question I get a lot,” says Lydia Bourouiba with an easy smile. The solution turns out to be surprisingly simple: just take a small, rod-shaped device, use it to tickle a subject's nostril for a few seconds, and — achoo!

For Bourouiba, a mathematician and fluid dynamicist, that sneeze is the pay-off. She and her team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge record the explosive aftermath in gross detail using one or sometimes two cameras running at thousands of frames per second. Played back in slow motion, the videos reveal a violent explosion of saliva and mucus spewing out of the mouth in sheets that break up into droplets, all suspended in a turbulent cloud.

The videos that Bourouiba has recorded in this way allow her to measure everything from the diameter of the droplets to their speed — data that help her to learn more about how these particles carry viruses and other pathogens to their next host. She has shown that sneeze and cough particles can travel the length of most rooms and can even move upwards into ventilation shafts — suggesting that microbes in the droplets could potentially spread farther and over longer periods of time than current theories suggest.



Well, then.

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