Misconceptions: chimps, kids and assault weapons

This New York Times Sunday Review article states what was long well known: one is far more likely to get killed by small handguns than by assault rifles. Assault rifles make big news in the spectacular but relatively rare events. But: this does not mean that there is no such thing as assault weapons. This means that banning them won’t make much of a dent in gun death statistics.

Speaking of violence: It sure appears as if chimps are naturally violent toward one another. Some argue that “effect by human intervention” has not been controlled for, but seriously, this “noble savage” stuff is nonsense.

Spanking Data seems to indicate that “spare the rod, spoil the child” is nonsense.

September 18, 2014 Posted by | evolution, nature, science, social/political | , | Leave a comment

Some interesting science stuff: elephants, washers, exploding stars, sea mushrooms

The remnants of a relatively young star are still seen expanding. What is of special interest is that we are seeing some of the light directly and other parts of the light after it has been reflected off of dust…and due to the longer path, the reflected light from the same event is reaching us later than the direct light!

Bulletin of concerned scientists: wonder if the US should consider calling for a testing ban on “hypersonic” missiles (slower than the ICBMs but fast enough to react quickly). The article is worth reading if only to learn about the technology.

Job discrimination: an applicant changed his first name from Jose to Joe…and ended up getting call backs that he didn’t get earlier.

Life sciences After almost 30 years, scientists were able to place a type of sea mushroom (not quite a fungus, not quite a fish) into a place on the tree of life.

Elephants: we really shouldn’t hunt these creatures; they are too smart and can take pleasure in play:

Technology and vibrations: watch the consequences of an unbalanced load and subsequent vibrations:

September 4, 2014 Posted by | astronomy, evolution, racism, science, social/political | , , , | Leave a comment

Some of Richard Dawkins in public debate …

One of my man-crushes:

July 16, 2014 Posted by | evolution, religion, science | | Leave a comment

More information doesn’t change beliefs

Ok, so what do you “know”? Interestingly, if one is talking about a larger issue (say, climate change, evolution, or the effects of a given economic policy on the economy) knowing more about the basics (e. g. knowing science facts or being able to solve a text book science problem) doesn’t mean that one is more likely to reach a correct conclusion on a major issue, especially when:

1. One has a self interest in an issue (e. g. one benefits directly from somewhat higher inflation)
2. One has a self interest in a tribal identity (e. g. a good conservative rejects climate science or evolution, a good liberal might feel that they should have GMO hysteria or accept woo-woo).

Paul Krugman is pessimistic (what else is new? :-))

The truth is that in a society as unequal and polarized as ours has become, almost everything is political. Get used to it.

Brendan Nyhan says:

So what should we do? One implication of Mr. Kahan’s study and other research in this field is that we need to try to break the association between identity and factual beliefs on high-profile issues – for instance, by making clear that you can believe in human-induced climate change and still be a conservative Republican like former Representative Bob Inglis or an evangelical Christian like the climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe.

But we also need to reduce the incentives for elites to spread misinformation to their followers in the first place. Once people’s cultural and political views get tied up in their factual beliefs, it’s very difficult to undo regardless of the messaging that is used.

It may be possible for institutions to help people set aside their political identities and engage with science more dispassionately under certain circumstances, especially at the local level. Mr. Kahan points, for instance, to the relatively inclusive and constructive deliberations that were conducted among citizens in Southeast Florida about responding to climate change. However, this experience may be hard to replicate – on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, another threatened coastal area, the debate over projected sea level rises has already become highly polarized.

The deeper problem is that citizens participate in public life precisely because they believe the issues at stake relate to their values and ideals, especially when political parties and other identity-based groups get involved – an outcome that is inevitable on high-profile issues. Those groups can help to mobilize the public and represent their interests, but they also help to produce the factual divisions that are one of the most toxic byproducts of our polarized era. Unfortunately, knowing what scientists think is ultimately no substitute for actually believing it.

This is one of the reasons I make it a point to lampoon ridiculous anti-GMO hysteria and to ridicule this “natural is better” nonsense:

What this tells us is that elite opinions matter a lot in public discourse. The gap between liberals and non-liberals is not really there on this issue at the grassroots. That could change, as people of various ideologies tend to follow elite cues. This is why the strong counter-attack from within the Left elite is probably going to be effective, as it signals that being against GMO is not the “liberal position.”

I’ll continue to speak out against the anti-vaccine crackpots too; they are more dangerous than the anti-GMO fruitcakes.

July 12, 2014 Posted by | economics, evolution, science | , , | Leave a comment

Delusions and holding on to them

I’ll discuss two different types of delusions.

The first one: “If a segment of the population doesn’t agree with me or ridicules me, then I am persecuted.”

Seriously: conservatives genuinely believe that.

Hey, Mr. George Will: I have your “coveted status” right here.

Then there are ideas that go against one’s prior beliefs: MORE INFORMATION WILL, IN GENERAL, NOT CHANGE THE BELIEF. Paul Krugman explains:

On Sunday The Times published an article by the political scientist Brendan Nyhan about a troubling aspect of the current American scene — the stark partisan divide over issues that should be simply factual, like whether the planet is warming or evolution happened. It’s common to attribute such divisions to ignorance, but as Mr. Nyhan points out, the divide is actually worse among those who are seemingly better informed about the issues.

The problem, in other words, isn’t ignorance; it’s wishful thinking. Confronted with a conflict between evidence and what they want to believe for political and/or religious reasons, many people reject the evidence. And knowing more about the issues widens the divide, because the well informed have a clearer view of which evidence they need to reject to sustain their belief system.

The Krugman article I linked to talks about economic beliefs.

Jerry Coyne deals with the science aspect (e. g. evolution); he shows that acceptance of evolution is NOT as strongly correlated with scientific knowledge as one might think; one also has to correct for religious belief.

Though the first two examples are mainly aimed at conservatives, liberals are guilty of this as well; in the liberal case, think of woo-woos, anti-GMO crackpots and anti-vaccine types.

In the liberal case, the fallacy isn’t one of traditional religion but rather “natural is better”.

July 8, 2014 Posted by | economics, economy, evolution, religion, science, social/political, superstition | , , | Leave a comment

Saturday, June 7 science and politics (what else?)

Science: sexual selection in action:

Like many frogs, the male Mientien tree frog (Kurixalus idiootocus), a native of Taiwan, advertises his availability for breeding by emitting a mating call. The females listen to the calls, evaluate them, choose their preferred mating partner, and then it’s game on – froggy style.

The problem is that in a noisy forest, it’s sometimes hard to pick out a meaningful sound from all the racket. As a result, many frogs have learned to take advantage of features in their environment that can artificially boost their calls, perhaps making them sound louder or deeper-pitched. Tree-hole frogs, for example, use their tree holes as a sort of microphone, taking advantage of the resonance effects of the hollowed out chamber to project their calls over greater distances.

While frogs evolved to capitalize on things like tree holes, human-made structures are relatively new. Concrete walls, asphalt roads, telephone poles, and all the other trappings of human material culture have changed the acoustic environment in which animals now find themselves. Those animals have a choice: they can either adapt to their new sonic environment, or they can abandon their older methods for communication and find new ones.

It turns out that things like storm drains make their calls more audible; hence male frogs that use storm drains as a megaphone for their calls leave more offspring.

GMO: This is an imperfect article that at least attempts some balance. But surf there and read it for the comments; some scientists weigh in. There are GMO issues to be resolved, but the effects on human health are not among them.

President Obama on student debt:

Obama derangement syndrome: President Obama has honored D-day as much as recent presidents; here is a list of FACTS of what past presidents have done. The hard core wingnuts will just think that you are lying, but this might settle the mind of the neutral.

Of course, not all criticism of President Obama is racist; I’d even venture to say that most of it is NOT. But he does endure racist attacks from Republicans; that is undeniable. Of course, delusional conservatives will try to counter that LIBERALS are racist too: e. g. there are a couple of inarticulate quotes from the human gaffe machine (aka Vice President Biden), maybe a quote from a President Obama discussion (describing his grandmother, or talking about race relations in his book) and….wait for it….a quote from Louis Farrakhan!!!! (Farrakhan a liberal? I haven’t heard that one before. Yes, President Obama denounced him)

Gun nuts
Enjoy Bill Maher’s masterful snark attack on those doing the open carry “protests”.

June 7, 2014 Posted by | Barack Obama, evolution, political/social, politics, science, social/political | , , , | Leave a comment

Human evolution: past and present

Evidently genes are still evolving (of course) and doing so quite rapidly. And sometimes, the genes are taking on new functions:

Over long periods of evolutionary time, some copied genes change drastically — so drastically, in fact, that they take on entirely new tasks.

Consider hemoglobin, which stores oxygen in red blood cells for delivery throughout the body. Scientists have found that it belongs to a family of genes that do many different things with oxygen and recent studies suggest that it evolved from proteins that grabbed extra oxygen molecules inside cells before they could do harm.

Now about Neanderthals: they were a type of human but very different from us. There is a new book which interests me: How to Think Like a Neanderthal.
I am sure much of it is speculation based on current data. Much of what is said doesn’t surprise me: the Neanderthals were stronger than we are, had to take more physical risks (e. g. used thrusting spears instead of throwing spears), suffered more injuries and cared for each other.

As far as the Neanderthal/human hybrids: realistically, this was NOT the result of consensual sex. I am loath to use the term “rape” as I see rape is a human on human crime, where “human” stands for “homo sapiens”.

April 29, 2014 Posted by | evolution, science | | Leave a comment

Mind stretching: heterodox economics, woo-woo, entropy and information and Neanderthals

Philosophical question
What does it mean to be “human”: that is, if, say, a Neanderthal were to be brought back to life, would we consider that sentient being to be a human with full human rights? The article I linked to deals with the possibility of cloning one and some of the ethical questions involved.

Entropy, order and what happens when information is erased: If you like thinking about things like this, scientist Mano Singham has an interesting little post about this topic. Interesting side question: what does “forget” really mean?

Woo-woo Scientist Jerry Coyne is a bit surprised to find woo-woo (e. g. homeopathic remedies) being sold at Whole Foods. That shouldn’t have surprised him.

Economics Paul Krugman explains that conventional economics still explains what is going on very well…but it has to be done correctly.

April 26, 2014 Posted by | economics, evolution, health, mathematics, science | , , , | Leave a comment

Whining, politics and science

Gee, when people dismiss crackpot ideas (e. g. engage in global warming denialism) it gives Charles Krauthammer the sadz. No, Mr. Krauthammer: ideas have no inherent right to respect, including…well, some academic ideas like this one (forbidding “triggers”).

Speaking of dumbness: a few of the “in the future predictions” made by the film “Idiocracy” have come true. But…I should point out that some of these predictions were already commonplace prior to the movie. Remember how humans in “civilized” countries used to amuse themselves: public executions, burning animals alive, making people fight to the death, etc.

Yes, keeping control of the Senate will be an uphill fight for the Democrats, even if some of the “head to head” polls look ok now. There is the problem of the “drag” on the ticket due to the unpopularity of the President in the states in question, many of which are “red” to begin with.

But there is time, and the recent news for Obamacare has been good.

And maybe, just maybe, there is some attention being paid to inequality. Ok, that book by Piketty is rather highbrow.

It is interesting, but being slightly underweight and undereating seems to help with longevity. Is there an evolutionary reason why this is so? There is a new conjecture about this, but the conjecture has detractors:

Why did creatures evolve such a mechanism in the first place? Researchers have declared the most popular theory doesn’t make evolutionary sense, and they’ve proposed a new explanation in its place.

The most prominent theory involves what happens physiologically during times of food scarcity. When the living is good, natural selection favors organisms that invest energy in reproduction. In times of hardship, however, animals have fewer offspring, diverting precious nutrients to cell repair and recycling so they can survive until the famine ends, when reproduction begins anew. Cell repair and recycling appear to be substantial antiaging and anticancer processes, which may explain why underfed lab animals live longer and rarely develop old-age pathologies like cancer and heart disease.

Margo Adler agrees with the basic cellular pathways, but she’s not so sure about the evolutionary logic. Adler, an evolutionary biologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia, says this popular idea relies on a big assumption: that natural selection favors this energy switch from reproduction to survival because animals will have more young in the long run—so long as they actually survive and reproduce. “This idea is repeated over and over again in the literature as if it’s true, but it just doesn’t make that much sense for evolutionary reasons,” she says.

The problem, Adler says, is that wild animals don’t have the long, secure lives of their laboratory cousins. Instead, they’re not only endangered by famine but by predators and pathogens, random accidents and rogue weather as well. They also face physiological threats from a restricted diet, including a suppressed immune system, difficulty with healing and greater cold sensitivity. For these reasons, delaying reproduction until food supplies are more plentiful is a huge risk for wild animals. Death could be waiting just around the corner.

Better to reproduce now, Adler says. The new hypothesis she proposes holds that during a famine animals escalate cellular repair and recycling, but they do so for the purpose of having as many progeny as possible during a famine, not afterward. They “make the best of a bad situation” to maximize their fitness in the present. “It’s an efficiency mode that the animal goes into,” she says. Adler and colleague Russell Bonduriansky published their reasoning in the March BioEssays.[...]

This Scientific American article discusses “modular forms” and notes that a current mathematician appears to have solved a riddle proposed by a famous mathematician from yesteryear. As articles about mathematics go, this one is pretty readable.

April 18, 2014 Posted by | 2014 midterm, economy, education, evolution, health care, mathematics, politics/social, science, social/political | , | Leave a comment

On knowing what you are talking about….

First: this is how some discussions about religion appear to me. Comments to the effect of “I don’t see how it could be otherwise” are not convincing.


When people talk about raising the retirement age, remember that there is a big spread in “years lived after 65″ between wealthier white collar workers and poorer blue collar ones.

See here:

I was pleased to see this article by Annie Lowrey documenting the growing disparity in life expectancy between the haves and the have-nots. It’s kind of frustrating, however, that this is apparently coming as news not just to many readers but to many policymakers and pundits. Many of us have been trying for years to get this point across — to point out that when people call for raising the Social Security and Medicare ages, they’re basically saying that janitors must keep working because corporate lawyers are living longer. Yet it never seems to sink in.

Maybe this article will change that. But my guess is that in a week or two we will once again hear a supposed wise man saying that we need to raise the retirement age to 67 because of higher life expectancy, unaware that (a) life expectancy hasn’t risen much for half of workers (b) we’ve already raised the retirement age to 67.

Ms. Lowrey’s article is here.

Here is one of my pet peeves: all too often, a non-specialist will attempt to claim that the mainstream view/theory in a different profession is wrong because it doesn’t make sense to them. Here Larry Moran takes on a chemistry professor’s (at Rice University, no less) claim that evolutionary theory is flawed. Professor Moran concludes:

I suppose I’m going to be labeled as one of those evil “Darwinists” who won’t tolerate anyone who disagrees with me about evolution.1

I’m actually not. I just don’t like stupid people who think they are experts in evolution when they have never bothered to learn about it. Here’s my advice to graduate students in organic chemistry: if you want to know about evolution then take a course or read a textbook. And remember, there’s nothing wrong with admitting that you don’t understand a subject. Just don’t assume your own ignorance means that all the experts in the subject are wrong too.

It isn’t just “experts at a different field” though. Right now, we are hearing more and more from people who think that vaccines are bad and contain lots of harmful chemicals. One scientist had enough and made an epic drunken rant:


No, this is not a partisan issue; there are plenty of liberal anti-vaccination types out there, and they are a disgrace.

March 16, 2014 Posted by | creationism, economy, evolution, ranting, religion, science, social/political, Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment


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