Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks out about GMOs

Though lots of liberals are highly anti-GMO (to the point of being “knee-jerk” about it), this sort of position isn’t the “liberal position”, yet:

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.”

Follow the link to see the actual data (as of 2013).

That is why I am refreshed to see Neil deGrasse Tyson speaking up. To those who want to cry “foul” over artificial selection and hybridization being compared to genetic engineering, I’ll note that both changes the genome but G. E. does it in a more targeted, more precise way. G. E. actually produces LESS change than the former.

To the genuinely neutral, I’d recommend reading what the bulk of the science community says and a good place to get your opinions might be from science magazines such as Scientific American, Nature Magazine and our National Academy of Science. Yes, you can sign up for a free NAS account and download a FREE book on the topic! I just did and shall read it.

I won’t get into the nuts and bolts of the argument since I am not a scientist (or at least a scientist of this type; don’t know if “The Queen of Sciences” counts :-) ). But in a contest between the professionals and people who “just know”, I’ll go with the professionals every time.

July 31, 2014 Posted by | science, social/political | , | Leave a comment

Quackery ….

Surprise, surprise: there is evidence that exposing kids to religion makes them LESS able to distinguish between reality and fantasy:

Young children who are exposed to religion have a hard time differentiating between fact and fiction, according to a new study published in the July issue of Cognitive Science.

Researchers presented 5- and 6-year-old children from both public and parochial schools with three different types of stories — religious, fantastical and realistic –- in an effort to gauge how well they could identify narratives with impossible elements as fictional.

The study found that, of the 66 participants, children who went to church or were enrolled in a parochial school were significantly less able than secular children to identify supernatural elements, such as talking animals, as fictional.

By relating seemingly impossible religious events achieved through divine intervention (e.g., Jesus transforming water into wine) to fictional narratives, religious children would more heavily rely on religion to justify their false categorizations.

“In both studies, [children exposed to religion] were less likely to judge the characters in the fantastical stories as pretend, and in line with this equivocation, they made more appeals to reality and fewer appeals to impossibility than did secular children,” the study concluded.

You mean that teaching kids that things like resurrections, water changing into wine, talking donkeys, and livestock having their coat patterns influenced by what they are looking at when they mate might make a kid LESS skeptical of fantastic claims? :-)

But not all quacks and cranks are believers. This is one of the best rants that I’ve seen. Read the whole thing; here is just a bit of it:

You claim that there is no consensus on evolution, yet refer to the “consensus” of alleged creationist “experts” that have done no real evolutionary research and instead just signed a petition.

Because, apparently, you believe that relevant scientific training makes you less qualified to discuss scientific research. Just because you make a big deal about a couple of hundred non-biologists does not mean that you can ignore hundreds of thousands of qualified scientists.

You assert that scientific consensus is just an argument from popularity at the same time as believing that alternative medicine must work since it is so popular.

Scientific consensus is not an appeal to popularity because it is a proxy for the position currently best supported by the evidence. Scientific consensus can sometimes be wrong, but cranks are wrong far more often.

There is more here; it is fun to see the anti-GMO woo-woos and anti-vaccination cranks getting what they deserve.

July 24, 2014 Posted by | religion, science, social/political | , , | Leave a comment

Scientists figure out a bit about a toad’s brain (observation, hypothesis, experiment, model, predction)

First a bonus: Jerry Coyne’s website has a post about mayfly emergence showing up on radar!

Toad Brain Activity
A friend alerted me to this post, which is about how a toad reacts to stimuli which mimics prey in the wild. There was a bit of a “ha, ha, watch the stupid toad get “owned”” but the videos are quite interesting and illuminate how science works.

First, there is the observation (toad hunting a worm).


(photo: Heidi Carpenter)

Then some conjectures are made: “what type of stimuli elicits a “hunt” response”?
Then there is an series of “experiment followed by a refined conjecture”; here we see what “looks like” prey to the toad and what doesn’t, and what sort of response does the toad make? Then we look at the signals in the toad’s brain.

It turns out that there are a couple of receptors involved: one if the “predator” sensor is activated, it sends a signal which cancels the “hunt maneuver” response. How is this verified: one can disconnect the “canceling signal” pathway.

Then the whole lot is modeled by a neural network which elicits the predicted response. Yes, there is some mathematics that underlies this, which includes signal theory, neural networks, probability and possibly fuzzy set theory as the “predator/prey” sets appear to be fuzzy.

The videos total 30 minutes but are worth watching.

July 22, 2014 Posted by | frogs, mathematics, science, technology | , , , | 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

Some GMO, Obamacare and Palestine comments…

Yes, Obamacare is working

Paul Krugman chimes in:

One thing about the Obamacare denialists: they don’t give up. First nobody but the sick would sign up, so we’d have a death spiral. Then it was “OK, a lot of people have signed up, but they won’t pay — and anyway, even more people have lost coverage.” [...]

And the response I’m seeing is “It’s not Obamacare, it’s the improving economy”.

But it isn’t. The decline is too sharp, too closely associated with the enrollment period to be driven by the at best gradual improvement in the job market. But wait, there’s more. The Urban Institute breaks down the decline in uninsurance by Medicaid adoption or not, which is closely correlated with the general question of whether states are helping implementation or blocking it. Here’s how it looks:


Palestine and Israel This is an interesting article about the situation here. I don’t know what to think: I disapprove of Israeli excesses, but the behavior of the current Islamic republics/theocracies in the region is horrible; so it isn’t as if I am eager to see another one pop up.

I don’t know what the solution is or even if one exists at all.

GMO: the person who posted this Popular Science article is staunchly anti-Monsanto but pro science. The article deals with specific claims made by anti-GMO activists and answers them directly. I can recommend it.

July 13, 2014 Posted by | health care, Middle East, science, social/political, world events | , , | 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

Knowing what you are talking about: not always important (to some)

Workout notes pleasant 4 mile walk (Cornstalk classic) without the stop watch.

then swimming: 4 x 250 (5:30, then on the 5)
5 x (25 dril fins, 25 swim)
5 x (alt 25 fist/25 free) on the 2 (1:50-55)
4 x 25 fly, 25 back (fins)

Pretty basic; weight prior to swimming was 178, after 176 (doctor’s scale in the gym; perhaps 1-2 pounds light)

I had dreams of my marathon while walking; that is always good. Tomorrow’s 5K race (running) will be ugly; the key will be to remain in touch with what I can do TOMORROW, and not what I think that I should be able to do.

Knowing what you are talking about
Many of us are yukking over this:

My conjecture: he meant to say that he was told by his “science sources” that the surface temperature on Mars is warming just as the temperature on Earth is and NOT that the temperature on Mars is the same as the temperature on Earth. Now this claim: well, let us just say that it is rather hard to get a global temperature on Mars to begin with, much less track a trend. But what is clear is that the earth’s GLOBAL temperature change has nothing to do with a difference in solar output:

Raymond Bradley of UMass, who has studied historical records of solar activity imprinted by radioisotopes in tree rings and ice cores, says that regional rainfall seems to be more affected than temperature. “If there is indeed a solar effect on climate, it is manifested by changes in general circulation rather than in a direct temperature signal.” This fits in with the conclusion of the IPCC and previous NRC reports that solar variability is NOT the cause of global warming over the last 50 years.

But I digress. I doubt if this ….strange statement on his part will harm his reputation among his own constituents.

Never will this:

If you think: “gee, Rep. Gohmert is an idiot”, well, his views probably accurately represent his constituent’s views, and that is really what counts.

That people at the National Academy of Science finds these sort of views to be ridiculous is of no consequence. People want to see their own views represented and perhaps better articulated.

So, being outrageously unprepared and wrong doesn’t really harm the credibility of these public figures: (note: the middle video was made PRIOR to the 2012 election actually being held:

Hence, people like Karl Rove get away with fleecing rich but gullible Republicans. Again, this was NOT hindsight; this was posted several days prior to the election. These people really are clowns who don’t know what they are talking about.

But, because they say things that their base finds comforting, they can continue to earn a nice living….

July 11, 2014 Posted by | political/social, science, social/political, swimming, walking | , , | 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

Stephen Pinker: The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

Brief summary Read it. It is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.
Note: while it is well written and engaging, Pinker is very nuanced; this is a tough book to read while you are falling asleep. It does make some demands on the reader, but the reader will be rewarded.

What it is about
Pinker’s thesis is that human beings have a “nature”; that is, we are genetically programmed to act and react in a certain way. Certainly, there is quite a bit of variance between humans and human behavior can be influenced by the culture that they live in. But, we do have built in software to react to the environment.

He argues against three different competing viewpoints:

1. The “blank slate”: e. g. that our nature is completely determined by society.
2. The “noble savage”: e. g. that we are born with some noble nature that is corrupted by our local culture and
3. The Ghost in the Machine: that is, we have some “soul” that is apart from our bodies, presumably given by???

Now if you cry “foul”; that is, if you accuse Pinker of putting up straw men to knock over, he carefully explains where these various assumptions show up in various academic disciplines.

But this book is much more than a list of evidence. Pinker spends a surprising amount of time pointing out why there is such as resistance to giving up on “blank slates” and explaining why the existence of a “human nature” is really nothing to fear. Of course, this isn’t an argument for our having a genetic “human nature”; if it is true, it is true whether we want it to be true or not. But Pinker’s writing might help get the fearful to at least consider his thesis.

He goes on to explain why rejecting the “trinity” will lead to better outcomes for society.

There are other aspects of this book; he spends quite a bit of time attacking the absurdities of the academic left (disclaimer: I am a lefty who is also an academic, but I teach mathematics; I don’t think that there is a patriarchal way of solving a differential equation. Hence I am immune to these attacks).

Pinker then dives into some hot topics and explains why a “human nature” thesis fits in.

Here are a few of them:

1. Children: Pinker notes the following: a child’s personality really isn’t influenced by the family that they grew up in! Sure, they learn things and habits. This what I mean: in terms of things like personality and mental abilities, two adopted kids raised in the same household are no more likely to be similar to each other than to kids raised in a different household (same culture, no neglect, etc.).

About 50 percent of the variance in personality is determined by genetics, and most of the rest is determined by the local culture (environment, singular events in the child’s life).

This isn’t to say that a kid’s childhood isn’t important; it is nice to have a happy childhood. But parents really can’t “mold” their kids.

2. Postmoderism: that is, “reality” is merely a construct of the mind of the person who is experiencing it. Actually, our brains evolved to help us make sense of the world as it is; otherwise we might not survive to reproduce. And yes, planes fly, computers work, vaccines work, etc. And no, this has nothing to do with “collapsing wave functions” in quantum mechanics.

3. Rape. Yes, I said it. Pinker points out that, yes, rape is a horrible crime that should be prosecuted and punished. But he also notes that, at least from the male’s point of view, there IS a “sex component” to rape. Think of it this way: greed is a factor in theft, right? So why shouldn’t some sociopaths have forcible sex if they think that they can get away with it?

Now, of course, people will confuse this claim with: The woman “asked for it” by, say, dressing in sexy manner. Nope. This is not a “lust run wild” model; this is a sociopath doing what they can get away with model. That is what makes prosecution so important.

I admit that education can be a factor; after all, as unbelievable as it sounds, there are college men who have to be taught that having sex with a “passed out drunk woman who is in your room” IS rape. Hence I support such education programs. It won’t eliminate all rape though and neither will any amount of attempts to “change the culture”.

4. The humanities: I know that Pinker has taken some heat by those who think that he is trying to make the humanities subservient to the sciences. He does think that the humanities can draw from the sciences. He also points out that some famous authors illuminate his points via their fiction and do it in a very clear way. He does this in his last chapter: The Voice of the Species. If nothing else, read that.

So, I can recommend this book without reservation.

Note: this TED talk by Pinker provides an outline and talks about art…it is interesting.

July 5, 2014 Posted by | books, science, social/political | , | Leave a comment

All natural! GMO free!


Hey, the above is 100 percent natural; not GMO! Sure it is amanita phalloides and scientists tell me that the person who eats one of these will probably die fairly quickly. But hey, these scientists are probably all bought off by MONSANTO!!! :-)

June 29, 2014 Posted by | science | , | Leave a comment


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