Frogs, GMOs and Mother Jones becoming Salon?

Frogs: some new species were discovered in Peru. And these frogs have transparent skin! (yes, you can see the organs) I wonder: is there a purpose to this, or is it just the effects of genetic drift?

GMOs: this is a every even handed, level headed post via “I F****ng love science. And, surprisingly, The Nation also had a decent article as well. I share the pleasant shock and surprise of doomvox at Daily Kos:

I feel like the millennium is at hand: The Nation is taking on the anti-GMO activists, with an article by Madeline Ostrander that asks the question Can GMOs Help Feed a Hot and Hungry World?, with the answer provided in the subtitle: “Not if activists succeed in making the genetic modification of food politically unsustainable”. This is a blow for rationality I would not at all have expected from The Nation (their idea of balanced coverage of the nuclear issue, for example, is a debate between an anti-nuclear person and a fanatically anti-nuclear one). Maybe the left really is on it’s way to being “the reality based community”…

You know it is a sad day when I am pleasantly surprised by a competent article coming from The Nation.

Of course, Mother Jones did this: it hammered Scott Brown for posting….triathlon photos?

The Massachusetts transplant is gearing up for his campaign against Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) this fall by literally running for office. He’s also biking. And swimming. And hiking. And taking jump shots. If it’s a weekend, you can expect to find the Republican candidate tweeting a photo of his latest feat of strength. Things might not work out for Brown in November, but Brown will almost certainly work out.

Uh, workout/sports photos are bad because….???? Seriously: are photos for some politician holding yet another baby, hunting, or eating another hotdog at a county fair supposed to be better?

At least this article didn’t accuse him of “fat shaming”, but hey, I haven’t read the comments. :-)

PS: politically speaking, I am not a fan of his and I hope that his opponent wins this election. But really???

August 27, 2014 Posted by | frogs, politics, science, social/political | , , | Leave a comment

False memories, “first human” and charities

Workout notes 4 mile Cornstalk classic run in the steamy weather, followed by 3.1 miles (25 laps, middle lane) on the track:

8:56, 8:46, 8:48 (26:30), 1:23 (27:53) This required some concentration. Then 10 minutes on the exercise bike.

My knee felt fine.

Screen shot 2014-08-26 at 9.31.28 AM

77 F, 82 percent during the outside portion.


Kids have false memories too; they will sometimes put in missing details (e. g. will “remember” pencils being on a desk since that is what is supposed to be on a desk)

Evolution:there is no such thing as a “first human”:

This might be where the concept of a fuzzy set might help.

Donating money to specific disease charities: Funding basic research is good. However, some disease research is “more mature” than other research and IF one is interesting in “bang for the buck”. So the most efficient way is to give to, say, an agency that can spread around the money in the most optimal way.

August 26, 2014 Posted by | running, science | , , | Leave a comment

Bias of many types…and a walk

Today’s workout: end of “leisure” workout. I did my 8.1 cornstalk course in 2 hours (some rain…I didn’t get that wet) and then 2 more miles on the treadmill: 12:00/11:20 to get 23:20. I wanted to do at least a little faster than marathon pace.

RIP: BKS Lyengar, famous yogi and author of Light on Yoga.

Here he is in 1977 when he was in his late 50’s. What flexibility, strength, and body control!

Survivorship bias: this is the annoying tendency to see, say, a dozen successful companies, see what they have in common, and then conclude that what they have in common is what made them successful. Nope; you have to see how many companies did those same things and WERE NOT successful, among other things. From the article:

This is what Pomona College economist Gary Smith calls the “survivor bias,” which he highlights as one of many statistically related cognitive biases in his deeply insightful book Standard Deviations (Overlook, 2014). Smith illustrates the effect with a playing card hand of three of clubs, eight of clubs, eight of diamonds, queen of hearts and ace of spades. The odds of that particular configuration are about three million to one, but Smith says, “After I look at the cards, the probability of having these five cards is 1, not 1 in 3 million.” [...]

Smith found a similar problem with the 1982 book In Search of Excellence (more than three million copies sold), in which Tom Peters and Robert Waterman identified eight common attributes of 43 “excellent” companies. Since then, Smith points out, of the 35 companies with publicly traded stocks, 20 have done worse than the market average.

Depression I talked about depression in an earlier post. Here is some of what science knows about it right now:


See the subtle racism here? The idea is that this black Attorney General who has spoken out about race relations is somehow too “emotionally invested” or biased to be even handed. Why would a black Attorney General be any less evenhanded than a white one? And shouldn’t we be far more concerned with an Attorney General who did NOT see race relations as a problem?

Here: Kansas City police officer posts a snarky post about Michael Brown’s character (the dead teenager in Ferguson) and shows a photo of a young black man with a gun and money in his mouth. But this black man is some guy in Oregon…not Michael Brown. It is amusing that police officers everywhere are telling us to not to rush to judgement but… :-)

I suppose that given that we have 300+ million people in this country and a lot of police officers, a few are bound to be crackpots.

Racism in sports
Sadly, some African American athletes have racist stuff directed at them. Here is an example (Eddie Chambers, an elite boxer)

August 20, 2014 Posted by | boxing, racism, science, social/political, statistics, walking, yoga | , | Leave a comment

Via Vox: why Dr. Tyson speaking up about GMOs matters…(and it isn’t because he is a GMO expert; he isn’t)

I think that Vox is right on here:

What you see here is that the conditions exist for GMOs to become a liberal equivalent of climate denial. But one thing is missing: the key validators from the liberal establishment.

GMOs are actually an example of liberalism resisting the biases of its base. Though there’s a lot of mistrust towards GMOs and fury towards Monsanto among liberals, the Democratic Party establishment is dismissive of this particular campaign. You don’t see President Obama or Democratic congressional leaders pushing anti-GMO legislation.


There are, of course, party actors who’ve been more helpful to the anti-GMO movement. In California, the Democratic Party endorsed a proposition to label GMO foods. But that’s a modest step — and even that step hasn’t yet made it to the national party’s agenda.

Part of the reason comes down to people like Tyson. Political scientists will tell you that parties, and the ideological movements that power them, are composed of much more than officeholders and electoral strategists. They’re driven by interest groups and intellectuals and pundits and other “validators” that partisans and politicians look to for cues when forming their belief.

Discover reminded us that this is important:

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.”

Yes, Tyson is not a GMO expert; no one says that he is. But he is a famous public scientist and he understands what scientific consensus means.

Sure, on matter the issue: if it is an issue that the public (or even a sizable minority of the public) can presume to have an opinion on, one can ALWAYS find an outlier scientists here or there to disagree with the group consensus. This is true in evolution, global warming, and yes, GMO research. So, if one wants to know what is actually known in an area, one should turn to scientific consensus rather than isolated opinion, and it is nice to see public intellectuals speaking out.

So, if you are one of those who is trying to make up your mind, remember that there is big hazard in looking at an isolated study or at the opinion of a solitary scientist, or even a handful of scientists, no matter how brilliant.

Here are some “consensus” type sites and talks

A summary speech at the International Programs – College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (50th Anniversary Celebration) , and the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, Cornell University

Biology Fortified

Discover Magazine

Scientific American

Nature Magazine

United States National Academy of Science

French Academy of Science (English executive summary)

August 1, 2014 Posted by | nature, science, social/political | , , , | Leave a comment

Throwback Thursday

This photo is both painful and joyful for me. This was taken in May, 1981, when I graduated from the Naval Academy. My mom was my current age at that time.


Of note: I am at the age when most of my peers have lost or are losing their parents. It is merely the “bathtub curve” in action:


(not to scale for humans). This curve is used in reliability engineering. When a piece of equipment is put in place, there are some “early failures” (e. g. defective components) and as time goes on, there comes a point when the equipment fails due to wear and tear on the various components. And for humans, it looks a bit like (this is the U. K.):

Screen shot 2014-07-31 at 3.36.25 PM

This lists the “likelihood of dying” by age and sex. (From here)

Note: if this looks linear past the local minimum, look at the scale on left. It is a log scale, hence the linear appearance. It really is a bathtub curve.

July 31, 2014 Posted by | family, mathematics, science | , , | Leave a comment

A Goat Joke teaches me about science (and on having very smart friends)

I’ve had some good friends in my life; one if them is Mary. I met her early in my career at my university; she was serving as a sabbatical replacement. We walked and did various things (e. g. sometimes have lunch). We met at science conference; her Ph. D. is in physical chemistry; yes, that is the branch of chemistry that directly uses quantum mechanics. She has published in that area.

Though she moved away and lives on the west coast with her family, we sometimes have contact via the social media.

On Facebook, I have a joke persona: I play the part of a dumb, grumpy, smelly old goat. (it has a political origin) Ok, perhaps ALL of the adjectives apply to me, but I’ve been told that I am not “really” a goat. :-) But as part of my goat persona, I joke about getting kicked out of places for eating tablecloths, books, upholstery and the like.

Mary couldn’t resist informing me that my goat behavior was more in line with “myth” than reality and provided an interesting article. The common myth is expressed by this meme:


Now real life goats DO explore things with their mouths (e. g., tug at clothing) and they will “sample” things by nibbling and chewing; here we see examples of books, paper and kites. No one denies that they ARE chewers.

But when it comes to actual eating (via Modern Farmer):

In fact, goats are actually extremely picky eaters who go after only the most nutritious options available to them.

“They are the survivors because they are very good at finding the most nutritious stuff,” Solaiman says, “They don’t eat tin cans but they will look inside a container and find something and get something out of it.” In other words, goats are resourceful when it comes to finding something to eat. “You’ll see cattle skeletons on the ground in the desert, but [goats] are running around.”

Solaiman says that goats are browsers who go after whatever in their environment will benefit them most. She’s seen them eat the bark off trees, because bark is a good source of tannin which supplies the goats with antioxidants to help ward off parasites and fungi.

One thing goats aren’t crazy about? Hay. While livestock like cattle can get by on the feed, goats need a more varied, nutrient-rich diet.

“If you feed goats low-quality forage, they will play with it,” she says. “They’ll be like, ‘Are you kidding me? I’m not going to eat this. I can lay on it, I can pee on it. But I’m not going to eat it.’ In truth they are pickers and choosers.”

But what about when you wade into a goat pen and every mischievous little mouth is tugging at your shirt? Solaiman says this is just the curious nature of the goat. They do not want to eat your new Brooks Brothers, they’re just checking it out.

And their “checking it out” or sampling can be destructive.

July 31, 2014 Posted by | Friends, nature, science | | Leave a comment

Public intellectuals: a couple of different laments.

Richard Dawkins sometimes uses emotionally charged examples to make logical points about other emotionally charged situations. Recently, one such episode caused a storm of tweets from “the masses”, so to speak.

Dawkins was talking about the current Gaza crisis and making the point that while one can deplore, say, how modern Israel came about in the first place, one can rate the Hamas charter that calls for the utter destruction of Israel to be even worse; however one can condemn both. There are degrees of bad things (say, comparing the theft of a candy bar from a super market to embezzling someone’s life savings; both are theft, both are bad, one is worse).

The controversy really erupted over this example (and another one):

Screen shot 2014-07-29 at 7.09.03 AM

So, he explained himself here:

I believe that, as non-religious rationalists, we should be prepared to discuss such questions using logic and reason. We shouldn’t compel people to enter into painful hypothetical discussions, but nor should we conduct witch-hunts against people who are prepared to do so. I fear that some of us may be erecting taboo zones, where emotion is king and where reason is not admitted; where reason, in some cases, is actively intimidated and dare not show its face. And I regret this. We get enough of that from the religious faithful. Wouldn’t it be a pity if we became seduced by a different sort of sacred, the sacred of the emotional taboo zone?

Moving from the hypothetical to the real, if you raise the question of female genital mutilation, you can guarantee that about half the responses you get will be of the form “What about male circumcision?” and this often seems calculated to derail the campaign against FGM and take the steam out of it. If you try and say “Yes yes, male infant circumcision may be bad but FGM is worse”, you will be stopped in your tracks. Both are violations of a defenceless child, you cannot discuss whether one is worse than the other. How dare you even think about ranking them?

When a show-business personality is convicted of pedophilia, is it right that you actually need courage to say something like this: “Did he penetratively rape children or did he just touch them with his hands? The latter is bad but I think the former is worse”? How dare you rank different kinds of pedophilia? They are all equally bad, equally terrible. What are you, some kind of closet pedophile yourself?

Note: I’ve talked to people who have been molested as kids, and yes, while all acts of pedophilia are bad and none should be tolerated, there are degrees.

But this is the risk one takes when one goes to the public; not only do some grow super emotional when it comes to some issues, but they’ll even try to barge in when OTHERS are attempting to have the discussion. I’m no public intellectual but I’ve had that happen to me when I was discussing an emotional topic with someone else and our conversation was overheard; the topic was that *some* women use abortion as a type of birth control and I got my information from other women who worked at Planned Parenthood and was discussing this issue with a Unitarian minister who worked with other women who did that; a bystander couldn’t bear to hear this and sought to “educate us” even though we had actual facts.

Of course, other public intellectuals lament that policy makers ignore the knowledge that they have and are generating. You see this all the time in science (e. g. climate change, GMO policy, evolution) and here Paul Krugman laments the state of economic policy:

Justin Wolfers calls our attention to the latest IGM survey of economic experts, which revisits the question of the efficacy of fiscal stimulus. IGM has been trying to pose regular questions to a more or less balanced panel of well-regarded economists, so as to establish where a consensus of opinion more or less exists. And when it comes to stimulus, the consensus is fairly overwhelming: by 36 to 1, those responding believe that the ARRA reduced unemployment, and by 25 to 2 they believe that it was beneficial.

This is, if you think about it, very depressing.

Wolfers is encouraged by the degree of consensus — economics as a discipline is not as quarrelsome as its reputation. But I think about policy and political discourse, and note that policy has been dominated by pro-austerity views while stimulus has become a dirty word in politics.

What this says is that in practical terms the professional consensus doesn’t matter. Alberto Alesina may be literally the odd man out, the only member of the panel who doesn’t believe that the fiscal multiplier is positive — but back when key decisions were being made, it was “Alesina’s hour” in Europe and among Republicans.

You might want to say that the professional consensus was rejected because it didn’t work. But actually it did. Mainstream macroeconomics made some predictions — deficits wouldn’t drive up interest rates in a depressed economy, “fiat money” wouldn’t be inflationary, austerity would lead to economic contraction — that drew widespread scorn; Stephen Moore at the WSJ (which was predicting soaring rates and inflation) dismissed “fancy theories” that “defy common sense.” The fancy theorists were, of course, right — but nobody who rejected the consensus has changed his mind. Oh, and Moore became the chief economist at Heritage.

Yep; it is very hard to override “gut feelings” (I KNOW that supply side works) and “morality plays” (safety net spending rewards the slackers).

When it comes to science: yes, the public may be mostly science illiterate and embrace science only to the degree to which it conforms to their beliefs. But: the computer I am typing this on still works, airplanes fly, medicine is getting better and technology is improving. People, on the whole, might not understand why and those who recover from an illness (thanks to modern medicine) might credit their deity, their friend’s prayers or, perhaps Reiki or switching to organic vegetables. But scientists can at least SEE their stuff being used and working, even if the public can’t.

Now back to the public intellectuals: I don’t know what gives them the patience to talk to the rest of us, but I am glad that they do.

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

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


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