"Evidence is what matters, and skeptics like us went along with the round Earth because it had the most evidence going for it. That's what science means. Treating all ideas as equal is what journalism is."
From Bronze Blog.
Monday, April 30, 2007
Thursday, April 26, 2007
This Friday's beautiful science is a photo of the surface of Europa taken by the Galileo probe in 1998. The American Museum of Natural History in New York is having a show of fantastic photos taken from various space probes. Michael Benson put the photographs together using raw data from NASA (many of the shots are composites). If you can get to New York, see the show (and please, comment on it here).
For those of us unable to make it to the show, Michael Benson has put together a book. I got it last week, it's fantastic. The photos are all stunning. The very few photos that I've seen that are better than the photos in his book are the very recently taken photos of the sun taken by Hinode, and of Saturn from Cassini.
Check out the book here:
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
I'm really pretty excited about the story that appeared in the New York Times today about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). I already posted about it once today, but I thought I'd post again about what a good job of presenting science this article does. First off, they could have said that "scientists have decided that CCD is caused by a microbe", but instead, they demonstrated the experiment that shows us that, which is much more powerful:
Mr. Hackenberg, the beekeeper, agreed to take his empty bee boxes and other equipment to Food Technology Service, a company in Mulberry, Fla., that uses gamma rays to kill bacteria on medical equipment and some fruits. In early results, the irradiated bee boxes seem to have shown a return to health for colonies repopulated with Australian bees.Nice experiment. Thanks for showing us. Secondly, they actually give us reasonable data, instead of sensational data. Compare for example how Spiegel showed us how many bees have been affected:
“This supports the idea that there is a pathogen there,” Dr. Cox-Foster said. “It would be hard to explain the irradiation getting rid of a chemical.”
In isolated cases, says Hederer, declines of up to 80 percent have been reported. He speculates that "a particular toxin, some agent with which we are not familiar," is killing the bees.Well, sensational, but not quite useful. How many bees have actually been affected? Could be 80% of bees in the U.S., or could be one farmer lost 80% and most lost none. This is sensational, not useful. Now notice how the New York Times presents the same data:
More than a quarter of the country’s 2.4 million bee colonies have been lost — tens of billions of bees, according to an estimate from the Apiary Inspectors of America, a national group that tracks beekeeping.Thank you. That means something, and we've actually been told how many bees are affected, rather than taking the highest number presented, it's showing what is occurring (and showing that the numbers are quite large) without sensationalizing it. We need more reasonable reporting on science. I look forward to finding more articles by Alexei Barrionuevo. I hope they're all this good.
Posted by: The Factician at 11:40 AM
I've written several posts about Colony Collapse Disorder. This is a die-off affecting commercial bees. Bees seem to be dieing and outside their hives and not being repopulated. The unique feature of this is the failure to repopulate the hive (often when bees die, the hive will get hijacked by a nearby colony). In this case, the hives are generally left empty.
This is a major problem for farmers of various fruit crops, who rely on these commercial bees for pollination. Indeed, owners of bee hives will truck their hives all around the country to rent them out to farmers. However, over a quarter of the commercial bees in America have died over the last year, and large numbers of bees have died in other countries as well. If you've been reading about this in the news, then you've heard a few of the crazier ideas.
Finally, a voice of reason has spoken. The New York Times published a credible story today:
As with any great mystery, a number of theories have been posed, and many seem to researchers to be more science fiction than science. People have blamed genetically modified crops, cellular phone towers and high-voltage transmission lines for the disappearances. Or was it a secret plot by Russia or Osama bin Laden to bring down American agriculture? Or, as some blogs have asserted, the rapture of the bees, in which God recalled them to heaven? Researchers have heard it all.Rapture. I hadn't heard that one. But unlike Spiegel the New York Times actually asks some entomologists who are studying Colony Collapse Disorder what they think (what a crazy idea!). And what do they find?
Mr. Hackenberg, the beekeeper, agreed to take his empty bee boxes and other equipment to Food Technology Service, a company in Mulberry, Fla., that uses gamma rays to kill bacteria on medical equipment and some fruits. In early results, the irradiated bee boxes seem to have shown a return to health for colonies repopulated with Australian bees.Indeed. So it looks like we need to find what pathogen is causing this bee die-off.
“This supports the idea that there is a pathogen there,” Dr. Cox-Foster said. “It would be hard to explain the irradiation getting rid of a chemical.”
Genetic testing at Columbia University has revealed the presence of multiple micro-organisms in bees from hives or colonies that are in decline, suggesting that something is weakening their immune system. The researchers have found some fungi in the affected bees that are found in humans whose immune systems have been suppressed by the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome or cancer.Great. So there's also an immune system component, and may be a chemical (or chemicals) that are altering the immune system:
“That is extremely unusual,” Dr. Cox-Foster said.
Among the pesticides being tested in the American bee investigation, the neonicotinoids group “is the number-one suspect,” Dr. Mullin said. He hoped results of the toxicology screening will be ready within a month.Stay tuned.
Friday, April 20, 2007
In my social circle are a number of folks who use "alternative" medicine. A woman my wife went to college with puts homeopathic belladonna in her son's orange juice when he gets a cold, and is convinced that this cures him (belladonna is also known as "deadly nightshade" and was used as a poison in the Middle Ages). As she said, "Fight fire with fire." What does that mean?! The first time she told me this I was mortified, until I realized that she couldn't possibly be treating him with real belladonna, but was treating him with what is, essentially, water (homeopathic "medicines" are diluted so completely that they don't contain any of the original ingredients).
How is it that I can take the time to explain to her that it is just water, that I can explain about how her son would likely have gotten better at the same speed regardless of treatment, and that after spending 20 minutes at it, she is still convinced I am dead wrong?
"Nobody will ever listen to an explanation of why intuitions can be flawed - presumably because their intuitions have told them not to."I've suspected for a long time that man is not a rational animal. But now, I have data. If anyone has ever wondered why irrational beliefs are so widespread, and so resilient, you should read this post at Ben Goldacre's badscience. Really, go read it. Now. Link to it. Send it to your friends. They really should know that:
"Our intuitions about the most basic observation of all, from which all others follow – our abilities to distinguish an actual pattern, from mere random background noise – are deeply, deeply flawed."After reading his post, I'm not sure if I'm depressed or relieved...
Apparently some browsers on this blog are demanding a password when viewing this page. I'm not sure why it's doing that, because the website demanding the password isn't one I've ever even linked to. Just click cancel, and you can view the page without any trouble. Sorry for the inconvenience.
Today's image is of an M-FISH experiment, (also called "chromosome painting") taken from here. I've been wanting to show a photo of this technique for several weeks, but it's taken me a while to find one that was of sufficient quality. This is a technique where the DNA from each chromosome is "stained" with a particular color, so that each chromosome is readily identified. In this particular image, you can see multiple colors on some of the chromosomes, indicating that these are fusions of multiple chromosomes. This is likely a chromosome spread from a tumor cell.
Posted by: The Factician at 7:12 AM
Thursday, April 19, 2007
I am not an American. I have lived in the U.S. for over ten years. I have an American son and an American wife. I have an American patent that resulted from work I did at an American medical school. These are the ramblings of someone who has lived within the system for a long time, but still doesn’t understand parts of it. Prior to moving here, I had heard about the gun debate in the U.S. and I never completely understood it. Now, having lived here for over ten years, I confess I understand it a little bit better, but I am still at a loss, as it seems to be mostly a lot of vigorous hand-waving.
Given the recent tragedy at Virginia Tech, I feel compelled to write about the second amendment:
“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”I haven’t written anything in the last few days because the mass murder at Virginia Tech has been foremost on my mind, and it hasn’t seemed totally related to my blog’s mission. But the more I think about it, I think it is. Half of the gun debate in the U.S. has focused on a largely unprovable assertion:
Keeping the populace heavily armed prevents a tyranny from taking over the government. Guns keep the government honest. Or particularly, that assault weapons, automatic weapons, semi-automatic weapons and the vast array of bullets that have been created will keep government honest. As a scientist, I have tried to imagine which experiment I could design to test that assertion, and I confess that I have difficulty imagining a well-controlled experiment that could even ask the question, much less answer it. The best experiments that have been done are other societies. Can a society exist that is not well-armed whose government is still beholden to its citizens? I think the answer to that question is “yes”. The United Kingdom, for one. Canada, for another. But we can say that there are other factors that keep those countries stable, so it’s not exactly a controlled experiment (though I think that saying that sells this country short – Canada can maintain a stable democracy without assault weapons, but the U.S. cannot doesn’t seem to be fair to American society).
Indeed, another argument for arming citizens is to keep people safer. Michelle Malkin for one, has asked the question:
"What if just one student in one of those classrooms had been in lawful possession of a concealed weapon for the purpose of self-defense?"I wonder. One of the commenters at jonswift* responds:
"I'm sitting in class and I hear about the shooting. I hear the shooting get closer so I whip out my Glock and wait. Someone is running down the hall towards me and I see he is carrying a gun. BANG... got him! But only a few minutes later I hear more shots not too far away. I realize there is more than one gunman...there behind that table... he's waiting to ambush someone else. He hears something and raises his gun but not before I blow his sorry ass away too. As I'm walking over to make sure he's dead... ping! a bullet whizzes by me. I spin around and return fire, shooting wildly in the direction from where it came. DAMN- how many of them are there? I hear someone screaming from one of the classrooms that the shooter is an Asian. Mere seconds later, an Asian female carrying a pistol enters the room I'm in. No way some terrorist bitch is gonna cap me! I empty my clip in her and she goes down. I slowly make my way towards her... she's dead alright... but wait, she looks familiar. SHIT, it's Michelle Malkin, the columnist/comedian. Yeah, this is a great plan Michelle. Let's arm all the students and have them shooting at each other in a moment of crisis and confusion. "Do we really want to arm everyone for self-defense?
The main argument against weapons being freely available is presented to us in the form of gun murders every year. But proponents of the second amendment will say, “But those people would still have murdered, they just would have used something else”. That might be true. But it seems that it would take a lot longer for someone to kill people with a bat or a kitchen knife than with an automatic pistol. Hell, I don’t think any of the several mass murderers we’ve seen in the last 10 years would have been as successful in their rampages if they’d been using a bolt-action rifle. If someone has intelligence and the intent to kill, they will be successful at some level, but do we as a society have to make it easy for them?
So on the one hand, we have gun advocates arguing that we need guns to keep the government honest. And on the other hand we have people being murdered by gun every year. One of these assertions is falsifiable. I think that the other is not. (Please correct me if I'm wrong - can we falsify the assertion that the American government would become irredeemably corrupt if automatic weapons were banned?)
As an aside, I think that the debate in the U.S. has focused on “pro” and “anti” weapon control advocates. Is that really true? There is already considerable arms control in the U.S. You are not allowed to own a nuke. You’re not allowed to own a howitzer. Weapons manufacturers aren’t allowed to sell the most up-to-date missile guidance systems to citizens. So really, the question isn’t “should we have gun control” but “what gun control should we have”? From my perspective, any weapon that is honestly used for something else other than killing people (shotguns and rifles, for example) should be legal. Farmers need these to do their job. And most hunters are involved in a perfectly respectable sport (what can I say, I’ll eat just about anything that isn’t endangered). But assault weapons? Automatic handguns? Do we really need this stuff to keep us safe from the government? Because you certainly don’t need them for anything else… In terms of conspiracy theories, this seems like a pretty big one to me. Certainly, I hope that anyone who seriously thinks that their handgun is keeping us safe from the government is also deeply involved in community activism to keep us safe from a corrupt government.
*please note, if you follow the above link that the Jon Swift site is a satire site.
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
Monday, April 16, 2007
Friday, April 13, 2007
"What needs to happen is that those of us who have a fairly weighty online presence need to say, in no uncertain terms, that threats and harassment and sexism and racism and homophobia and all that other offensive shit is flat-out unacceptable, both in real life and online. The best way to make that clear isn't to tell victims, publicly, that "if they can't handle it" they should quit blogging. Nope. Instead, those of us who provide readers with opportunities to respond--in blog comments, or on online forums, or in chat groups--need to make sure we come down hard on assholes who use those opportunities to hassle, harass, or threaten people (including us). For god's sake, don't make excuses for them by pretending that they're some kind of force of nature, like an earthquake, that we can't do anything about. Because we can, if we shut them down when they show up."Though my own online presence is far from being "weighty", this is the policy I intend to operate here.
Well, we can debate whether or not this qualifies as "beautiful" or not, but I certainly think it's cool. This little guy (about 2 μm across) won the "Most Bizarre" award at the 2005 49th International Conference on Electron, Ion and Photon Beam Technology and Nanofabrication Bizarre/Beautiful Micrograph Contest. The photograph title, Chisai Benjo, means "small toilet" in Japanese.
Thursday, April 12, 2007
Hopefully it won't take a few more events like this to convince American legislators that herbal supplements need to be regulated by the FDA. From the article:
Among other things, prosecutors allege in court filings that some or all of the defendants:This isn't the first time that herbal supplement companies have been found to dope their product with the active ingredients of legitimate pharmaceuticals. If that doesn't demonstrate the cynical nature of many of the businesses selling this crap... Please. Regulate it now.
-Discussed killing a U.S. Food and Drug Administration agent and blackmailing an assistant U.S. attorney. Neither plot was carried out, but a Hi-Tech co-founder was subsequently jailed after being convicted of being a felon in possession of a “firearm silencer.”
-Used the herbal stimulant ephedra in Hi-Tech diet products after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned its use on April 12, 2004, finding it presented “an unreasonable risk of illness or injury.”
-Sold "herbal" supplements that actually contained the active ingredients of prescription drugs that could interact dangerously with other medications.
-Illegally imported and sold banned steroids.
-Manufactured phony ecstasy tablets that were sold on U.S. streets.
-Created a muscle-building drink that was later marketed as a cleaning solution in an effort to mislead investigators.
"Evolution is so creative. That's how come we got giraffes and the clap."
His peephole on the universe closed last night. He was 84. Kurt is up in Heaven now.
Farewell, Mr. Vonnegut.
Please put your own links to tributes in the comments section. For example: this one.
Monday, April 9, 2007
The trouble ain't that there is too many fools, but that the lightning ain't distributed right. ~Mark Twain
The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt. ~Bertrand Russell
Sunday, April 8, 2007
Hot on the heels of the splendidly stupid Spiegel article on BT-corn and bees, comes this new article from the New York Times about genetically modified plants. The author manages to inject a few fairly sensible points before descending into anti-intellectual fear mongering.
The article raises issues that I have commented about elsewhere: that there are real concerns to be debated in the use of genetically modified food (though largely, these issues have been ignored in the popular press - major news organizations prefer the tidier, if uninformed Monsanto vs. Greenpeace debate). I've written a bit of a primer here, for anyone who wants to brush up on what genetically modified food is (in more descriptive terms than "Frankenfoods" that groups like Greenpeace employ).
One of my concerns in the use of genetically modified foods is in the production of pharmaceuticals. Many companies have decided that putting genes into plants is cheaper and easier than growing vats of bacteria under sterile conditions. You may not realize this, but since the 1980s most human insulin that is produced in the pharmaceutical industry is produced in genetically engineered Escherichia coli that contains the human insulin gene. It's cheaper to produce (and more humane) than chopping up pigs, and it's actual human insulin instead of pig insulin (pig insulin is similar, but has slightly different properties).
Now, various companies have decided that it's even easier to produce insulin (and other similar pharmaceuticals) in plants. That way, rather than having to employ microbiologists, and maintain expensive sterile manufacturing plants, they can merely sell seed to farmers, and buy back the genetically modified plants (and purify the insulin from the plant). Sound great? Well, yes. Mostly. It should make many drugs a lot cheaper and safer than they currently are. Who doesn't want cheaper, safer drugs? Farmers will work for less than microbiologists, which cuts costs. And plants have none of the nasty things that you have to worry about in bacteria (for example, the fever inducing LPS molecule). So purification is simpler. Wonderful. But what about contamination of neighbouring crops? What happens when your biopharmaceutical gets mixed in with the regular food supply. This is (and should be) a major concern. Granted, insulin is probably not one to worry too much about, but what about blood thinners and painkillers? Clearly, we need to ensure that these plants don't find their way into the food supply. How to do this? From the New York Times article:
“I don’t think that engineering plants for pharma is a bad idea, with two caveats,” Professor Ellstrand said. One, he says he thinks that planting should be done in greenhouses rather than in open fields. “The other issue is food,” he said. “Why do we have to do this in food crops? It doesn’t matter what you’re squeezing the compound out of. It could be a carnation, a corn plant or a castor bean.”I concur. In the case of pharmaceuticals where we know that the active molecule will be bioavailable, let's keep this stuff out of general circulation, because accidents do happen. No one would worry about genetically engineered poplar trees getting into the food supply.
The article continues:
Once the rogue seeds are replanted, could the plants thrive in their new home and possibly overtake native varieties or wild relatives? Could the pharma trait increase in frequency and concentration, until it reaches a “dose” that causes health effects in those who consume it unwittingly? The probability for any one of these situations may be low, Professor Ellstrand said, but the scientific answer to each question is yes.Well, the probability that umbrellas cause cancer is low, but is it possible? Scientifically, yes. But let's make our decisions based on rational cost/benefit analysis, not merely on what is "possible".
Now the article-writer starts to get a little ridiculous:
But there is some scientific evidence not acknowledged in biopharma risk assessments that casts a dark cloud over this silver lining. For starters, the “system” under discussion is nature, and despite our best efforts it always manages to elude our puny attempts at controlling it.What does that mean? This evokes a "Jurassic Park"-like scenario, of hybrid canola-Tyrannosaurus rex terrorizing the countryside. We have actually done a lot to manage nature. Have you ever seen anything that looks like a cow in nature? How about a wheat plant? These have been highly managed, and yet very few have escaped and "contaminated" the wild. Reason being, our modifications don't make positive fitness changes to the plant. They make them more commercially valuable, but much less viable in the wild.
Scientists often dismiss the idea that people without technical knowledge can help them make risk assessments. As a result, biotech scientists and regulators have long made safety determinations from within an opaque system of their own design, using only the evidence they accept as valid.Should we be having plumbers determining health risk of heart drugs? And using data about global-warming that science fiction authors think are valid? What about genetically-modified foods? I think what we want as a society is a well-educated, independent regulatory organization, like the FDA, not a group of parents at a PTA meeting.
But scientific evidence is not a constant, like the speed of light or pi. Especially in biology, where we still know so little, “evidence” is often just a small circle of light surrounded by the darkness of the unknown. Decisions about risk cannot safely be made in a private club that accepts only its members’ notions of scientific evidence.Oy. What an anti-intellectual load of crap. Yes, decisions about risk can be made by people who accept scientific evidence as valid. The author is basically saying that everyone's opinion on safety matters. This is simply not true. I have no idea how airplanes are built. I should clearly get a voice in saying that I would like the airplanes I travel on to be safe, but I shouldn't be the person deciding which particular rivets should be used in an aircraft (or deciding that any particular airplane is safe - I'm simply not qualified). A safety determination is going to be best made by someone with the education to make it. We just need to ensure that the folks making said decisions are sufficiently independent from the businesses applying for permits to grow this stuff.
(edited for clarity - I wrote this rather late last night)
Posted by: The Factician at 7:53 PM
Saturday, April 7, 2007
I thought I would follow up my post about causation with this article about correlation. It's well worth a read. Merely seeing that two things happen together don't mean that one is caused by the other (and assuming that can lead to disastrous consequences).
A woman in Holland is spending time in prison because several people died while she was working as a nurse (the prosecution claims that it's just too unlikely, and she *must* be a serial killer - and it's not clear that they have any real evidence against her beyond the improbability of the event). While that was an unlikely event, given the number of hospitals in Holland, one would expect that at least one of those hospitals would have an unlikely event. Ben Goldacre gives a good treatment of the issue in Losing the Lottery:
Meanwhile, a huge amount of corollary statistical information was almost completely ignored. In the three years before Lucia worked on the ward in question, there were 7 deaths. In the three years that Lucia did work on that ward, there were 6 deaths. It seems odd that the death rate should go down on a ward at the precise moment that a serial killer – on a killing spree – arrives on the scene. In fact, if Lucia killed them all, then there must have been no natural deaths on that ward at all, in the 3 years that she worked there.It seems very likely this is an innocent woman...
Thursday, April 5, 2007
This week's beautiful shot is another video, taken from the Hinode solar probe. They say it best:
"It's enough to make you leap out of your seat: A magnetic vortex almost as big as Earth races across your computer screen, twisting, turning, finally erupting in a powerful solar flare. Japan's Hinode spacecraft recorded just such a blast on Jan. 12, 2007."You can see it for yourself with false color added on the NASA website.
Wednesday, April 4, 2007
Wait, what? So, Michael Egnor (our friendly Intelligent Design advocate and brain surgeon) has made a post that explains how the design inference is useful in every day biology - in reference to a challenge made by Orac:
"Will Dr. Egnor show us some of these wonderful insights into human biology and disease provided or facilitated by the design inference"?Why summarize what Egnor says, when Egnor says it best?
"Notice that Watson and Crick aren’t standing next to a pair of dice. To untangle the structure of DNA, they inferred design, not chance. They reversed-engineered DNA. They collected physical data about the structure of DNA (X-ray diffraction studies, Chargaff’s rules, the physical chemistry of nucleotides, etc), and then they designed a model of the molecule to understand its structure and function."Beg pardon? Because they were operating under the assumption that DNA has a structure, that means that they were using a design inference, and were really closet creationists?
"This is not to say that Watson and Crick believed that DNA was designed by God. They were both atheists. Even molecular biologists who are avowed atheists use the design inference in their work."Well, at least he's occasionally honest...
But let me get this straight. Anyone who assumes that there are things in the universe that are ordered or structured is operating on the principle that there is a design (and a Designer). Even if they don't say so explicitly. Even if they say quite the opposite. Well, let's see what Jim Watson says:
"Today, there is a concerted effort by some religion-dominated scientists to treat evolution as a theory, as though that in some way diminishes its authority and power as an explanation of how the world works. Fortunately, the courts are exercising their wisdom and rejecting arguments of equal time for creationist beliefs in schools. We can only hope that a time will soon come when rational, skeptical thought renders the creationists' stories as what they are — myths.Hmmm, but Michael Egnor says that Jim Watson used a design inference. He must know Jim Watson's mind better than Jim Watson does. It's probably because Michael Egnor is a brain surgeon.
One of the greatest gifts science has brought to the world is continuing elimination of the supernatural, and it was a lesson that my father passed on to me, that knowledge liberates mankind from superstition. We can live our lives without the constant fear that we have offended this or that deity who must be placated by incantation or sacrifice, or that we are at the mercy of devils or the Fates. With increasing knowledge, the intellectual darkness that surrounds us is illuminated and we learn more of the beauty and wonder of the natural world.
Let us not beat about the bush — the common assumption that evolution through natural selection is a "theory" in the same way as string theory is a theory is wrong. Evolution is a law (with several components) that is as well substantiated as any other natural law, whether the law of gravity, the laws of motion or Avogadro's law. Evolution is a fact, disputed only by those who choose to ignore the evidence, put their common sense on hold and believe instead that unchanging knowledge and wisdom can be reached only by revelation."
Posted by: The Factician at 1:02 PM
Monday, April 2, 2007
One of the reasons I started this blog is that I noticed how common it was for the folks who call themselves "climate skeptics" use many of the same rhetorical techniques as HIV/AIDS skeptics, Intelligent Design advocates, 9-11 conspiracy theorists and holocaust deniers (I read the Intelligence Report - some people gape out their windows at car accidents, I read about hate crimes). It turns out the folks at Denialism.com have noticed the same thing.
I once made the mistake of pointing out to a climate skeptic that for him to believe what he did, he would have to believe that almost every climatologist, and many scientists in other specialties (from biologists to astronomers) were in on an elaborate hoax. When he agreed with that assertion, I pointed out that other folks who believed in such elaborate hoaxes were holocaust deniers. And he invoked Godwin's Law. For anyone who finds themselves in this situation, speaking (or typing) to someone who is positing such extraordinary claims that couldn't possibly true without turning every expert in the world into a lunatic or a fraud, I give you this:
An HIV/AIDS denialist will say denying the link between HIV and AIDS isn't unreasonable, and pointing out that they use the same methods as other denialists, like evolution denialists or holocausts denialists is unfair. They're not like those other dirty denialists, they're just misunderstood.From the folks at Denialism.com. Enjoy.
But they are like those other denialists. That's the whole point that we make here at denialism.com. The methods of all denialists are the same. We're not creating guilt-by-association, we're pointing out that that they're using similar tactics, and that no matter what the denialists deny, they use the same rhetorical tricks to sow confusion and disrupt debate. If they feel guilty that they share space with these other denialists, that's not my problem. They're the ones using denialist tactics to make their point. If they don't want to be called cranks or denialists, I suggest instead of alleging conspiracies and making fallacious arguments, they actually provide data.
Posted by: The Factician at 3:21 PM
Last week's furor over genetically modified (GM) plants killing bees got me inspired to write a bit about genetic modifications. It's something I know a little about, as my day job is that of an academic post-doc in one of the larger medical schools in the U.S. I spend my days genetically modifying bacteria so that I can understand better how they work. Doesn't that mean that I'm biased? (I got called an industry stooge for defending GM-plants). Well, perhaps. But I earn so little that I have no money invested in biotech stocks (really, I have very little money invested in anything besides my house), so at least I have no financial horses in the race. And the work I'm talking about isn't really related to my own work. I'm just sufficiently educated in the field that I have a clue.
So, what did the Spiegel article mean when the author accused GM-plants of being responsible for the recent bee die-off? (a claim I debunk here and here). Do we need to worry that all GM-plants are killing bees? Well, no. They were talking about a particular, common modification called BT.
BT stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, which is just the latin name for a particular bacterium that kills insects. People started taking advantage of this bacterium over 70 years ago, by sprinkling dried bacteria onto plants to protect them from insects. (And even today, organic farmers consider this an acceptable pesticide that they are allowed to use). Indeed, the fact that it is a bacterium that only kills insects is of great use to us, as it is totally safe for humans.
Bacillus thuringiensis kills particular insects by virtue of a single protein that it makes. One gene specifies the creation of this protein. If you remove the gene from the bacterium, it no longer kills insects. What genetic engineers have done is to take the gene from bacteria, and place it into plants, particularly corn and cotton. (The insects that afflict corn and cotton growers are particularly susceptible to death by BT). So this one single gene is transferred from B. thuringiensis into corn or cotton, and allows the plant to kill insects that eat the corn or cotton.
Do we need to worry about BT harming people? No. In literally decades of study of B. thuringiensis, it has been shown that pure BT-toxin is no more harmful to people than table salt. You couldn't eat corn fast enough to accumulate enough toxin to give you so much as a bellyache (it is readily degradable in the stomach). And safety studies over the last 15 years have shown that BT-corn behaves no differently than B. thuringiensis sprayed on corn. Really, as much as you can say anything is safe, BT-corn is safe.
What about BT-corn harming bees? Well, folks have looked for this, too. But bees don't eat corn, and they don't pollinate corn. Indeed the dosage needed to kill bees is quite different than that of caterpillars and beetles, and the symptoms are rather different than what has been seen in the bee die-offs seen recently.
But, let's imagine for a moment that BT-corn is responsible for the bee die-off. Is this an indictment of genetically modified food? Not at all, it would be an indictment of BT-corn. There are all kinds of other modifications that people are working on that wouldn't have any kind of effect on insect populations. Take for example, coffee, genetically modified to not make caffeine. Or peanuts genetically-modified to remove the allergens. These are kinds of things that people are working on today, and one wouldn't expect there to be any kind of bad effects to people or plants by making these changes.
What I'm basically trying to say here is, when someone tells you they're talking about GM-food, it makes about as much sense to make general conclusions about it as it does when someone talks about "chemicals". Chemicals range in quality from vinegar to phenol to sulfuric acid. When speaking of the danger posed by these chemicals, there is quite a range of possibilities. So, too, with GM-foods. Each GM-food poses it's own risks and benefits, and current GM-foods, the risks seem rather small and the rewards rather large. I'll post in the future on some of the risks posed by newer GM-foods. But let's take these things on a case-by-case basis, shall we?
Posted by: The Factician at 2:09 PM