Sunday, February 28, 2010

Dietary Supplement Safety Act of 2010

So far in 2010, the anti-vaccination movement has suffered a terrible blow in the discrediting of Andrew Wakefield's faudulent autism claims and homeopathy has been defined as nothing more than a placebo by the United Kingdom's House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, which will probably result in homeopathic remideies no longer being funded by the UK's National Health System.  So barely two full months into 2010 and we already have some victories for evidence based reason over woo.

What will be next?  It is possible that the $24 billion dietary supplement industry is going to be on the defensive soon.  There is a bill being proposed in the United States Senate that will place the supplement and vitamin industry under the supervision of the US Food and Drug Administration in order to sell their products here.

Link to S. 3002

What this will mean is that these products will be treated as food additives and/or drugs which will subject them to much tighter rules and restrictions under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.  In order to market these products legally in America, any adverse side effects must be disclosed to the FDA, any beneficial claims must substantiated, and each product will be subject to potential recall as determined by the FDA.

The Senate is very busy right now debating various economic plans, budgets, and of course health care.  So it is unlikely that this bill will get much public scrutiny anytime soon.  But it has at least been submitted and you might be surprised to learn by whom.  The Dietary Supplement Safety Act of 2010 was submitted by Arizona Republican Senator John McCain and North Dakota Democrat Senator Byron Dorgan.

That's right folks.  A Republican is leading an arguably skeptical, pro-science charge against the woefully unregulated supplement industry.  Moreover this Senate bill is bipartisan in nature, having been coauthored by a Democrat.  This is gearing up to be an interesting year and I, for one, would like to extend my thanks to both Senator McCain and Senator Dorgan.

Friday, February 26, 2010

I don't know

Does the statement "I don't know" make you vaguely uncomfortable?  Do you try to avoid using it?  Have you ever been tempted to invent an answer rather than admit that you didn't know?

"I don't know" can be an uncomfortable truth, but it is also a necessary one.  It is found at every limit of human understanding, beyond which is all too often someone's lie.

"I don't know" is not an excuse for someone to fill a gap in current understanding with a fanciful tale that happens to be appealing or convienent.  Passing such a story off as the truth impedes knowledge and stifles curiosity.

"I don't know" does not have to remain a permanent condition.  If we are honest about what remains to be discovered, we can more easily search for answers.  We cannot cast light into the dark shadows of our ignorance if we aren't honest about where they are.

I think any shame we feel over this should be reserved for pretending to know.  Being honest about not knowing is just the first step towards real understanding, since what we really mean to say is "I don't know, yet."

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Road

I saw The Road this weekend. Having read the book I was watching the film looking for deviations from that story. And I have to admit that they did a remarkably good job sticking to the events in the book, capturing the feel of the book, and visualizing the setting. The acting was fine. The scenes that were supposed to hurt did hurt. The pacing of the story seemed fine, mixing foreshadowing, overwhelming dread, hopelessness, and desperate action scenes well.

There were two major differences between the book and the movie, that I don't not feel hurt the movie at all. One is a missing scene (that I would prefer not to think about in order to describe) and the other is a change to the end -- giving it more hope than the book provided. Which was nice, really, since neither the book nor the movie suffers from a dearth of hopelessness. So having something good to latch onto is welcome.

I'm giving this a thumbs up with the caveat that this is not a "feel good" movie. It is a very dark, post apocalypse movie that was fairly faithfully adapted from a very dark, post apocalypse book. Look for it on DVD or find it in a small independent theatre if you like the genre.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Germ Theory

"Our God is a loving God.  He loves his people so much that he gave us rules to live by, rules that help us be moral.  He loves us so much that he sacrificed his only Son, who gave us the concept of the Golden Rule.  How better could God show his love for us?"

Hmm...  Let me see...  In what better way could an all knowing, all powerful, loving entity care for humanity?  How about germ theory?

It is absurd to think that the ancient Hebrews knew nothing of morality or societal rules that would allow a large group of people to live together and cooperate.  What do Christians think, that before the Ten Commandments humans were monstrous beasts?  According to Biblical mythology, Moses and the Hebrews came out of Egypt where there was already an ancient and accomplished civilization.  Egyptians would have been ignorant of God's special rules, yet they managed to cooperate enough to create a civilization that lasted for thousands of years and architecture that has survived to this day.

Instead of wasting time carving out some rules that people already knew or didn't need, why not sit Moses down and explain a few simple aspects of germ theory?  Surely there ought to be a way to get some basic and life saving concepts across to Moses and his people.  It still could have even been carved into stone to form The Ten Useful Lessons.
  1. Most sickness comes from tiny living things too small to see called germs.
  2. Germs can be killed or avoided before they can harm you.
  3. Never allow your waste into your drinking and bathing water.
  4. Boiling water will kill the germs in it.
  5. Soap will kill many germs.
  6. Soap can be made from animal fat and ashes.
  7. Clean your body daily when possible.
  8. Wash your hands before handling food or tending wounds.
  9. Clean wounds and cover them with clean cloth.
  10. Different germs cause different sicknesses, learn the differences.

Think of the countless lives that could have been saved if early Bronze Age people had been taught those concepts instead of rules about how to keep God happy.  Think of the higher quality of life societies would have had, the longer life spans, the better infant mortality rate, fewer epidemics and plagues.  

Think how far along medical science would be if a god had jump started germ theory thousands of years ago.  We would all be reaping those benefits today.  And with the last Lesson being a commandment to learn, those people might have developed hospitals, schools, and universities before the founding of Rome!  Then God's only Son could come along later to explain antibiotics, if the chosen people hadn't already figured that out.  

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Misinformation in Climate Change Denial

I was told today by an anthropogenic climate change denier that Prof. Phil Jones, the man at the center of the AGW controversy since "Climategate" broke, has basically admitted that climate change isn't real. The man telling me this got the notion from a Daily Mail article in which the author used quote mining to take statements that Prof. Jones made to other journalists out of context, warp their meaning, and produce a narrative in line with the editorial slant of the Daily Mail.

The truth is that Prof. Jones has not said any such thing. The headline of that story is sensational fluff, especially given that the Daily Mail didn't even interview him. Here is what Prof Jones actually has said, to Nature: "The science still holds up" though, he adds. A follow-up study verified the original conclusions for the Chinese data for the period 1954–1983, showing that the precise location of weather stations was unimportant. "They are trying to pick out minor things in the data and blow them out of all proportion," says Jones of his critics.

I was curious about some other things that Prof. Jones has actually said so I did some more internet searching and found transcripts of a BBC interview he did recently. He was quoted as saying, "I'm 100% confident that the climate has warmed. As to the second question, I would go along with IPCC Chapter 9 - there's evidence that most of the warming since the 1950s is due to human activity."

Actual statements of Prof. Jones are in line with the over whelming majority of evidence on this matter. His work seems to be honest and well supported by other research, even if his record keeping is sloppy.  But even if his work was fraudulent (it isn't, but if it was) that wouldn't alter the course of climate science.  His work is interesting, but not crucial.  There are literally thousands of independent studies that come to consistent conclusions of climate change.

Like this one which says, "Results from a detection and attribution analysis show that greenhouse warming is detectable in all analyzed high-variance reconstructions (with the possible exception of one ending in 1925), and that about a third of the warming in the first half of the twentieth century can be attributed to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The estimated magnitude of the anthropogenic signal is consistent with most of the warming in the second half of the twentieth century being anthropogenic."

Is there still scientific argument? Sure. There always will be argument about details and specifics. It is in exploring those disagreements that science is advanced. But that doesn't mean that the experts in this field of science disagree about the generalities, like "is the climate warming?" and "is human activity contributing to that warming?"  Consensus is especially true among scientists who are actively involved in climate research and publish in peer reviewed journals.

A fact addressed in this study which says, "It seems that the debate on the authenticity of global warming and the role played by human activity is largely nonexistent among those who understand the nuances and scientific basis of long-term climate processes. The challenge, rather, appears to be how to effectively communicate this fact to policy makers and to a public that continues to mistakenly perceive debate among scientists."

I continue to disagree with the climate change deniers.  Not because I always disagree with their politics in general.  Not because I accept the authority of some shadowy theory I don't understand.  Not because I want huge economic changes.  Not because I see this as a chance to force a New World Order on people.  No.  I disagree with them, because their position is not supported by the science, by the evidence, by reality to the best of humanity's ability to understand it.

I don't want the climate change scientists to be right.  I don't want the Earth to warm or rainfall to change.  But what I want reality to be is irrelevant.  The facts are what they are and my opinion of them has no bearing on their veracity.

[edit -- I changed the first line to include anthropogenic, to be more accurate of his views]

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Corn Ethanol

A complaint I've heard is that America is wasting food to make fuel. That complaint isn't supported by the facts surrounding corn or ethanol production in America. The first point to understand is that the type of corn being discussed is not the sweet corn you'd buy in the grocery store. The overwhelming majority of corn grown in America is #2 yellow field corn, which is processed into food ingredients, industrial supplies, or animal food.

America produces vastly more of this kind of corn than the American economy has any use for, so we export a lot of it. When some (a small percentage of the total) is used to make ethanol, it isn't wasted as a food source. You get ethanol out of one end of the factory and cheap cattle feed out of the other. So the corn used to make ethanol never leaves the domestic food cycle. The rest of the corn that wasn't used in ethanol production (the vast majority of it) is still available for other uses such as exporting so that other nations can use it in their food cycle.

The total energy available from a gallon of corn ethanol versus the total energy spent to produce it is getting better. Lately I think that ratio has been something like 1.3 to 1. Which isn't great when compared to straight gasoline or even ethanol from sugar cane. But corn is readily available here, so that is what is being used. I imagine that the efficiency of production will continue to improve, but probably never to the point that corn ethanol can take care of all of our domestic gasoline needs.

What corn based ethanol can do is to buy America a little bit of time of slightly lower gasoline prices while we figure out how to sustain our energy needs in a better way. That's it folks. Current ethanol production isn't a cure-all for our energy problems. It is a stop-gap measure.

Cellulosic ethanol holds a lot of promise, but at this point we do not have a way to mass produce it efficiently. Hopefully that research will benefit from ongoing corn ethanol improvements and cellulosic ethanol will be ready in time to pick up the burden of our fuel needs when oil really gets terribly expensive. In the meantime, we can use corn ethanol to ease the transition and maybe prevent gasoline prices from suddenly jumping 100 or more percent.

You know what we REALLY need? Better batteries. We don't have a energy problem. We have an energy storage problem. Really that is all gasoline or ethanol is -- a medium for storing and transporting energy that can be utilized by an automobile. Energy is everywhere. Wind, light, tides, crops, hydrothermal, etc. We just don't have a means of storing much of that energy, which is why gasoline is so useful. But if we just had a way to store about 30 gallons of gasoline worth of energy in about the same mass and space as 30 gallons of gasoline... oh well... maybe someday.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Organic Agriculture

It is not very hard to find food that is marketed as being organic in many grocery stores. I've seen that label on snack foods, vegetables, and chicken, just to name a few. Various means of buying directly from organic producers have become more popular as well, such as farmer's markets or subscription based community supported agriculture businesses.

In many ways this is a good thing. People should think about their food and how it arrived for them to buy. Eating fresh foods and getting more vegetables in a meal are positive changes for many Americans. Buying locally produced foods also keeps a consumer's money within the local economy and reduces transportation costs. I have subscribed to a local CSA for exactly those reasons.

I live in the midwest of the United States, which is gifted with fertile soils and typically reliable rainfall in the growing season. In the not too distant past, most rural families had large gardens where they grew much of the food they would consume during a given year. We have a well established history of growing food locally.

However, in recent decades a shrinking percentage of midwesterners have bothered to invest in the time needed to raise livestock or tend gardens. Much of the arable land has been turned over to corn and soybean production, neither of which yields a direct food source for humans. So increasingly, food bought in stores tended to come from other parts of the country or the world. On any kind of meaningful scale, we have lost our ability feed ourselves.

Thanks to organic producers, vegetable production is returning to the midwest. Which brings me to the greatest gift organic agriculture has to bestow on the midwest. These people are showing us all that it is possible and are establishing the perception among consumers that local is good. In the long run, the economic foundations they have built will be invaluable.

However there is an elephant in the room. Which is the shortcomings of organic production. The reason that mainstream agriculture uses fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides is because those practices work to boost yields and increase the quality of what is grown. Decades of research has gone into creating reliable means for farmers to increase production and therefore profit, much of which is discarded in order to earn an organic label.

If locally grown food is going to become a staple of our diet, then the industry must grow beyond its boutique status, which will require many more acres to go into production along with reliably higher yields. Enough acres will come only when farmers see an economic advantage to turning corn or soybean production over to vegetables. Which will require labor saving mechanization and agronomic practices similar to what they now employ.

If we achieve the ability to feed ourselves, then what we grow will generally not be able to be marketed as organic. That represents the loss of a sales tool that has been used to create the organic food industry, namely that organic food is healthier, more nutritious, etc. A series of claims that is not supported by the science.

Link to a Reuters story

This study was released in the Summer of 2009 and concluded, "On the basis of a systematic review of studies of satisfactory quality, there is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs."

Link to the research article

Unfortunately the organic food industry and much of their customer base is really caught up in the marketing hype surrounding the perceived benefits of organic production. Until that changes as the evidence is embraced, locally grown food will remain on a scale too small to feed us.

Longing for a past that never existed


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

On Atheism

Religious people occasionally accuse me of adhering to a faith based belief system, since being an atheist who accepts well-supported scientific theories seems like a leap of faith to them. I disagree of course. I have no faith with which to support a faith based belief system. I am still able to accept scientific explanations, but I do so on the basis of trust, not on faith. Faith requires no evidence and is considered strongest in the absence of proof. Trust is always conditional, always provisional, and is strengthened by evidence. In fact, trust requires evidence. So I am comfortable saying I have no faith, none at all. That is not a religious mindset.

Atheism is no more a belief system than "not believing in fairies" is a belief system. It is nothing more than the absence of a particular belief, that is to say a belief in any deity. What it isn't is the belief that there are no gods. This isn't a case of being picky about words. The distinction between those two definitions is important. One is a statement of faith that a negative can be proven -- which is silly. The other is merely the logical condition resulting from a lack of evidence and would apply to any other proposition as well. There is no substitution of belief built into that, not automatically anyway. Though I will concede that many atheists in Western societies do tend to have some common views on things, some of which may require atheism as a prerequisite to hold.

Sometimes I'm told that atheists are like religious zealots since both are absolutely certain and therefore agnosticism is a more reasonable belief. The trouble with that is that agnosticism isn't a belief. Agnosticism addresses a different point as it is about what is known or can be known -- not what is believed. An agnostic contends that the question of God's existence is unknown and perhaps unknowable. Therefore agnosticism and atheism are not mutually exclusive positions. For that matter neither are agnosticism and theism.

I and most atheists I've met aren't atheists because we know with certainty that there are no gods, but rather we contend that there is insufficient evidence to support such a belief. We are strictly speaking agnostic about what we know about deities. But in terms of belief, we don't have it and thus are atheists. This is in no way an unusual application of logic and people use reason this way all the time. For example, it is possible that a gamma ray burst will fry our planet tomorrow. There is no reason to think that it will happen tomorrow and therefore even those aware of the possibility go on about their lives as though it won't happen even though they don't know for certain.

Another source of disagreement can be deciding who has the burden of proof for their claim, the theist or the atheist. I would argue that the burden of proof is where it has always been, upon those making the claim.  Given that atheism is the absence of a claim, it is up to theists and believers to provide evidence that supports their claim that their deity exists. Since there is no evidence to support that claim, it is reasonable to not believe, making the default position disbelief to be won over to belief as the evidence accumulates.

It is only after evidence is processed that acceptance is adopted -- which is, of course, subject to further change in order to incorporate even more evidence. As I don't have a competing belief system to supplant first, I would accept the existence of a deity or any other currently unsubstantiated claim if there was verifiable, scientific evidence. My mind isn't closed to the idea of adopting new views, but I want those views to be as factual as possible. So I utilize critical thinking and scientific inquiry to separate facts from fanciful ideas.

Sarah Palin as President

Sarah Palin has been getting a lot of press coverage lately. She gave a highly publicized speech at a national Tea Party gathering. She's done some interviews for the press and of course has a job with FOX News as a political commentator. Much of the buzz has been regarding the question of whether she'll run for President of the United States and if so will she run as a Republican or will she become the face of a new party.

I don't have much to say on whether she'll try, but I am deeply concerned about the popularity she has attained, which at least implies she has a decent chance at getting elected someday. This is an attitude that I've heard conservatives characterize as people being afraid of Sarah Palin.

Well, I for one am frightened of the idea of her as President of this country. She is not intellectually prepared for the job as the most powerful person on the planet, nor does she seem to possess (or even value at all) the critical thinking skills needed to become prepared or undertake the responsibilities of the office.

But that pales in comparison to what really scares me about her -- which is that her popularity seems to be based exactly upon her utter lack of suitability for the office. People seem to love that she is "one of them" or that she is a "working mom who faces the same daily issues that they do." These are perhaps influences for who to support in a school board election, but these things should NOT be qualifications for the President of the United States of America.

I don't want a President who is like me. I don't want a President that I can hang out with. I want a President who is better educated, smarter, better informed, and more capable than I could ever be. Having an idiot in the office doesn't elevate me, it demeans the Presidency and the whole country.