Goodbye coal? Female hurricanes are more deadly?


Coal black

At Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait says President Obama’s proposed new plan for slowing down atmospheric carbon dioxide by reducing coal use for generating electricity is huge.

Credit: J.C. Leyendecker, 1918. HT to Melissa Lott at SciAm's Plugged In

Credit: J.C. Leyendecker, 1918. HT to Melissa Lott at SciAm’s Plugged In

But is it huge? As a mind set, a psychological Rubicon, an opening wedge for more government action on greenhouse gases and climate change, maybe. But in terms of practical impact on greenhouse gases, not so much. Here’s why.

The aim is to cut carbon-dioxide emissions from the nation’s power plants as much as 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Brad Plumer summarizes and explains the proposals at Vox–and he points out that the goal is not really as ambitious as you might think.

That’s because natural gas has gotten so cheap, and the Great Recession has reduced power use so much, that power-plant emissions plunged by 15 percent between 2005 and 2013. So they are already halfway to the 2030 goal. They achieved the first half of emissions reduction in well under ten years, and now they have more than 15 years to get the rest of the way. Dot Earth’s Andrew Revkin parsed the proposed rules and assembled several comments on why they aren’t enough.

Plumer followed up his first Vox post with a summary of how the EPA’s new rules would work. A central feature is that there are different emissions goals for each of the 49 states that have coal-fired power plants. That’s going to be fun.

At Watts Up With That, Anthony Watts has turned his skeptical platform over to Patrick Michaels, the high-profile climatologist/climate-change skeptic. Michaels points out, correctly, that there is no chance this new policy will have any detectable effect on global temperature. Thus he agrees with climate-change activists that the policy does not go nearly far enough. He also says the only way the 30 percent reduction can be achieved is by “upgrading almost all combustion units, and the ultimate cost of the upgrades will make coal noncompetitive with much-less-expensive natural gas–fired facilities.”

Um, I think that’s the whole point.


The death of Big Coal is greatly exaggerated

In his two-part roundup of media coverage of the announcement, Knight Science Journalism Tracker Charlie Petit forecasts that “Big Coal in the US may be looking death in the face. It is unleashing its armies.”  In a second post, Petit praises Paul Barrett’s BloombergBusinessweek analysis of what Barrett calls the phony war on the Obama plan and also partly takes back his forecast of Big Coal’s demise. Turns out that when we reach that coal reduction apotheosis in 2030, coal will still be generating 30% of US electricity. Last year it was 39%.

David Wogan, in a post last fall at SciAm’s Plugged In, argued that EPA rules are not really a War on Coal. Structural and market forces have been attacking coal’s position for some time, so it’s likely that coal will bite the dust eventually anyway, even if the process takes several decades. Natural gas is beating it to death, and nearly all coal-fired power plants are elderly and near-moribund anyway.


Follow the money

Chris Mooney explains at Grist why Republican claims that the new climate rules will wreck the economy are wrong. The US Chamber of Commerce has also issued a report inveighing against what it claims are the enormous costs of the new EPA coal regulations.

Anti-coal protesters at  Australia's Maules Creek mine.  Credit: Greenpeace Australia/AAP

Anti-coal protesters at Australia’s Maules Creek mine. Credit: Greenpeace Australia/AAP

But at his blog Conscience of a Liberal, economist Paul Krugman took a look at their data and found–somewhat to his own surprise, it sounds like–that even the Chamber’s own estimate of $50 billion would amount to only 0.2 percent of GDP. The Nobel Prize-winning economist’s academic technical analysis:”That’s cheap!”

If there is a War on Coal, Jonathan Weisman says at the New York Times, it’s going to be like the War on Tobacco in the 1990s. It will feature buyouts and compensation for the most-affected states. But Weisman quotes Republican economist Doug Holtz-Eakin arguing that the analogy is less than perfect. “In the end, smoking became unacceptable. That was not a legal statement. It was a social statement, and consensus was broad and has held for a long time,” Mr. Holtz-Eakin said. “Maybe you get there on carbon emissions, but right now, this is an issue for the elites.”

Those compensation programs can be extraordinarily effective. I was living in southern Maryland, at that point a tobacco-growing region, when in the 1990s Maryland launched a program to compensate farmers into giving up tobacco and moving to other crops. The huge leafy plants disappeared from my neighbors’ fields almost overnight, and the ubiquitous tobacco barns fell into picturesque decay with startling suddenness.

A collapsed former tobacco barn in Southern Maryland, once the home of extensive tobacco farming. Credit: © 2010 Fred Powledge

A collapsed former tobacco barn in Southern Maryland, once the home of extensive tobacco farming. Credit: © 2010 Fred Powledge

Where the campaign to reduce coal is analogous to the tobacco buyout is that, like tobacco, coal has serious health effects. And EPA is exploiting that fact in arguing for its program. In his post, Revkin pointed out that the EPA’s new rhetorical approach–talking about carbon pollution rather than carbon dioxide or greenhouse gas emissions–signals that the agency plans to emphasize the immediate health benefits of using less coal.

At the Washington Post‘s new To Your Health blog, Lenny Bernstein describes some of these benefits. The American Lung Association says the plan would  ”prevent up to 4,000 premature deaths and 100,000 asthma attacks” just in its first year. This because power plant emissions contain sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury. All contribute to lung disease, heart attacks and asthma. There will also be lung benefits from a reduction in tiny particles of soot, which clog lungs.


Hericanes and Himicanes

Kind of fascinating, how much statistician ire has been provoked by that PNAS paper claiming that female-named hurricanes have killed more people than male-named ones. The supposed reason being that people in their paths have taken male hurricanes more seriously and gotten out of the way

This false-color image from NASA’s Cassini mission shows the  no-name hurricane  at Saturn’s north pole. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

This false-color image from NASA’s Cassini mission shows the no-name hurricane at Saturn’s north pole. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

The statisticians are not objecting to the premise that people respond unconsciously to the relative power implied by male and female names. That seems to strike most of the bloggers as not implausible. But the data and the methodology have statistics-minded commentators jumping up and down with rage. I haven’t seen a single defense, so I conclude that the paper is at best problematic.

For example, the researchers studied hurricane aftermaths from 1950 on, despite the fact that hurricanes all had female names until 1979. You don’t have to be a statistician to find that . . . odd. At The Monkey Cage, statistician Andrew Gelman agrees that including pre-1979 data makes no sense.

The hypothesis might be true, he says, but he doesn’t think the male/female thing is the most important feature of hurricane names. He wonders if it would be more sensible to compare the power implied by some names over others, Omar vs. Irving, for instance. Or whether it’s a good idea to name hurricanes at all, since perhaps names make them seem more cuddly.

A post at the Guardian by evolutionary biologist Grrlscientist and biostatistician Bob O’Hara concludes, “When we compare the data to the model itself, the ‘femininity effect’ of hurricane names completely disappears.” (This post raised a side question for me. Sandy, the megastorm of recent memory that was officially a hurricane for only a part of the time it spent slapping New York and New Jersey around, is classified as female. But Sandy is also a man’s name. Surely the single-sex classification can’t be kosher?)

Gelman refers us to an analysis by the mathematically minded sociologist Jeremy Freese at Scatterplot. Freese has problems with the model too, calling the effect sizes it implies “astonishing.” The paper’s own example claims “that if a hurricane named Eloise killed 42 people, the same hurricane named Charley would be predicted to only kill 15.” In other words, most of the deaths could be prevented if only the hurricane had a masculine name.

Freese considers the actual hurricane Andrew, which was severe in terms of damage but killed only 62 people. The paper’s model fits Andrew well, predicting 59 deaths. But, says Freese, “if the hurricane had been named Diana instead, the model predicts over 25,000 people would have died.” This implies “that tens of thousands of Floridians owe their lives to the fact that Andrew was not preceded by another storm that season, because then what we know as Hurricane Andrew would have been called Hurricane Bonnie.” The dramatically different fatality estimate for Diana (or Bonnie) doesn’t seem likely, does it?


What we have here is another failure of science communication

Freese is also trenchant on the topic of how scientific studies are relayed to the public. I will quote him at length because he is identifying an increasing problem: hype for a piece of research where the hype emanates not originally from journalists (although they are usually blamed for it), but from the authors of a paper and their research institutions.

A different choice of false color for this  image of a Saturnian hurricane from NASA’s Cassini mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

A different choice of false color for this image of a Saturnian hurricane from NASA’s Cassini mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Just last week I described such a case here, involving a paper on the microbial inhabitants of the human placenta. The first author gave  interviews in which she implied that the paper showed a connection between gum disease and unhealthy pregnancy, especially premature delivery. The paper did not show that, but top-flight science journalists nonetheless relayed her declarations. I discussed this paper and the media clamor surrounding it in a column last week at the Genetic Literacy Project.

In the case of the gendered hurricane naming, Freese points out (and the emphases are his): “The authors’ university issued a press release with a dramatic presentation of results. The release includes quotes from authors and a photo, as well as a quote from a prominent social psychologist calling the study ‘proof positive.’  So this isn’t something that the media just stumbled across and made viral.”

Freese goes on: “I have become especially impatient by the two-step in which a breathless set of claims about findings is provided in a press release, but then the authors backtrack when talking to other scientists about how of course this is just one study and of course more work needs to be done. In particular, I have lost patience with the idea the media are to blame for extreme presentations of scientists’ work, when extreme presentations of the scientists’ work are distributed to the media by the scientists’ employers.”

I rest my case.

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California quaking, swearing off showers for science, overselling the microbiome, MERS update, tropical diseases, cats vs. dogs

Uplift and quaking

When will the next big earthquake hit California, something approximating the one south of the San Andreas fault in 1857 (7.9) or San Francisco in 1906 (7.8)? The forecasts say sometime in the next few decades. Michael Lemonick explains at the New Yorker blog Elements why the current California drought may hasten the day.

Lemonick is writing about a Nature paper arguing that the massive drawdown of California’s water to irrigate California’s farmlands may be causing microquakes, and that big earthquakes are often preceded by lots of little ones. Microquakes will not cause a major quake that would not otherwise have happened, Lemonick says.”But it might bring on the Big One a little bit sooner.”

San Francisco, 1906. Credit: Pillsbury Picture Co.

San Francisco, 1906. Credit: Pillsbury Picture Co.

No soap

It’s been a time of what evolutionary microbiologist Jonathan Eisen, blogging at Tree of Life, calls “overselling the microbiome.” The highest profile item was the New York Times piece by the reporter who went a month without showers, shampoo, or deodorant in order to test a new product, a spray containing an ammonia-oxidizing bug, Nitrosomonas eutropha, that was supposed to keep the bad smells away.

It seems to have mostly worked, although she hated her greasy hair, and who can blame her? I wrote about microbiome matters Tuesday at GLP, and most fascinating to me was Julia Scott’s report that her skin improved remarkably–softer, smoother, zits gone, smaller pores. Can’t help wondering if it might be possible to spray the face and get those benefits while still washing the hair, at least occasionally.

Paul Raeburn blogged about Scott’s piece Wednesday at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker and found the idea somewhat icky. He may be right. I have a hunch we’ll find out before long whether microbes can make it as consumer products.



I won’t compare pimples to the horrifying Clostridium difficile, but they can make life pretty ghastly for adolescents. Now that receiving a transplant of another person’s bowel movement–uh, gut microbiome–is an acceptable and reportedly quite effective therapy for the very unpleasant, tough-to-eradicate, and potentially fatal C. diff infection, spraying a bit of bacteria-laden mist on the face a couple of times a day sounds not so bad.

Overselling the microbiome

As I pointed out Tuesday, Eisen has for years been bestowing awards for overselling the microbiome–complaining about hype and misleading news stories. Last week he posted an exceptional rant.

The topic was a paper describing the microbiome of the human placenta. The placenta seems to be populated not by microbes such as you might expect, for example ones similar to those in the vagina or the gut. No, several of the bugs that turned up are also to be found in the mouth. Note, though, that the paper explicitly said the placental organisms were not pathogens.

Nevertheless, nearly all the articles emphasized a point the lead researcher Kjersti Aagaard made in interviews: that the paper showed a connection between gum disease and unhealthy pregnancy, especially premature delivery. Which it did not.

Aagaard also emphasized the importance of dental hygiene. An excellent recommendation for many reasons, not least because replacing lost teeth is a painful surgical procedure, takes a long time, is often not entirely successful, and is stunningly expensive. Whether flossing can prevent premature birth, however, has yet to be demonstrated.

A tweet from science journalist Ed Yong saying “the oral hygiene msg seems hugely premature to me” prompted the Eisen post. Eisen was especially critical of news stories in Science and the New York Times, although several others (and their headlines) took a beating too.

Update on MERS: Never Mind

A couple weeks ago, on May 16, I did a blogging roundup on MERS, the new coronavirus disease centered in the Middle East. At that point there were two MERS cases in the US, both imported by health care providers who had worked in the Middle East.

On May 17, a third case was announced. This one was particularly scary because it looked as if the third patient, who had not traveled, had caught it from one of the others–even though MERS doesn’t seem to be hugely contagious.

Well, good news. The third so-called MERS case was a false alarm. To  date, no one has become infected in the US, the two imported cases have recovered, and there are now no American cases of MERS. Nothing to see here, move along. Details from Karen Kaplan at the LA Times’s blog Science Now.

If you want to catch up on MERS, though, my post here from May 16 has a lot of links. And if you’d like to know more about viruses, Vincent Racaniello has a post of interest at his Virology Blog. His Columbia virology course is going MOOC in August, and videos of each session are already posted on the course site, YouTube, and iTunes University. Seems like a terrific chance for a deep dive into virology for free and on your own schedule.

But we should mind the tropical diseases invading the US

At the Mermaid’s Tale, Anne Buchanan and Dan Parker call attention to a PLOS paper describing the “New American Underbelly of Tropical Diseases” among the Gulf Coast poor. Also chikungunya, a mosquito-borne infection expected to enter the US soon.

Chikungunya, whose main vector is the Aedes aegypti mosquito, is spreading fast in the Caribbean. Credit: Science.

Chikungunya, whose main vector is the Aedes aegypti mosquito, is spreading fast in the Caribbean. Credit: Science.

The post is a screed against neglect of certain diseases–the World Health Organization says there are 17 neglected tropical diseases–because they are diseases of the poor. Big Pharma, Buchanan and Parker say, is unlikely to invest in developing vaccines. Which is probably true. They also complain “the big research dollars go to sequencing viruses and parasites, generally neglecting the social aspects (like poverty) that lead to these conditions.”

I agree in principle that getting rid of disease by getting rid of poverty is a noble goal, but is it a more pragmatic one than genetic investigations of disease organisms? Or, to take a really practical example available right now, distribution of bed nets to keep out vectors? Were it even possible to redirect what’s spent on these things and put the money toward eliminating poverty, how much difference would these relatively small amounts make to the poor? Whereas research on disease organisms themselves is a proven strategy for dealing with disease.

Cat people vs. dog people

It’s irresistible, so I’m concluding with the report claiming that cat people are more intelligent than dog people. I openly acknowledge that this is not an actual paper, one that’s gone through peer review and been published in a respected journal. No, it’s just a poster by Denise Guastello, from Carroll University in Waukesha, Wisconsin, who presented it at the annual Association for Psychological Science meeting just concluded in San Francisco. Between 2:30 and 3:30 last Saturday afternoon. Pacific Daylight Time.

The poster caught the eye of Live Science’s Rachael Rettner, which makes it legitimate fodder here. Rettner reported not only the “more intelligent” datum, but also that “People who said they were dog lovers in the study tended to be more lively — meaning they were more energetic and outgoing — and also tended to follow rules closely. Cat lovers, on the other hand, were more introverted, more open-minded and more sensitive than dog lovers. Cat people also tended to be non-conformists, preferring to be expedient rather than follow the rules.”

Guastello seems to think her findings grow out of the differing sanitation requirements of dogs and cats. “It makes sense that a dog person is going to be more lively, because they’re going to want to be out there, outside, talking to people, bringing their dog,” Guastello said. “Whereas, if you’re more introverted, and sensitive, maybe you’re more at home reading a book, and your cat doesn’t need to go outside for a walk.” Or, I dunno, maybe she’s just talking about exercise.

I expect you’re curious about the study subjects. This was psychology research, so the demographic is easy enough to guess: the psych-obligatory college students. I wonder if they got extra credit.

cats in ur blog

It’s possible Guastello is familiar with a 2010 paper in the journal Anthrozoös reporting on personality differences between cat and dog people. “Results suggest that dog people are higher on Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness, but lower on Neuroticism and Openness than are cat people.” A full-text PDF can be had through a Guardian post on cat people that mentions this paper.

The study was much larger than last Saturday’s, involving more than 4500 people. But, and this is a very big but, a huge but, they volunteered themselves through a web site.

I never get over being flabbergasted at investigators–psychology is rife with them–who seem to be able to get away with flagrant flouting of basic principles of research design.

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Inflationary Universe data in question, but cheer up, there are cures for aging

Has BICEP2 lost its muscle?

Data claiming support for the inflationary theory of the Universe’s beginnings were released at a much ballyhooed press conference in March. (Cosmic inflation is the idea that the Universe expanded spectacularly right after the infinitesimal point that was the Big Bang.)

When I wrote about the announcement here at the time, I said I was surprised at the wholehearted embrace of a report that was so clearly contingent, tentative, preliminary. With few exceptions, physicists and physics groupies were dancing in the streets, paying at best parenthetical lip service to the way science has to work if it is to be truly scientific: results are supposed to be confirmed before they are accepted as Revealed Truth. Especially results as world-shaking as these.

The claims were based on observations of cosmic microwave background radiation left over from the Big Bang, observations made by the BICEP2 telescope at the South Pole. (BICEP is the muscular acronym for the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization experiment.)  Well over 300 papers exploring the implications have appeared already, in just a couple of months, rushed into the arXiv e-print database.

We should know fairly soon, within the next year or two, whether what BICEP2 saw was the real thing. The first installment is expected in October, with release of data from Planck. Planck is the space observatory designed to study cosmic background radiation and operated by the European Space Agency. Last fall ESA declared “Mission accomplished!” and deactivated Planck, but analysis of its data goes on and on. Some teaser data were released May 12, which Kathryn Jepsen described at Symmetry.


The Dustup

Beginning last week, however, what physicist Sean Carroll called “Arrrgh Rumors” have been asking whether the BICEP2 results would come to literal dust. At his physics blog Résonaances on May 12, Adam Falkowski asked “Is BICEP wrong?” Noting that in March he had given the BICEP2 results only a 50-50 chance of being right, Falkowski reported that BICEP had wrongly interpreted data from Planck. “Once you correct for that and rescale the Planck results appropriately, some experts claim that the polarized galactic dust emission can account for most of the BICEP signal. The rumor is that the BICEP team has now admitted to the mistake.”

That rumor turned out to be wrong, or at least was roundly denied, according to Lisa Grossman in a May 13 piece at New Scientist.

On May 15, Carroll tweeted “Could the BICEP2 signal be dust, not CMB? Slides from Raphael Flauger suggesting yes” and linked to a public seminar by Princeton physicist Raphael Flauger (slides and video here.) Falkowski reported on the Flauger seminar on May 16. He acknowledged that the BICEP results might still turn out to be valid, but it was now up to the BICEP team to prove it.

The BICEP2 team used a map of the entire sky (left) to estimate the effect of galactic dust on their measurements. Princeton’s Raphael Flauger reconstructed the map from other sources and found the effects from dust may be much stronger (right) than the team had thought. The colors show the degree to which light from different parts of sky is polarized; red is stronger, blue is weaker.  Sky maps from Science News, May 21, 2014.

The BICEP2 team used a map of the entire sky (left) to estimate the effect of galactic dust on their measurements. Princeton’s Raphael Flauger reconstructed the map from other sources and found the effects from dust may be much stronger (right) than the team had thought. The colors show the degree to which light from different parts of sky is polarized; red is stronger, blue is weaker. Sky maps from Science News, May 21, 2014.

Christopher Crockett also described the Flauger analysis May 21 in a fine open-access piece at Science News that explains the rumor story so far. It’s also a clear summary of what the issues are. “This is not so much a squabble, but the discovery process in action,” he concludes.

An early skeptic was cosmologist Peter Coles, who blogs at In the Dark. He, too, analyzed the rumor and its aftermath, and observed, “I’m not particularly keen on the rumour-mongering that has gone on, but then I’m not very keen either on the way the BICEP2 result has been presented in some quarters as being beyond reasonable doubt when it clearly doesn’t have that status. Yet. Rational scepticism is a very good thing. It’s one of the things that makes science what it is. But it all too easily turns into mudslinging.”

Cosmologist Sesh Nadathurm, who blogs at Blank On The Map, dismissed this week’s events as “a minor kerfuffle.” Which it is not, as I explain below. While I think Nadathurm is wrong about the importance of the flap, the post is a clear explanation of the technical issues.


Why the BICEP2 rumor-mongering is not a minor kerfuffle

Here’s why this tale is neither minor nor kerfuffle. As Joel Achenbach declared at Achenblog, “Cosmic inflation had been discussed for more than three decades, but this would be the first strong evidence for it.” Michael Lemonick points out in a May 21 SciAm post, “the BICEP2 results are crucial to verifying inflation, a cornerstone of modern cosmology.”

The rumor about BICEP2 results may have been denied, but it has prompted several physicists to go public with objections they say they have harbored since the findings were released in March. Lemonick rounds up some of these objections and says several physicists have not been able to replicate the BICEP2 calculations. (A BICEP2 paper was posted publicly in March but has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, nor have the original data been released.)

Flauger told Ron Cowen at Nature News that he still hopes a signal will be confirmed. “I’m not trying to pick a fight; this is how science works, that someone presents a result and someone else checks that. But it doesn’t usually happen in public like this.


Young blood reverses aging

How the Universe began is arguably the most important story ever, but for nearly everyone except people who work in astrophysics and those of us who write about it, probably some religious folks too, it’s a topic with no impact on daily life.

This week, however, came science news of interest to pretty much everyone: experiments showing that there’s something in our blood that can reverse aging. Well, not our blood. Mouse blood. But the assumption is that if mice have it, we probably do too. And you can bet the pharmas are trying to concoct a patentable version of whatever it is as we speak.

Credit: National Institutes of Health

Credit: National Institutes of Health


Looks to me as if we need to take seriously these three new papers. These studies are not quack science, and they don’t seem to have been seriously misinterpreted by journalists who failed to understand the work or are trying to grab headlines. Nor is their reception a case of BICEP-like premature enthusiasm for preliminary results. The three are in peer-reviewed journals and are reporting on the latest results from long-term projects.


GDF11: the magic bullet against aging?

Two papers in Science report on recent findings from long-running investigations of what happens when the circulatory systems of young mice and old mice are joined in a somewhat creepy process called parabiosis. Old mice seem to benefit from substances in the young blood, one of which is a protein, GDF11. Doses of the protein alone rejuvenate heart and skeletal muscle and improve brain function: in this case olfaction, a huge part of mouse life.

At Ars Technica, John Timmer says the work implies that brain aging is not intrinsic to neurons but rather is a product of interaction with the environment and therefore might be modified. I expect the line of human volunteers eager to ingest just about anything has formed already.

At In the Pipeline, Derek Lowe says, “You might need a lot of protein, though, and there’s no telling how often you’d need infusions of it, but to roll back aging people would presumably put up with quite a bit of inconvenience.” Lowe thinks it’s likely there might be molecular targets in the GDF11 pathways, which is where the pharmas come in. The speculation is that rejuvenation is due to increased proliferation of stem cells. Lowe notes that up to now GDF11 has been believed to prevent formation of new brain cells, which shows how little is known about it.

At Mindblog, Deric Bownds cautions against profligate shooting up with GDF11. He warns, “waking up too many stem cells to start multiplying might increase the incidence of cancer.”


Young blood serum infusions help the aging brain

The third paper, in Nature, ís in some ways even more intriguing because it shows beneficial brain effects on elderly mice from injections of blood serum from young mice. This, too, is likely to be put into practice with humans immediately. Indeed, the researchers have set up a company to begin clinical trials.

Lowe points out that blood plasma is infused thousands of times daily in every medical center in the country. He wonders what effect this work will have on “the current model of blood donation and banking, if it turns out that plasma from an 18-year-old is worth a great deal more than plasma from a fifty-year-old. I hope that the folks at the Red Cross are keeping up with the literature.”

National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins proudly blogs a detailed account of all three papers. All this work, it turns out, has been funded by we ourselves, the US taxpayers. Do you suppose small-government commentators and Congresspersons will have the nerve to argue that it’s a waste of public money? Can opposing a cure for aging possibly be good politics?

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Female vs. male research, vaginas, elderly sperm, Nate Silver’s 538, MERS, racial genetics

Sex roundup: Affirmative action in animal research

My list of potential topics is heavy with sex this week. First–and possibly most far-reaching–the National Institutes of Health is coming to grips with the fact that males and females are . . . different. They react differently to drugs, for instance. And that means that research results from one are not necessarily trustworthy for both.

To be fair, let us note that NIH changed the rules to even up the sex ratio in human research some years ago. Today the agency brags that more than half of research participants in human studies are female.

Until now, though, that affirmative action has not applied to studies with lab animals.  It’s possible that decades worth of animal research has been skewed by the fact that female lab animals have been routinely eliminated from research. One reason given: their raging hormones make interpreting results messy. See Susannah Locke’s post at Vox explaining the kinds of problems the present system has created.

Credit: Rob Young

Credit: Rob Young

The agency is writing new animal research guidelines for NIH-funded researchers; they will be released in phases beginning late this year. Researchers will be required to include both sexes in their animal experiments, and to include them in large enough numbers to detect sex differences in the results. Grant reviewers will be instructed to take lab animal sex balance into consideration when considering a proposal. Those who work with cells will be encouraged to use both kinds too, but the rules for cells seem a little more, um, flexible.

Even some researchers who thoroughly approve of organizing a piece of research so that it’s possible to sort out any effects that differ by sex have been made gloomy by this announcement. As Drug Monkey explains, it will increase research costs, and by more than just doubling the costs.

“Let me be clear, I want to do sex-differences studies. I am delighted that this will be a new prescription. I agree with the motivating sentiments. . . What it takes is additional grant funding. Or tolerance on the part of P&T committees, hiring committees and grant review panels for apparently reduced progress on a scientific topic of interest.”

Sex roundup: Researchers have been ignoring vaginas, too

Turns out that female reproductive machinery has been excluded from research along with female lab animals and female cells. Researchers from Europe and Australia report in PLOS Biology that they looked at 25 years’ worth of studies on the evolution of genitals–an increasingly hot topic–and found that just under half, 49%, report on male genitalia only. (44% studied genitalia of both sexes and 8% females only.)

Like the objection to disproportional attention to males in lab animal research, this is a complaint that has nothing at all to do with sexual politics. It’s about how to design studies that don’t skew results and lead to false conclusions.

Some of this may be, if not exactly sexual politics, a hangover from previous centuries: the idea that females are passive recipients of male sexual attention, with few genital features to excite research interest. But a big part of this neglect is because female genitalia are a lot more difficult to study. Male apparatus is usually out there for all to see; female genitalia are more often internal. Elizabeth Gibney reports at the Nature Newsblog that the data support this idea. Female creatures with external genitalia–spiders, for example–are not nearly as neglected by researchers.

At Not Exactly Rocket Science, Ed Yong agrees. A tube, he says, is easier to study than a cavity. But he also thinks old-fashioned (and erroneous) ideas about female passivity during sex linger and divert research attention. He’s got lots of fascinating details from animals to show that females often control, for instance, the ease of mating (in ducks) and the choice of male sperm (in earwigs.)

Sex roundup: Risky older fathers, another flub from Nate Silver’s 538

Knight Science Journalism Tracker Paul Raeburn takes issue with a piece at Nate Silver’s asserting that tales of birth defects, autism, and other psychiatric and behavior disorders associated with older fathers are overblown. He argues that the piece entirely ignores a crucial paper, a 2012 study from deCODE Genetics showing that the older they get, the more likely men are to pass mutations on to their children.

The 538 piece is by Emily Oster, who at the moment is looking like the only member of the 3-person 538 science staff who’s writing regularly. Most of the work so far posted in the 538 science section is from outsiders, not all of them writers.

Oster is an economist at the University of Chicago, but has been producing a weekly piece of science writing in debunkery mode. I wrote about Nate Silver’s new 538 in March, and my post was partly about another Oster piece. This was a contrarian take on whether acetominophen during pregnancy has long-term consequences for children. I liked some of what she said, especially her emphasis on how science writers so routinely give readers misleading impressions of a study by reporting relative risk figures instead of absolute numbers. But, given the small amount of data she analyzed, I thought the piece was waaaay too long.

The paternal age piece is also quite long, but at least Oster does additional analysis of the data she considers. Which is good, because data is supposed to be what 538 is about. OTOH, not good if she’s leaving out essential data such as the deCODE paper Raeburn describes.

Emerging MERS

As I write, there are now two confirmed US cases of MERS, the new Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, which has been fatal in somewhere between a quarter and a third of cases. Both US cases are imports, unrelated to each other, one diagnosed in Indiana and the other in Florida. Both occurred in healthcare workers traveling here from Saudi Arabia, which has been the chief locale of MERS cases.

The disease is not hugely contagious; it appears to require sustained close contact, as with hospital workers or family members caring for a sick relative. The World Health Organization has issued official reassurance: this is not a global public health emergency. Or at least not yet. Find this news in several places, including Physician’s First Watch (from the New England Journal of Medicine). First Watch is also making its archive of MERS articles, a couple of dozen at this point, available free here.

Find exhaustive detail as of last Tuesday at the Centers for Disease Control’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Health authorities expect more imported cases of MERS. Jason Beaubien reports at Shots that American hospitals are taking steps to recognize MERS early and keep it from spreading.

Where the virus comes from and how it infects people are uncertain. Its primary source is thought to be the Egyptian tomb bat, an appropriately sepulchral name. I haven’t been able to find out why this animal’s common name is tomb bat. But reportedly it likes to nest in stone structures, so maybe that’s it. It’s a fruit bat, like the bat reservoir for another scary coronavirus, SARS.

The Egyptian tomb bat. Credit: Jakob Fahr, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC)

The Egyptian tomb bat. Credit: Jakob Fahr, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC)

The virus has spread to camels, now suspected of being its intermediate host. A Lancet paper from last fall found antibodies to the virus in some camel populations but not others. The virus itself has been recovered from the noses of Saudi Arabian dromedary camels. (That’s the one-hump kind.)

Laurie Garrett, a long-time and highly decorated science writer who specializes in infectious disease, tells us at Foreign Policy that the geographic range of infected camels “perfectly overlaps the North African terrain of Egyptian tomb bats.” This could mean, she speculates, that sporadic human MERS disease may have occurred in the Middle East, unrecognized, for centuries.

Some MERS patients had contact with camel meat or milk before they fell ill, but camels appear to be involved in only a small number of MERS cases. Which means, Garrett says, “the vast majority of MERS cases seem to have been acquired by other means.”

For a thorough overview of the MERS story so far, see Judy Stone’s post at her SciAm blog Molecules to Medicine. She and Laurie Garrett both delve into the politics of MERS. The Saudi Arabian authorities in particular are tight-fisted with information. A  scientist there was fired for sending a saliva sample to the Netherlands for analysis.

The genetics of race

Science writer Nicholas Wade, late of the New York Times, has a new book out about the genetics of racial classification. Race, it argues, is not a social construct; races are genetically real and it’s time we learned to live with that fact. I reviewed the book this week at the Genetic Literacy Project. A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History is impressively researched and will tell you things you didn’t know even if you know a lot.

race Wade bk

My chief complaint is that, although Wade pays lip service to the reality that nongenetic factors loom large in human evolution and human development and human life, sometimes he doesn’t seem to believe it. That’s particularly evident in Chapter 7, where he endorses the work of economic historian Gregory Clark.

Clark argues that Brits underwent something of a personality change between 1200 and 1800 because the rich reproduced more than the poor. This resulted in reduced interpersonal aggression and national embrace of virtues like thrift and the work ethic.

Wade believes this was due to the genes of the rich. He produces no evidence for these behavioral genetics influences, however. He simply asserts them, a bad move for a science writer. Given what we know at the moment about these virtuous genes, which is nothing, it’s just as plausible that these changes were shaped by parental habits and cultural inculcation. More detail, and more argument (about this and other evolutionary topics), in my review.

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Here’s how to convince people climate change is now


The National Climate Assessment

You probably know that the White House issued the massive National Climate Assessment early this week. I’ll get to details and more links to comments in a moment, but if you need a quick overview, let John Timmer be your guide at Ars Technica. The report not only describes what’s going on with climate change right now, he says, but also deals with some of the arguments made by skeptics. What’s particularly useful is its regional approach, making clear how vastly different, for example, changes in precipitation have been in various parts of the country.


How to change American attitudes?

“What will it take to get the American people to understand the dangers of climate change?” Knight Science Journalism Tracker Paul Raeburn wants to know. “Is there anything that can awaken them?”

I have a modest proposal to encourage the Awakening. I learned at my adman father’s knee that the key to persuasion is simple and easy: Repetition. Repetition. Repetition.

Credit: National Climate Assessment

Credit: National Climate Assessment

So here’s my plan: Learn from the Koch brothers. Learn from the Supreme Court rulings on unlimited and anonymous political funding. And then take action. Get rich guys to bankroll a foundation that will underwrite torrential ad campaigns in places where electing candidates committed to new climate-change policies can make a difference.

Bill and Melinda Gates surely understand that warming is going to make their admirable attempts to eliminate endemic diseases in the developing world much harder. Hell, maybe even casino mogul Sheldon Adelson can grasp that the coming water shortages will be bad for his Las Vegas enterprises–not to mention his beloved Israel.

The Gates-Adelson Foundation should target in particular elections for the US House of Representatives, because until we get a very different kind of Congress there will be little progress on dealing with climate change or any other pressing policy matters–despite the President’s vow to do what he can with executive orders.

Local races are probably even more important. Unless state legislatures change dramatically before the next census in 2020, there is no hope of ungerrymandering all those congressional districts that the politically savvy made safe for the servants of fossil fuels and other antediluvian interests after the 2010 census.


Antediluvian attitudes

Speaking of floods, perhaps there is hope for scientists being able to link at least some extreme weather events to warming. The new report argues that drought will continue in the Southwest and rain will increase in the Midwest and, especially, the Northeast. The report also forecasts more violent storms.  It will be easier to make an impact on American climate consciousness if people see the evidence outside their kitchen windows.

Heavy precipitation events are increasing, but not everywhere. Via Ars Technica.

Heavy precipitation events are increasing, but not everywhere. Via Ars Technica.

At Swampland, Michael Grunwald is gloomy about getting attitudes to change, despite unusual warming-related events. “It’s annoying that Biscayne Bay now floods the Whole Foods parking lot near my house once a month, but it’s not the end of the world,” he says. True, especially if there’s a Trader Joe’s with drier parking not far away. Cheaper, too.

Still, it’s hard to believe that Miamians aren’t worried, at least in their secret hearts. They have heard more than once that their major American city is destined to be swept away. Maybe continued and frequent repetition will do the trick. One episode of hand-wringing at Whole Foods might not have much impact, but what if it was repeated regularly during this monthly flooding?

The Gates-Adelson Foundation could give grants for regular coverage of the Whole Foods parking lot, perhaps featuring monthly measurements of how much higher the flooding gets each time. How long would complacency persist if local media kept harping on local flooding? If TV commercials kept making the point?

I suppose social scientists might argue that people would adapt and grow deaf and blind to this repetition. But the ad industry and its clients have made zillions by begging to differ. Attitudes might not change fast, but I bet they would change.


Employing employment

And what about job possibilities as a tool for persuasion? Some Republicans have decried the White House report as a distraction from attempts to increase jobs, neglecting to note that dealing with warming would be that thing they say they value above all: a job creator. Grunwald says the wind and solar industries now employ more Americans than the coal industry. I can hardly believe something so wonderful is true, but even if it is, there’s nothing wrong with growing even more renewables.

Even the appalling delay in instituting policies for dealing with climate change has a bright side for boosting employment: the many job possibilities in what will soon, inevitably, be an adaptation/preparation/mitigation industry. I hear that my native Chicago is dealing with the increase in Midwestern heat and snow and rain by resurfacing its alleys with light-colored permeable material. Lots of work there; Chicago has thousands of alleys. In Miami and Charleston and Norfolk and other imperiled coastal enclaves, filling sandbags is work nearly anybody can do.

I’m not being entirely facetious here.


National Climate Assessment bloggery

No way can I cover the extensive comment on the National Climate Assessment report adequately. Here are a few links to get you started.

At Wonkblog, Puneet Kollipara summarizes and links to several analyses and commentaries on the report. Kollipara points out that this is only the most recent of a series of pessimistic reports on climate change, but none has made much of a difference in public attitudes. Polls show that a majority of Americans accept that climate is changing, but dealing with it is a low priority for most.

Charlie Petit summarizes the report briefly and analyzes lots of media coverage at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker. The Carbon Brief has done a number of posts on the report, of course. This one, by Roz Pidcock, is about local approaches to adapting.


From the explainer sites: not much

Maybe the sparse attention the new explainer sites bestowed on the report makes sense, given the flood from other sources. Still, my idea of the explainer sites is that their function is, well, to explain. I was hoping for more. They’re all newborns, so I suppose we should cut them some slack.

At the new explainer site Vox, Brad Plumer did the most. But it was a kind of making-do, with nine maps taken from the report that show how climate change is already affecting the US.

At the even newer explainer site TheUpshot, from the New York Times, David Leonhardt didn’t deal directly with the report at all. He divided attitudes toward climate change by political party and showed that the views of Democrats and Independents are similar to those in several other countries: Chile, Spain, Italy, Japan. The outliers are Republicans. But you knew that.

At 538, Nate Silver’s new enterprise, silence. Nothing at all on the report. Having gotten so much flack from the site’s first foray into climate change commentary, maybe Silver is keeping his head down.


Deniers and skeptics

Judith Curry’s analysis is (predictably) mostly negative, although there are some things about the report she liked. She is also concerned that the emphasis on weather events due to CO2 will mean unpleasant surprises ahead when we are blindsided by extreme events from other causes.

Credit: National Climate Assessment

Credit: National Climate Assessment

Watts Up With That features its traditional all-denial posts, like this one under the hed “Alarmists offer untrue, unrelenting gloom and doom.” It’s a reprint of the Marlo Lewis piece from Fox News.


The National Climate Assessment as a science communication tool

Whatever your opinion of its content, the National Climate Assessment report is a remarkable document. Huge, yes. 800-plus pages. But also a magnificent, and magnificently accessible, Web site.

David Ropeik describes it all in a guest blog post at Scientific American, explaining how and why the report is a model of scientific communication. For one thing, the emphasis is on climate change as a current threat, not a distant future one, an attempt to bring the need for present action home to readers. The report’s language is clear, and there are lots of simple graphics that keep this immense document from being completely technically intimidating.

The amount of work involved in putting this thing together is staggering. All hail the senior writer, Susan Joy Hassol. I’m guessing she had helpers, and all hail to them, too.

Ropeik is not hopeful that the report will have an immediate impact, but he seems to think it will affect policy eventually. He notes also that it does lay the groundwork for executive actions that President Obama is believed to be about to announce.

climate stay tuned

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Sexing research, Stem cells for the heart, Climate change on Fox News

Of Mice and Men

The paper showing that the presence of male but not female researchers increases the stress level of lab rodents and thereby alters experimental results set off an assortment of responses in me.

1. Jokey. For example, the observation that male researchers scare the crap out of mice is literally true and therefore irresistible. This because mice deposit more fecal boli when stressed than when not, a behavior that can be triggered by even so innocuous a stimulus as a t-shirt previously worn by a man. The evidence is a graph in the paywalled paper or the open-access replication at Vox in Susannah Locke’s post. (The just-right Mickey Mouse pic is from there, too.)

2. Feminist. My first thought being optimistic, based on hope: Cool, a fabulous economic justification for opening research to more women scientists because they won’t screw up the experiments like men do. And my second being empirical, based on historical experience: Oh no, they’ll turn women scientists into lab technicians and make them care for the animals.

Credit: Cory Doctorow/Flickr

Credit: Cory Doctorow/Flickr

3. Alarmed. Good grief, does this mean writing off decades worth of animal experiments? Senior author Jeffrey Mogil said he did the sex-effect research partly because such an effect had been long rumored, and while it’s a confounding effect, it’s not a fatal one. It should, though, mean changes in research practices, and the sex of the researchers should be noted in the Methods section of papers, he told David Grimm at ScienceNow.

But Grimm also quotes other scientists who wonder if these sex differences in personnel could be a reason labs often have difficulty replicating the work of others. Or whether they could affect clinical trials. Says one, “This could have an impact on just about everything.”

Mogil has speculated that the reason for this effect is evolutionary and probably triggered by pheromones detectable by other mammals of many species. A solitary male is likely to be on the hunt or defending turf, and that increases the fight-or-flight stress responses in those around him.

If Mogil is right about human males routinely producing stress in others just by being on the premises, then the effect on research could extend to many other lab animals besides rodents. And not just lab animals, pets as well, James Owens suggests at Weird and Wild.

Not to mention how it might illuminate social interactions in Homo sap.


Science blogging and grant proposals

Over the years I’ve heard scientists speak anxiously about whether blogging will affect their research careers for the worse, keep them from getting promotions and funding. They believe their colleagues often think blogging is a time-wasting drag on research and that bloggers are just not serious people. I suppose that’s why some of them–high-profile ones too–blog pseudononymously.

High profile UC Davis microbiologist Jonathan Eisen–that’s his real name–blogs at the well-known Tree of Life. He has finally broken his silence over a 2012 grant reviewer expressing doubt that he could lead a big new project given “his high time commitment to his blog.”

Eisen drafted a hot response at the time, but decided not to send it. He did consult the program officer, who assured him that the comment had no effect on the grant decision.

He says he’s now sorry he didn’t fire away immediately, and so he has posted the unsent draft, with redactions of pungent language. He really likes online activity, he says, and also thinks it contributes to his work.

I know what he means.


No balm for broken hearts?

The very fashionable notion of using stem cells to repair broken hearts suffered a double whammy this week. Which led the very reliable Larry Husten to wonder in a Forbes post, “A House Of Cards About To Fall?”

Husten was writing specifically about a new open-access paper from the British Medical Journal, a meta-analysis of papers about bone marrow stem cells as therapy for damaged hearts. It was published Tuesday (April 29.) The first word of the BMJ paper’s title is “Discrepancies,” which suggests, correctly, that it will not be friendly.

“Discrepancies” strikes me as a tactful term to describe the hundreds of internal contradictions in these papers. Át MedPageToday, Todd Neale tells us that, in 133 reports of 49 trials, the BMJ authors found 604 discrepancies, defined as “two (or more) reported facts that cannot both be true because they are logically or mathematically incompatible.”  What’s more–and this is the really juicy bit–the more “discrepancies” in a report, the more likely it was to claim positive results for stem cell treatments.

Husten concludes that “many of the most promising results in the field are illusory and that the potential benefits of stem cells to treat heart disease are probably far more modest than we’ve been led to believe. The study also raises disturbing questions about ethics and research conduct (and misconduct) in a high-flying field.”

And if that wasn’t bad enough, on that same day the Cochrane collaboration also came up with its meta-analysis of papers about bone marrow stem cells for heart repair, which ScienceInsider’s Jennifer Couzin-Frankel said analyzed many of the same trials covered in the BMJ paper.  The Cochrane paper was marginally more positive, reporting limply that there is “some evidence that stem cell treatment may be of benefit in people both with chronic ischaemic heart disease and with heart failure.” But, it said, the evidence is of low quality and highly variable. Not a ringing endorsement. The good news is that the procedure doesn’t seem to have killed many people.

Todd Neale’s post, which also reported on the Cochrane paper, quoted Clyde Yancy, chief of cardiology at Northwestern University and a past president of the American Heart Association, as saying that the studies are difficult to do, but at some point this question must be asked: “‘Do we know anything more now, are we any closer to the clinical application of these technologies than we were a decade ago?’” Yancy’s answer: “No.”

Three-dimensional rendered microcomputed tomography of treated monkey heart 3 months after human embryonic stem cell injection. Arteries perfusing the graft are red. Other vessels are grey in the uninjured cardiac tissue and white within the graft. Credit: Veronica Muskheli

Three-dimensional rendered microcomputed tomography of treated monkey heart 3 months after human embryonic stem cell injection. Arteries perfusing the graft are red. Other vessels are grey in the uninjured cardiac tissue and white within the graft. Credit: Veronica Muskheli

Hope springs eternal, though. Ian Sample at The Guardian (and others) reported on what the hed writer, sigh, called a “breakthrough”: the repair of damaged monkey hearts by injection with human embryonic stem cells. The paper was published Wednesday (April 30) in Nature.

The embryonic stem-cell treatment must be done soon after the heart attack, before scar tissue can form. The animals also developed irregular heart beats that disappeared eventually. Clinical trials could begin in four years.


You’ll be flabbergasted to hear that Fox News doesn’t want to discuss climate change.

Michael Moyer, a senior editor at Scientific American, was invited to appear on Fox News Wednesday (April 30) to discuss future tech trends. In a preliminary back-and-forth to decide on topics before the show, Moyer told a producer that a big trend would be dealing with climate change. The (emailed) reply,  “can we replace the climate change with something else?”   So they did, and Moyer blogged about the experience at Observations.

Business Insider then reported a Fox News denial, quoting a Foxy lady thus, “We worked closely with him and his team and there was never an issue on the topic of climate change,” Suzanne Scott, SVP of programming at Fox News, said in a statement. “To say he was told specifically not to discuss it, would be false.”

Except there is that email.

According to Jack Mirkinson at HuffPo, Fox News and its talking heads took their revenge yesterday (Thursday, May 1), indulging in Fox’s trademark name-calling. “Coward,” for one. What was cowardly about what Moyer did?

In his post, Moyer says Fox took the interview video down. If so, it is now back up. But if you’re expecting fireworks, you’ll be disappointed. Perfectly friendly. Not to say banal.

On the left, Michael Moyer. On the right, all others. This is, after all, Fox News. HT for the screenshot to TPM.

On the left, Michael Moyer. On the right, all others. This is, after all, Fox News. HT for the screenshot to TPM.

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A Goldilocks exoplanet and marijuana on the brain


Everything you ever wanted to know about Kepler 186f

The planet Kepler 186f is 500 light years away, might have liquid water, and orbits a red dwarf star. Red dwarfs are cooler, yes, and dimmer, but they also burn for billions of years longer than our Sun–meaning that life has lots more time to possibly maybe happen there than the 3 billion years it took here. Nearly a thousand exoplanets have been discovered so far. This is the  one that most closely resembles Earth.

Hence the wild excitement.

But curb your enthusiasm; there are a lot of ifs and maybes. One tipoff that circumspection is advisable is that Bad Astronomer Phil Plait, who has been known to sometimes jump up and down and yell “Wowee!!!!” isn’t doing that about Kepler 186f.

On the left, us. On the right, a fantasy/science fiction conception of Kepler 186f, which almost certainly doesn't look like this. Although they probably got the relative sizes of the two correct. Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-CalTech

On the left, us. On the right, a fantasy/science fiction conception of Kepler 186f, which almost certainly doesn’t look like this. Although they probably got the relative sizes of the two correct. Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-CalTech

Plait notes that astronomers have discovered dozens of planets in the habitable zone around stars, the zone where water, if it exists, could be liquid. Kepler 186f is special because it’s 1.1 times Earth’s size, making “it potentially the most Earth-like planet we’ve yet found.” Italics are his.

The known unknowns about Kepler 186f

The fact is, Plait says, we don’t know a lot about Kepler 186f and probably never will. “The techniques used to find planet masses aren’t up to the task for this planet—the star is too dim to get reliable data. The same is true for any air the planet might have as well. And without that, we don’t really know its surface temperature. . . So we don’t know if this planet is like Earth, or more like Venus (with an incredibly thick, poisonous atmosphere that keeps the surface ridiculously hot), or like Mars (with very little air, making it cold). It could be a barren rock, or a fecund water world, or made entirely of Styrofoam peanuts,” he says.

I am guessing he is kidding about the styrofoam, but the question of atmosphere is pretty major. Kepler 186f is at the far edge of the star’s habitable zone. It gets only a third as much light as Earth, and it is colder. So it would need a thick carbon dioxide atmosphere to maintain water as a liquid, according to Alexandra Witze at Nature.

Other reasons for caution: Kepler 186f could have far less surface gravity than Earth–or far more. At ScienceNow, Yudhijit Bhattacharjee says it could be tidally locked to its  star, just as the Moon’s rotation is synchronized to Earth. In that case, half the planet would be permanently sunny and the other half permanently dark and cold. If there is an atmosphere, this heating pattern might cause permanent mighty winds.

NASA is guessing that it’s a rocky planet like Earth, but its mass and composition are in fact unknown. A member of the NASA team calls the planet, which is 10% bigger than Earth, an Earth cousin rather than an Earth twin, according to Nathan Ingraham at The Verge.

But maybe this planet is better than Earth?

On the other hand, at SciAm’s Observations, Michael Moyer speculates that Kepler 186f may be better configured for life than Earth is. The little we do know about it suggests that it might nicely fulfill the requirements for superhabitability.

Nice trees. Must be autumn on Kepler 186f. The lake is overseen  by red dwarf Kepler 186 and other planets in the system. In case you were wondering, this is not a photo.  Credit: NASA/Danielle Futselaar.

Nice trees. Must be autumn on Kepler 186f. The lake is overseen by red dwarf Kepler 186 and other planets in the system. In case you were wondering, this is not a photo. Credit: NASA/Danielle Futselaar.

A superhabitable planet is “one that has all the life-giving features of Earth, but more so,” Moyer says. It’s somewhat bigger than Earth, and for generating life, size matters. A bigger planet would help shield nascent life from radiation. It could have more volcanoes spewing CO2 to warm things up, generating a thicker atmosphere that would cling to the planet because of greater surface gravity. Also, lots more space for things to grow and ramble. And a long-lived red dwarf sun that would give life loads of time to get up and running. We don’t know about volcanoes and an atmosphere, but Kepler 186f is bigger than Earth and is orbiting a life-giving (maybe) red dwarf.

Department of Wild Speculation

Switching from speculation mode to wild speculation mode, let me acquaint you with Hontas Farmer, blogging at Quantum Gravity. He is investigating signals from the Kepler 186 system via SETI Live, a volunteer search for signals from intelligent life. Farmer says he has detected something that might might might be a very noisy and degraded broadband signal coming from the Kepler 186 system.

Farmer has concluded there is a better than 50-50 chance that the system harbors not just intelligent life, but intelligent life that is at least as technologically advanced as we are. Or was 500 years ago, the red dwarf’s light having taken that long to be collected by the SETI telescope.

For another leap of the imagination, think on this. If we did find out that Kepler 186f was looking lifelike, 500 light years is far, far away. Even traveling at the speed of light, which as you may know we can’t, it would take many human generations to get there. So you will be pleased to learn that a scientist at NASA (of course) is looking to solve that problem. He’s working on a warp drive. Really. It must be true because I read it in Scientific American.

A guest blog post by Mark Alpert, who (also) writes science fiction, says that physicist Harold “Sonny” White is working on “a system that could generate a bubble of warped spacetime around a spacecraft. Instead of increasing the craft’s speed, the warp drive would distort the spacetime along its path, allowing it to sidestep the laws of physics that prohibit faster-than-light travel. Such a spacecraft could cross the vast distances between stars in just a matter of weeks.”


The Enterprise visits Kepler 186f. This is not a photo either.

The Enterprise visits Kepler 186f. This is not a photo either.

Ad astra ad nauseam

I’ve had enough of the atmosphere around Kepler 186f for now, but if you haven’t, there’s more, lots more.

Joseph Stromberg has an explainer on exoplanets at Vox.

The paywalled paper on Kepler 186f is from Science. Here’s the abstract.

Knight Science Journalism Tracker Charlie Petit has posted an exhaustive analysis of the extensive media response to Kepler 186f. With links, of course. Many.

Calling the pot black

I have written here before about the likely enormous impact of the coming cavalcade of cannabis. We have, somewhat heedlessly, launched a massive experiment. There’s been a revolution in public attitudes on marijuana use–not to mention striking policy changes like legalization in Colorado and Washington state, and legal medical marijuana in 21 other states plus the District of Columbia, and the Justice Department’s declaration that it doesn’t plan to enforce the federal law against weed.

It’s inevitable that this massive policy turnaround will encounter pushback. Some of it will come to us wearing a science costume. We got two headline-grabbing examples of that  this week, both involving medical research and both involving the perennially maddening writerly confusion over the difference between correlation and causation.

I yearn for the day when all people who write about science and medicine, not just a select group, recognize the difference and routinely explain that difference to readers. When wearing my cynical hat, I suspect that lots of those who pretend ignorance in fact know the difference perfectly well, but ignore it because otherwise they would lose sexy stories that editors love.

Marijuana on the brain

Let’s start with the study purporting to show brain differences between users and nonusers. A distressing number of media outlets fell for it, despite the fact that this was yet another example of correlation, not cause.

That undeserved attention generated its own pushback from several science-savvy sources. In fact, I was a bit heartened by how much denunciation popped up. There looks to be an expanding cadre of well-informed debunkers out there, and I hope hope hope they’re not all preaching to the choir.

Knight Science Journalism Tracker Paul Raeburn excoriated the positive coverage and also linked to the excoriations of others, notably John Gever’s MedPageToday post. Gever’s hed spoke of “Bungling the Cannabis Story.” Raeburn also quoted Berkeley computational biologist Lior Pachter, who blogs at Bits of DNA. Pachter declared that the study was “quite possibly the worst paper I’ve read all year.”


So much is wrong with this research–an MRI study, always a cause for caution–that it’s hard to understand why the usually classy Journal of Neuroscience, published by the very respectable Society for Neuroscience, gave it a home. Not only that, the SfN press release about the paper encouraged misinterpretation, as both Raeburn and Gever point out.

Gever noted that the release allowed senior author Hans Breiter of Northwestern to mischaracterize the study, saying it challenges “the idea that casual marijuana use isn’t associated with bad consequences.” Gever’s comment: “Um, no, it doesn’t — not without before-and-after MRI scans showing brain structure changes in users that differ from nonusers and documentation of functional impairments associated with those changes.”

Said Raeburn, “Reporters who relied on that release remind me of the student who fails his test because he copies the wrong answers from the kid sitting in front of him. The release might help explain why the coverage was so bad. But it’s no excuse.”

And then there were the study subjects.  As Maya Szalavitz points out at The Daily Beast, both the experimental (users) and control groups (nonusers) of 20 each were selected for being in good health and normal. Users who displayed any kind of impairment were excluded. So the brain differences the pot-smoking subjects were said to display were not associated with any abnormalities, any cognitive or mental problems. And the paper does not and cannot show that the brain differences were caused by pot.

Under the hed “The very political neuroscience of cannabis,” Mark Kleiman tore the paper apart at a group blog, The Reality-Based Community. Kleiman is a drug policy expert at UCLA; the LA Times calls him “pot’s go-to guy.” He says the brain differences finding “might mean
1. That using cannabis at that level causes changes in the brain.
2. That something else correlated with cannabis use – for example, use of other illicit drugs – causes changes in the brain.
3. That something about having that kind of brain makes cannabis use more attractive to people to have it than it is to people who don’t.
4. That the brain differences and the cannabis-use differences between the two groups are the product of some unknown third factor.”

Salavitz says, “Marijuana itself may or may not impair cognition— but discussions of marijuana policy clearly do so, in a way that is detrimental to our political health.” Jacob Sullum concluded similarly, at the libertarian group blog Hit and Run, that the paper “provided powerful evidence that MRI scans cause shoddy science reporting.”

For an example of anti-pot pushback, see Babbage at The Economist, who described the paper enthusiastically and then leapt forward with this claim, which is not only a non sequitur, it is nonsense: “[E]ven modest recreational pot-smoking seems to set the brain on a path to addiction.”

Is marijuana an affair of the heart?

Another paper, this one from French researchers, suggests a relationship between pot smoking and heart problems. It’s open-access, and also from a professional group, the Journal of the American Heart Association.

It was published Wednesday, so there hasn’t been much time for commentary yet. LiveScience has taken it on twice, though. Bahar Gholipour reported on the paper, which describes 2000 cases of complications related to marijuana and says 35, less than 2%, involved heart problems, including 20 heart attacks and 9 deaths.

Gholipour points out that this, too, is an example of correlation, not cause. Also that many of the patients had a family history of heart disease and/or other risk factors such as a previous history of heart problems, high blood pressure, and drinking.

In a HuffPo post, Amanda L. Chan notes that 21 of the 35 smoked tobacco. Also that well over a million Frenchpersons are believed to be regular pot users. Chan quotes several naysayers, including doc Valentin Fuster of Mt. Sinai (the hospital, not the home of the Ten Commandments.) He says the evidence is not clear whether pot is or is not riskier than tobacco smoking. He’s quite wrong.

LiveScience also published distressed commentary on the paper from a cardiologist with a book to sell. Suzanne Steinbaum says flatly “marijuana can be damaging to your heart.” She also is worried about the potential for abuse as legalization expands. “Does this potential for abuse exist with marijuana? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s important that we ask the right questions and present the facts about marijuana.”

Who can disagree with that? For a clear and engaging 5-minute summary of what the data on pot use actually show about health effects, see what Incidental Economist Aaron Carroll has to say in his Healthcare Triage video.

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A call for revolution in US science, dino microbes in space, vaginas in the lab

US science is in a fix, so let’s fix it

“It’s as if the Pope and three leading cardinals held a press conference predicting the collapse of the Catholic church. These people know what they are talking about and we need to listen.” This from Incidental Economist Bill Gardner.

On the other hand, “This should be read as a mea culpa, given the authors’ roles in creating this problem in the first place,” a tweet from Jonathan Gitlin, policy wonk and occasional Ars Technica contributor.

Sandcastle and sand burial. Credit:  Xiaphias

Sandcastle and sand burial. Credit: Xiaphias

Both are talking about Monday’s editorial in PNAS, the highest profile call yet for revolutionary changes in the US system for supporting biomedical research. (Access to free PDF here.) The authors could hardly be more magisterial: Bruce Alberts (former president of the National Academy of Sciences and  editor of Science), Marc Kirschner (cell biologist, founder of Harvard’s systems biology department), Shirley Tilghman (molecular biologist, HHMI investigator, former president of Princeton), and Harold Varmus (Nobel laureate, former NIH Director, current NCI Director.)

Some of their proposals: Train fewer academic scientists. Convert the ones we are training from slave labor funded out of a lab’s grants to government training grants, which will help slow the flow. Train grad students for careers outside academic research. Turn postdocs into salaried staff scientists. Don’t pay faculty solely by grants either. Reform grant payments for institutional overhead. Reduce the competition to publish in the classiest journals. Reform the grant review process to stress innovative proposals and reduce the emphasis on translational research.

Nothing new and nothing doing

Two main points about this clarion call (aside from the fact that all four distinguished authors have contributed materially to potentiating the problems they now deplore): (1) There’s nothing new here; and (2) There’s very little chance the suggested reforms will come about.

The fact that the US is creating an oversupply of scientists has been known for decades, at least to those who will listen. An NAS report from a committee Tilghman chaired came out in 1998. I (and others) wrote about it in the 1980s. In their sharp summary and critique of the new paper, Beryl Benderly and Jim Austin note at Science Careers that a warning against a surfeit of scientists was part of that much-venerated modern roadmap for science, Vannevar Bush’s “Endless Frontier” report, in 1945.

I commend the subtly scathing Benderly-Austin post to your attention not just because it provides splendid context for understanding the editorial, but also because it lives at Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, surely the heart of the science establishment. (Disclosure: Beryl is an old, dear friend, and I have written for Jim Austin, but I’m quite sure I’d be paying the compliment even if that were not true.)

That dense tangle of vested interests

From their lips to God’s ear. Benderly and Austin are hopeful that the glamour of the editorial’s authors and the fact that it’s appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences could, at last, prompt people in positions to make changes to start making them. But, they also say, “The PNAS article authors do not provide a practical strategy for overcoming the dense tangle of vested interests and perverse incentives that protect the current system.”

An Australian sand castle 10 feet high. Credit: G. King

An Australian sand castle 10 feet high. Credit: G. King

And of course a practical strategy for overcoming the dense tangle of vested interests is exactly what’s needed. Can the prestige of Alberts, Kirschner, Tilghman, and Varmus tip the balance?

See John Timmer at Ars Technica for fine explications of of those vested interests. Timmer is not particularly hopeful. He points out that a seemingly obvious solution, more money for science, is not only not forthcoming but also would only intensify the problems, not solve them.

Pessimism seems warranted, since changing the system in the ways Alberts et al. suggest would gore oxen galore. Timmer points out that those who can make needed changes won’t like them and will resist. Moreover, implementing them will require cooperation from dysfunctional politicians, none more dysfunctional than the House Science Committee.

The stench of elitism and other objections

Here’s a smattering of additional commentary by scientist-bloggers who have thought about these issues a lot, and written a lot about them too.

Mike the Mad Biologist: “the grant review proposals are just daffy. I would argue we need more junior people closer to the research as well as non-academic researchers (i.e., from institutes and companies when appropriate) as reviewers.”

Ken Weiss at The Mermaid’s Tale, to which an HT for the sandcastle motif. Weiss says the problems are not only at NIH; some areas of the National Science Foundation budget may be cut as much as 20 percent in just one year. He advocates “a frank but non-partisan national discussion of what kinds of science and scholarship are most important and to phase in more funds for those and less for areas that, no matter how legitimate, are just less vital these days or less promising of major new discoveries.” Setting aside the near-impossibility of initiating a frank but non-partisan national discussion on any topic whatever, that sounds like the road to more translational and applied research. Quite different from the emphasis on basic science that Alberts et al. advocate.

Drip sand castle. Credit: Henry Mühlpfordt

Drip sand castle. Credit: Henry Mühlpfordt

Drugmonkey sees good things here, but. “What I don’t like about these proposals is the stench of elitism that encircles them. . . The alternative that is being proposed here is that we select good scientists at the beginnings of their careers and that is it. They get the money even if someone else has a better idea. . . The racket will be dominated by pedigree, you better believe it. Not good.

I have a bone to pick with those dinosaur-microbes-in-space stories

NASA plans to send a few dozen kinds of microbes to the Space Station to see, it is said, how they fare. The germ launch aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket has (of course) been delayed; it’s now scheduled for today (Good Friday, April 18, 2014.)

The microbes are said to have come from various publicity-attuned venues, one of which is Sue, the T. rex fossil that Chicago’s Field Museum periodically waves in front of reporters. Kim Bellware tells you about it at HuffPo.

At no point do any of the stories I’ve read make clear that this is not likely to be a microbe native to dinosaurs. It has been identified as the sticky-sounding Paenibacillus mucilaginosus. The researchers who did its genome say it is a growth promoter found in microbial fertilizers in China. Originally, apparently, a soil bug.

I am skeptical of this escapade. It lacks seriousness.

Tissue-engineered vaginas. No smirking allowed.

This one doesn’t lack seriousness. In fact, it’s a masterful example of bioscience geared to fixing a real-world medical problem, published in  a most respected journal (The Lancet), but also guaranteed to grab eyeballs.

In this research, tissue engineering has reached an apotheosis of sorts. It has achieved functioning vaginas grown in a lab. Well, functioning once they had been implanted in patients who lacked them.

Beginning eight years ago, researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine took a bit of tissue from the vulvas of teenagers with a congenital deformity called Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser (MRKH) syndrome and grew the tissue into vaginas. (The syndrome, which results in an underdeveloped or missing vagina and uterus, is fairly common; NIH says it occurs in about 1 in 4500 newborn girls but is often not discovered until adolescence.)

Bahar Gholipour described the process in detail at LiveScience. It takes about six weeks to grow a vagina. “Once the organs were ready, doctors surgically created a cavity in the patients’ bodies, and stitched one side of the vaginal organ to the opening of the cavity and the other side to the uterus,” Gholipour says.

The patients have been followed for at least five years. The researchers report that the vaginas are functioning normally, including sexual intercourse.

At io9, Robert Gonzalez says the lab-grown vaginas may have other applications, for example in cancer and sex reassignment surgery. He is also looking forward to the lab-grown penis that he says is in the pipeline.


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Eyes on the Medicare data dump: Cautions and cautionary tales

On Wednesday came the government release, finally, of Big Data on Medicare payments to medical practitioners for 2012. The beginning, one hopes, of release of many more years of data in aid of trend-spotting. Also, surely, some reining in of the grossest of these payments. Surely?

The data will keep science and medical writers busy for some time. You can find news about Wednesday’s massive Medicare data dump everywhere, but here’s Jordan Rau’s compact opener for Kaiser Health News: “The federal government published data tracing the $77 billion that Medicare paid to physicians, drug testing companies and other medical practitioners throughout 2012, and what services they were being reimbursed for. The data cover 888,000 different practitioners. More than 6,000 procedures are included, and the full database is so large that it requires statistical software to analyze it.”

At a Business Day post by Andrew Pollack and Reed Abelson there’s a link to the New York Times‘s interactive graphic permitting easy-peasy lookups of what individual practitioners got from Medicare by locale. The two docs who saved me from major surgery 3 years ago, and probably also saved my life, are not listed because they are not in private practice; they work in academic institutions and are salaried. Handsomely, I hope.

Big data can sometimes be misleading

Most writers focused, not surprisingly, on the most eye-popping payments. Heaven knows there were great riches to choose from. But many writers also dove a little deeper. At Wonkblog, Jason Millman listed the Medicare Top Ten multi-millionaires, but also explored what expenses they claimed. For 7 of the 10, a huge proportion of their reimbursements went for drugs administered on site. So I guess it’s not the poor beleaguered docs who are soaking the taxpayers after all. It’s the pharmas.

Rising Cost of Healthcare
A Business Day post by Denise Grady and Sheri Fink shows how the data can mislead. One example: a family medicine physician at the University of Michigan Health Services got $7.58 million in 2012 for more than 207,000 patients. Unbelievable, right?

Except, as it turns out, the doc directs a Medicare project involving 1600 primary care physicians, and the payments to them go through her office. So I did the math, which works out to well under $5K for each doc, with an average of 130 patients each for the year. At $36.62 per patient. Looks as if the University of Michigan Health Services, where I was once or twice a patient back in the last century, is a model of efficient and reasonably priced–cheap, in fact–medicine. Maybe I’ll go back to grad school after all.

At Medpage Today, John Gever consulted docs, who were mostly unhappy with the data release. Their comments ranged from “IT’S NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS WHAT I’M GETTING FOR MY SERVICES,” not really a reasonable reaction to expenditure of public money, to the perfectly sane worry that people would assume the figures reflect what the doc takes home, not gross receipts that must cover staff, overhead, and much else.

Charles Ornstein, a longtime journalist now at ProPublica, laid out several cautions on interpreting the data at Covering Health, the blog of the Association of Health Care Journalists. If a practitioner treats only Medicare patients, he points out, the payment may well be larger than one going to a doc who treats privately insured patients too. Or the doctor may provide services–cancer care, for instance–that are reimbursed at a high rate. Ornstein cautions, “Of course, there may be other reasons that raise questions of fraud, but don’t just assume that because a number is large, a doctor has done something wrong.”

Not seeing eye to eye

On the other hand, there are all those handsomely paid opthalmologists. The 17,000 eye docs, less than .02% of the total number reimbursed, took in 7% of Medicare reimbursements. $5.6 billion, $330,000 per.  Max Ehrenfreund sees opthalmologists through a glass darkly at Wonkblog.

The Pollack-Abelson Business Day post mentioned above features a
defense of opthalmologists. Sort of. It includes a splendid map showing the locales of those most reimbursed.

A billion of the $5.6 opthalmological billion goes for the macular degeneration drug Lucentis. $2000 per injection, often once a month. Most of which, the docs say, they pay to Genentech, Lucentis’s maker. Maybe so, but the docs profit handsomely. The post explains why. Among the reasons, big rebates from Genentech. And I love the tale of the docs who accumulate zillions of frequent-flyer miles by putting Lucentis orders on miles-bearing credit cards.

A Lucentis alternative for macular degeneration, also by Genentech, is off-label use of the cancer drug Aventis. It costs $50 per treatment. Even if Lucentis is better than Aventis–and none of the docs quoted in the post argue that it is–can it possibly be 40 times better?

Keeping my eye on opthalmologists

One does wonder if there’s something about opthalmologists. Here is a personal anecdote, so it’s not data. Well, two anecdotes, but still not data. I lost the sight in my right eye permanently when I was 35. Long story, so let’s move right along to many years later. In the last 10 years, two different opthalmologists in two different parts of the country have urged me to have surgery, offering hope of improving vision in that eye.

medicare card female

For a number of reasons, not least my own not-unskilled research, I know that the surgery they were proposing would not restore vision in that eye, not even partially. When I pointed this out, each of the docs shrugged, conceded that he couldn’t guarantee a satisfactory result, but urged me to consider surgery (by him) anyway. Cheeky. Breathtaking, actually.

Please also note that in each case surgery was a suggestion out of the blue from the doc. I had not come to his office seeking therapy for my bad eye; I was there for other reasons.  A driver’s license, in one case. These were sales jobs, pure and simple, urging a procedure that the salesmen knew to be useless.

Too bad for their bottom lines that the potential customer knew it too. But in this case the potential customer was unusually prepared. Her career was based on looking skeptically at medicine, and she had researched the topic herself. What about the 99.9999etc% of customers who lack that specialized armor? Who rely on physicians to give them medical advice untainted by self-interest?

If this had happened only once I would probably, um, have turned a blind eye; I happen to have one handy. But it has occurred two times, unprompted. That hints at a trend. I wonder what would happen if, as an experiment, I trundled from eye doc to eye doc? I have a hunch that at least some would suggest surgery. I very much hope that most would not. But when I think about Lucentis vs. Aventis, and frequent-flier miles. . . Maybe there is something about opthalmologists.

Medicare data summaries galore

Kaiser Health News is all over the story about the Medicare data release, with summaries of commentary from many mainstream media sources and links to the originals, plus several of its own posts too.

Wonkblog has summaries of commentaries (and links) too.

medicare parts

Department of blind outrage

Release of the Medicare payment data provides justifiable opportunities for dudgeon, none higher than that of Knight Science Journalism Tracker Paul Raeburn. The reason we did not have the data years ago, he explains, is that the American Medical Association has been fighting (successfully) to keep this use of taxpayer money out of the public eye since 1979. As Raeburn points out, the shock generated by these numbers makes it clear why the AMA was so dedicated to keeping it hidden.

He links to a number of pieces explaining the data, but observes, “I’m surprised that the role of the AMA in keeping the data secret hasn’t yet been hit hard in these publications. It’s stunning that it was able to keep this information secret for 35 years; I’m waiting for the legal story that examines how that happened.”

I second that, and how. I’d adore to see Linda Greenhouse turned loose on this story. It was a Federal court decision that freed the Medicare data, though, and I think she only does the Supremes.

One lovely tidbit: It was, believe it or not, the Wall Street Journal that pursued disclosure of the data down the years and won this legal victory for transparency, capitalism be damned. A number of sources have chided the New York Times for not giving the WSJ credit for its doggedness. The complaints were chronicled by Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan.  She joined in, biting the hand that feeds her, but also slyly noted that the Washington Post, USA Today, and the Associated Press didn’t mention the Journal‘s role either.

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That climate change report, Jane Goodall’s birth, and Richard III’s death


Gloom and doom

As you probably know, the latest authoritative climate change report was released early this week to a world apparently too exhausted, or distracted, to take much interest in the upcoming calamities. Here’s the nut from Justin Gillis’s New York Times piece: “The report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations group that periodically summarizes climate science, concluded that ice caps are melting, sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, water supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, coral reefs are dying, and fish and many other creatures are migrating toward the poles or in some cases going extinct.”

Tweeted by @UrsulaWJ

Tweeted by @UrsulaWJ

The coverage, or rather lack thereof, infuriated Knight Science Journalism Tracker Paul Raeburn. He wants to know why reporters are not demanding government reactions to the report, especially US government reactions. “The boss [Prez Obama] says we can’t deny the reality that urgent dramatic action is necessary to preserve our way of life. His negotiator says the reality is that the U.S. will not fund most of any response with taxpayer dollars. Where is the press, which should be demanding to know what the reality is, or what the pseudo-reality inside the State Department looks like? Are we going to let these guys off the hook?”

Raeburn contrasts this absence of enterprise with coverage of The Mystery of the Lost Plane. “Every scrap of information about Malaysia Flight 370 is being scrutinized for hours by panels of analysts on cable news and across the Internet. Could we take just one or two members of the Malaysia 370 press corps and put them on climate change?”

At ImaGeo, one of the new blogs at Discover, Tom Yulsman focuses on a complex graphic from the report. He offers interpretations of the very busy image, which uses icons to show how climate alterations are affecting ecosystems around the world.  The hed on Annalee Newitz’s post at io9 forecasts famine and water riots, although her lede refers more sedately to water shortages. The tasks ahead, she says, will include genetic alterations of crops to increase drought-resistance and serious improvements to food and water security to defend them against violence. Her post includes a link to the PDF of the report.

Bad Astronomer Phil Plait’s summary even, oddly, manages to find a ray of hope in the report. If you feel like grinding your teeth some more, Plait also includes links to a few naysayers. But at Technology Review, John Reilly says we can’t just adapt to climate change because the effects will be so specific and local and therefore unpredictable. He complains, “the report is a compendium of things that might happen or are likely to happen to someone or something, somewhere. But what does this actually mean for me, or anyone who might read the report?”

Jane Goodall is 80

Jane Goodall’s 80th birthday was April 3. Tributes abound, of course, for the scientist/activist who stimulated worldwide curiosity about the lives and behavior of nonhuman primates, and who then abandoned her fieldwork with Tanzanian chimpanzees to campaign for more enlightened treatment of animals and the environment. It’s not an exaggeration to say that her work stimulated drastic changes in a number of scientific fields, for example animal behavior, primatology, psychology, evolutionary studies, and medical research.

Goodall with the toy chimp that was a birthday present 79 years ago.

Goodall with the toy chimp that was a birthday present 79 years ago.

See Henry Micholls’ long interview, reprinted at the BBC Futures site. National Geographic, a funder of Goodall’s work that doesn’t mind taking credit for it, has collected several tributes here. NIH Director Francis Collins also pays tribute, praising her for working to reduce the use of chimps in medical research. Maria Popova has collected some of Goodall’s writings on science and religion at Brain Pickings. Mary Bagley has put together a Goodall biography at Live Science.

Poor Richard

A bit of a Brit academic brawl has developed over those bones dug up from a parking lot in Leicester and claimed to belong to the much-reviled King Richard III, last of the Plantagenets. Richard was bloodily slain at Bosworth Field, in the 1485 battle that ended the decades-long Wars of the Roses, led to the Tudor regime, and ultimately produced England’s greatest monarch, Elizabeth I.

Richard is reviled largely because he has long been blamed for murdering his potential rivals for the throne, the little princes in the Tower of London. There is a good case that he probably didn’t. The charge of child murder against Richard may have been a political lie fostered by the Tudors. It has been promulgated to this day by a sycophantic William Shakespeare–and a long line of skillful actors thrilled at the chance to play one of the stage’s great villains. The case for Richard is laid out persuasively in Josephine Tey’s terrific detective story, The Daughter of Time.

The bones in the parking lot. Credit: University of Leicester

The bones in the parking lot. Credit: University of Leicester

In 2013 the parking-lot bones were declared to be Richard’s based on substantial historical and archaeological evidence and a study of mitochondrial DNA extracted from them. The new objections come from a couple of historians with no apparent genetics expertise. They are not saying the identification is wrong, only that it’s not 100% certain, according to Macrina Cooper-White at the Huffington Post.

Of course the identification is uncertain, but the evidence is pretty persuasive, including the genetic evidence. The University of Leicester has posted a detailed description of how the mtDNA study was done by looking at mtDNA in two living people who are descended from Richard’s mother through an all-female line. The description includes a long PDF detailing the genealogy of one of those descendants; the other participated in the study anonymously.

It would be a pretty strong story even without the DNA. The skeleton was buried in the spot where contemporary accounts said Richard had been buried. Radiocarbon dating traces the remains to around 1500; Richard died at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Osteology reveals that the man died at around age 30; Richard was 32. The body was wounded grievously in a way that suggests the assailants meant to defile it, as history recounts. A reasonable conclusion is that these are the remains of the last Plantagenet King of England.

They’re doing the complete genome of the bones too. That will of course include the Y chromosome. There is some hope that the Y will confirm that the bones are indeed Richard’s through study of genealogies of all-male descent from his forebears. But there are questions of paternity among those forebears. So whatever the Y chromosome seems to show, we can be sure that it will give rise to more disputes and there will be more to write about. I look forward to it.

Richard’s bones must endure one final Tudor humiliation. They are to be reburied in Leicester Cathedral, a domain of the Church of England. Richard was, of course, a Roman Catholic. The Church of England, you’ll recall, was invented as an aid to divorce decades after Richard’s death — invented by the second Tudor monarch, who was, in his way, as notorious as Richard. Henry VIII’s marital/spiritual flounderings made the wealthy Roman Catholic institutions on English soil ripe for rifling. Which is why the remains of the former Franciscan Greyfriars Priory, where history says Richard was buried, lie under a municipal parking lot.

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