Category Archives: Science

A Day Of Reckoning For Jenny McCarthy, And Not Just For “John Tucker Must Die”

Frankie Thomas at New York Magazine:

One of the most famous flawed studies ever conducted, Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s now-retracted 1998 paper that linked vaccines to autism has been found to be not a scientific error, but a deliberate lie. BMJ, a British medical journal, has just published its investigation of the matter and concluded that Dr. Wakefield purposely falsified his data. They report that he was contracted by lawyers determined to sue the vaccine manufacturers, regardless of scientific truth.

Jonathan Adler:

A report by journalist Brian Deer in the British Journal of Medicine, the first in a series, reveals that the Wakefield study relied upon “bogus data” that was “manufactured” by those who conducted the study.  Specifically, Deer found that the study’s authors misrepresented medical and other information about the children in the study, including the timing and appearance of relevant symptoms, creating a false impression of a vaccine-autism link that was not there.

An accompanying editorial in the BMJ pulls no punches.

The Office of Research Integrity in the United States defines fraud as fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism. Deer unearthed clear evidence of falsification. He found that not one of the 12 cases reported in the 1998 Lancet paper was free of misrepresentation or undisclosed alteration, and that in no single case could the medical records be fully reconciled with the descriptions, diagnoses, or histories published in the journal.

Who perpetrated this fraud? There is no doubt that it was Wakefield. Is it possible that he was wrong, but not dishonest: that he was so incompetent that he was unable to fairly describe the project, or to report even one of the 12 children’s cases accurately? No. A great deal of thought and effort must have gone into drafting the paper to achieve the results he wanted: the discrepancies all led in one direction; misreporting was gross. Moreover, although the scale of the [General Medical Council’s] 217 day hearing precluded additional charges focused directly on the fraud, the panel found him guilty of dishonesty concerning the study’s admissions criteria, its funding by the Legal Aid Board, and his statements about it afterwards. . . .

Meanwhile the damage to public health continues, fuelled by unbalanced media reporting and an ineffective response from government, researchers, journals, and the medical profession. Although vaccination rates in the United Kingdom have recovered slightly from their 80% low in 2003–4, they are still below the 95% level recommended by the World Health Organization to ensure herd immunity. In 2008, for the first time in 14 years, measles was declared endemic in England and Wales. Hundreds of thousands of children in the UK are currently unprotected as a result of the scare, and the battle to restore parents’ trust in the vaccine is ongoing.

(citations omitted)

Perhaps now, finally, the vaccine-autism charade is over. I’ll await the reports on Oprah and MSNBC’s “Countdown.”


Wakefield was employed by a lawyer who wanted to sue vaccine makers and was paid a total of £435 643, plus expenses. He “discovered” the autism-MMR link after being put on the payroll, but before doing any research at all.

Nick Gillespie at Reason

Kevin Drum:

The punchline, of course, is that parents panicked over Wakefield’s results and lots of them decided not to get their kids vaccinated. As a result:

Measles has surged since Wakefield’s paper was published and there are sporadic outbreaks in Europe and the U.S. In 2008, measles was deemed endemic in England and Wales.

The vaccine-autism quackery that Jenny McCarthy and her ilk continue to promote isn’t just harmless fun and games. It’s damaged untold children and might well have killed a few. It’s long past time for it to stop.

Ann Althouse:

What psychological suffering this man caused in so many vulnerable parents of little children! For a scientist to subvert science — why don’t we have a much more intense feeling of horror about that? How dare those trained in science to misuse it and undermine the enterprise of science? Our shared interest in science is so strong – our need to rely on experts so great — that we should severely punish those who betray it. But we can’t, really, can we? If we tried, we might only exacerbate the pressures on scientists to toe the line and give us the answers we want, lest we target them for destruction.

Scott Lemieux at Lawyers, Guns and Money

Max Read at Gawker:

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely it’ll do much to convince the conspiracy-minded, who are positive the pharmaceutical industry is covering up the real evidence that autism is caused by vaccines; like birtherism and other nutty beliefs, fear of vaccination is about strong feelings and not really about evidence. Which is too bad. Babies are dying of vaccine-preventable diseases, and people like Andrew Wakefield need to be held responsible.

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Where Is Alfred Hitchcock When We Need Him?

Nick Neely at Audubon:

On New Year’s Eve, sometime after 11 p.m., several thousand red-winged blackbirds dropped lifelessly from the darkness onto suburban lawns, roofs, and roads in the small town of Beebe, Arkansas. “I thought the mayor was messing with me when he called me,” Milton McCullar, Beebe Street Dept. Supervisor, said to the local TV station the next day with a (nervous?) grin. “He got me up at four o’clock in the morning and told me we had birds falling out of the sky.” “When you first get the call, you think it’s a New Year’s joke,” said the mayor, Mike Robertson, himself. “But it wasn’t a joke.” News outlets quickly picked up the story, and today, it has twittered about. There are no conclusions yet as to why the birds perished—a hailstorm, perhaps, or even stress from nearby fireworks—and no one seems to have much to say about the incident, but for, look here, at this strange, ominous (and yes, Hitchcockian) thing.

Michael Marshall at The New Scientist:

Most such rains of animals are probably caused by waterspouts: tornadoes that move over water. Waterspouts can suck up soil and small animals in large quantities, and dump them many miles away after they dissipate. This explains why the animals most commonly reported as falling are fish and frogs, which of course live in and around water.

The blackbirds aren’t the only mystery animals in Arkansas. 100,000 fish have died in a river 125 miles from Beebe. It’s not clear what killed them but disease may be to blame. There’s nothing to suggest the two events are linked.

Besides animals, other peculiar things have fallen from the sky over the years. Scientists have long struggled to understand the “red rain” that fell in Kerala, India, in 2001. The colour has been attributed to algae, but a few researchers think the microbes in question came from space.

Joe Coscarelli at The Village Voice:

When thousands of red-winged blackbirds fell from the sky on New Year’s Eve in Beebe, Arkansas, it seemed like God was angry at the Natural State, especially considering the additional 100,000 dead fish in a nearby river. “I’m not drunk and I’m not on drugs,” said one local when he called the police department. “She said, ‘Oh, you’re calling about the birds.'” A handful of the fallen creatures were taken in for testing, but officials are now saying that loud noises, probably from fireworks, scared the birds, causing them to slam into trees or houses and that the weather had nothing to do with it. Extraterrestrials are still suspected.Via the Wall Street Journal:

A witness reported that the birds, which roost in the area in large numbers and don’t see well at night, were scared by the noise and slammed into houses and trees, said Arkansas State Veterinarian George Badley. A study of several carcasses showed the birds died of internal bleeding.”We’re still checking for germs and poisons, but we believe it was just trauma,” said Dr. Badley.

The total dead is somewhere between 1,000 and 5,000, but that’s not counting the 500 red-winged blackbirds found in Louisiana, in what CNN calls a “seemingly separate incident.”

Clay Dillow at Popular Science:

Later yesterday, other sources were reporting that loud noise could have been behind the Arkansas incident. Necropsies performed yesterday showed the Arkansas birds suffered internal injuries that formed blood clots that went to their brains. It’s conceivable that loud noise (NYE fireworks?) could have startled a flock, causing them to rapidly change course and plunge headlong into buildings or tall trees, sustaining blunt traumas that led to their collective death.

Of course, none of this accounts for the 500 freshly dead birds in Louisiana. Those, of course, could be completely unrelated to the Arkansas birds (don’t be fooled by randomness, people). But we like a good conspiracy theory better. Besides, what about all those dead drum? Something smells fishy indeed, but who could possibly benefit from knocking off a bunch of birds in the American south? NASA? BP? Aliens? Our money is on Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who was never really afforded an opportunity to even the score with his avian nemeses.

Roz Zurko at The Examiner:

Many people are looking to the bible for verses conveying the warnings of the apocalypse with dead birds, but according to the website God Discussion, this does not seem to be mentioned. There are bible writings that are close, but not that convey the end of the world or harm coming to mankind affliated with dead birds.

2012 Prophecies have some people concerned after the dead birds fell from the sky, according to one commentator on Fox News live. According to the God Discussion website, the first searches for this story consisted mainly of the search words “dead birds.” Later, as the day went on, the search words turned to “dead birds” and “bible.”  These dead birds have many people wondering today – what is the spiritual meaning in masses of dead birds falling from he sky?

One Connecticut housewife L. Kelly, admitted she did the same Internet search that many others did today, “dead birds” and “bible.” “It is just an eerie thing to happen, not something you ever hear about Kelly said.”  She too fell on many confusing claims, but nothing that states the bible has a quote about dead birds and the end of the world is coming.

Christopher Rosen at Moveline:

Point of truth: Here at Movieline HQ, we’re busy stocking up on batteries and canned goods in the wake of the mass bird and fish deaths that happened in Arkansas over the weekend. (Not to mention the flooding in Australia.) That said, not everyone has worked themselves up into a full blown lather of panic. Just ask born-again Christian Kirk Cameron: “I think it’s really kind of silly to kind of equate birds falling out of the sky with some kind of an end-times theory.” Wait, even Cameron is making sense? Maybe this really is the end of times.

Laura Conaway at MaddowBlog:

But take heart: Though this story seems strange and even apocalyptic, it’s not necessarily so. The Baton Rouge paper cites an official from the U.S. Geological Survey as saying that a thousand or more blackbirds have turned up dead some 16 times in the past 30 years.


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Is Fox Mulder’s Life Work About To Get Vindicated?

Jason Kottke:

Here’s a curious press release from NASA:

NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.

I did a little research on the news conference participants and found:

1. Pamela Conrad (a geobiologist) was the primary author of a 2009 paper on geology and life on Mars

2. Felisa Wolfe-Simon (an oceanographer) has written extensively on photosynthesis using arsenic recently (she worked on the team mentioned in this article)

3. Steven Benner (a biologist) is on the “Titan Team” at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; they’re looking at Titan (Saturn’s largest moon) as an early-Earth-like chemical environment. This is likely related to the Cassini mission.

4. James Elser (an ecologist) is involved with a NASA-funded astrobiology program called Follow the Elements, which emphasizes looking at the chemistry of environments where life evolves (and not just looking at water or carbon or oxygen).

So, if I had to guess at what NASA is going to reveal on Thursday, I’d say that they’ve discovered arsenic on Titan and maybe even detected chemical evidence of bacteria utilizing it for photosynthesis (by following the elements). Or something like that.

Vlad Savov at Engadget:

So NASA seems to have made some hot new astrobiology discovery, but just like the tech companies we’re more used to dealing with, it’s holding the saucy details under embargo until 2PM on Thursday. That’s when it’s got a press conference scheduled to discuss its findings, which we’re only told “will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.” It’s unlikely, therefore, that little green (or brown, or red, or blue) men have been captured somewhere on the dark side of the moon, but there’ll definitely be some impactful news coming within only a couple of days. NASA promises a live online stream of the event, which we’ll naturally be glued to come Thursday.

Alessondra Springmann at PCWorld:

What does that mean? Judging by the researchinterests of the scientistsinvolved in the upcoming announcement, our guess is that this astrobiological discovery will have something to do with water, evolutionary biology, and aquatic bacteria.

We’ll be covering the press conference and the discovery that’ll be announced on Thursday after 11AM PST (2PM EST), so keep an eye on GeekTech, or watch the press conference on NASA’s site. NASA will also show a video broadcast of the press conference to journalists at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View.

Until then, what do you think this discovery will be? Has extraterrestrial bacterial been discovered preserved in a meteorite? Have we seen evidence of life on a ocean-covered exoplanet?

Alasdair Wilkins at IO9:

Considering NASA’s claim that this will impact our search for alien life, I’d have to figure this has something to do with expanding the definition of “life as we know it”, suggesting more elements than we previously thought possible can be used as the raw materials for life. All this, of course, is just speculation – we’ll be listening in to the press conference on Thursday and have the news for you as it breaks.

Mike Wall at

Max Read at Gawker:

Of course, the announcement could be something totally different! Or, it could be that NASA has been contacted by a warlike race of space aliens and a certain-to-fail mission carried out by a ragtag bunch of scientists is our only hope of survival.

Phil Plait at Discover Magazine:

So what’s the press conference about? I don’t know, to be honest, beyond what’s in the announcement. The scientists on the panel are interesting, including noted astrobiologists and geologists who work on solar system objects like Mars and Titan. So this is most likely going to be something about conditions on another moon or planet conducive for life.

Of course, the speculation is that NASA will announce the discovery for life. Maybe. I can’t rule that out, but it seems really unlikely; I don’t think they would announce it in this way. It would’ve been under tighter wraps, or one thing. It’s more likely they’ve found a new way life can exist and that evidence for these conditions exists on other worlds. But without more info, I won’t speculate any farther than that.

As for the public reaction, well, we’ve seen this type of thing before. Just last June, JPL had a press release about a surprising lack of acetylene in Titan’s atmosphere, with the title “What Is Consuming Hydrogen & Acetylene on Titan?” That sparked vast speculation, and even though the press release was clear enough it was misleadingly reported as NASA finding signs of life on Titan. It got so silly that I wound up writing a post about it, and a NASA scientist went so far as to write an article to clear up the rumors of life on Titan.

I can’t really blame NASA, the press outlets, or the public about this. When scientists have newsworthy findings that are published in a journal, there may be a press conference about them. But some journals have embargoes; they don’t want the news released until the issue is published. Fair enough. So NASA schedules a press conference for the time the issue publishes, and sends out a notice to the press about it. I got just such an email for this one, for example. They have to say something in the email so the press can decide whether to cover it or not, and NASA doesn’t want give too much away. So they give some minimal line about findings that’ll have an impact on the search for life, and those of us who’ve dealt with it before know what that means.

But the public is naturally more inclined to interpret that line as NASA having found life, or at least solid evidence of it. That’s not surprising at all. But it can lead to “news letdown”, where the reality is something less than the speculation. And that leads to news fatigue, which is worse. If people keep expecting really exciting news and don’t get it, well, there you go.

I don’t want to blame anyone, but I do sometimes wish the press folks at NASA were more aware of what kind of cascade a line like that provokes (like the one from a few weeks ago which said it was about “an exceptional object in our cosmic neighborhood” but it turned out to be a supernova/black hole 50 million light years away). When announcements like these go public, it’s bound to be disappointing when the actual news gets out and it’s not a black hole right next door or actual life on Mars. And that’s too bad, because the news is usually pretty interesting and scientifically exciting. As soon as I got this latest announcement, my first flood of thoughts literally were: “Sounds like cool news/I bet there will be tons of over-the-top speculation/I hope people aren’t disappointed when the real news comes out/I wonder if I’ll have to make a post a couple of days before to cool off rumors?”

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“Red, Red Wine… Stay Close To Me…”

John Cloud at Time:

One of the most contentious issues in the vast literature about alcohol consumption has been the consistent finding that those who don’t drink tend to die sooner than those who do. The standard Alcoholics Anonymous explanation for this finding is that many of those who show up as abstainers in such research are actually former hard-core drunks who had already incurred health problems associated with drinking.

But a new paper in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research suggests that — for reasons that aren’t entirely clear — abstaining from alcohol does tend to increase one’s risk of dying, even when you exclude former problem drinkers. The most shocking part? Abstainers’ mortality rates are higher than those of heavy drinkers.

Moderate drinking, which is defined as one to three drinks per day, is associated with the lowest mortality rates in alcohol studies. Moderate alcohol use (especially when the beverage of choice is red wine) is thought to improve heart health, circulation and sociability, which can be important because people who are isolated don’t have as many family members and friends who can notice and help treat health problems.

Ben Yakas at Gothamist:

The study done by a six-member team led by psychologist Charles Holahan of the University of Texas, and released in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, followed 1,824 participants over 20 years, and found that mortality rates were highest for those who had never been drinkers, second-highest for heavy drinkers and lowest for moderate drinkers (which is defined as one-to-three drinks per day). The study used slightly more men, 63 percent; over 69 percent of the never-drinkers died during the 20 years, 60 percent of the heavy drinkers died, and only 41 percent of the moderate drinkers died.

Time magazine points out that the study (which you need a subscription to read) does not do a good job explaining their results, though they try to make sense of this data. Even though heavy drinking is associated with higher risk for cirrhosis and several types of cancer, they note that “alcohol lubricates so many social interactions, and social interactions are vital for maintaining mental and physical health.” It was crazy when we discovered that beer gives us stronger bones, but this is next-level stuff. At least now we know that wine in grocery stores really will solve all our problems.

James Joyner:

I’ve learned over the years to be skeptical of media reports of medical studies.  But we’ve certainly seen a lot of other reports along these lines in recent years.   And this looks to be a legitimate study:  a large sample size, control for a large number of variables, and long time frame.

Alex Balk at The Awl:

It’s not a 100% endorsement of the advanced drinker’s life: middling drinkers (defined here as those who take 1-3 a day) live longer than the professionals. Still, there’s plenty of good to take away from this, unless you happen to be a non-drinker. Although you’re probably happy to die early given your joyless, alcohol-free existence.

Juli Weiner at Vanity Fair:

If the news comes as a surprise to the scientific community—Time calls the statistics “remarkable”—it comes as an even bigger shock to the heavy-drinking demographic, historically a lackadaisical and stuporous group. For reactions to this news, we interviewed four subjects who all characterize themselves as “heavy drinkers” according to the standards set forth by the Center for Disease Control.

One interviewee, Marlin*, notes that the side effects he’s experienced as a result of heavy drinking—“anxiety shakes, blurred vision, weak bowel movements,” he says—are not those that’d he typically associate with longevity. Richard, like Marlin, thought that heavy drinking has contributed to his poor health. “It seems like the more I drink heavily regularly, the worse and more often the hangovers are getting,” he said. Meghan, also a heavy drinker, hasn’t perceived any casual relationship between her increased imbibition and frequent illness. However, Pascal, who counts Kingsley Amis’s Everyday Drinking among his favorite books, was not surprised by the results of the study. In fact, he thinks the stigma against liberal attitudes toward alcohol consumption is the product of media bias. “In a cultural climate where obesity is one of our primary killers, I think we need to stop stressing so much about alcohol and stress more about food,” he said. “People who drink heavily, at least in my experience, don’t seem to eat as much or as badly. This is probably because they have another vice.” Of course, the study also concluded that moderate drinkers have the lowest mortality rates of all three groups. None of the four interviewees said that they would change their drinking habits because an academic paper suggested doing so would make them healthier. “No one is under the impression that heavy drinking is great for you long term,” said Richard. Well, not “great,” but apparently still better than sobriety. Here’s to your health!

Max Read at Gawker:

But why is that the case? One possibility is that heavy drinkers get more of the social benefits of alcohol use than nondrinkers—i.e., the gnarly parties that are vital to your mental and physical health. (And your sexual health, am I right? Parties! Who’s with me?) Abstainers, as Time‘s John Cloud wrote last year, are at a higher risk of depression than drinkers, which makes sense, because I’ve been the only sober person at a party, and let me tell you, it is depressing.

Now, obviously, alcohol can ruin your relationships, and your career, and destroy your liver, and make you barf on the subway and say rude things to policemen. But it’s still better for your health than confronting the world, and social situations, sober.

The Takeaway: If you’re not drunk right now, you are probably going to die tomorrow.

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The Stem Cell Fight Begins Anew, A Return To 2001 For Me And You

Gardiner Harris at NYT:

A federal district judge on Monday blocked President Obama’s 2009 executive order that expanded embryonic stem cell research, saying it violated a ban on federal money being used to destroy embryos.

The ruling came as a shock to scientists at the National Institutes of Health and at universities across the country, which had viewed the Obama administration’s new policy and the grants provided under it as settled law. Scientists scrambled Monday evening to assess the ruling’s immediate impact on their work.

“I have had to tell everyone in my lab that when they feed their cells tomorrow morning, they better use media that has not been funded by the federal government,” said Dr. George Q. Daley, director of the stem cell transplantation program at Children’s Hospital Boston, referring to food given to cells. “This ruling means an immediate disruption of dozens of labs doing this work since the Obama administration made its order.”

In his ruling, Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth of Federal District Court for the District of Columbia wrote that his temporary injunction returned federal policy to the “status quo,” but few officials, scientists or lawyers in the case were sure Monday night what that meant.

Dr. Daley was among those who said they believed that it meant that work financed under the new rules had to stop immediately; others said it meant that the health institutes had to use Bush administration rules for future grants.

Steven H. Aden, senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, which sued to stop the Obama administration rules, said the judge’s ruling “means that for now the N.I.H. cannot issue funding grants to embryonic stem cell research projects without any further order from the court.”

Officials at the health institutes said that lawyers at the Department of Justice would interpret the ruling for them. Tracy Schmaler, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, wrote in an e-mail, “We’re reviewing the decision.”

The judge ruled that the Obama administration’s policy was illegal because the administration’s distinction between work that leads to the destruction of embryos — which cannot be financed by the federal government under the current policy — and the financing of work using stem cells created through embryonic destruction was meaningless. In his ruling, he referred to embryonic stem cell research as E.S.C.

“If one step or ‘piece of research’ of an E.S.C. research project results in the destruction of an embryo, the entire project is precluded from receiving federal funding,” wrote Judge Lamberth, who was appointed to the federal bench in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan.

Joe Carter at First Things:

The issue of research involving stem cells derived from human embryos is back in the news after a federal judge clarified that the government cannot use federal funds for such immoral research. Although the debate has been ongoing for almost ten years, the complexity of the issue and the peculiar terminology used often prevents many citizens from developing a fully informed opinion on the matter. To help, in some small way, redress that problem, I’ve compiled a brief primer, a “least you need to know” guide, that helps clarify and explain the questions most frequently asked about stem cell policy.

To those unfamiliar with the topic, this should provide brief non-technical answers to many of the important questions surrounding the policy. For those who are well versed in the controversy, I hope this will be a useful reference source to help you explain the issue to others.

What are stem cells?

The term stem cells refers to a diverse group of primitive cells that are themselves relatively undifferentiated and unspecialized. These cells are multipotent, meaning they can give rise to several other differentiated and specialized cells of the body (for example, liver cells, kidney cells, brain cells). All specialized cells arise originally from stem cells, and ultimately from a small number of embryonic cells that appear during the first few days of human development.

How are stem cells different than other types of cells?

Stem cells have two unique characteristics: (1) an almost unlimited capacity for self-renewal (they can theoretically divide without limit to replenish other cells for as long as the person is alive) and (2) they retain the potential to produce differentiated and specialized cell types. As stem cells within a developing human embryo differentiate within the cell, their capacity to diversify generally becomes more limited and their ability to generate many differentiated cell types also becomes more restricted.

Why are stem cells so important to research?

Stem cells are of interest to both scientific and medical research. First, stem cells provide a valuable tool for studying both normal and abnormal cellular processes. By learning how stem cells differentiate and become specialized, scientists hope to gain a better understanding of how cells in general work and what can go wrong. Second, stem cells may prove to be an indispensable source of transplantable cells and tissues for repair and regeneration. If stem cells can used to produce new and differentiated cells that are damaged because of disease (e.g., Parkinsons) or injury (e.g., spinal cord damage), it would transform regenerative medicine.

What are embryonic stem cells?

Embryonic stem cells (ESCs) are stem cells taken from from the inner cell mass of a blastocyst, a preimplantation embryo of about 150 cells. (Embryos are humans in the stage of development between fertilization and the end of the eighth week of gestation whereupon it it referred to as a fetus until the time of birth.)

Where do the embryos for ESC come from?

Currently, all embryonic stem cell lines have been derived from “spare” embryos created from in vitro fertilization (IVF) (i.e., embryos that have been conceived by a combination of egg and sperm occurring outside the body). However, because there are not enough embryos in existence to carry out the research, some scientists have been pushing for the use of human cloning (somatic cell nuclear transfer) to create the embryos that will then be killed and harvested for their cells.

What are adult stem cells?

The term adult stem cells simply refers to any non-embryonic stem cell, whether taken from a fetus, a child, or an adult. Adult stem cells are also referred to as somatic stem cells.

What is a stem cell “line”?

A stem cell line is a stem cell culture that can be grown indefinitely in the laboratory.

Why is there a controversy over ESC research?

The process of obtaining stem cells leads to the destruction of the human embryo from which the cells are taken. For those who believe that life begins at conception, embryo destruction is immoral even when it leads to beneficial research. Even those who do not believe that human embryos are deserving of full moral status worry about what the effects of normalizing such practices may have on society.

Advocates of ESC research, however, argue that it is unethical to impede potential advances that could heal disease and relieve the suffering of fully developed human beings. They believe that the moral status of a 150-to-200-cell early human embryo should not take precedence over scientific inquiry.

Didn’t the Bush administration ban funding of ESC?

No, but the Congress implemented its own ban. In 1995, Congress attached language to an appropriations bill prohibiting the use of any federal funds for research that destroys or seriously endangers human embryos, or creates them for research purposes. This provision, known as the Dickey Amendment, has been attached to the Health and Human Services appropriations bill each year since 1996. This law only prohibits federal funding of such research and does not affect either private funding efforts or private research that involves the destruction of embryos.

Michael Kinsley at The Atlantic:

OK, let’s go through this one more time.

Half of all pregnancies end in miscarriages, usually in the first couple of weeks, before a woman even knows that she is pregnant. A miscarriage destroys an embryo. If you believe that every embryo is the moral equivalent of a fully-formed human being, miscarriages are like a perpetual natural disaster like a flood or an earthquake, and you should be urging a massive effort to reduce miscarriages as the best way to save millions of human lives a year. As far as I know, there is no such effort going on in the United States or elsewhere.

But perhaps your concern is not the number of slaughtered embryos, but rather the morality of intentionally killing them or—worse, in your view—intentionally creating and then killing them. In that case, your attention should be directed to fertility clinics, which routinely create multiple embryos for each human baby they wish to produce. They pick and choose among the embryos that seem healthiest, and typically implant several in the hope that one—and not more than one—will survive. Every year tens of thousands of human embryos are created and destroyed (or pointlessly frozen) in the everyday work of fertility clinics. There is no political effort to stop this work. President George W. Bush even praised the work of fertility clinics in his speech announcing the policy that virtually halted stem cell research for eight years. Advanced fertility techniques have brought happiness to thousands of couples who otherwise would probably be childless. They are a godsend that no politician would dare oppose.

Of the tens of thousands of embryos discarded by fertility clinics every year, a few are used for stem cell research. Extracting the stem cells involves destroying the embryos, which would be destroyed anyway. True, the destruction of embryos used for research is purposeful, whereas the destruction of embryos in the everyday work of fertility clinics is incidental. But is that distinction really strong enough to support the difference between cavalier acceptance of tens of thousands of embryo deaths in fertility clinics and a legal ban on using a small fraction of these embryos to help develop ways to save lives? (Conflict-of-interest note: My life included. I have Parkinson’s.)

Allah Pundit:

The result: It’s Congress’s move now. They can either clarify Dickey-Wicker to okay funding for research on stem-cell lines derived from killed embryos, or The One and NIH can put their heads together to try to draft more clever language that will comply with the statute. Given the likelihood of a much redder Congress next year, they’d better hurry up either way. One thing I don’t understand, though: It sounds like the court’s decision would have found even Bush’s policy in violation of Dickey-Wicker. Bush didn’t cut off all funding for ESC research, remember, just for research on embryonic stem cells created after the date of his executive order. Weren’t the stem-cell lines already in existence on that date also based on killed embryos and therefore in violation of the statute?

Radley Balko at Reason:

Both the Clinton and Bush administrations had thought that they had artfully gotten around this restriction by regulatory interpretations. The National Institutes of Health concluded that while the government could not pay for the creation and derivation of embryonic stem cells federally funded researchers could use such cells once they had been derived.

The case had been brought before the court by the conservative Christian Alliance Defense Fund and Nightlight Christian Adoptions which wants to put embryos left over from fertility treatments up for “adoption.” Both argue that deriving human embryonic stem cells kills pre-born people.

Given that about 60 percent of Americans support stem cell research using embryos left over from fertility treatments, this ruling will surely spark the stem cell wars anew. While researchers eager to get federal funding will be disappointed and the confusion over the ruling will likely further delay research, the good news is that there is a lot private and state funding available for stem cell research.

Steve Benen:

Dr. Irving L. Weissman, director of the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, said the ruling was “devastating to the hopes of researchers and patients who have been waiting so long for the promise of stem cell therapies.” Amy Comstock Rick, immediate past president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, struck a similar note, calling yesterday’s news “absolutely devastating.”

“We were really looking forward to research finally moving forward with the full backing of the NIH. We were really looking forward to the next chapter when human embryonic stem cells could really be explored for their full potential. This really sets us back,” Rick said. “Every day we lose is another day lost for patients waiting for cures.”

Others can speak to the legal proceedings with more expertise than I can, and it was at least somewhat heartening to see one lawyer weigh in describing the judge’s order as “quite vulnerable; it’s not on solid ground at all.”

I’d just note as an aside, though, that the breakdown in the Senate’s ability to fill judicial vacancies often has sweeping national and international implications — in the matter of medical research, possibly even issues of life and death.

David Dayen at Firedoglake:

This kind of came out of nowhere. It doesn’t overturn the funding rules but allows the case to proceed, with a temporary injunction against implementation until the completion of the case. This ensures that a case on the high-profile issue will continue through the election, though in recent years, stem cell research has not been among the high-profile hot-button issues.

UPDATE: William Saletan in Slate

Jim Pinkerton

Adam Keiper at NRO

More Saletan in Slate

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E=MC Fluoride

Max Fisher at The Atlantic:

Andy Schlafly, son of controversial conservative figure Phyllis Shlafly and founder of Conservapedia, the ideologically oriented alternative to Wikipedia, has found a new bugbear: the theory of relativity. Shlafly insists that Albert Einstein’s world-changing idea, elegantly expressed in the equation E=mc2, is part of a pervasive and long-held liberal conspiracy to make people have abortions and stop believing in Jesus. Conservapedia’s surprisingly lengthy articles on relativity makes a convoluted and free-wheeling case that it’s all a government hoax:

The theory of relativity is a mathematical system that allows no exceptions. It is heavily promoted by liberals who like its encouragement of relativism and its tendency to mislead people in how they view the world. …  Virtually no one who is taught and believes relativity continues to read the Bible, a book that outsells New York Times bestsellers by a hundred-fold.

Despite censorship of dissent about relativity, evidence contrary to the theory is discussed outside of liberal universities. … Some liberal politicians have extrapolated the theory of relativity to metaphorically justify their own political agendas. For example, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama helped publish an article by liberal law professor Laurence Tribe to apply the relativistic concept of “curvature of space” to promote a broad legal right to abortion. … Applications of the theory of relativity to change morality have also been common. … The Theory of Relativity enjoys a disproportionate share of federal funding of physics research today.

Megan Carpentier at Talking Points Memo:

Schlafly also points to the Bible as a reason that Einstein’s theory must be wrong:

9. The action-at-a-distance by Jesus, described in John 4:46-54.

Conservapedia defines “action-at-a-distance” as “Action at a distance consists of affecting a distant body instantaneously. At the atom level, this is known as “non-locality.” In non-confusing terms, that indicates the ability to cause something to happen instantaneously in another location (i.e., faster than the speed of light). Since Jesus could, reportedly, do this, thus Einstein is wrong. Schlafly’s evidence is John 4:46-54, in which Jesus reportedly cured someone’s son just by saying it had happened.

Once more he visited Cana in Galilee, where he had turned the water into wine. And there was a certain royal official whose son lay sick at Capernaum.When this man heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee from Judea, he went to him and begged him to come and heal his son, who was close to death.

“Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.”

The royal official said, “Sir, come down before my child dies.”

Jesus replied, “You may go. Your son will live.”The man took Jesus at his word and departed.

While he was still on the way, his servants met him with the news that his boy was living.
When he inquired as to the time when his son got better, they said to him, “The fever left him yesterday at the seventh hour.”

Then the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he and all his household believed.

This was the second miraculous sign that Jesus performed, having come from Judea to Galilee.

Schlafly brags on Conservapedia that he has homeschooled 185 children, all of whom do exceptionally well on standardized tests.

As with Wikipedia and other online crowd-sourced resources, Conservapedia is a colloborative effort of its users and any registered user can post to the site. Schlafly is a frequent contributor to the site, and is identified as the initial author of the entry and well as the editor of the note identified above. Schlafly did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Paul Krugman:

Everyone knows that the American right has problems with science that yields conclusions it doesn’t like. Climate science — which says that we face a huge global externality that requires not just government intervention, but coordinated international action (black helicopters!) has been the target of a sustained, and unfortunately largely successful, attempt to damage its credibility.

But it doesn’t stop there. We should not forget that much of the right is deeply hostile to the theory of evolution.

And now there’s a new one (to me, anyway; maybe it’s been out there all along): it turns out that, according to Conservapedia, the theory of relativity is a liberal plot.

PZ Myers at Science Blogs:

That darn English language that makes words with different meanings sometimes sound similar — it always ends up confusing Christian conservatives of very little brain, whose depth of understanding can only be measured in micrometers. The latest from Conservapædia is that they are on a crusade against Einstein…because smart people who study relativity aren’t reading the Bible, and because a theory about relationship between matter and energy and the speed of light encourages people to be open-minded and tolerant about different ideas, other than the Fundamentalist Evangelical Christian Kakistocracy (FECK for short).

Andy Schlafly is a real boon to us Gnu Atheists who argue that religion rots your brain.

Scott Lemieux:

Seeing this made me want to check in on Conservapedia and see what their classic entry on judicial activism looked like these days.   Fortunately, it’s still enough to make you think the site was a parody, improved by the fact that we now know it’s not.    It starts off in relatively neutral-sounding terms:

Judicial activism is when courts do not confine themselves to reasonable interpretations of laws, but instead create law. Alternatively, judicial activism is when courts do not limit their ruling to the dispute before them, but instead establish a new rule to apply broadly to issues not presented in the specific action.

Hmm, let me try to think of a recent example of that last phenomenon….anyway, eventually they cut to the chase:

In this regard, judicial activism is a way for liberals to avoid the regular legislative means of enacting laws in order to ignore public opinion and dodge public debate.

So judicial activism is something that, by definition, liberals and only liberals do. I wish it was only wingers who accepted this as opposed to a lot of “centrist” pundits. But things get even better:

Judicial activism should not be confused with the courts’ Constitutionally mandated rule in preserving the Constitutional structure of government, as they did in Bush v. Gore, Boy Scouts v. Dale, and D.C. v. Heller.

Yes, if anything is fundamental to our structure of constitutional government, it’s that ballots cast under different voting systems must be counted in the same way if this is necessary to elect a Republican president, and in no other cases. And of the three cases they mention, it’s also instructive that they pick one that involves limiting the reach of civil rights laws. Conveniently, their examples of “judicial activism” draw a line under this:

# Brown v. Board of Education – 1954 Supreme Court ruling ordering the desegregation of public schools.
# Griswold v. Connecticut – 1965 Supreme Court ruling establishing a constitutional right to posess [sic], distribute and use contraception.
# Loving v. Virginia – 1967 Supreme Court ruling requiring the legalization of interracial marriage.

Well, at least they’re consistent! Your classier wingnuts tend not to apply their views in such a logical manner. I’m disappointed, however, that they didn’t add to this a traditional Republican complaint about how Ted Kennedy “slandered” Robert Bork by mentioning his publicly stated views in public


I know, I know. It really is very funny but I can’t laugh at this.

Why? Because some of you, right now, are starting to waste the little time you have here on earth by marshalling reasoned arguments and accurate facts to refute Conservapedia’s lies. And so are others. And that is terribly sad.

Worse, it is counterproductive, because every moment you spend engaging right wing lunatics over tired, out-of-date, and utterly nonsensical argument over science they think is too liberal, is a moment taken away from encountering the truly exciting discoveries being announced almost hourly (here’s one: a crocodile with the teeth of a mammal!). And if you are so busy refighting the past that you can’t keep up with the present, then it becomes all that harder to understand what science is doing, and to support it. I’m not talking, say, a Palin/McCain/Jindal level of ignorance, of course. But if you truly think that it is vitally important to engage people who question Einstein’s theory of relativity, it becomes that much harder to muster the cultural courage to fund research that takes relativity for granted. After all, even if I “believe in relativity” wouldn’t it be better to fund research that proves relativity beyond a shadow of a doubt than stuff that assumes it’s true?*

But wait! you protest. We can’t let that garbage hang out there uncontested. Besides, people will learn a great deal about physics if we address the arguments in a clear, accessible fashion, and teach reality.

Yes, sure, I’ll agree that’s all true. So what?

Sure, we can contest them. But if we completely ignore their utterly ridiculous lies, distortions, and antiquated disputes, then we, not they, get to set the terms of the discourse. That is one reason why great scientists won’t bother to lower themselves to engage folks like the bozos behind Conservapedia (doing so also elevates the bozos). I see no reason why anyone, scientist or layperson, should enter an argument over the relativism of relativity. On the other hand, I do think we need to expose right wing ignoramuses as often as possible. In order to ridicule them. And to sneer. But argue over whether E=MC squared makes Jesus’ miracles impossible? That’s a waste of time. Ok, go ahead if you want to. Whatever. But if want to do some real good, you’ll laugh at them instead.

As for learning a great deal about physics through debunking lies…well, yeah, that’ll work. But I think you could learn much more physics by exploring truth. And that requires honest discussion which, almost by definition, cannot take place with people who insist on an enagagement over lies and distortions.

Please people, laugh all you want at these clowns. Mock them. Denounce them, rail against them. Just don’t make the mistake of arguing with them. Don’t waste your time, and ours.*** We can’t afford it now. We never could.

Attaturk at Firedoglake:

Oh for f**k’s sake!

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Phytoplankton Numbers Are Phalling

Lauren Morello at Scientific American:

The microscopic plants that form the foundation of the ocean’s food web are declining, reports a study published July 29 in Nature.

The tiny organisms, known as phytoplankton, also gobble up carbon dioxide to produce half the world’s oxygen output—equaling that of trees and plants on land.

But their numbers have dwindled since the dawn of the 20th century, with unknown consequences for ocean ecosystems and the planet’s carbon cycle.

Researchers at Canada’s Dalhousie University say the global population of phytoplankton has fallen about 40 percent since 1950. That translates to an annual drop of about 1 percent of the average plankton population between 1899 and 2008.

The scientists believe that rising sea surface temperatures are to blame.

Ed Yong at Discover:

Graduate student Daniel Boyce focused on some of oceans’ smallest but most important denizens – the phytoplankton. These tiny creatures are the basis of marine food webs, the foundations upon which these watery ecosystems are built. They produce around half of the Earth’s organic matter and much of its oxygen. And they are disappearing. With a set of data that stretches back 100 years, Boyce found that phytoplankton numbers have fallen by around 1% per year over the last century as the oceans have become warmer, and if anything, their decline is getting faster.  Our blue planet is becoming less green with every year.

Meanwhile, post-doc Derek Tittensor has taken a broader view, looking at the worldwide distributions of over 11,500 seagoing species in 13 groups, from mangroves and seagrasses, to sharks, squids, and corals. His super-census reveals three general trends – coastal species are concentrated around the western Pacific, while ocean-going ones are mostly found at temperate latitudes, in two wide bands on either side of the equator. And the only thing that affected the distribution of all of these groups was temperature.

Together, the results from the two studies hammer home a familiar message – warmer oceans will be very different places. Rising sea temperatures could “rearrange the global distribution of life in the ocean” and destabilise their food webs at their very root. None of this knowledge was easily won – it’s the result of decades of monitoring and data collection, resulting in millions of measurements.

Boyce’s study, for example, really began in 1865, when an Italian priest and astronomer called Father Pietro Angelo Secchi invented a device for measuring water clarity. His “Secchi disk” is fantastically simple – it’s a black-and-white circle that is lowered until the observer can’t see it any more. This depth reveals how transparent the water is, which is directly related to how much phytoplankton it contains. This simple method has been used since 1899. Boyce combined it with measurements of the pigment chlorophyll taken from research vessels, and satellite data from the last decade.

Boyce’s data revealed a very disturbing trend. Phytoplankton numbers have fallen across the world over the last century, particularly towards the poles and in the open oceans. The decline has accelerated in some places, and total numbers have fallen by around 40% since the 1950s. Only in a few places have phytoplankton populations risen. These include parts of the Indian Ocean and some coastal areas where industrial run-off fertilises the water, producing choking blooms of plankton.

On a yearly basis, the rise and fall of the phytoplankton depends on big climate events like the El Nino Southern Oscillation. But in the long-term, nothing predicted the numbers of phytoplankton better than the surface temperature of the seas. Phytoplankton need sunlight to grow, so they’re constrained to the upper layers of the ocean and depends on nutrients welling up from below. But warmer waters are less likely to mix in this way, which starves the phytoplankton and limits their growth.

Michael O’Hare:

What makes human life worth living? Content, obviously: news, art, music, conversation – social intercourse in all media.  What makes it possible?  Food and drink, broadly defined: fresh water and all the plant and animal products we eat and use.

This morning I came upon a paper in Nature whose abstract is as follows (emphasis added):

In the oceans, ubiquitous microscopic phototrophs (phytoplankton) account for approximately half the production of organic matter on Earth. Analyses of satellite-derived phytoplankton concentration (available since 1979) have suggested decadal-scale fluctuations linked to climate forcing, but the length of this record is insufficient to resolve longer-term trends. Here we combine available ocean transparency measurements and in situ chlorophyll observations to estimate the time dependence of phytoplankton biomass at local, regional and global scales since 1899.We observe declines in eight out of ten ocean regions, and estimate a global rate of decline of ~1% of the global median per year. Our analyses further reveal interannual to decadal phytoplankton fluctuations superimposed on long-term trends. These fluctuations are strongly correlated with basin-scale climate indices, whereas long-term declining trends are related to increasing sea surface temperatures. We conclude that global phytoplankton concentration has declined over the past century; this decline will need to be considered in future studies of marine ecosystems, geochemical cycling, ocean circulation and fisheries. (paywall)

This finding – and I’m trying hard not to hyperventilate here – is not too far down the scary scale from discovering a small inbound asteroid. This is the whole ocean we’re talking about: the earth’s production of organic material is going down half a percent per year.  Oddly, I did not come upon it in the New York Times, which seems not to have run the story at all.  The Washington Post, I found only after I searched, did run the AP story somewhere way below whatever passes for the fold in a web edition, but I didn’t see it there either.  I found it, through a Brazilian accumulator, here.

How can this be? Well, the world’s production of traditional news (not newsworthy events, writing about them) is down along with the plankton (and the menu items at your favorite seafood restaurant…remember when you could have haddock for dinner?).  Every grownup, quality-conscious outlet is putting out less stuff every day, in fewer column-inches on smaller pages (or in more vacuous hours on TV padded out with ephemera that a small crew in a truck can get some meaningless video of).  The new, lean, pathetic Times just didn’t have room for this one (or salary to pay an editor to stay on top of stuff), a story I can make a case was the most important news of the week (why the Globo happened to put it on page one is not clear (as did the São Paulo paper), but muito obrigado, a Sra. da Silva também!).  I guess I can stay informed if I go to six web pages in four languages every day, but who has time, and why is that better than the way things were before the content markets fell apart?  And how long will even that strategy work?

We can’t live without the ocean, every time we look at climate change it’s worse than we thought, and we can’t get back from the precipice, or even know how close it is, without news.

We are so f____ed.

Kevin Drum:

So, anyway, as temperatures rise the plankton die. As plankton die, they suck up less carbon dioxide, thus warming the earth further. Which causes more plankton to die. Rinse and repeat. Oh, and along the way, all the fish die too.

Or maybe not. But this sure seems like a risk that we should all be taking a whole lot more seriously than we are. Unfortunately, conservatives are busy pretending that misbehavior at East Anglia means that global warming is a hoax, the Chinese are too busy catching up with the Americans to take any of this seriously, and you and I are convinced that we can’t possibly afford a C-note increase in our electric bills as the price of taking action. As a result, maybe the oceans will die. Sorry about that, kids, but fixing it would have cost 2% of GDP and we decided you’d rather have that than have an ocean. You can thank us later.

Megan McArdle:

The die-off of most of the phytoplankton would be a huge catastrophe.  However, here are some reasons that we shouldn’t succumb to outright panic quite yet:

1.  It’s one paper.  I am not casting aspersions on the authors or their methodology, but the whole idea of science is that even the smartest people can be wrong.  As with other attempts to reconstruct past climate, they’re using a series of proxies for past events that have much weaker accuracy than the direct measurements we’re now using.  That doesn’t mean they’re wrong, but it does leave them more open to interpretation.

2.  All the carbon we’re burning used to be in the atmosphere.  Yet the planet supported life.  Indeed, the oil we’re burning comes from the compressed, decayed bodies of . . . phytoplankton.  This suggests that some number of phytoplankton should be able to survive high concentrations of the stuff.

3.  There are positive feedback effects, but also negative ones.  One of the things that drives me batty about environmentalists and journalists writing about climate change is the insistence that every single side effect will be negative. This is not really very likely, unless you think that every place on earth just happens to be at the very awesomest climate equilibrium possible as of 9:17 am this morning, or that global warming is some sort of malevolent god capable only of destruction.

Mind you, this is not an argument for letting it happen; I’m not a fan of tampering with large, complex systems that I don’t really understand, which is why I tend not to support much direct government intervention in the economy–and why I do, nonetheless, support a hefty carbon tax.

But there’s a certain tendency to ignore mitigating offsets, such as the fact that higher carbon concentrations make terrestrial plants grow more lushly, sucking up some of that extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  At least, as long as we don’t turn them into biofuels, that is.  There’s also a tendency to ignore mitigation rather than reduction, on the grounds that emissions reduction is “easier”.  Well, I suppose it is easier if you assume away the political problems.  But no matter how hard I assume, I keep waking up in a world where we’ve made no meaningful progress on emissions reductions.  At this point, I’ve got more faith in America’s engineering talent than in her ability to conquer fierce political resistance to reductions at home and abroad.

Brad Plumer at TNR on McArdle:

She’s partly right. Not every side effect will be negative. Just this week, The New York Times ran a piece about how marmots will thrive in a hotter world. So, three cheers for marmots. But the bad news tends to far outweigh the good. As the IPCC concluded in 2007, “Costs and benefits of climate change for industry, settlement and society will vary widely by location and scale. In the aggregate, however, net effects will tend to be more negative the larger the change in climate.” No one’s ignoring the upsides. They’re just focused on the larger downsides. For instance, McArdle suggests that more CO2 in the air will boost plant growth, which in turn will help suck more carbon out of the air and ameliorate things somewhat. It might surprise her to learn that scientists are perfectly well aware of that fact. But recent modeling suggests that this effect will likely be offset by other plant-related factors—like changes in evaporation—and the net result will likely be more warming, not less.

One main point to note here is that, on the whole, global warming will be neutral for this round little rock adrift in the ether that we like to call Earth. You could even say this is an exciting time for Mother Nature. Big changes are afoot. Some species will thrive and many others will die. Evolution will proceed apace. There will still be some forms of life around even if the planet heats up by 5°C or 10°C. As McArdle rightly notes, there have been periods in the past, millions of years ago, when carbon concentrations in the atmosphere were even higher than today, and, to quote Jurassic Park, life found a way.

The problem here is for one very particular life form: people. As I wrote in this TNR piece on planetary boundaries, we big-brained hominids have enjoyed a relatively stable climate for the past 10,000 years—a geological period dubbed the Holocene. Sea levels have been kept in check. Temperatures have fluctuated around a narrow band. And that relative predictability has enabled us to stay rooted in one location, to set up farms and cities, to plan for the future. We’ve adapted very well to the planet we have, and we’ve grown quite used to it. Most of our infrastructure has been built under the impression that the planet will basically look the same tomorrow as it did yesterday. That means that wrenching shifts in our ecosystem run the risk of being extremely painful—in the same way a big disruption to our financial system was extremely painful.

The second problem is that we just don’t know what’s in store. By belching up millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we’re running a massive science experiment on the planet, one that can’t really be reversed. Maybe this phytoplankton stuff is just a blip. Or maybe it’s part of an ominous trend that’s going to rearrange the face of the oceans as we know it—oceans we’ve come to rely on for our survival. That doesn’t strike me as a gamble worth taking.

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