Apr 14 2014

Years of Living Dangerously

This new documentary on Showtime is pretty good (despite the appearance of Thomas Friedman), and this is the premiere episode.

One of the most interesting aspects of the show is that it emphasizes economic issues. The standard tactic of the climate change denialists is to argue that it’s happening, we can’t do anything about it, and it would hurt our economy to take measures to reduce emissions; but this show focuses strongly on the fact that climate change is doing us economic harm right now.

The denialists are, of course, squinking furiously against it already, but they lie. They lie hard.

By the way, Harrison Ford, one of the sponsors/narrator of the show, has also done an IAmA on Reddit lately — he seems to be a cool and admirable dude.

Apr 14 2014

Fun & games on Reddit

Stephan Lewandowsky, the author of the article that made climate change denialists cry and that was later retracted under pressure from denialists, is doing a Reddit AMA right now. Get in early! Before the kooks flood the questions!

(via Greg Laden)

Apr 13 2014

Your average MRA is…

…young, white, male (no surprise), and, unfortunately, godless. Stephanie summarizes a Reddit survey, and it surprised me — not by the trends, which were along the lines I expected, but in the degree to which they lack diversity. It’s worse than I thought.

Apr 12 2014

I need this for my cosmetics bag

It’s going to be tough to use, though: that Jesus looks terribly unimpressed.

At least he’s not weeping tears of blood.

Apr 12 2014

So go crawl into a dark Faraday cage and wait for civilization to collapse

Salon sometimes, and with increasing frequency lately, publishes some genuinely pernicious crap. I notice they’ve been experimenting with click-baity titles and more lists (I am growing to hate lists on the internet), there is more and more gullible religious pandering, and some days I think they’re experience huffpo envy — ‘if only we were a little more schlocky and gossipy and threw in some more T&A, we’d get more traffic!’ And now they’ve published some hysterical nonsense about cell phones causing cancer. Apparently there are no editors on the staff with even the slightest bit of scientific training who’d recognize that this claim is oft-debunked nonsense.

They even gave it the title “Your cell phone is killing you”, although they did exercise some restraint in leaving off the expected six exclamation points afterwards. The content consists of selective mention (not citation — the author doesn’t bother to give us enough information to track down the work) of only papers that show any purported effect of electromagnetic radiation at all, and hysterically concludes that we’re all in the middle of a great experiment that will end with the bees all dead and all of us having gigantic tumors on one side of our heads, Alzheimer’s disease, and with our sperm all limp and zombiefied, which is a good thing, because otherwise those sperm would spawn hideous mutant offspring.

Ho hum. In the 19th century, people were concerned about electricity leaking out of outlets if they weren’t turned off (in houses that had open gas flames!). We’ve had the terrors of high tension wires zapping everyone passing under them with madness and death inducing magnetic fluxes. Now it’s cell phones. They’re next to your head! They’re transmitting!

And you know what they’re transmitting? Radiation.

Most notably, the entire power grid is an EMF-generation network that reaches almost every individual in America and 75% of the global population. Today, early in the 21st century, we find ourselves fully immersed in a soup of electromagnetic radiation on a nearly continuous basis.

Yes, we are. It’s true. Of course, it’s not just the 21st century: when early humans stepped out of their caves to throw sticks at antelope 100,000 years ago, they were fully immersed in a soup of electromagnetic radiation on a nearly continuous basis. The earth has a magnetic field of several hundred milliGauss, and visible light has a frequency of about 500 trillion Hz; yet you don’t sense any effect of that magnetic field, and sunlight at that frequency merely warms your skin (higher frequency light, around 1000 trillion Hz, does damage cells severely — it’s the UV that gives you sunburn).

Yet even if you live directly under a high tension line, that source is only providing about 1-2 milliGauss, and cell phones are radiating at at about one billion Hz, an insignificant fraction of the energy from the soup bath in electromagnetic reaction you get from just walking around outside, even when slathered in high SPF sunscreen.

However, while science has not yet answered all of our questions, it has determined one fact very clearly—all electromagnetic radiation impacts living beings.

This is certainly true! Here’s James May cooking a hot dog and melting a steel plate by using a mirror to focus sunlight.

The inescapable conclusion of this experiment: we must ban flashlights. Otherwise, they might fall into the hands of small children who would then use them to disintegrate their playmates.

This is representative of what the author of this silly piece, Martin Blank, does throughout his article. He looks selectively at the literature, reports only on the cases that support his conclusions, and then makes sweeping assertions of disaster awaiting us all.

As I will discuss, science demonstrates a wide range of bioeffects linked to EMF exposure. For instance, numerous studies have found that EMF damages and causes mutations in DNA—the genetic material that defines us as individuals and collectively as a species. Mutations in DNA are believed to be the initiating steps in the development of cancers, and it is the association of cancers with exposure to EMF that has led to calls for revising safety standards. This type of DNA damage is seen at levels of EMF exposure equivalent to those resulting from typical cell phone use.

This is not true. The National Cancer Institute summarizes the effects of cell phones:

Studies thus far have not shown a consistent link between cell phone use and cancers of the brain, nerves, or other tissues of the head or neck. More research is needed because cell phone technology and how people use cell phones have been changing rapidly.

That last sentence, the one that begins “More research is needed”? That’s what we call a CYA statement: a bureaucratic cover-your-ass bit of boilerplate to make sure that some remote happenstance doesn’t cause them regret — it’s also a standard appeal for “give us more money” from a funding agency. But read the rest: they describe many of the experiments and the evidence, and also summarizes the common flaws that lead some studies to contradict the sense and science of electromagnetic fields. The conclusion from all of the major organizations is that any effect of cell phones is so marginal that no significant consequence of cell phone use on your physiology is detectable. Compare that to Blank’s claim.

Or you can get Steve Novella’s opinion, or Orac’s. It’s not impossible that the teeny-tiny emissions of your cell phone might lightly tickle some cells in some subtle, unpredictable way, but the totality of the current evidence says no, it doesn’t seem to have any significant effect.

If you’re still worried, here are instructions on how to build a Faraday cage (short summary: lots of aluminum foil). Climb in, and turn the lights off. And no flashlights! You could incinerate someone with one of those!

Apr 12 2014

I’m a scientist, I believe in proof

Near as I can tell from the trailer for I, Origins, the movie is about an affectless neuroscientist who takes pictures of eyes for Science, and then because he finds someone with similar irises to his dead lover, decides that reincarnation has been proven.

All I know is that whoever wrote this dreck has no idea about how scientists think.

Oh, joy. Another What the Bleep Do We Know, a bad and stupid movie that clueless nitwits will be throwing in my face for years to come to inform me that science is wrong.

Apr 12 2014

Don’t worry, we’ll fix it by flying really fast in reverse

You all remember Lex Luthor’s scheme in the original Richard Donner Superman movie, right? Of course you do, you’re all nerds. But we nerds are all pedantic and love to start monologuing, so I’ll tell you what it was anyway.

Luthor was going to set off a nuclear bomb in the San Andreas fault and cause a giant earthquake so that California would slide into the sea, creating new, valuable ocean front real estate that he would buy up, making himself fabulously rich.

Grand plans to cause devastating earthquakes are staples of cheesy comic book villainy; they’re also a regular part of the diet of conspiracy theorists. Did you know the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) is actually a scheme by the Illuminati/Men in Black/New World Order to take over the world by inducing earthquakes? It’s true. Bad guys cause earthquakes.

So what should we make of the recent disclosure that fracking causes earthquakes?

Before January 2011, Youngstown, Ohio, had never had an earthquake since observations began in 1776. In December 2010, the Northstar 1 injection well came online, built to pump wastewater produced by hydraulic fracturing projects in Pennsylvania into storage deep underground. In the year that followed, seismometers in and around Youngstown recorded 109 earthquakes—the strongest of the set being a magnitude 3.9 earthquake on December 31, 2011.

In a new study analyzing the Youngstown earthquakes, Kim finds that the earthquakes’ onset, cessation, and even temporary dips in activity were all tied to the activity at the Northstar 1 well. The first earthquake recorded in the city occurred 13 days after pumping began, and the tremors ceased shortly after the Ohio Department of Natural Resources shut down the well in December 2011. Also, the author finds that dips in earthquake activity correlated with Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving, as well as other periods when the injection at the well was temporarily stopped.

Further, the author finds that the earthquakes were centered in an ancient fault near the Northstar 1 well. The author suggests that the increase in pressure from the deep wastewater injection caused the existing fault to slip. Throughout the year, the earthquakes crept from east to west down the length of the fault away from the well—indicative of the earthquakes being caused by a traveling pressure front.

Comic book supervillains aren’t real. We’ve got the oil companies instead.

Apr 11 2014

Recent North Star wankery

Just so you know, that pathetic campus newspaper, the North Star, which published defamatory accusations that various UMM faculty and administrators were racist because they didn’t give special privileges to white students, is still pushing hard to sue me. They have no grounds to do so; their accusation is that because they detected a “sciencey” smell of chloroform near racks of their rag that were stolen, I must have done it. Their lawyers have been demanding that the university fire me, to which our chancellor has replied with a clear “no.”

But I warn you because I just got off the phone with a Fox News outlet in the New York area; they were asking lots of questions, and apparently the North Star lawyers are distributing their intimidation document far and wide now. The interviewer was deeply offended that I said Fox News has an extraordinarily poor record for journalistic integrity; they said I was impeding the Free Speech of those poor students (they seem to take it for granted that I stole those stupid newspapers); they were outraged that I said this lawsuit was attempted harassment, trying to silence me; and they treated the fact that the campus police asked me questions about the thefts as clear evidence that I was guilty.

Anyway, get ready. It will not be a friendly report, expect a few East Coast wingnuts to show up once it’s out, whining in that wingnutty way and demanding that we respect their entitled inanity.

Apr 11 2014

Should you circumcise your child?

Probably not. But the New York Times reports:

A review of studies has found that the health benefits of infant male circumcision vastly outweigh the risks involved in the procedure.

Actually, it doesn’t. Not at all. The paper is all about the frequency of circumcision in the US; this is the only real data in the paper, and notice that a good chunk of it is speculation.

Prevalence of adult circumcision in the United States during the past 6 decades (1948-2010). The solid line represents documented prevalence among adults; dashed line, [Morris's] predictions.

Prevalence of adult circumcision in the United States during the past 6 decades (1948-2010). The solid line represents documented prevalence among adults; dashed line, [Morris's] predictions.

It does toss in a table purporting to show the tremendous risks of not circumcising baby boys, but this is not new — these are the same sloppy data that the author has been peddling for over a decade. With some trepidation, I give you a sample from his 2007 paper: don’t trust these numbers!


The author is Brian Morris, better known as the Man Who Hates Foreskins. He’s a real crusader, who touts foreskin removal as just as important as vaccination — that leaving it intact imperils the child to a 1 in 3 chance of a serious condition requiring medical attention. You might immediately question how he arrives at this conclusion — by multiplying a series of dubious assertions together — and the likelihood of it being true, given that circumcision is a culturally variable practice, and that countries where it’s rare (for instance, in Scandinavia, where the frequency of circumcisions is around 2%) don’t typically have emergency rooms crowded with young boys whose penises are in painful, infected, states, raddled with disease.

I suppose it could be because glorious Scandinavian penises are perfect and universally wholesome — that’s what I’ve been told, anyway — but that would be baseless speculation and unwarranted extrapolation of anecdotes into unsupportable evidence, of the sort that Brian Morris does.

Take that first condition, the likelihood of urinary tract infections. That’s taken from a sample of 36 children, half of whom had an unknown circumcision status, and the difference was not found to be statistically significant. Yet here he just presents it as established fact, that uncircumcised children have a ten-fold greater rate of urinary tract infections.

Or look at his claim of much greater rates of HIV infection. There actually is some interesting mechanistic reasoning behind that: the foreskin represents an enlarged area of delicate membrane which could be an avenue of entry for some viruses. But the real test would be an epidemiological study: there are lots of circumcised men around, and lots of uncircumcised men, when we look at the rates of infection, is there a significant difference? It hasn’t been done very often, but when it is, the hypothesis often fails to be supported. Here’s one example of a scientist who thought heightened sensitivity to STIs was a reasonable hypothesis (his “hunch”), but found it didn’t pan out at all when examined.

Armed with this hunch, rather than set up a website I chose to do some research. Australia is a good place to do such research because there is a roughly even population split for the intervention (circumcision) and in most cases it is not a maker of ethnicity, wealth, education or religion. Unexpectedly, our research findings were uniformly negative. Circumcision did not protect against STDs in our clinic population, though we did not look at HIV because it is rare in heterosexual men in Sydney.

Then there are some of Morris’s very peculiar ideas. This is the abstract from a paper advocating more circumcision; note that one of his arguments is basically that women find uncircumcised penises ugly. As usual, no evidence for that is presented.

Circumcision of males represents a surgical “vaccine” against a wide variety of infections, adverse medical conditions and potentially fatal diseases over their lifetime, and also protects their sexual partners. In experienced hands, this common, inexpensive procedure is very safe, can be pain-free and can be performed at any age. The benefits vastly outweigh risks. The enormous public health benefits include protection from urinary tract infections, sexually transmitted HIV, HPV, syphilis and chancroid, penile and prostate cancer, phimosis, thrush, and inflammatory dermatoses. In women circumcision of the male partner provides substantial protection from cervical cancer and chlamydia. Circumcision has socio-sexual benefits and reduces sexual problems with age. It has no adverse effect on penile sensitivity, function, or sensation during sexual arousal. Most women prefer the circumcised penis for appearance, hygiene and sex. Given the convincing epidemiological evidence and biological support, routine circumcision should be highly recommended by all health professionals.

I suspect that women’s preferences are going to be shaped by culture, by familiarity, rather than some objective hideousness of the foreskin, and what the heck is appearance doing in a paper that is supposed to be summarizing medical evidence, anyway?

It’s also an argument that can cut both ways. When presented with evidence that one phenomenon, dyspareunia (painful intercourse) was found to be more common in partners of circumcised men than uncircumcised men, Morris waved it away by arguing that women in countries with lower rates of circumcision might be disturbed by the sight of a cut penis.

Morris et al. should be commended for their creative attempt to dismiss the higher prevalence of frequent dyspareunia in women with circumcised (12%) than uncircumcised (4%) spouses (ORs between 4.17 and 9.00). They suggest that Danish women with circumcised spouses may be so psychologically troubled by the shape of their spouse’s penis that it might result in painful intercourse. A more plausible explanation would be that reduced penile sensitivity may raise the need among some circumcised men for more vigorous and, to some women, painful stimulation during intercourse in their pursuit of orgasm.

But then, that’s Brian Morris all over the place. He actively tries to suppress work that doesn’t support his conclusions, he inflates any evidence that suggests circumcision might have a few benefits (there are some!), and dismisses any evidence to the contrary…or worse, twists it around to claim it supports the opposite of the author’s interpretations. All this in defiance of worldwide statements from pediatric organizations that say the evidence for health benefits from circumcision are weak, and that routine circumcision is not recommended.

One other weird thing: why are circumcision advocates so obsessed with this procedure? It’s certainly not that the benefits are as solidly established as they are for vaccination; reading the literature, the most striking observation is the murkiness and insignificance of the evidence. If you’ve got lots of studies, and they vary up and down in their conclusions, and are constantly skirting the margins of likelihood, what’s the best explanation: that there is a strong effect that can only be detected by true believers, or that we’re dealing with no effect at all and people are cherry-picking peaks and troughs from statistical noise? I lean towards the latter. The former is also the excuse used by psychics, UFOlogists, and Bigfoot hunters.

It also doesn’t help that Morris has been affiliated with the Gilgal Society a pro-circumcision organization that also published a book of ‘erotic’ circumcision stories.

Yes, you read that right. Circumcision child porn. Short excerpt below, in rot13.

Ur unq abg ernpurq choregl ohg fbba jbhyq: n srj unvef jrer fgnegvat gb tebj ng gur onfr bs uvf cravf. Arvy jnf gura nfxrq gb yvr ba gur pbhpu sbe gur cravf gb or cubgbtencurq. …gur qbpgbe grfgrq gur svg bs gjb fvmrf bs Tbzpb Pynzc oryy. Qhevat guvf cebprqher Arvy rerpgrq, ohg jnf abg rzoneenffrq ol vg naq znqr ab nggrzcg gb uvqr vg.
Znex pnzr va arkg naq ntnva qebccrq uvf gebhfref ernqvyl. Ur unq ernpurq choregl naq jnf dhvgr jryy qrirybcrq. … Vgf yvxr na ryrcunagf gehax jnf gur qbpgbef pbzzrag, gb juvpu Znex urnegvyl nterrq. … Cubgbtencuf bs uvf cravf jrer gnxra…
Ur unq ernyvfrq nsgre frk rqhpngvba yrffbaf ng fpubby gung ur unq n ceboyrz.
…gur oblf jrer tvira cyragl bs jvar gb erynk gurz. …gur qvfphffvba jnf nobhg gur frk yvirf bs gur oblf naq gurve fpubby sevraqf. Gur qbpgbe nfxrq ubj bsgra gur oblf jnaxrq. … Gur qbpgbe fubjrq gur oblf uvf zvpebfpbcr naq nfxrq vs gurl unq rire frra fcrez haqre bar. … Ur fhttrfgrq gb Znex gung vs ur jnagrq gb, ur pbhyq unir n dhvrg jnax juvyfg Arvy jnf orvat pvephzpvfrq… Guvf jnf rntreyl npprcgrq. … Ur ynl onpx jvgu uvf rlrf pybfrq naq whfg yrg gur qbpgbe trg ba.

Morris has been trying very hard to dissociate himself from Gilgal, at least, but still…eww.

“Gilgal”, by the way, is apparently Hebrew for “hill of foreskins”. Really? They needed a word for that? Double eww.

Frisch M (2012) Author’s Response to: Does sexual function survey in Denmark offer any support for male circumcision having an adverse effect? Int. J. Epidemiol 41 (1): 312-314.

Morris BJ (2007) Why circumcision is a biomedical imperative for the 21st century. Bioessays 29(11):1147-58.

Morris BJ, Bailis SA, Wiswell TE (2014) Circumcision Rates in the United States: Rising or Falling? What Effect Might the New Affirmative Pediatric Policy Statement Have? Mayo Clin Proc doi: 10.1016/j.mayocp.2014.01.001. [Epub ahead of print]

Apr 11 2014

Condescending Republican compares abortion to buying new carpeting for his car

Chuck Gatschenberger wants to have a mandatory 72 hour waiting period before a woman is allowed to have an abortion…and his argument by analogy is that when he visits a car dealership, he doesn’t impulsively buy a car or recarpet his old one.

House Bill 1613 would require an ultrasound and also triple Missouri’s mandatory waiting period for a woman seeking abortion to 72 hours. Gatschenberger suggested that his legislation would make a woman "research" her decision before having an abortion — a move he said would increase the odds that she will choose life for her unborn baby.

That’s so sweet. So is House Bill 1614 going to require a 72 hour waiting period for all car purchasing decisions? Just think how poor Chuck would feel if he went into the car dealership and discovered he’d have to wait three days on anything.

But don’t worry, he has “apologized”.

Gatschenberger apologized for offending the women in the room and said his intention was simply to ensure that women considered their reproductive decisions more carefully.

“I’m just saying this is a life-ending decision,” he said. “You should think about it.”

Because women just never ever think before they rush off to get a surgical procedure. Flighty, stupid women — they all need a man to help them with these decisions.

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