Archive for the Science Category

Boy Corrects NASA. Man bites dog. Science journalism fails.

Posted in Science, Stupidity on April 21, 2008 by moonflake

In yet another international whoops for science journalism, a fantastic hoax has been spread around the globe thanks to Agence France-Presse getting their foot royally wedged in their mouth.

According to AFP, and parrotted around the world:

A 13-year-old German schoolboy corrected Nasa’s estimates on the chances of an asteroid colliding with the Earth, a German newspaper reported on Tuesday, after spotting the boffins had miscalculated.

Nico Marquardt used telescopic findings from the Institute of Astrophysics in Potsdam to calculate that there is a one-in-450 chance that the Apophis asteroid will collide with Earth, the Potsdamer Neuerster Nachrichten reported.

Nasa had previously estimated the chances at only one in 45 000, but told its sister organisation, the European Space Agency, that the young whizz kid had got it right.

Here’s NASA’s press release refuting the stupid story. And here’s a blogger who actually bothered to contact NASA’s NEO department, and the German scientist mentioned in the article. Yet again, the international press leaps at your typical ‘man bites dog’ story with gay abandon and a wanton disregard for the facts. Since when did it become ‘journalism’ to simply take whatever Reuters or Associated Press or AFP spits out of their papermill and repeate it verbatim as if you actually did some work? And how does a journalistic giant like AFP spew out such a pile of garbage without checking the facts themselves? Not a single person along this sad, sad trail of journalistic failure bothered to contact anyone involved, until the blogosphere up and schooled them yet again. 

I just have two words for every paper that perpetuated this ridiculous piece: EPIC FAIL.


Manto: Western trials not fit for traditional medicine

Posted in Alternative Medicine, Science, South Africa on February 27, 2008 by moonflake

Well, here we go again. Our esteemed baby-killer-in-chief Manto Tshabalala-Msimang has now declared that African Traditional Medicines, while being subjected to research and development, should not become bogged down in ‘western’ clinical trials. Apparently, “We cannot use Western models of protocols for research and development… Clinical trials need protocols for traditional medicine.”

May I remind everyone again that this woman supposedly has a medical qualification? That she is a medical doctor? And yet here she stands, blatantly claiming special privilege for african medicine, referring to clinical trials as ‘western’… and then goes on to warn against “charlatans tarnishing the image of this sector … who promise our desperate help-seeking people all sorts of things that are not practically possible to deliver”. So…. all of them, then?

And then, the coup de grace of evidential reasoning, she quantifies why african medicine is so special that it does not need to be tested… because it has been used for thousands of years. Wow. Really? Under that logic, perhaps we should revert to slavery, forced marriage, human sacrifice and colonialism… all practices with thousands of years of tradition behind them. Perhaps we should go back to other traditional forms of healing: bloodletting, amputation, trepannin and electroshock therapy? Perhaps we should throw out the whole court system and bring back trial by combat? And perhaps we should bring back that wonderful old-time tradition of women not being allowed to hold public office?

Get a few things straight, Manto: traditional does not mean right. There is no such thing as ‘western’ clinical trials, there are only clinical trials, performed everywhere in the world. And there is no such thing as western medicine, chinese medicine or african medicine: there is only medicine, which is the stuff that has been tested objectively and found to work, and all the other stuff that people claim is medicine, which is the stuff that may well be helpful, harmful or placebo, but which we don’t know until we test it.

And then the Doctors for Life International group responded with one of the worst press releases ever, using as their primary argument for testing of traditional medicine, the possibility that we won’t know if it contains human body parts or not if we don’t test it. Oh, and it’s the biggest culprit in fatal poisoning in the country. Nicely done guys. While both your points are 100% accurate, all you serve to do is give her more ammunition to claim that you are only villianizing her precious african medicine and that you don’t understand it.

What needs to be addressed here is the fundamental racism that causes her to refer to all scientific advancements as ‘western’, the reverse of which is that she is basically calling africa an unscientific backwater that rejects all modern understanding of chemistry, biology and medicine. Get it straight: we are all human beings, we all have the same biochemistry, what works on a western person works on an african person works on a chinese person. We are all prone to the placebo effect, we all deserve medicine that works, and we all deserve not to be taking something that doesn’t. We all deserve for you to subject anything you suspect might be useful to clinical trials, so that if it is medicine it can be manufactured and distributed to help the world. And if it’s not, it can be outlawed, to protect the world. The only people you hurt by not doing this, is the africans already taking it.

Carte Blanche: messing up the science since 1988

Posted in Science, South Africa, Stupidity on November 13, 2007 by moonflake

A couple of weekends ago, Carte Blanche decided to broadcast yet another uninformed, one-sided pretense at science reporting, with a feature about the proposed Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) program. Typical of Carte Blanche, their piece can roughly be summarized as:

  • Start out wasting time with an emotionally-charged but utterly irrelevant history of South Africa’s Cold War nuclear weapons program. Blame everything on apartheid and completely ignore the Mutually Assured Destruction scenario that the world existed in at that time.
  • Bring on an environmental sociologist and political economist, who chairs an anti-GM organization and stirs up anti-nuclear energy hysteria professionally, to talk about SA’s nuclear program. But, most importantly, imply that he’s an unbiased, independent nuclear energy researcher.
  • Talk about the PBMR program, give exceedingly brief air time to the people who designed, commissioned and okay’ed the thing, but give lots of air time to detractors, and definitely don’t give air time for responses to their comments. Imply conspiracies and cover-ups, but don’t show any hard evidence of either.
  • Question the level to which Eskom has listened to public opinions on the reactor, then interview some members of the public whose level of education and personal research into nuclear energy and its environmental effects proves exactly why Eskom shouldn’t be listening to these people’s opinions.
  • Harp on about Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, North Korea, Lybia, Hiroshima and any other scare tactic you can think of. Use this opportunity to mention apartheid again.
  • End on a dramatic note: that the South African Government will almost certainly use the nuclear program to throw out the non-proliferation treaty and build a bomb at its earliest convenience.

This was hardly a balanced report on the state of nuclear energy in SA – it was a hysterical, sensationalist opinion piece fueled by anti-nuclear lobbyists and environauts with an agenda. It was bad reporting, plain and simple.

Now, I’m not saying that there aren’t potentially issues with the PBMR design, or that nuclear power doesn’t bring with it inherent safety guidelines that need to be strongly followed. I’m also definitely not saying that there couldn’t have been some miscalculations on the government’s behalf about the cost and timelines for getting these plants online. But I am definitely saying that if you are going to run a report that asks questions about whether the government’s current nuclear power plan is a good idea, intimating that the government’s reason for building it is to create a front for nuclear weapons manufacture is just plain stupid.

Let’s start with a basic bit of logic: we already have two nuclear reactors. If the government wanted to extract weapons grade plutonium from nuclear materials used in power plants, they wouldn’t have to build a new nuclear plant to do it. Here’s another idea: it’s a hell of a lot easier to buy a nuclear weapon than to build one, and it’s even easier to just hang on to the ones you had during the Cold War and not report them. So frankly, if the government really wanted a nuclear weapon, chances are they already have it, which makes objecting to the PBMR on the basis of nukes utterly pointless. Finally, PBMR reactors are within a class of reactors considered to be proliferation-resistant i.e. it’s a damn side harder for the men in black hats to get weapons grade plutonium from these reactors than from traditional reactors like Koeberg. So really, if the government wanted to build a nuclear plant to use for making weapons, it would make more like Koeberg, not invest time and money in a plant that will make it harder to make nukes!

The PBMR design has its shortcomings, but so does every other design of power plant ever, nuclear or otherwise. That doesn’t mean that we should have no power plants, or that no design is worth building. Don’t throw the entire nuclear power baby out with the PBMR bathwater.

Nuclear power has safety issues, but I challenge you to name even one accident other than Chernobyl and Three Mile Island off the top of your head. Then compare that to the hundreds of reactors around the world, and you maybe get some perspective for the safety figures. Comparing every nuclear power plant to Chernobyl is like arguing to ground all aeroplanes on the basis of the Hindenburg disaster.

And finally, whatever your issue with nuclear power, it’s very telling that not a single person ends their anti-nuclear tirade with a better solution.

Evolution comes to SA schools

Posted in Religion, Science, South Africa on November 6, 2007 by moonflake

Things are about to get interesting for South African biology teachers – as of next year, they will be charged with teaching evolution in Grade 12.

Yes, strange as it may seem, up until now one of the most elegant concepts in science, one of the greatest achievements of human thought, has been avoided as a subject in SA schools. Children have learned about Galileo and Newton and Einstein, but when in comes to Darwin, they have been left in the dark. No longer, says the education department, but it is well aware it’s going to have a fight on its hands.

You see, SA is no different than some other countries we won’t mention directly, in that we have a fairly large religious contingent who similarly believe that their made up stories about the origin of man should somehow compete with, or even overshadow, all that the human race has learned about the world in the last two millenia. Yes indeed, there are going to be plenty of parents who will eagerly point out to any who will listen that they are determined to ensure their children remain as ignorant as they are.

But what you wouldn’t expect is for teachers to be opposed to improving children’s education, yet that is exactly what the education department is facing already:

At a recent conference on teacher training, a teacher said: “I am disappointed about the fact that evolution attacks God’s creation. It also mixes Genesis with idol worshippers of Babylon, which were never there when God created planet Earth.”

Another said he thought the topic should be voluntary because he didn’t think it suitable for people who believe in God. “I am totally against evolution,” another teacher said.

Matters came to a head after snippets of a video, Tiny Humans: Finding Hobbits in Flores, was shown. The video traces the origin of tiny prehistoric humans somewhere on an Indonesian island. They are depicted as short and dark-skinned people. This offended some black teachers. They said that evolution was a racist theory. It “terribly undermines black people, everything bad gets a black colour. It means blacks were apes,” they said.

Right, why not? I mean, it’s not as if their job is to educate people, implying that they might actually be educated themselves. I’m sure ignorance and rash assumption is a requirement for people charged with the edification of our children.

And what is the education department’s response?

The department had been “sensitive to the views of a wide range of persons and attempts at all times to demonstrate this sensitivity” in introducing evolution…

No child would be compelled to “adopt” or “defend the viewpoint or any way subscribe to evolution”. So there could be no reason for parents to take legal action, Vinjevold said.

The department took into account the fact that different theories offered a variety of explanations on the origin of human beings. Evolution was one of such explanations and learners were not expected to believe it, but to see it as one school of thought, she said.

What kind of namby-pamby, bullshit response is that? Can you imagine if they were saying that no child would be compelled to “adopt” or “defend” or “subscribe” to the theory of gravity? That different theories offered a variety of explanations for why masses were attracted to each other, but gravity was only one of such explanations and learners were not expected to believe it? The thought isn’t silly because the theory of gravity is somehow more solid or factual than evolution… it’s just because there isn’t a major world religion that believes the reason planets are attracted to each other, and we to them, is due to Intelligent Falling.

Spider-goat, spider-goat…

Posted in Colleagues/Work, Science on August 3, 2007 by moonflake

A question from a colleague today brought this one up. It just goes to show, sometimes truth is nearly as strange as fiction. My first instinct when reading this is “urban legend”:

I never would have believed it unless I had read it myself. Scientists have successfully genetically altered a goats embryo with the DNA of a spider. These genetically altered goats produced (mutated) in a laboratory are presently producing milk that is being used to make bullet-proof vests. The fibers contained in the spider goat’s milk are twice as strong as Kevlar!!! Can you imagine?

Everything screams gullible repetition of nonsense, from the URL to the style sheet to the use of multiple exclamation marks. But, source aside, it turns out this one actually true. Published in Science (Lazaris et al., 2002-01-18. Science. Vol. 295:472-476), developed at a company backed by the Canadian Department of National Defense, registered trademark… yep, these are all the clues that what we have here is a real product, and what distinguishes it from similar outlandish claims.

Nexia Biotechnology’s product BioSteel® has serious commercial, military and medical applications, and there is still a lot of work to be done in perfecting the process of creating actual material from the fibers once extracted from the milk. But it is certainly not a hoax.

Next, I think they should focus their keen genetic engineering on creating the spider-pig!

Stirred, but not shaken

Posted in Science on February 12, 2007 by moonflake

Andy M. linked me to a very interesting article on how scientists at Harvard University are doing very cool things with passing light through Bose-Einstein condensates, like slowing it to a snails pace, or stopping it and starting it somewhere else.
For those of you not familiar with Bose-Einstein condensates, a short lesson: in the 1920s Albert Einstein, building on the work of Satyendra Nath Bose, postulated that at extreme cold, close to absolute zero, a new state of matter would exist. In 1995 this matter was created for the first time, by Eric Cornell and Carl Wieman, a discovery that earned them the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001. The awesome thing with Bose-Einstein condensates is that they display quantum mechanical properties on a macroscopic scale, leading to all sorts of fun. One of these fun things is that if you are light, a Bose-Einstein condensate behaves like molasses.

The thing that bugs me about the article is the opening statement:

Lene Hau has already shaken scientists’ beliefs about the nature of things. Albert Einstein and just about every other physicist insisted that light travels 186,000 miles a second in free space, and that it can’t be speeded-up or slowed down. But in 1998, Hau, for the first time in history, slowed light to 38 miles an hour, about the speed of rush-hour traffic.

It’s unbelievably misleading. Yes, Hau slowed light to a never-before reached speed (or lack thereof), but not in free space. She did it in a material. And as anyone who has done any science at all already knows, it’s nothing new that light slows in a material. Nothing has been shaken. Every scientists does still insist that light in free space can’t be sped up or slowed down. It’s an utterly irrelevant statement.

Anyway, as interesting as it is, it will be a long time before it has any kind of practical application. The material is incredibly fragile, it has to be cooled to temperatures measured in nanokelvin before it even exists, and we can currently only make a few million atoms at a time under very carefully controlled conditions. Still, it’s fun to think about the applications, as some scientists are proving. As one website points out, it’s as if 400 years ago a giant iceberg washed up in Tahiti – what would a native Tahitian do with an iceberg, or think of ice, if they’d never seen it before? That’s what BEC is to us now, and that’s really kinda cool (pun intended).

Friday afternoon grab-bag

Posted in Humour, Science, Time Waste on January 5, 2007 by moonflake

Go check out the Bad Astronomer’s list of the top 10 astronomy images of 2006 – it’s a tribute to human endeavour, human creativity, and the awe-inspiring cosmos. Seriously, who needs gods?

Found a great site where you can put people On Notice, courtesy of Pharyngula. Love it.

On Notice

And this image, also courtesy of Pharyngula, had me in hysterics:

Tsunamis and Global Warming