Weekly Roundup

One in four Americans believes that the sun revolves around the Earth, according to the results of a NSF survey presented at the recent AAAS meeting. But according to Time magazine, Europeans fared even worse on that question, with one in three responding incorrectly.

Despite an outpouring of protest and offers of rehousing, Copenhagen Zoo killed its “surplus” male giraffe Marius, and then performed a public autopsy with children in the audience. Meat from the corpse was fed to the zoo’s lions. Marius’ death has sparked discussion on the ethics of zoo conservation, with some blaming the zoo’s actions on Denmark’s pragmatic culture.

The health outcomes of people living in food deserts, areas without access to fresh food and which have prompted healthy eating initiatives, aren’t improved by improving access to fresh food; some researchers even believe food deserts aren’t the issue but that the cumulative stress (allostatic load) caused by long-term poverty is responsible for illness. Nutrition is a confusing field with a ”dysfunctional research establishment.” All we know without a doubt is that Americans really love pizza.

A report commissioned by The Beer Store, Ontario’s beer retailer, claims that beer would become more expensive if customers could purchase it at convenience stores. But the author of a previous study commissioned by the Ontario Convenience Store Association disagrees.

Bill Nye, The Science Guy debated Ken Ham, young-Earth creationist and head of the Creation Museum, on the question “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern, scientific era?” The entire debate can be viewed on YouTube. While some in the scientific community welcomed the publicity, others claimed that Nye lost by showing up. Post-debate, creationists provided answers to evolutionist issues raised at the debate, while Buzzfeed collected questions from creationists which have been tackled by quite a few bloggers.

Some sciences are just harder than others: a new study in the  Interdisciplinary Journal on Research and Religion claims that social science professors are more religious and politically extreme than their counterparts in the natural sciences, and that the difference is due to the higher intelligence of the natural scientists, thanks to the correlation of both religiosity and political extremism with lower intelligence. [via Marginal Revolution]

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Weekly Roundup

What should a first-semester, first-year, part-time, mature psychology MA student do upon discovering faulty math in an extremely popular paper in American Psychologist claiming that complex fluid dynamics proves that a ratio of 2.9013 positive to negative emotions is the tipping point for human flourishing? Well, if you’re Nick Brown, you team up with Alan Sokal and psychologist Harris Friedman and publish a takedown in the same journal.

GoldieBlox, the engineering toy designed for girls that we’ve written about before, won Intuit’s Small Business, Big Game contest, beating thousands of competitors. Here‘s their prize: a professionally-produced commercial.

It’s been a bad week for the organic food movement: a PLOS One study sponsored by the organic milk industry claiming that the fat profile of organic milk is better for your heart has been debunked, and Slate published an analysis of the pesticide risks of feeding children regular produce, concluding that they are not significant.

After the passage of a comprehensive Child Rights Law in the United Arab Emirates, it is now illegal to not breastfeed your baby. [via Jezebel]

Much has been written about Stephen Hawking’s black hole U-turn, prompted by his submission of a paper to arXiv claiming that “there are no black holes.” But as PopMech points out, Hawking’s quote continues with “—in the sense of regimes from which light can’t escape to infinity. There are, however, apparent horizons which persist for a period of time”: Hawking is weighing in on a debate about event horizons. And to top it off, the Borowitz Report posted a satirical column wherein Michelle Bachman claims that Hawking’s reversal means we shouldn’t believe climate or evolutionary science, which quickly went viral. [via Gizmodo]

Children’s “weight fate” may be set as early as kindergarten: according to a new study in the New England Journal of Medicine, overweight 5-year-olds are much more likely to be overweight as teenagers.

Fighting a straw snowman: in a curious piece at Scientific American, The truth about “wind chill”: Does it even really exist? Mark Fischetti argues that “wind chill is not real” because skin temperature would never fall to reported wind chill levels, then goes into the details of the perceivable phenomenon. [via Salon]

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Prediction Markets for Science: Preliminary Review and Thoughts

Mike Thicke

Science is often heralded as the pinnacle of rational inquiry: the premier method of acquiring truth about the world, and the standard against which all other methods of investigation should be judged. However, this has not immunized science from charges of irrationality and bias. From Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, to sociologists of science such as Barry Barnes and Bruno Latour, to present-day critical “skeptics” of climate science or Darwinian evolution, science seems to be under continual attack as a source of reliable, objective knowledge. Nevertheless, few argue that there is any better option. Current critics of modern Darwinian theory, for instance, do not claim that science has nothing to tell us about human origins, but rather claim that their methodology—intelligent design theory—is the true way of doing science. Similarly, global warming skeptics do not claim that science has nothing to tell us about the Earth’s climate, but rather claim that the purported scientific consensus around global warming is false and that an objective scientific assessment of the evidence does not support the “consensus” position. Debates today are not over whether science should be done, but how it should be done, and who is really doing science (Brown 2009).

It might come as a surprise, then, that there is a rival epistemic system to science that claims not just to avoid science’s vulnerability to ideological bias, but to react to new information both correctly and (nearly) instantaneously. That system is, of course, the market.

This post contains some of my initial research and thoughts on the use of a particular kind of market—the prediction market—within science. For some areas of science that involve widely dispersed knowledge and relatively concrete empirical predictions, such as climate science, prediction markets have many appealing features for improving research practices. They also offer potential alternative structures for funding scientific research. However, there are many reasons to be skeptical of proposals to integrate prediction markets into science. Some of these reasons are linked to the structure of markets in general, while others are specific to prediction markets or prediction markets for scientific facts. A more full discussion of prediction markets and science will form a chapter of my dissertation.

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Weekly Roundup

Why do dogs romp in the snow? Because it’s fun, of course!

Acclaimed biologist Lewis Wolpert has apologized for using the unattributed work of published papers, websites, and Wikipedia in his 2011 popular science book on ageing, You’re Looking Very Well, which has now been withdrawn by his publisher Faber & Faber. Wolpert, in his 80s, also included unattributed material in a not-yet-published manuscript, Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man? This case joins other recent high-profile cases including Jane Goodall’s Seeds of Hope (plagiarism) and Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works (quote fabrication).

A new study in PNAS links metabolism and lifespan in mammals, attributing primates’ longevity to differences in energy usage.

Puberty at 5? “Precocious” is right.

Dick Swaab, a neurobiologist from Amsterdam University, presented controversial results from his new book We Are Our Brains on mothers’ lifestyle choices and infants’ development (including their sexuality and IQ) in an interview with the Sunday Times (paywall-protected; summarized in the Telegraph). Swaab’s description of homosexuality, along with lower IQ and autism, as the result of fetal exposure to toxins, is troubling to some.

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Weekly Roundup

Experts are divided on whether our mobile technologies isolate us or bring us together.

The Doomsday Clock is still at 5 minutes to midnight; the same rating as 2007, 2012, and last year.

We’re not eating our vegetables, and those unhealthy habits at home contribute to obesity even more than fast food does. But reaching for the diet soda is no remedy, as overweight adults choosing sugar-free drinks tend to eat more.

Do you hate applying for grants? With this proposed decentralized alternative, scientists would crowd-fund each other’s work while enjoying a fixed annual research stipend. [via Marginal Revolution]

Charter schools, which operate independently but receive public funding, are subverting the separation of church and state with “stealth creationism” and other agendas of the religious right, reports Zach Kopplin for Slate.

Archeologists describe Roman headhunting taking place in Britain around the 2nd century AD, based on improved forensic work on skulls recovered in London in 1988.

The best part of waking up is remembering what happened yesterday: caffeine ingested after a study session improved subjects’ retention after 24 hours.

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Weekly Roundup

Libricide”: After pledging to close numerous important Canadian scientific archives and collections, the Harper Government has destroyed their contents. The large-scale burning and dumping of material was not preceded by the promised digitization effort, according to many scientists.

Casual sit-down eateries may be worse, or at least no better, than fast-food restaurants; their offerings are high in calories, saturated fat, and sodium, according to a new paper in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. You can listen to the journal’s interview with lead author Amy H. Auchincloss here [via Jezebel]

Requirements that workers obtain a doctor’s note when they are sick strain the health care system and put others at risk of illness, especially during flu season, argues the president of the Ontario Medical Association.

NPR describes how a Canadian fruit company, Okanagan Specialty Fruits, have developed Arctic® non-browning GM apples in Granny Smith and Golden Delicious varieties; these apples have no need for antioxidant preservatives when sold in packaged slices and will substantially reduce costs. But other apple producers are concerned that apples will lose their “natural” reputation, resulting in anti-GMO customers avoid apples completely.

In a personal essay, Amy Parker describes the perils of her unvaccinated childhood in the 70s, arguing that if medical and public health evidence in favour of vaccines have not swayed the anti-vaxx movement and its correlative anecdotes, pro-vaxx anecdotes may help fight fire with fire. [via Slate]

Tiger Mother” and Yale law professor Amy Chua has a forthcoming book coauthored with her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, employing “specious stats and anecdotal evidence” to argue that certain cultural groups are better than others. The titular Triple Package refers to the trifecta of superiority, insecurity, and impulse control that lead to economic, political, and cultural power.

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Weekly Roundup – Happy New Year Edition

It’s been a big year on the science front, and that means taking stock:

In the face of strong criticism, including a condemnation from the American Association of University Professors, the Kansas Board of Regents has reconsidered its new social media policy for public university professors. The decision made employees’ “improper” posts on social media (defined widely as “any facility for online publication and commentary, including but not limited to blogs, wikis, and social networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube”) a fireable offence. Worryingly, any communication deemed “contrary to the best interest of the university” could fall under this policy, which was prompted by University of Kansas tenured professor David W. Guth’s incendiary anti-NRA tweet in light of the Washington Navy Yard shooting; Guth was temporarily suspended. The decision has led to much debate over professors’ freedom of speech; reflexively, KSU English professor Philip Nel pointed out that even his blogging about the situation could be construed as grounds for termination.

Dolphin teens, always up to no good, “deliberately get high” from chewing on pufferfish.

Dogs prefer to poop along Earth’s north-south magnetic field.

Do plants think? Michael Pollan explores research in the controversial field of “plant neurobiology” in an essay for the New Yorker. [via kottke]

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Weekly Roundup – Supersized Preholiday Edition

Google honoured pioneering computer scientist Grace Hopper in an animated doodle. In addition to creating COBOL, Hopper was the first to describe a (literal) “computer bug,” which you can spot at the end of the animation.

Overweight? Blame your cul-de-sac: Here’s an excerpt from Charles Montgomery’s new book Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design.

Chimpanzees have been denied legal personhood in three lawsuits filed in New York courts by the Nonhuman Rights Project. Wired gives us some context with a history of animals’ status.

A NASA satellite has pegged a ridge in the East Antarctic Plateau as the coldest place on Earth, where it falls below -92°C.

Neuroscientist Dr. James Fallon discovered that his own brain pattern matches those of his psychopathic subjects.

The new Nobel prize winner in physiology or medicine, biologist Randy Schekman, announced that his lab will boycott the “tyranny” of “luxury” journals Nature, Cell, and Science. Fortunately, there are open-access alternatives, including eLIFE, which coincidentally is edited by Schekman.

A widely-publicized study purporting to confirm many stereotyped differences in the structure of male and female brains, has been criticized by neuroscientists, been described as “neurosexism,” and prompted a more nuanced look at the real evidence for gender differences.

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Anthropogenic Warming Is Part of the ‘Hard Core’ of Climate Science

Mike Thicke

The party line of climate change skeptics these days is that global warming has paused, or even reversed, in the last 15 years. According to the Nongovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Global temperatures stopped rising 15 years ago despite rising levels of carbon dioxide, the invisible gas the IPCC claims is responsible for causing global warming.” Typical denialist refusal to accept the facts, right? Perhaps not! A recent paper in Geophysical Research Letters explains, “Although the Mount Pinatubo eruption in 1991 caused a short-term reduction in TOA radiation, increasing greenhouse gases should have led to increasing warming. However, sea surface temperature (SST) increases stalled in the 2000s and this is also reflected in upper ocean heat content (OHC) for the top 700 m in several analyses.”1 Despite this apparent anomaly, however, climate scientists have not been jumping ship from their consensus position that anthropogenic global warming is occurring.

Diagram of apparent 'missing heat'. Courtesy Science, via https://www2.ucar.edu/atmosnews/news/2013/missing-heat-may-affect-future-climate-change

Diagram of apparent ‘missing heat’. Courtesy Science, via https://www2.ucar.edu/atmosnews/news/2013/missing-heat-may-affect-future-climate-change

Skeptics see this lack of response as evidence of liberal bias or even conspiracy, but I think there is a much more compelling explanation: anthropogenic warming is part of the hard core of climate science. That is, the AGW claim is not subject to revision, and so when anomalies occur—when observations fail to meet predictions—other components of climate science must be revised to preserve it.

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  1. Magdalena A. Balmaseda, Keven E. Trenberth, and Erland Kälén, “Distinctive climate signals in reanalysis of global ocean heat content,” Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 40 (2013), 1754.
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Weekly Roundup

GoldieBlox, the celebrated toy series designed to introduce girls to engineering and to combat “pinkification,” have removed their parody song of the Beastie Boys’ hit “Girls” from their viral video of an anti-princess Rube Goldberg machine after the band complained following GoldieBlox’s preemptive fair-use lawsuit. Meanwhile, engineers have claimed that the toys are boring and poorly made, and the toy line has been criticized for enforcing gender stereotypes in the stories accompanying the construction sets. Slate suggests the best gender-neutral alternatives but admits GoldieBlox isn’t so bad.

23andme, the provider of a saliva-based DNA test kit for individuals, has been ordered by the FDA in an open letter to cease all sales after the latter ruled the corporation had begun marketing the kit as a medical device.

Biologists have discovered a new organ in the throats of koalas responsible for their deep mating calls.

Nature reports that the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology have retracted their most downloaded paper, a controversial 2012 study linking Monsanto’s GM maize and their Roundup herbicide to increased tumors in rats.

Waking earlier is linked to both high school and career success, but since night owls and early risers have differently-structured brains, the solution may be more complicated than simply setting an earlier alarm.

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