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Published: Sun, 25 Feb 2018 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Sun, 25 Feb 2018 01:12:05 -0500


Trump Recycles False Claim that Video Gaming Causes School Shootings

Thu, 22 Feb 2018 16:15:00 -0500

A day after the post-Parkland listening session at the White House, President Donald Trump trotted out the inaccurate and simplistic suggestion that playing violent video games contributes to school shootings. The president expressed his concern about the effects of what kids are seeing on the internet and then observed, "And also video games. I'm hearing more and more say the violence of video games is really shaping young people's thoughts." Let's be clear about two things. First, as the popularity of video games has grown, the rate of violent crime has plummeted. Second, most scientific studies do not find a significant connection between video violence and real violence. A new survey by Pew Research finds that nearly every kid in America plays video games. A 2016 survey by Statista found that 27.5 and 22.5 percent of video games sold in the U.S. were shooter and action games, respectively. Meanwhile, the violent crime rate has fallen by nearly 50 percent since 1990. What do scientific studies have to say about violent video games' effects on players? In 2015, an American Psychological Association task force claimed that "Violent video game play is linked to increased aggression in players but insufficient evidence exists about whether the link extends to criminal violence or delinquency." Even that went too far: In an analysis published this month of how the task force reached its conclusion, psychologists Allen Copenhaver and Christopher Ferguson found that "the Task Force appeared to be 'stacked' with members who had publically taken antivideo game positions in the past...without this being balanced with more skeptical scholars." In fact, studies failing to find a link between playing violent video games and violence in the real world continue to stack up. For example, a new paper in the journal NeuroSignals set out to measure empathic responses to viewing painful stimuli; it found no difference in the brain scans of people who did or didn't play violent video games. "We did not find any evidence for desensitization in the empathy network for pain in the violent video game group at any time point," report the researchers. "The present results provide strong evidence against the frequently proclaimed negative effects of playing violent video games and will therefore help to communicate a more realistic scientific perspective of the effects of violent video gaming in real life." A new commentary by Ferguson suggests that researchers who insist that violent video games heighten real life aggression are falling prey to confirmation bias. So is there a link between violent video games and infamy shooters—that is, fame-seeking mass shooters? The Villanova psychologist Patrick Markey tells USA Today, "All we can really say for sure is that there does not appear to be a link at this time between violent video games and school shootings. And if there is a link, it goes in the opposite direction." Markey, co-author of the 2017 book Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games Is Wrong, reports that only about 20 percent of school shooters play video games, compared with about 70 percent of high school students overall. Copenhaver and Ferguson agree with Clay Calvert and Robert Richards' contention that "it will take a generation of future politicians 'weaned' on violent video games to come to the conclusion that violent video games are not harmful to young people." President Trump is clearly not a member of that generation.[...]

Facts Matter After All

Wed, 03 Jan 2018 15:25:00 -0500

The scientific fact that facts don't matter turns out to be factually wrong. Sorry, let me try to put that more clearly. In a superb article at Slate, Daniel Engber revisits the research that concluded that blind partisanship and motivated reasoning are pervasive and that everyone seeks out "facts" that comport with what they already believe. Worse yet, those studies suggested that when highly ideological people are provided simultaneously with misinformation—that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, that vaccines are unsafe, that Barack Obama is a Muslim—and with corrections to the falsehoods, that paradoxically reinforces their prior belief in the false information. In other words, the correction "backfires." But as Engber reports, scientists have had trouble replicating the research that purported to reveal a post-truth world. Facts turn out to matter after all. Engber cites a new study, "The Elusive Backfire Effect," soon to appear in the journal Political Behavior. The researchers tested more than 10,000 subjects for backfire responses to corrections of 52 factually wrong statements made by various politicians. The factually wrong statements included Hillary Clinton's claim that gun violence is spiraling; Barack Obama's assertion that discrimination is the sole cause of the gender wage gap; Donald Trump's charge that Mexican immigrants engage disproportionately in criminal behavior; and Ted Cruz's declaration that violence against police officers is rising. After running their experiments, the researchers report: Across all experiments, we found no corrections capable of triggering backfire, despite testing precisely the kinds of polarized issues where backfire should be expected. Evidence of factual backfire is far more tenuous than prior research suggests. By and large, citizens heed factual information, even when such information challenges their ideological commitments. Slate also points to some as-yet-unpublished research on backfire by two psychology graduate students, Andrew Guess and Alexander Coppock. Guess and Coppock showed subjects evidence about the effects of capital punishment, minimum wage increases, and gun control. The results? Across three studies, we find no evidence of the phenomenon [of backfire]. Pro-capital-punishment evidence tends to make subjects more supportive of the death penalty and to strengthen their beliefs in its deterrent efficacy. Evidence that the death penalty increases crime does the opposite, while inconclusive evidence does not cause significant shifts in attitudes or beliefs. Arguments about the minimum wage likewise move respondents in the direction of evidence—toward supporting a higher or a lower dollar amount according to the slant of the evidence presented in the video treatments. Finally, evidence that gun control decreases gun violence makes people more supportive while evidence that it increases violence does the opposite. In other words, people do pay attention to evidence even when it cuts against their pre-existing beliefs. Engber notes that there has been considerable academic resistance to publishing research that questions the pervasiveness of the backfire effect: I asked Coppock: Might there be echo chambers in academia, where scholars keep themselves away from new ideas about the echo chamber? And what if presenting evidence against the backfire effect itself produced a sort of backfire? "I really do believe my finding," Coppock said. "I think other people believe me, too." But if his findings were correct, then wouldn't all those peer reviewers have updated their beliefs in support of his conclusion? He paused for a moment. "In a way," he said, "the best evidence against our paper is that it keeps getting rejected." Engber concludes, "It's time we came together to reject this bogus story and the ersatz science of post-truth. If we can agree on anything it should be this: The end of facts is not a fact." As a journalist who has always believed that facts do matter and does his best to report on science and p[...]

Public Ignorance and GMO Foods

Thu, 28 Dec 2017 15:16:00 -0500

In a recent Washington Post op ed, Purdue University president and former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels highlights the dangers of the campaign to ban or severely restrict genetically modified (GMO) foods: Of the several claims of "anti-science" that clutter our national debates these days, none can be more flagrantly clear than the campaign against modern agricultural technology, most specifically the use of molecular techniques to create genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Here, there are no credibly conflicting studies, no arguments about the validity of computer models, no disruption of an ecosystem nor any adverse human health or even digestive problems, after 5 billion acres have been cultivated cumulatively and trillions of meals consumed.... Today, their scientific successors are giving birth to a new set of miracles in plant production and animal husbandry that cannot only feed the world's growing billions but do so in far more sustainable, environmentally friendly ways. And though the new technologies are awe-inspiring, they are just refinements of cruder techniques that have been used for centuries. Given the emphatic or, as some like to say, "settled" nature of the science, one would expect a united effort to spread these life-saving, planet-sparing technologies as fast as possible to the poorer nations who will need them so urgently. Instead, we hear demands that developing countries forgo the products that offer them the best hope of joining the well-fed, affluent world.... For the rich and well-fed to deny Africans, Asians or South Americans the benefits of modern technology is not merely anti-scientific. It's cruel, it's heartless, it's inhumane — and it ought to be confronted on moral grounds that ordinary citizens, including those who have been conned into preferring non-GMO Cheerios, can understand. Reason science writer Ron Bailey has some additional thoughts on Daniels' op ed and the enormous benefits of GMO foods here; see also this helpful review of the evidence by William Saletan of Slate. The point is not that all GMO foods are always good for you, but that there is no reason to treat GMO products as a class differently from more conventional food supplies. As Bailey and Daniels note, the scientific consensus holding that GMO foods are no more dangerous than "natural" ones has not prevented large parts of the general public from concluding that GMO foods are somehow problematic, and should be either banned or severely restricted. Fear of GMO foods is part of the more general problem of widespread political and scientific ignorance. For example, surveys indicate that some 80 percent of Americans support the idea of mandatory labeling of "foods containing DNA," (see also here), even though DNA is the basic genetic building block of life, and is contained in nearly all foods. Not surprisingly, the percentage that believe DNA worthy of mandatory warnings is very similar to the percentage (84 percent) who endorse mandatory labeling of foods "produced with genetic engineering." Much of what I said in my 2015 analysis of the DNA question is readily applicable to the ongoing debate over GMO foods: The [DNA] survey result is probably an example of the intersection between scientific ignorance and political ignorance, both of which are widespread. The most obvious explanation for the data is that most of these people don't really understand what DNA is, and don't realize that it is contained in almost all food. When they read that a strange substance called "DNA" might be included in their food, they might suspect that this is some dangerous chemical inserted by greedy corporations for their own nefarious purposes. Polls repeatedly show that much of the public is often ignorant of both basic scientific facts, and basic facts about government and public policy. Just before the 2014 elections, which determined control of Congress, only 38 percent realized that the Republicans controlled the House of Representatives before the election, and the s[...]

How Open-Access Journals Are Transforming Science

Thu, 30 Nov 2017 17:46:00 -0500

Michael Eisen's goal is to change the way scientific findings are disseminated. Most research papers today are locked behind paywalls, and access can cost hundreds of dollars per article. The general public, and most scientists, don't have comprehensive access to the most up-to-date research, even though much of it is funded by U.S. taxpayers. "It's a completely ridiculous system," says Eisen, an acclaimed biologist at UC Berkeley, an independent candidate for Senate in California running against Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D), and a co-founder of the Public Library of Science, or PLOS, which publishes some of the largest and most prestigious academic journals in the world. These publications stand out for another reason: They're open access, meaning that anyone with an internet connection can read them for free. PLOS seeks to break up the academic publishing cartel, and it's a leading force in the so-called open science movement, which aims to give the public access to cutting-edge research and democratize scientific progress. This movement became widely publicized after famed hacker and Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz sought to upend the publishing system by uploading millions of articles for free; he was prosecuted relentlessly, and ultimately committed suicide in 2013. Eisen first thought he could simply convince his fellow scientists to start uploading their work, but that didn't work because universities and funding agencies use journals as a proxy for quality. They base tenure and award decisions in large part on how many articles a researcher publishes, and on the reputations of the publishers. To encourage a switch in researchers' thinking, PLOS's first journal, PLOS Biology, attempted to emulate what Eisen describes as the "snooty" journals such as Science and Nature, which generate prestige in part by rejecting most submitted papers. PLOS Biology became well regarded and provided a proof of concept for PLOS's model, in which funding agencies or universities pay a flat fee up front (typically $1,500, but adjusted based on ability to pay) that's then made accessible for free. The multidisciplinary journal PLOS ONE, created in 2006, used this same model to become the largest academic publication in the world, though it's been surpassed by other open access sources. PLOS ONE puts papers through a fairly typical peer review process, but it doesn't ask editors to determine a paper's importance; the journal will publish any study that follows sound science and reports its data. According to Eisen, this model encourages more thorough experiments, rather than flashy results that aren't reproducible, and allows readers to determine whether a particular study is important and valid. Reason spoke with Eisen at the BioHack the Planet Conference in Oakland, a gathering for DIY scientists known as biohackers who eschew traditional research institutions. They often carry out experiments in garage labs and share their raw findings on the internet in real time, a publishing model to which Eisen believes all scientists should aspire. Eisen also discussed why scientists and universities continue to prop up the academic publishing monopoly, how scientific progress suffers from the current regime, why he's running for senate as an independent, why he beleives political parties are obsolete, and the way forward for the open science movement. Produced by Justin Monticello. Cameras by Alexis Garcia and Monticello. Music by Silent Partner, Vibe Tracks, and MK2. Subscribe to our YouTube channel. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. Subscribe to our podcast at iTunes. This is a rush transcript. Check all quotes against the audio for accuracy. Michael Eisen: Labs get hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars that come in from the public. After they write up what they've discovered, if you're a member of the public and you want to get access to it, you quite often have to pay again to get access to it. So, it's a completely ridiculous system. When the inte[...]

Ban on Abortion Because of Down Syndrome Clears Ohio Legislature

Fri, 17 Nov 2017 12:12:00 -0500

(image) Both houses of the Ohio General Assembly have approved making it illegal for women to get abortions because a fetus is found to have Down Syndrome. If the law, as expected, is approved by Republican Gov. John Kasich, Ohio will become the third state to do so.

"Do we want in the state of Ohio to have people making a decision that someone is less valuable because of a chromosomal disorder that they have," state Sen. Frank LaRose (R-Hudson), who recently lost his bid to become Ohio secretary of state, asked during an explanation of his sponsorship of the senate measure for WOSU radio.

Laws like the one LaRose championed are largely symbolic measures (like state bans on sex-selective abortion). Women aren't required to provide a reason to terminate a pregnancy and doctors aren't required to test for Down Syndrome, or anything else, before performing an abortion.

Choosing to abort fetuses found to have genetic abnormalities does not, despite LaRose's grim takeaway, mean that people place less value on the lives of people with these conditions. Many potential parents know they don't have the financial, emotional, or other resources required to raise a special-needs child. And without people lining up to adopt or otherwise take care of these children, that's what we're asking prospective parents of fetuses with Down Syndrome to do.

It's admirable that many families do choose to do it (and of course for many people, religious or moral beliefs mean there's no other option for them). But it's not the state's place to impose this choice on pregnant women and their families. Forcing it on people does not seem likely to produce healthy outcomes or situations in the best interest of the children involved.

Three Ohio Republican senators joined their Democratic colleagues in voting against the Down Syndrome abortion ban. Republican Sen. Matt Dolan (R-Chagrin Falls) told WOSU that he thinks the bill is constitutionally questionable and will also have unintended consequences.

"If we're going to introduce law that says the patient and doctor's conversation with each other could lead to some liability, I think what we're going to see is reduced conversation," Dolan said.

Democrats added two amendments included in the Senate bill: one saying that no public money would go to defending the ban it court should it be challenged and one saying women should not have to say why they are getting an abortion. "It's ironic," said Sen. Charleta Tavares (D-Columbus), "that those who claim they believe in limited government are once again choosing to insert themselves in a relationship that is sacred between that practitioner and their patient."

Disability advocates have had mixed reactions to the bill. Some are opposed because singling out Down Syndrome, but allowing abortions motivated by other genetic conditions or fetal abnormalities, suggests the lives of people with those conditions are less valuable.

A Professor Whose Renewable Energy Claims Are Challenged Sues For Libel

Fri, 10 Nov 2017 10:36:00 -0500

Whatever happened to robust, open scientific debate? Stanford University professor Mark Jacobson, whose research argues the U.S. power grid could run exclusively on renewable energy by 2050, is taking his critics to court. Jacobson filed a $10 million libel lawsuit in September against Chris Clack, a mathematician and chief executive of Vibrant Clean Energy, and the National Academy of Sciences, after the Academy published an article by Clack and 20 co-authors criticizing the 2015 study. The co-authors are not named in the suit. "We find that their analysis involves errors, inappropriate methods, and implausible assumptions," the Clack team wrote. "Their study does not provide credible evidence for rejecting the conclusions of previous analyses." Reason's Ron Bailey agreed with the Clack team's conclusion that "the analysis performed [by Jacobson and his team] does not support the claim that such a system would perform at reasonable cost and provide reliable power." Bailey's piece also points out Jacobson's study was originally published by the academy he is now suing. Libel is a form of defamation through writing, pictures, or any other print media. In lawsuits of this kind involving public officials, actual malice or an intent to defame is required for a guilty verdict. Libel lawsuits involving private individuals require only proof of negligence. Professors who are particularly well-known or employed by a major university are sometimes considered public figures. It is so far unclear how a D.C. Superior Court will classify Jacobson. For the sake of scientific integrity, let's hope the court finds no merit in Jacobson's lawsuit, regardless of his classification. David Victor, one Clack's co-authors and the co-director of the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation at University of California-San Diego, told the San Diego Union-Tribune, "It is unfortunate that Mark Jacobson has decided to pursue this legally as opposed to openly, in the scientific tradition." Environmental Progress, a research and policy organization advocating for sustainable energy, called the lawsuit an "appalling attack on free speech and scientific inquiry." "What Jacobson has done is unprecedented. Scientific disagreements must be decided not in court but rather through the scientific process," Michael Shellenberger, founder and president of Environmental Progress, wrote. If Jacobson proves successful, he sets a dangerous precedent. It would have a chilling effect on future academic research and hinder scientific innovation and advancement. How can progress be made if ideas are not given rigorous, peer-reviewed scrutiny? By taking his critics to court, Jacobson is telling the world his ideas cannot be challenged, echoing the argument for "settled science" deployed in the debate over climate change. Claiming certain ideas "settled" and therefore out of bounds from any criticism is a surefire way to feed confirmation bias. What incentive is there to add to or challenge the evidence of a scientific theory if that idea can't be challenged? The truth is best found through open debate, not by silencing your critics with lawsuits.[...]

Neil deGrasse Tyson, Nipple Slips, and the Fall of Jeff Flake

Fri, 27 Oct 2017 17:35:00 -0400

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I joined the latest episode of Bold TV as Carrie Sheffield's guest co-host, to pepper Neil de Grasse Tyson with nerd questions, explain why I think Janet Jackson should sneak into the Super Bowl, and also to lambast the Republican Party for swapping Jeff Flake with the deplorable Roy Moore. (Reason recently parodied Tyson's "Cosmos" with "Our Amazing Debt," although the spoof didn't seem to rankle him.)

Neil came to promote his book Astrophysics for People In a Hurry at the half hour mark. We managed to ask him some decent science-related questions before veering to the prospects of life on other planets, the unforeseen celebrity effect of Donald Trump, and why we should all be very skeptical of Deepak Chopra.

At the eighteen minute mark I have an exchange with conservative Ben Weingarten and's Jeremy Binckes about Jeff Flake's departure from the Republican Party, and its warm embrace of Roy Moore. During the exchange I suggest that the GOP has lost whatever value it once possessed and we might as well scuttle it and reboot the Whigs.

Carrie and I also spoke with director Jason Hall about his new film, Thank You For Your Service, how vets get PTSD, why hollow phrases don't help them, and Amy Schumer's newfound conversion to dramatic acting.

Potheads Have Hotter Sex Lives

Fri, 27 Oct 2017 14:59:00 -0400

(image) For the Friday afternoon files: new research has discovered that regular marijuana users have sex more regularly than their non-toking counterparts.

The study, from Stanford University's School of Medicine, found that (heterosexual) folks who smoked marijuana daily had roughly 20 percent more sex than non-marijuana users. "The overall trend we saw applied to people of both sexes and all races, ages, education levels, income groups and religions, every health status, whether they were married or single and whether they had kids," said senior study author Michael Eisenberg, an assistant professor of urology at Stanford.

The data Eisenberg and his team used comes from a large Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey of Americans age 15-49. Answers from around 28,000 women and 23,000 men were considered for their study, which was published online today in the Journal of Sexual Medicine.

Women who smoked pot daily had sex with a male partner 7.1 times per month, compared to 6 times per month for women who didn't smoke pot, according to the new study. Male pot users reported an average 6.9 sexual encounters with women per month, compared to 5.6 times per month for men who don't smoke pot.

While the findings don't necessarily show that marijuana use causes an increase in sex drive, they counter a longstanding idea that smoking pot will depress sexual desire or ability.

"Frequent marijuana use doesn't seem to impair sexual motivation or performance," said Eisenberg. "If anything, it's associated with increased coital frequency."

Researchers found the frequency of sex rose steadily with the frequency of marijuana use. This trend held even when researchers accounted for other drug use by participants.

Are Stoned Motorists Driving Amok in Post-Legalization Colorado?

Wed, 25 Oct 2017 15:50:00 -0400

The latest report on marijuana legalization in Colorado from the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (RMHIDTA), published this month, features all the usual tricks aimed at portraying that policy change as a disastrous mistake, including a misleading presentation of data on traffic fatalities. RMHIDTA, a federally supported anti-drug agency that is determined to paint legalization in a negative light (which it is legally required to do, as NORML's Paul Armentano points out), wants people to believe Colorado's roads are full of dangerously stoned drivers, who are maiming and killing people left and right. But the numbers it uses to create that impression are not an accurate measure of the harm caused by marijuana-impaired motorists. "Marijuana-related traffic deaths when a driver tested positive for marijuana more than doubled from 55 deaths in 2013 to 123 deaths in 2016," the report says. "Marijuana-related traffic deaths increased 66 percent in the four-year average (2013-2016) since Colorado legalized recreational marijuana compared to the four-year average (2009-2012) prior to legalization." But contrary to what you might think, "marijuana-related" does not necessarily mean related to marijuana. "This report will cite datasets with terms such as 'marijuana-related' or 'tested positive for marijuana,'" a note at the end of the introduction says. "That does not necessarily prove that marijuana was the cause of the incident." In the case of car crashes, drivers who "test positive for marijuana" include people whose blood contains inactive metabolites or THC levels too low to cause impairment. RMHIDTA muddies this point with a quote from a Denver Post story published last August: "In 2016, of the 115 drivers in fatal wrecks who tested positive for marijuana use, 71 were found to have Delta 9 tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, in their blood, indicating use within hours, according to state data. Of those, 63 percent were over 5 nanograms per milliliter, the state's limit for driving." Another way of putting that: Most of the drivers (61 percent) either had no active THC in their blood or had less than five nanograms per milliliter, which is the level at which Colorado juries may infer that a driver was impaired. That inference, which is rebuttable, will often be mistaken, as many people are perfectly capable of driving safely at THC blood levels far above Colorado's arbitrary cutoff. In other words, even the minority of "marijuana-positive" drivers who exceeded the five-nanogram THC threshold were not necessarily impaired at the time of the crash. Because of wide variation in how people respond to marijuana, there is no scientific basis for a rule that equates any particular THC blood level with impairment. The increase in "marijuana-positive" drivers since 2013 may reflect a genuine threat to public safety, or it may reflect general increases in cannabis consumption. As the number of Coloradans who use marijuana and the frequency with which they use it go up, so will the percentage of drivers whose blood contains traces of marijuana. That includes drivers involved in fatal crashes, even if marijuana played no role in those accidents. A new review of the research on marijuana and driving by University of Adelaide psychologist Michael White provides further reason to be cautious about making the assumption that RMHIDTA wants us to make. White's 145-page report focuses on 11 epidemiological studies that used active THC as a measure of marijuana exposure, excluding studies that treated drivers with inactive metabolites in their blood as if they were under the influence. After taking into account various sources of bias and confounding, he concludes "there is no good evidence" to support the hypothesis that marijuana use increases the risk of a car crash. "If [...]

Do Psychedelics Make People Less Likely to Commit Crimes?

Thu, 19 Oct 2017 14:00:00 -0400

People who have used psychedelics are less likely to commit property and violent crimes than people who haven't, according to a new analysis of data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). A press release from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where three of the study's four authors work, says these findings "suggest that treatments making use of classic psychedelics like psilocybin could well hold promise in reducing criminal behavior." Although I agree that psychedelic-assisted therapy looks promising based on other studies, this interpretation of the survey data seems dubious to me, mirroring the faulty logic of prohibitionists who assume that associations between drug use and antisocial behavior are causal. UAB psychologist Peter Hendricks and his colleagues looked at 13 years of NSDUH data and found that "lifetime classic psychedelic use [i.e., use of ayahuasca, dimethyltryptamine, LSD, mescaline, peyote or San Pedro cactus, or psilocybin mushrooms] was associated with a 27% decreased odds of past year larceny/theft, a 12% decreased odds of past year assault, a 22% decreased odds of past year arrest for a property crime, and an 18% decreased odds of past year arrest for a violent crime." That is after controlling for sex, race, education, income, marital status, religiosity, and several other potential confounding variables. Hendricks et al. say their results "were consistent with a protective effect of psilocybin for antisocial criminal behavior" and "contribute to a compelling rationale for the initiation of clinical research with classic psychedelics, including psilocybin, in forensic settings." They argue that the associations they found bolster the evidence from three studies conducted in the 1960s indicating that psychedelics might help rehabilitate criminal offenders: two LSD studies with tiny samples and one psilocybin study with a larger but still small sample. The latter study, known as the Concord Prison Experiment, was conducted by Timothy Leary. Hendricks et al. note that a 1998 review of the Concord Prison Experiment by Rick Doblin, executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, "concluded that these findings were overstated, inadequate support was provided outside of psilocybin sessions, and that serious methodological flaws preclude any conclusions." It is certainly worth trying to replicate those early, tentative findings. But so far the evidence that psychedelics curb criminal tendencies is thin, and the NSDUH results do not make it much thicker, because they could be due to pre-existing differences in the sort of people who are inclined to try psychedelics. Only 15 percent of Americans say they have tried psychedelics, and they are bound to be different from the 85 percent who haven't in ways that a) cannot be readily measured and b) may affect their propensity to commit crimes. In seems plausible, for instance, that they are, on average, more introspective, more patient, more tolerant, and more open to alternative perspectives, even before they have dropped acid, drunk ayahuasca, or eaten magic mushrooms. Hendricks et al. concede that cross-sectional data like the NSDUH results "limit causal inferences," that "a number of shared underlying or 'third' variables may be responsible for the associations reported here," and that "we could not evaluate potential mechanisms of action underlying the associations of classic psychedelic use with criminal behavior." The importance of those points becomes clearer when you consider what NSDUH tells us about people who use other illegal drugs, who unlike the psychedelic fans are more likely to commit property and violent crimes. Hendricks and his colleagues found that people who had tried heroin were almost twice as likely to be arrested for property crimes as p[...]

DIY Biohackers Are Editing Genes in Garages and Kitchens

Wed, 18 Oct 2017 11:30:00 -0400

"A biohacker for me is somebody who is doing something clever or interesting in biology," says Josiah Zayner, a molecular biophysicist who runs The ODIN, a company that sells do-it-yourself genetic engineering kits. "They're usually these people that have been fucked by the system who are trying to unfuck themselves." Zayner is one of the leading figures in the biohacking movement and is the main organizer of the BioHack the Planet Conference, a yearly gathering of citizen scientists. This year, over 100 members of the biohacking community met in Oakland, California to discuss a wide array of issues from at-home genetic engineering to questions on bioethics. Biohackers have often been compared to computer hackers of the 1980s, but instead of breaking into and manipulating information technology systems, they're focused on hacking living organisms with the hopes of curing illnesses and in some cases obtaining superhuman powers. Their shared mission is to put this technology into the hands of as many people as possible. "People should be able to use all the technologies that science develops," says Zayner. "It shouldn't just be patented and given to companies or exclusively given to certain people." These do-it-yourself biologists say the democratization of science has given them the freedom to do work on projects that are often ignored by larger institutions. They're using gene editing technologies like CRISPR to create personalized treatments for those suffering from rare diseases or cancer, reverse engineering pharmaceuticals like Epi-Pens so people can make their own medicine at home, and even creating glow in the dark beer. "I think this is the most exciting time thus far in the history of the world to be alive with respect to what we can and will do with life forms," says Hank Greely, the director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University. But breakthroughs in the world of biohacking are drawing more scrutiny from federal regulators. Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration began placing restrictions on non-human genetic modifications and declared that genetically edited animals must be classified as drugs. This gives the agency broad authority over a number of do-it-yourself genetics tests and requires experiments involving animals to go through the same vetting process as a new drug. "I guess they couldn't call them cosmetics and they couldn't call them foods, so they're like dogs are drugs," states David Ishee, a Mississippi canine breeder who is working on editing out genetic diseases in dogs. "Everybody's worried about what someone could do with this technology and nobody seems to care about the damage that not doing it will cause because these animals are dying." Increasing regulation could undermine biohacking breakthroughs for humans as well. "I'm a huge fan of deregulation because I believe in the inherent goodness of capitalism," says Zayner. "Stuff doesn't progress unless people do useful things with it." Produced by Alexis Garcia and Justin Monticello. Camera by Garcia, Monticello, and Zach Weissmueller. Ascent by Jon Luc Hefferman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license ( Source: Artist: Cut and Run - Electronic Hard by Kevin MacLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license ( Source: Artist: New Dawn by Bensound is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license ( Source:[...]

Man Busted for Meth That Was Actually Donut Glaze Gets $37,500 for His Trouble

Mon, 16 Oct 2017 13:05:00 -0400

A man who was arrested for possession of "methamphetamine" that turned out to be donut glaze recently received $37,500 from the city of Orlando for his trouble. The payment settles a lawsuit that Daniel Rushing, a 65-year-old retiree who used to work for the city's Parks Department, brought after a traffic stop that illustrates the limits of drug field tests and the cops who perform them. Cpl. Shelby Riggs-Hopkins pulled Rushing over on the afternoon of December 11, 2015, ostensibly because he did not make a complete stop as he pulled out of a 7-Eleven parking lot and subsequently exceeded the speed limit. But those offenses seem to have been pretexts. Riggs-Hopkins had been keeping an eye on the convenience store because of "citizen complaints about drug activity" and thought it was suspicious that Rushing, who was giving a lift to a friend, left without buying anything, in the company of a "black female employee of the 7-11." When Rushing opened his wallet to retrieve his driver's license, Riggs-Hopkins noticed that he had a concealed-carry permit and asked if he was armed. He said he was, and she asked him to get out of his car "for my safety." At that point Riggs-Hopkins "observed in plain view a rock-like substance on the floor board where his feet were." The eagle-eyed, street-savvy cop recalled that she "recognized, through my eleven years of training and experience as a law enforcement officer, the substance to be some sort of narcotic." The suspect "stated that the substance is sugar from a Krispy Kreme Donut that he ate," but Riggs-Hopkins knew better: Two field tests of the "rock-like substance" gave "a positive indication for the presence of amphetamines." Rushing said Riggs-Hopkins initially was not sure what "sort of narcotic" she had discovered. "I kept telling them, 'That's…glaze from a doughnut," Rushing told the Orlando Sentinel. "They tried to say it was crack cocaine at first. Then they said, 'No, it's meth, crystal meth.'" Adding insult to injury, Rushing was accused of possessing meth "with a weapon" (his legally carried handgun), which made a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison, into a second-degree felony, punishable by up to 15 years in prison. He was handcuffed and taken to the county jail, where he was strip-searched and locked up for 10 hours before being released on $2,500 bail. Three days later, after a lab test found no illegal substance in the evidence recovered by Riggs-Hopkins, the charges against Rushing were dropped. The lab test was not specific enough to identify which brand of donut the glaze came from, so we'll just have to take Rushing's word that it was indeed a Krispy Kreme. Rushing told the Sentinel he had tried to start a security business but could not find work because "people go online and see that you've been arrested." The Orlando Police Department (OPD) initially defended the arrest. But according to the Sentinel, the OPD "ended up training more than 730 officers on how to properly use the field test kits," and "Riggs-Hopkins was given a written reprimand for making an improper arrest." In addition to the city of Orlando, Rushing sued the Safariland Group, which made the test kit used by Riggs-Hopkins. Although the OPD evidently attributes the two false positives that preceded Rushing's arrest to Riggs-Hopkins' inept performance of the drug test, such field kits are notoriously unreliable and may react to a wide range of legal substances. Faulty field tests were at the center of a 2012 Kansas marijuana raid triggered by loose tea, a case that last summer resulted in a rebuke by a federal appeals court panel. One of the judges faulted "junk science" as well as "an incompetent investigation" and a thirst for publicity.[...]

Reality Contradicts Study Linking Movie Guns to Fatal Firearm Accidents

Wed, 27 Sep 2017 14:45:00 -0400

A study reported this week in JAMA Pediatrics found that children who watched a movie excerpt in which characters used firearms were more interested in playing with a handgun than children who watched an expurgated version from which images of firearms had been excised. The researchers think their findings could be important in reducing fatal firearm accidents involving children. Jenny Anderson, who wrote a Quartz story about the study, thinks it tells us something about the roots of gun violence. Here is why they are wrong. In the experiment, Wittenberg University communication researcher Kelly Dillon and Ohio State psychologist Brad Bushman used 20-minute excerpts from two PG-rated movies, National Treasure and The Rocketeer. They randomly assigned 52 pairs of 8-to-12-year-olds to watch either the original scenes or the expurgated, gun-free version, then let the kids play for 20 minutes in a room that contained a disabled handgun in a drawer as well as various toys and games. The subjects were monitored by a video camera and an infrared sensor in the gun that recorded trigger pulls. On average, the subjects who watched movie excerpts featuring firearms held the handgun longer and pulled the trigger more than the subjects who watched the firearm-free versions. The difference in handling time was not statistically significant after Dillon and Bushman adjusted the data to take into account potential confounding variables such as sex, age, aggressiveness, and attitudes toward guns. But the difference in trigger pulls was robust and dramatic. Whether it has any practical significance is another matter. Dillon and Bushman worry that children who see guns in movies will be more likely to play with them in real life, with potentially fatal consequences. The implication is that more guns in the movies kids see will mean more fatal gun accidents. But there is no evidence of such a correlation. To the contrary, unintentional firearm fatalities involving children have been falling for decades even though, according to Dillon and Bushman, "gun violence in movies is increasing, especially in movies that target younger viewers." Dillon and Bushman cite a study that found the depiction of guns in popular PG-13 movies "has more than doubled since 1985" and a follow-up study that found "the amount of gun violence in PG-13 films continued to increase through 2015." During that period, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accidental gun deaths involving children 14 or younger fell by 83 percent, from 278 in 1985 to 48 in 2015. Reasonable people may disagree about the best way to make further progress in reducing the number of children accidentally killed by guns. But even if we assume that the behavior observed in the highly artificial conditions of Dillon and Bushman's experiment carries over into the real world, securing guns so that children cannot play with them seems like a much more practical approach than restricting their movie viewing or banning guns from PG-13 films. While Dillon and Bushman focus on accidental deaths, Jenny Anderson worries in her Quartz piece that seeing guns in movies will make kids "more violent." Again, there is no evidence that is happening. Even after increases in 2015 and 2016, the violent crime rate in the United States is much lower today than it was in the mid-1980s, notwithstanding the proliferation of cinematic gun play that worries Anderson. "This research suggests violent media merits our attention," Anderson concludes. "Exhausting as it may be for parents, being overbearing would seem to pay off." No one who disagrees with that sentiment will change his mind after reading this study.[...]

'I'm Appalled,' Says Source of Phony Number Used to Justify Harsh Sex Offender Laws

Thu, 14 Sep 2017 09:15:00 -0400

A New York Times "op-doc" posted this week zeroes in on a persistent myth that has helped inspire and sustain harsh policies aimed at sex offenders: the idea that their recidivism rate is "frightening and high," as Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy put it in a pair of cases decided a decade and a half ago. David Feige, a former public defender who directed Untouchable, a 2016 documentary about sex offenders, shows how an uncorroborated assertion in a 1986 Psychology Today article continues to influence the politicians who pass laws and the judges who uphold them. In McKune v. Lile, a 2002 decision that upheld a mandatory prison therapy program for sex offenders, Kennedy said "the rate of recidivism of untreated offenders has been estimated to be as high as 80%," a number he called "frightening and high." He repeated that claim the following year in Smith v. Doe, which upheld retroactive application of Alaska's registration requirements for sex offenders. As of 2015, according to a review published in Constitutional Commentary, Kennedy's phrase had been echoed in 91 judicial opinions and the briefs filed in 101 cases. Yet there was never any evidence to support Kennedy's assertion, and research conducted during the same period when it was proliferating indicates that it is not even remotely true. As Feige notes in a commentary that accompanies his video, "Nearly every study—including those by states as diverse as Alaska, Nebraska, Maine, New York and California as well as an extremely broad one by the federal government that followed every offender released in the United States for three years—has put the three-year recidivism rate for convicted sex offenders in the low single digits, with the bulk of the results clustering around 3.5 percent." Studies covering longer periods find higher recidivism rates, but still nothing like 80 percent, even for high-risk offenders. The authors of the Constitutional Commentary article, Ira Ellman and Tara Ellman, found that the original source of the 80-percent figure—which Kennedy apparently got from Solicitor General Ted Olson, who cited a 1988 Justice Department handbook—was a 1986 Psychology Today article by Robert Longo, a counselor who ran a treatment program at an Oregon prison, and Ronald Wall, a therapist who worked for him. "Most untreated sex offenders released from prison go on to commit more offenses," they wrote, explaining the value of the work from which they earned their livelihoods. "Indeed, as many as 80% do." As Ellman and Ellman pointed out, it was "a bare assertion" with "no supporting reference." Longo himself repudiated the estimate in a March 2016 interview with Joshua Vaughn, a reporter at the Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Sentinel, saying it does not accurately reflect recent research and should not be used as a basis for public policy. In Feige's video, Longo says it is "absolutely incorrect" to suggest that anything like 80 percent of sex offenders commit new crimes after serving their sentences. That number, he says, was the high end of the range indicated by research at the time, although he once again fails to cite any actual studies. "You don't cite popular psychology magazines" as a basis for upholding laws, Longo says. "It's not a scientific journal. I'm appalled that this could happen. This is not my intent." Feige also tracked down Barbara Schwartz, the psychologist who wrote the 1988 DOJ manual that cited Longo's article and was in turn cited by Olson. "I couldn't find any" information on sex offenders' recidivism rates, Schwartz says, "so basically I just made up a model." She had a grand total of six references, including a dictionary and "the paper that Rob Longo did for Psychology Today." S[...]

More Evidence That Everything the Government Teaches Us About Eating Is Wrong

Wed, 30 Aug 2017 12:38:00 -0400

An international nutrition study spanning more than a decade has turned up unexpected findings that researchers say should cause health experts to reconsider global dietary guidelines. The ongoing Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) project has found both saturated and unsaturated fat intake linked to better heart health, that a high-carb diet is a better predictor of health risks than fat consumption, and that the health benefits of fruit, vegetables, and legumes like beans and chickpeas may plateau at three to four servings per day. The new analysis, presented at the European Society of Cardiology meeting this week in Barcelona, included 135,000 adult participants between ages 35-70 living in Africa, Europe, North America, South America, south Asia, southeast Asia, China, and the Middle East. These participants responded to food-intake and lifestyle surveys between between January 2003 and March 2013, with an average follow-through of 7.4 years. Researchers considered health outcomes for participants through March 31, 2017, recording 5,796 deaths in total and 4,784 "major cardiovascular events" such as strokes, heart attacks, and heart failure. Overall, carbohydrate intake in the highest versus lowest consumption groups was associated with 28 percent higher risk of death. "Our findings do not support the current recommendation to limit total fat intake to less than 30 percent of energy and saturated fat intake to less than 10 percent of energy," said Mahshid Dehghan, a nutritionist from Canada's Population Health Research Institute at McMaster University. Dehghan is the author of one of several papers on the latest PURE-study findings. Dehghan recommends "a total fat intake of about 35 percent of energy" in conjunction with lowering carbohydrate intake. Looking Again at Legumes, Fruits, and Vegetables Perhaps most notably, while higher fruit, vegetable, and legume consumption was associated with lower total mortality risk and less risk of death from non-cardiovascular causes, this benefit appears to max out at three to four servings, or around 375-500 grams, per day. "Previous research, and many dietary guidelines in North America and Europe recommended daily intake of these foods ranging from 400 to 800 grams per day," said Andrew Mente, lead researcher on the fruits and veggies study published this week in The Lancet. "Our findings indicate that optimal health benefits can be achieved with a more modest level of consumption." Fruit intake was linked to lower risk of death from heart disease and from other causes; frequent consumers of legumes had lower rates of death from all causes and from non-cardiovascular causes; and raw vegetable intake "was strongly associated with a lower risk of total mortality," while "cooked vegetable intake showed a modest benefit against mortality," Mente and his team found. (See more data from the study here and Mente's presentation to the European Society of Cardiology here.) Cut Some Carbs, Keep the Fat Looking at the link between macronutrients and heart disease, researchers found high carbohydrate consumption—defined as diets where more than 60 percent of calories come from carbs—increased the risk of overall death (though not the risk of heart disease or death from heart-related causes specifically). Meanwhile, eating saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fatty-acids was associated with lower death risk. "Each type of fat was associated with significantly reduced mortality risk: 14 percent lower for saturated fat, 19 percent for mono-unsaturated fat, and 20 percent for polyunsaturated fat," according to the study. Higher saturated fat intake was also linked to a 21 percent decrease in[...]