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Published: Sat, 17 Mar 2018 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Sat, 17 Mar 2018 19:22:58 -0400


Iconic Physicist Stephen Hawking Has Died

Wed, 14 Mar 2018 16:01:00 -0400

(image) That fact that physicist Stephen Hawking is an icon of our era was made plain during the production of La Damnation de Faust that my wife and I saw at the Paris Opera in 2015. A dancer trundled silently about the stage playing the role of the wheelchair-bound physicist as Faust made his pact with the devil and ended up in Hell (which was apparently Mars). The opera preposterously concluded with the apotheosis of Hawking standing unsupported as a Mars rover cruises across the stage. The singing was superb, but the staging was, well, unfortunate.

Among Hawking's distinctive contributions to physics and cosmology is his work on black holes. Black holes are celestial objects with a gravitational field so strong that light cannot escape them; they are believed to be created by the collapse of very massive stars. Sagitarrius A, a black hole with more than 4.1 million times the mass of the Sun, is at the center of the Milky Way. Among other things, Hawking figured out that black holes do emit particles and therefore would "evaporate" over time. Hawking declared that he'd like the formula for this Hawking radiation engraved on his tombstone:


Hawking was diagnosed with a motor-neuron disease at age 21. It eventually confined him to a powered wheel chair. When he lost the power of speech in 1985, he famously turned to a text-to-speech system that produced his, well, iconic "robot" voice. His 1988 book, A Brief History of Time, brought his thinking on cosmology to the wider public, eventually selling more than 10 million copies. In the words of his friend Martin Rees, "the concept of an imprisoned mind roaming the cosmos" grabbed people's imagination.

Clearly brilliant, and ferociously brave in overcoming the physical limitations inflicted by his illness, Hawking did sometimes endorse some fashionable apocalyptic views. While acknowledging that "the potential benefits of creating intelligence are huge," Hawking was worried artificial intelligence could turn out to be "the worst thing ever to happen to humanity." In addition, he thought that humanity should avoid contact with extraterrestrial civilizations because they could be "rapacious marauders roaming the cosmos in search of resources to plunder, and planets to conquer and colonize." Cooler heads are less concerned about alien invasions.

In any case, the world was a better place because Stephen Hawking was in it. He will be missed.

Does That JAMA Study Really Show That Advil Is Just As Effective As Opioids?

Fri, 09 Mar 2018 14:45:00 -0500

According to Vox, a JAMA study published this week "finally" provides "proof" that "opioids are no better than other medications for some chronic pain." The results of the study are "devastating," Vox says. To whom or what is not exactly clear, but the author of the article, Julia Belluz, seems to see the study as conclusive evidence against the notion that "opioids help patients with chronic pain in the long run" or that "they are worth all that risk" of "addiction and death." Similarly, NBC News declares that the "jury's in," and its verdict is that "opioids are not better than other medicines for chronic pain." Mother Jones likewise says "a new study shows that opioids are no better than other meds for chronic pain," while Newser agrees that Tylenol and Advil "work just as well as opioids." The JAMA study—the work of a team led by internist Erin Krebs, a researcher with the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Health Care System—did not actually demonstrate any of that. But it did highlight journalists' eagerness to believe that no one really needs narcotics for pain relief, which reflects the widespread desire for a simple solution to the "opioid epidemic." If opioids have no advantage over other analgesics, why prescribe them at all? Why risk "addiction and death" when over-the-counter pain relievers are just as effective? Even if we ignore the fact that the risks for pain patients are actually pretty small (and the fact that opioid-related deaths primarily involve illegally produced drugs), this study does not show what the headlines claim. Krebs and her colleagues recruited 240 patients with moderate to severe chronic back pain or hip or knee osteoarthritis from V.A. primary care clinics and randomly assigned them to opioid or nonopioid treatment. The opioid group initially received immediate-release morphine, oxycodone, or hydrocodone plus acetaminophen. If those medications proved inadequate, subjects were treated with sustained-action morphine or oxycodone, followed by fentanyl patches if necessary. The nonopioid group initially received acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen, followed if necessary by various other medications, including nortriptyline, amitriptyline, gabapentin, topical analgesics, pregabalin, duloxetine, and tramadol. The main outcome measures were pain-related function (measured by a questionnaire, with higher scores indicating a bigger burden from pain) and pain intensity (also self-reported, on a scale of 0 to 10). After 12 months, both groups were significantly better off by those two measures. The mean pain-related function score fell from 5.4 to 3.4 in the opioid group and from 5.5 to 3.3 in the nonopioid group. Mean pain intensity fell from 5.4 to 4 in the opioid group and from 5.4 to 3.5 in the nonopioid group. The difference between the two groups was statistically significant only for pain intensity, and the researchers note that "the clinical importance of this finding is unclear," since "the magnitude was small." In short, both groups fared about the same. "Treatment with opioids was not superior to treatment with nonopioid medications for improving pain-related function over 12 months," Krebs et al. conclude. "Results do not support initiation of opioid therapy for moderate to severe chronic back pain or hip or knee osteoarthritis pain." People in pain vary widely in how they respond to medication, so the fact that opioids did not have an advantage, on average, for this particular sample with these particular types of pain does not mean they are not a better choice for some patients. The study sample was 87 percent male, and it was drawn from V.A. clinics, which may not be representative of the general patient population. The conditions were limited to chronic back pain and chronic hip or knee pain caused by osteoarthritis, so the study does not speak to opioid treatment for other kinds of pain. The initial pain intensities were middling, so the study may not reflect the experiences of patients with more severe pai[...]

Want to Hack Your Own Body? Neo.Life's Jane Metcalfe Is Making It Easier Than Ever

Fri, 09 Mar 2018 14:36:00 -0500

"How can we optimize ourselves personally to live the happiest, healthiest, longest lives possible? What does that look like? What are ethical ways of doing that? What are unethical ways of doing that? Where are the slippery slopes?"

Those are the sorts of questions that Wired co-founder Jane Metcalfe is exploring at Neo.Life, an online magazine that both chronicles and informs "the early adopters of the Neobiological Revolution." Lushly illustrated and beautifully designed, recent articles include "I Study the Female Brain. Here's What 'The Female Brain' Gets Wrong", "Get Ready for Same-Sex Reproduction," and "Will a $5,000 Checkup Save Your Life?"

"The basis of Neo.Life," Metcalfe tells Reason's Nick Gillespie, "is that computer science and engineering thinking have invaded biology....How do we think about human life differently if we start thinking about 'code'?"

If you're interested in the pioneers, dreamers, and tinkerers who are trying not just to edit a few genes but to overhaul the entire human "operating system," cure their own cancer when doctors have given up, and bring back the wooly mammoth, Neo.Life is a must-read.

Photo of Craig Venter, Credit: K.C. Alfred/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Big Bird's Disease by Twin Musicom is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (

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Free Yourself From the Soft Tyranny of Nutrition Studies

Wed, 07 Mar 2018 15:30:00 -0500

"Fish oil or omega-3 supplements won't help people with heart disease," writes nutritionist Alice Callahan in Lifehacker. Her source is a recent JAMA Cardiology meta-study that looked at 10 trials with a total of 77, 917 participants and found that "supplementation with marine-derived omega-3 fatty acids for a mean of 4.4 years had no significant association with reductions in fatal or nonfatal coronary heart disease or any major vascular events." American consumers were told to supplement with omega-3 (and to eat more fish) based on studies of Inuit people in Greenland who eat a lot of omega-3-rich animals and have exceptionally healthy hearts. You should read Callahan's piece at Lifehacker for the full story (turns out, Inuit genes may be different than yours and mine), then check out the JAMA Cardiology paper if you want more. The post you're reading right now, however, is about nutrition studies and why you shouldn't think about them too much. Nutrition studies are confusing and mostly useless for regular people. I do not say that just because a leading nutrition researcher has been exposed for manipulating data for years and years. I say it because most nutrition studies test the validity of small claims that just don't matter in the larger scheme of living a life you love, and because the problems that ail us at the population level cannot be fixed with a bandolier of colloidal silver bullets. There is no "supplement" that can cure heart disease, or melt away obesity, or reverse the effects of inhaling a carcinogen all day, every day, for decades. Take curcumin. For years and years, people have sworn by the yellowing agent in turmeric as an exceptionally potent natural remedy for almost everything. But as Derek Lowe noted last year, "no curcumin trial has ever reported any convincing positive results." Turmeric is a great ingredient. Put it on everything if you like—but because it tastes good, not because it'll change your genetic predisposition to disease or undo the decades you spent treating yourself like garbage. And if you live up north or are worried about bone health, there's no harm in taking the daily recommended amount of vitamin D in supplement form. Just don't expect it to cure your cancer. Our desire for incontestable and universally true claims about nutrition reflects our fear of death and our inability to navigate the Age of Abundance, which I posit began in 1863 with the publication of William Banting's Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public, and extends through today, when you can choose from 13 different types of Cheerios. A wealth of options and of competing health claims, coupled with our ability to consume media everywhere, all the time, seems to have given many of us the impression that living a good life requires reviewing all of that information, deciding whether to believe it, and integrating new products into our lives on a revolving basis. Never mind that most of us aren't capable of critically reviewing the studies that produce these claims (nor are most journalists), or, that many such products are forgettable fads. Remember the pomegranate craze? How about the insanity over echinacea in the late 1990s and early 2000s? We'll probably be talking about coconut oil the same way a few years from now. There is a simpler method for stocking your medicine cabinet and your fridge, and that is to opt out of the micro-efficacy debate entirely. Enjoy things you like in moderation, eat more things you generally resisted as a child (broccoli; I'm talking about broccoli), and don't throw money at the next big thing. Even if it is mildly carcinogenic, bacon alone probably will not kill you, any more than curcumin alone will allow you to live forever, even if is revealed to be mildly anti-inflammatory. For most Americans, there are bigger and more important questions to tackle: Am I getting enough sleep? How can I eat more perishable (read: fresh) foods? Should I be drinking less alcohol? What's a good way to [...]

No, Being Fat Won't Help You Live Longer

Thu, 01 Mar 2018 15:08:00 -0500

File another one under "health research too good to be true." After more than a decade of reports that extra weight could boost longevity and protect against death by heart disease, a new study casts doubt on this "obesity paradox." The purported paradox first appeared in research on people diagnosed with heart disease. After a diagnosis, overweight and mildly obese individuals lived longer than their normal-weight counterparts, according to research funded by the federal government. In the hands of the health press, this became 1,000 headlines about how being overweight was actually good for your health. Yet according to Northwestern University's Sadiya Khan, the real reason the data appeared to show this weighty benefit is that overweight patients were developing heart disease earlier in life than their normal-weight peers. Yes, they tended to live longer following a heart disease diagnosis—but that's only because they were getting heart disease years earlier than skinnier people did. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette puts it, "one of the main effects of carrying around too much excess weight is that you get fewer years of disease-free life." While the mildly overweight live about as long as their normal-weight peers, heavier folks spend more of those years in ill health. And extra weight is also associated with a greater risk of developing cardiovascular conditions in the first place, says the Khan study. According to Khan's findings, published Wednesday in JAMA Cardiology: 32 percent of men with a body mass index (BMI) in the normal range (between 18.5 and 24.9) suffered a heart attack, stroke, or congestive heart failure during their time in the study, compared to 37 percent of overweight men (defined as those with a BMI between 25 and 29.9), 47 percent of obese men (BMI between 30 and 39.9), and 65.4 percent of morbidly obese men (BMI 40 or above). 21.5 percent of women with a normal BMI had a heart attack, stroke, or heart failure, compared to 27.9 percent of overweight women, 38.8 percent of obese women, and 47.6 percent of morbidly obese women Khan's research relies on data from the Cardiovascular Disease Lifetime Risk Pooling Project, and it includes an analysis of medical information on 190,672 Americans, each of whom were followed for at least 10 years. Overall, extra weight raised a middle-aged man's lifetime risk of heart problems by somewhere between 18 percent (for the overweight) and 98 percent (for the morbidly obese), relative to their normal-weight counterparts. For middle-aged women, being overweight meant a 42 percent higher chance of heart problems, while being obese raised the risk by 75 percent and being morbidly obese raised the risk by 80 percent. All this prompts the question: How did previous researchers on this topic manage to get things so wrong? One answer is that early studies on the topic usually looked only at the period of time following a heart-disease diagnosis or negative heart-related event rather than considering a longer time period. And while researchers themselves often weighed the impact of this limitation—as well as the limitations of using measures such as BMI as a biomarker in the first place, and the danger of putting too much stock in one particular health outcome, like developing heart disease, while ignoring others—the nuances rarely survived a study's translation to a mass audience. Hence headlines like "A few extra pounds may cut risk of early death," "Why being overweight means you live longer," and "Scientists now think that being overweight can protect your health." But bad health reporting doesn't deserve all the blame. Plenty of the published studies on the "obesity paradox" simply weren't that good, reflecting a larger crisis of credibility in the scientific and academic publishing community—a credibility crisis that's all too often overlooked in our government's rush to push food regulations under the veneer of science. Recently, this led to nati[...]

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: Th[...]

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 [...]

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 yo[...]

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 co[...]

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[...]