Wednesday Afternoon Links

January 17, 2007

I may have a regular stint on Appletree now, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to scoop Gordo’s link days.

Tyler’s latest information theory post, concerning description methods, is up.

Mark CC lashes into a moonbat who complains that math is a reactionary subject because it’s only useful for designing weapons systems. I like Mark’s take on it – “math is.” But even the underlying political point that math has no progressive uses, is idiotic. You can use game theory to plan a war, or a general strike. You can use number theory to spy on citizens, or construct ciphers.

Hat-tip to Lindsay: Candace Gorman, a lawyer representing two Guantánamo Bay detainees pro bono, has a blog. Gorman writes about, among other things, a letter she sent the Assistant Secretary of Defense who tried undercutting lawyers who defend Guantánamo detainees, and an interview she gave to The Talking Dog.

Vanessa Gatsch writes about Children of Men, explaining how it relates to stereotypes about pregnancy. She notes, “When you’re pregnant, everyone wants to pretty much control everything you do. People won’t let you get up, get nosy about what you’re eating, and want to touch and coo at you. When you’ve finally had the baby everyone wants to stare and touch and ask nosy questions.”

Jim notes that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Society is moving its Doomsday clock two minutes closer to midnight, on account of the total lack of progress on nuclear disarmament. For some reason, there’s no mention of the Israel/Iran situation, involving one more nuclear power in the world, and an existing nuclear power that’s threatening to use its arsenal.

Back to Manhattan Links

January 12, 2007

In Monaco, I didn’t have that much time to read blogs, so I concentrated on the few I’ll read even if I have to hand crank the generator myself – Majikthise, Feministing, and Appletree. Just as I came back, I found a flurry of great posts to link to.

Lindsay reports about a visceral article about Sam Harris, who is not just an anti-fundamentalist writer but also a neocon apologist and an Eastern mystic. Harris is trying very hard to parse his support for torture; personally, I stopped being interested at “‘ticking-bomb’ scenarios actually do occur.” Unless he intended to add “on American TV shows” at the end of the sentence, he has no leg to stand on.

PZ laments Turkish creationism, but at the same time notes that science teachers are starting to fight back. Like homophobia, creationism is one of the points of agreement for interfaith discussions; one Turkish creationist called ID a bridge between civilizations.

On the good science side, PZ also has a superb article in Seed about the evolution of eyeless fish. Cavefish don’t need eyes, but in a Darwinian world, there’s no a priori reason for them to lose their eyes entirely. PZ goes through several hypotheses why they have, concluding it’s related to the interplay between two genes regulating ocular development; while eyes are selectively neutral in a dark environment, a gene that reduces eye development also happens to strengthen the jaw and taste buds.

John Wilkins writes about bioturbation, worms’ practice of churning up soil. A new paper suggests that one of the causes of the Cambrian Explosion was the rise of bioturbation, whereby animals used their hard parts to burrow for nutrients in sediments.

Jim Downey’s making his science fiction novel, Communion of Dreams, available for free online.

Zuzu reports about an anti-abortion terrorist who tried arguing that his murder of an abortion doctor was not premeditated because he had intended to shoot to wound. Apparently, he hasn’t heard of felony murder. Even worse, he used the “I only intended to wound” defense as an apology to the victim’s wife.

The Obesity Epidemic

January 3, 2007

Rod asks why Americans have off-the-charts obesity rates and concludes that the main reasons have to do with poverty. In particular, healthy food costs a lot more than unhealthy food, so low-income Americans eat junk food to be able to pay for rent and health insurance.

I remember that when I lived in the US, I was shocked to notice how much more expensive fruit and vegetables were. One kilo of oreos costs less than a kilo of grapes! Very weird! At the time I thought that the price discrepancy was due to the fact that I was living in Pasadena (a fairly wealthy city in Southern California). To make it worse, I had no car (how “European” of me!) and no bike, so I had to walk to the super market… and of course I walked to the nearest one, which was at the “boundary line” (aka: East California Blvd.) dividing Pasadena and San Marino (another wealthy city, so I was told), and therefore I was paying a sort of “tax” for shopping in a fancy neighborhood. I didn’t really have a choice. There was a fruit and vegetables market in Pasadena, every Sunday or so, but it was a bit far (5 miles is a bit far when you have to walk). STILL, I can’t live without a regular intake of grapes, peaches and apples, so I didn’t care much about paying the so-called “tax” for fruit and vegetables.

HOWEVER, it was shocking to realize that in the campus dining hall where I usually had lunch a small fruit-salad bowl could cost 5 bucks! 5 bucks! “The whole world has gone insane!”, I must have thought at the time, “a pizza costs pretty much the same as a fruit-salad bowl? And a greasy burger costs less than that? Weird!” How come a fruit-salad bowl costs THAT much!? The only possible explanation I could find was that fruit was considered a luxury “good”, and therefore its price was greatly inflated. This would have been even more shocking for a Brazilian, since that in Brazil fruit and vegetables are, in general, much better quality than in Europe (fruit is, at least), and they’re also ridiculously cheap indeed! I remember that a Brazilian friend of mine, a great guy from Rio, would go to the “fruit and vegetables” Pasadena market every Sunday, and he brought loads and loads of stuff. He had a bike, you see…

There are several reasons why healthy food is hard to find in the United States for most people. First, as Rod notes, walking distances to grocery stores are outrageous outside very compact cities like New York, Boston, and San Francisco. In these cities, where it’s relatively easy to get to grocery stores and with them non-crap food, obesity rates are barely above French or Italian levels (in New York they’re slightly below US average, but in Manhattan they’re far below).

For further evidence that this matters, look at patterns of which areas have the most obesity. In Canada, obesity is highest in rural areas and lowest in large metropolitan areas. In the Southern US, where cities have far higher poverty rates and are more car-dependent, obesity is lowest in the suburbs and equally high in cities and rural areas. Moreover, in the US more liberal states, which tend to be slightly more pedestrian-friendly, tend to have lower obesity rates than more conservative states.

There are two more problems that likely contribute to the USA’s insane obesity rate, of which one is again related to the price of fruit. Almost every developed country heavily subsidizes its agriculture; however, while Europe and Japan subsidize a wide variety of crops, the US concentrates on giving aid to corn, which is why its corn production is off the charts.

Since Americans can’t actually eat 280 million tons of corn annually, even when they feed excess yields to animals, American agribusinesses look for creative ways to dump corn wherever possible – for example, by replacing sugar with corn syrup in coke. Corn syrup isn’t any more healthy or tasty, but Uncle Sam foots the bill for it. If it were possible to load fruit and vegetables with excess corn, they’d be cheap, too.

Of course, pizzas don’t necessarily have corn; however, they use cheese derived from milk from cows that ate subsidized corn. While corn isn’t the sole culprit, it’s the largest one. Sugar crops and hog farms receive outrageous subsidies, too, but to a lesser extent than Iowa’s corn.

The problem that doesn’t have much to do with fruit prices is culture. This is related to both eating and exercising: American eating culture is lusher than most European countries’ eating cultures, and American commuting culture is car-friendlier than all European countries’.

American restaurants usually have larger main courses, greater selections of red meat, and larger portions of side dishes than French restaurants. The most common steak at a French restaurant is the relatively fat-free filet mignon, and a typical serving has about 200 grams; the most common steak at an American restaurant is the sirloin, with serving sizes closer to 300 grams.

I haven’t been able to find statistics for distance walked in the US, but in Supersize Me, Morgan Spurlock notes that Americans walk very little, at least by New York standards, and limits his walking distance accordingly. In Britain, the government has suggested the reduction in the distance walked by residents in the last 20 years as one factor behind the country’s growing obesity rate.

Ezra and Zuzu have posts linking to a not especially bright article arguing that the obesity epidemic is a myth. Nonsense. The argument that skyrocketing rates of obesity are fine because what matters is not weight but a sedentary lifestyle only works if people are compensating for their higher weights by exercising more. The loopiest part of the article is,

Obesity research in the United States is almost wholly funded by the weight-loss industry. For all the government’s apparent interest in the fat “epidemic,” in recent years less than 1 percent of the federal health research budget has gone toward obesity-related research. (For example, in 1995, the National Institutes of Health spent $87 million on obesity research out of a total budget of $11.3 billion.) And, while it’s virtually impossible to determine just how much the dieting industry spends on such research, it is safe to say that it is many, many times more. Indeed, many of the nation’s most prominent obesity researchers have direct financial stakes in companies that produce weight-loss products.

The gold standard of corporate-influenced research is tobacco risks. In the case of tobacoo, people have done meta-analyses of studies underwritten by governments or nonprofits and compared them to studies underwritten by tobacco companies. Those funded by tobacco companies were likely to exculpate cigarettes, while those not funded by big tobacco were likely to note a link between smoking and lung cancer. No such distinction is being made in this case.

If you think all American studies are irreparably biased, then go to other countries. The BBC quotes a governmental study that concludes that in 1998, obesity caused 30,000 premature deaths in England, and could cost the economy £3.5 billion a year by 2010. It also quotes a separate study by the British Heart Foundation, which estimates that 28,000 heart attacks in Britain each year are attributable to obesity.

Leaving on a Jet Plane

December 23, 2006

I’m flying out to Katie in a few hours, which means I have to start packing an hour ago. I know that flying from one side of the continent to the other isn’t the best opportunity to complain about North America’s laconic rail network, which wouldn’t get me to Victoria any faster if there was a direct TGV-speed train, but I’m still going to do it sometime tomorrow.

Meanwhile, go play on other people’s blogs:

Pam links to a pseudo-outrage piece on CBN about employees who were fired for anointing a coworker’s desk with olive oil.

On her own blog, Pam also complains about young people who aren’t good enough at acting and hence cause inconveniences to prejudiced employers who hire people based on how they’re dressed during the interviews.

Go to Appletree and watch Donald Trump threaten Rosie O’Donnell with a lawsuit for saying he was bankrupt (which is true). Then complain to Gordo that Appletree is becoming too much of a vlog. Bonus points to the person who can come up with the most creative phrasing meaning, “Youtube is overrated.”

Ezra explains why R&D funding isn’t everything when it comes to health care. Much of the USA’s pharmaceutical R&D is for copycat drugs, which mimic patented drugs whose brand names belong to other companies. Even if Japan and Europe really do have less R&D spending than the US, which I’ve seen no evidence for, they’re almost certainly more efficient with the spending they have because of their reliance on generics.

Echidne complains about the recent change in the mainstream debate about Iraq, which has pitted various reformists trying to argue how to win the war. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind that nearly as much if the war was even winnable.

PZ writes about the putative discovery of finely preserved 580 million year old embryos, and the subsequent realization that the embryos are actually bacteria. After explaining the evidence that they aren’t embryos, he concludes,

As I’ve said before, I love the idea of being able to see 580 million year old embryos. Should I be disappointed at learning that perhaps these fossils are not of embryos?

Why, no.

I like reality and evidence. If further data demonstrate that not one of these fossils is a metazoan embryo and that all of them are interesting and unusual examples of large, specialized bacteria, that will be cool in a different sort of way. We follow where the evidence leads us, not where our predispositions want us to go.

Finally, Bora wants to put together an anthology of the best science blogging of 2006. If you have any suggestions, go over to his blog and give him a shout.

Nancy Pelosi Should Have Shuffled More Committee Chairs

December 23, 2006

I understand why making sure the Intelligence Committee is chaired by someone who voted against the war is a higher priority, but this is ridiculous (hat-tip to Stentor).

Q. So you don’t believe the scientific consensus on global warming is established at this point?

A. This country, this world, the [human] race of which you and I are a part, is great at having consensuses that are in great error. And so I want to get the scientific facts, and find out what the situation is, and find out what is the cure, and find out what is the cure that is acceptable to the country that I represent and serve.

That’s the incoming chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees fuel economy regulations. In the 1970s, he was instrumental in pushing through the original CAFE standards; since then, he has been opposed to any improvements in standards.

In the last 10 years, the Democratic Party has been trying to change its image to appeal to moderate voters more. Its strategy has mostly fallen flat on its face – it made gains in 1998 and again this year mostly because the Republicans lost their heads – but professional politicians can be as irrational as anyone when it comes to strategy.

Part of that strategy has involved compromising on old defining issues, especially welfare, gun control, and the environment. Some liberals have found other issues to concentrate on, like universal health care and civil liberties. Others have atrophied, while the Democrats have been rushing to moderate their image on abortion and gay rights. More and more they’re overtly snubbing liberalism in favor of populism, and unfortunately even then they display too much nationalism, an irritating populist trait that prevents them from importing the successful health care system of France or Sweden or even Canada.

Ironically, while the Democrats are doing nothing, Mitt Romney’s economic advisor is Greg Mankiw, who supports Pigovian taxes, including gas taxes. It’s not especially popular in a country where people think they have an inalienable right to get a gallon of gas for the same price they can get a gallon of mineral water, but it’s an essential part of any sound environmental policy. The left-wing solution of regulations only isn’t enough; California’s cars have lower emissions than the rest of the USA’s, but France’s are even lower (in France gas cost €1.40/liter last time I checked).

Oh well. At least I’ll get many more winters like this one, when the temperature is in the low 10s/high 50s in December. I’ve always had a lot of luck when it comes to weather; presumably, this extends to global warming’s making New York’s winters mild the same year I moved here.

Outrage News

December 19, 2006

Governor Olmert (R-IS) refuses to negotiate with Syria on the grounds that President Bush would object.

[Link] Prime Minister [sic] Ehud Olmert told the cabinet Sunday that now is not the time to embark on negotiations with Damascus, given that U.S. President George W. Bush is demanding Syrian President Bashar Assad “stop instigating war.”

“We need to ask ourselves why, precisely at this moment, Assad is asking to renew negotiations with us,” Olmert said. “The considerations that motivate Assad are not necessarily the considerations that motivate us.”


Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, meanwhile, told The Washington Post that Syria has no preconditions to negotiations with Israel, not even regarding the Golan Heights. In an interview in Damascus, Moallem told columnist David Ignatius, “A constructive dialogue has to start without preconditions.”

Although Bush’s approval rate in the entire United States is in the 30s, in Olmert’s state he enjoys substantial support; further, Olmert has always been characterized as a weak Governor who would not break ranks with his party’s President. However, former Governor Netanyahu echoed Olmert’s remarks, saying that Israel should not negotiate with Syria as Bush branded it part of the Axis of Evil, and stressing that the state must coordinate foreign policy with the federal government.

A more independent Governor than Olmert, Schwarzenegger (R-CA), is spending money on fixing California’s death row system, in light of a court ruling that the way California uses lethal injections is unconstitutional.

[Link] Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Monday ordered his administration to fix problems in California’s lethal injection protocol “to ensure the death penalty procedure is constitutional.”

Schwarzenegger acted in response to a stinging decision issued Friday by U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel in San Jose, who said the state’s system “is broken, but … can be fixed.”

“I am committed to doing whatever it takes to ensure that the lethal injection process is constitutional so that the will of the people is followed and the death penalty is maintained in California,” Schwarzenegger said in a formal statement. “My administration will take immediate action to resolve court concerns which have cast legal doubt on California’s procedure for carrying out the death penalty.”

Although Israel is one of the most socially conservative states in the Union, it is also one of 15 states that have abolished the death penalty.

Moving to foreign news, the so-called election in Iran revealed that voters disapprove of Ahmadinejad’s policies. Voter turnout was 60%, far higher than in previous elections, when many liberals boycotted the show on the grounds that it was not a real election.

[Link] A poor showing by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s allies in last week’s elections will encourage Iran’s more moderate voices, which have been drowned out by the president since he swept to power last year.

But results of Friday’s twin votes for local councils and a clerical oversight body, which have no state policy-making powers themselves, are unlikely to dampen his anti-Western rhetoric or result in big policy shifts, analysts say.


Partial results for the main battleground, the 15 seats of Tehran City Council, gave Ahmadinejad’s backers, including his sister, just three seats but his moderate conservative rival, Tehran mayor Mohammad Qalibaf, won eight. The two have been staunch opponents since Qalibaf lost in the presidential race.

Reformists, who seek political and social change, have four seats in a modest comeback after a series of electoral routs. Reformists see the win as a launchpad for the parliamentary vote in 2008 to challenge Ahmadinejad’s backers.

The vote will not change the person in charge in Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, or limit his power in any meaningful way. However, some analysts have said that this shows that Iran’s policy has not changed significantly since Khamenei assumed power in 1989. Several Republicans, including Olmert, used Ahmadinejad’s election as an argument that Iran would shift its course to a more belligerent one.

Once again, Libya sentences the five Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian doctor accused of infecting children with AIDS to death.

[Link] To the celebration of many Libyans in the streets of Tripoli, a court convicted five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian doctor on charges of deliberately infecting 400 children with AIDS, sentencing the six foreigners to death.

Although the Libyan government has maintained that the Tripoli Six are guilty, several Western experts have instead suggested that they are innocent, saying that the trial was rigged as it did not allow any exculpatory evidence to be presented.

Links That Will Make Me Fail My Exams

December 13, 2006

Echidne writes about the link between homophobia and sexism, offering enlightening ideas about how the same sort of thinking that leads people to recognize that there’s nothing wrong with homosexuality also leads them to recognize that women are not inferior to men. I’d like to suggest one more thread in addition to what she says: patriarchal structures are typically archetypal – i.e. they tend to promote the idea of marriage in which the male dominates the female. Anything that goes against that archetype, including same-sex relationships, is verboten (but note that homosexual acts in sexually repressed, gender segregated environments draw less scorn).

What motivates her to write about that is a story about a proposed law in Nigeria that would ban not only SSM but also any form of homosexual association, up to and including dating. This is over and above the fact that gay sex is already illegal in Nigeria.

Ann reports positive news about flex-time, which offers parents options to reduce or shift their working hours in such a way that they can spend time with their children without losing their jobs. Although this is most clearly targeted at working moms who wish to pursue a work-family balance, the experience of Best Buy, where this policy also resulted in a reduction in sexist prejudice, suggests that even working moms who have no intention of taking advantage of this policy will benefit. This is set against the background of the accounting firm Ernst and Young officially adopting flex-time as a way of increasing employees’ quality of life.

Amanda notes that in the last 13 years, the US has seen some reduction in the level of domestic violence against women but an even greater one in the level of domestic violence against men. That fact doesn’t deter anti-feminist groups from complaining that legislation about violence against women discriminates against men.

A new scandal of even greater proportions than Hwang Woo-suk’s fraudulent research has people wondering if it’s an inherent misfeature of scientific practices. Noting that “top journals want ‘sexy, if risky, science’ over ‘boring but solid science,” Shelley asks the inevitable question: is it coincidence or bias that two fraudulent researches have been exposed over a relatively short period of time?

Jill, a fellow postgraduate student who’s about to flunk out because she’s blogging too much, has a piece about the class implications of skyrocketing tuition. She explains,

I’m at NYU Law because I didn’t have any educational debt after getting my BA. I wouldn’t have considered it if law school was going to put me close to half a million dollars in the hole. But the $200,000 is worth it to go to a school that is nearly guaranteed to secure me a job after I graduate, and that offers loan forgiveness programs if I decide to pursue a public interest career. The pay-off is just about guaranteed.

She doesn’t go right out and say that the government should foot the bill for education, but that’s the only reasonable conclusion. It’s less reasonable when it comes to private schools, but using Berkeley and Ann Arbor and City College as starting points, it’s not especially hard to design elite public schools that don’t cost a dime. Columbia and NYU might be able to get away with exorbitant tuition until City College’s lack of tuition will allow it to regain its earlier elite status, but Stanford won’t, and if the relevant state governments also invest in local Berkeleys, neither will Harvard and Yale.

Gordo’s latest world news roundup has a disturbing piece about climate change, which suggests that,

[Link] A team of scientists from the United States and Canada has found new evidence about the rapid melting of ice in the Arctic.

Data presented at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union suggests all year-round ice could disappear by the year 2040.

The scientists also believe recent research shows a tipping point which would trigger a rapid melting is fast approaching.

This is depressing, not least because it might make The Day After Tomorrow, a cheesy piece of crap if there ever was one, socially relevant in the not so far future, whereas I’d like it to be thrown into a memory hole.

Saturday Morning Links

December 9, 2006

I suppose I should mention that the 49th Skeptics’ Circle, whose format is that of an index of a scientific journal, is up. Note to future carnival hosts: usually I take less than two days to plug a carnival I participate in, especially when my work is featured on the said carnival.

Speaking of being two days late, on Thursday Lindsay posted a really good exposé of the Discovery Channel’s sexism. Discovery’s merchandise is branded as for boys or for girls; boys get forensic labs and speed detectors, while girls get pottery wheels and knit kits.

Yesterday, Amanda followed up on that. While Lindsay only brought the sexist merchandise to her readers’ attention, Amanda went further and explained how it is a self-fulfilled prophecy, noting a link between this stereotyping and Abbas’s post about culture and innumeracy.

Amanda also writes about Feminists for Life‘s dishonesty, installment #1950823. FFL’s rhetoric of adoption as a positive thing because many couples want children but can’t have neglects to mention the fact that there exist plenty of children to adopt now, too. The problem is that these children are overwhelmingly nonwhite, while the couples are mostly white (Amanda cites American statistics, but most unwanted children are in developing countries, especially China, where parents abandaon infant girls because the state wouldn’t let them selectively abort them). One of the motivating forces behind the American anti-choice movement is the chronic shortage of healthy white babies to adopt.

Shelley interviews Irene Pepperberg, a high-profile researcher of parrot intelligence and cognition who is right now in financial woes similar to those GrrlScientist was in before things got even worse earlier this year. Pepperberg has done extensive case studies on African Grays, especially one average specimen named Alex, who she’s taught extensive English vocabulary (but whose command of grammar makes Katie’s look top notch…).

Jim finds a nifty flash clip of Monty Python’s Galaxy Song. The instrumental part features two stars dancing until one passes through the other, which I find a lot less tacky than the sequence from The Meaning of Life, where a flat square grid folds to the shape of a woman who then becomes pregnant and gives birth to a huge flash of light.

Jim also writes a great analysis of the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels from a rationalist perspective. Like many detective books, the Sherlock Holmes series epitomizes rationality; without an acute sense of rational deduction and a devotion to learning new facts, Holmes can’t function. Make sure to check out the comment thread, which is unusually productive. I don’t want to sound like a 110-year old person ranting, “Back in my day…” but in the 20th century, the detective/crime genre went from singularly rational Sherlock Holmes to annoyingly irrational Harry Potter, who instead of learning has a convenient nerdy sidekick who he treats like shit except when he needs her knowledge.

Gordo finds a story about the EU abusing Turkey. I’ve always thought that the EU’s insistence on holding Turkey to increasingly stringent standards is a good way to make sure it becomes fully liberal democratic by the time of accession, but this is just ridiculous and suggests that the thing it really needs to do to accede is undergo mass conversion to Christianity.

Turkey has offered to open a major seaport and an airport to longtime foe Cyprus to try to keep its European Union entry talks on track, Turkish and E.U. officials said Thursday. The European Union called the step positive but insufficient.

Turkey’s refusal to open its ports to E.U. member Cyprus has emerged as a deal-breaker in its negotiations to join the European Union.

Ann writes about her experiences with being an exceptionally tall woman. Like many people with culturally abnormal physical characteristics, she gets asked silly questions like “Are you a model?” or “Do you play basketball?”. The best quote I know about this is from Allison Janney: “Years ago, one casting agent told me that the only roles I could play were lesbians and aliens” (she settled for playing a White House Press Secretary who’s constantly made fun of for being taller than everyone else on the senior staff). More interestingly, Ann remarks that,

Although overall, my height is admittedly a huge asset when dealing with men. I really came to appreciate this a few months ago, when some guy catcalled me on the street, then followed me in to a taqueria. He stood between me and the counter, asking, “How tall are you, baby? You got a boyfriend? I bet you don’t. Damn, you look sexy, you’re doing something right… etc.” Usually it’s pretty easy for me to tell harassers like this (whether their comments be sexual, height-related, or both) to shut the fuck up. But this guy was tall. Maybe even slightly taller than me. And it became quickly apparent just how much of my self-confidence in those situations is derived from my extraordinary height. I’m used to stepping into the personal space of whatever twerp is hitting on me (or on one of my friends), looking down my nose, and shutting him down. It’s not that my gangly frame poses any sort of physical threat– it’s just emasculating to be looked down on by some girl over whom you’re attempting to assert your sexual power. It works.

Spontaneous Abortion Risk

December 8, 2006

The Washington Post is reporting about a study that looks for various lifestyle correlates of miscarriage (hat-tip to Jessica). It turns out women who eat fruit and vegetables or take dietary supplements are at a 50% lower risk, women who eat chocolate are at a 15% lower risk, and women who are underweight are at a 72% higher risk. Non-physical factors apply as well: planned pregnancies have a 40% lower risk than unplanned ones.

Usually I read the study in question, but this time I can’t find it anywhere. So instead, I’ll have to rely on one critical analysis that focuses on the lack of a clear causal link (and unfortunately doesn’t link to the study).

The researchers took care to try and ensure they were looking at a sample of women representative of the general population. They gathered data collected on surveys from about 6,700 British women, which asked the women about their reproductive histories, considering each pregnancy in turn. They were also asked to complete a lifestyle survey and a food frequency recall questionnaire surrounding their most recent pregnancy. About 600 first trimester miscarriages were reported; but to increase the information on miscarriage risks, women whose latest pregnancy was not a miscarriage were given another questionnaire about their most recent miscarriage. The researchers applied statistical modeling of the data to look for correlations among factors they thought might be important (such as smoking and caffeine) and determine the odds ratios.

This type of study design is called “case-controlled” and is retrospective because it looks backwards through histories trying to explain an adverse outcome among a certain group. There are several caveats to these types of studies. Researchers look for things they think may be related to a health problem and could miss more important ones. The data relies on people’s memories and is subject to recall bias, where people are more apt to remember things they believe related to their illness. It’s the — “Oh, it must have been those burgers I ate” — guilt phenomenon. And, of course, they are looking for correlations, hoping to find ones that are statistically significant, but which can never prove cause.

The best study design would of course be prospective – that is, it would track pregnancies over nine months. Ideally it would also divide the women into two random groups, but that’s only possible with dietary supplements; with everything else, it would have to look for control variables like income, number of hours worked, etc.

Another limitation of the study is that it, of course, only considers the risk of spontaneous abortion once the pregnancy is confirmed. The bulk of spontaneous abortions occur before the pregnancy is even detectable with today’s pregnancy tests; 75% of all concepti fail, compared with 15-20% of confirmed pregnancies.

Thursday Morning Links

December 7, 2006

Gordo notes that the United States is about to deport a Mexican in protective custody, who was an instrumental DEA mole in a dangerous drug cartel. If he had served in the US military or in a counterterrorism unit, he’d have been considered a hero, and there would’ve been TV series made about how he valiantly tried stopping the murders the cartel committed in Ciudad Juárez only to be stalled by his bureaucratic agency. But apparently since all he did was provide the US crucial information that it could’ve used against the mafia, he’s deportable.

Belledame and Ezra write about global inequality, which is rising fast. Some of Ezra’s long-time trolls complain that talk of equality is just a cover for Marxism, which would genuinely surprise liberals like Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen. But global inequality is not Rawlsian; it doesn’t make the poor better off. Sub-Saharan Africa actually has a higher GDP per capita than South Asia and had a higher GDP per capita than East Asia until relatively recently; but its regional Gini index is in the 60s whereas South Asia’s is in the 30s, dragging down its level of human development to fourth world levels to South Asia’s third.

Stentor explains once again what is wrong with Deep Ecology. This time, he tackles the notion that if people just expand their sense of self to cover the entire Universe, then all environmental problems will disappear.

Revere posts conclusive evidence that the Tripoli Six are innocent. A meticulous survey published in Nature shows beyond any reasonable doubt that,

the HIV-1 and HCV strains were already circulating and prevalent in this hospital and its environs before the arrival in March 1998 of the foreign medical staff (five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor) who stand accused of transmitting the HIV strain to the children.

And yet, as Shelley notes, the Libyan government is still unmoved; the expected verdict, to be delivered on the 19th, is still guilty, with the sentence being death. The government cares about the evidence to about the same degree medieval priests cared if a given woman really was a witch when they sentenced her to be burned at the stake; it denied the defendants the right to have foreign experts of any kind testify on their behalf.

Amanda reviews her latest read, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Despite the name, the book is not about eating meat versus vegetables, but about eating industrial versus organic food, noting that even organic food growers adopt many corporate norms. You should really read Amanda’s entire post, but just to give you a rough idea, “The first part is probably not news to anyone who’s read other books like Fast Food Nation, but it reads well and has a more environmentalist view of the issues, whereas Schlosser tended to look at the labor issues the most.”

Experimental Versus Observational Science

December 7, 2006

One of the pieces of nonsense creationists love to peddle is that evolution is not like gravity because it makes no experimentally falsifiable predictions.

Usually, when evolutionists try to combat the “only a theory” argument, they drag gravity into it. They say Newton’s theory of gravity is “just a theory, too.” The difference between gravity and evolution, of course, is that one can do repeatable experiments to test the theory of gravity. Engineers can measure the amount of force it takes to stretch a spring a certain length. Then, they hang various masses from the spring and measure how far it stretches. From this they can determine the force of gravity pulling on the mass.

Furthermore, the theory of gravity made some interesting predictions. Astronomers noted that some of the outer planets did not orbit in the path one would expect. They calculated that some other gravitation force must be acting on them. From that they calculated where an unknown planet must be. They looked in that location and discovered Pluto. The theory of gravity predicted a planet of a particular size in a particular orbit, and it turned out to be a correct prediction.

Now, if you read science blogs like Pharyngula and The Panda’s Thumb (and if you don’t, you really should), you might find yourself asking, “Isn’t evolution exactly like that?”. After all, evolutionary biology’s ability to predict the Chicxulub impact event was pretty amazing, to say nothing of some of the sequences of simple-to-complex animals found in the fossil record.

That’s not experimental, of course. Which, I suppose, is how some creationists excuse their “Evolution is anti-scientific” blather. It’s possible to do lab experiments in particle physics, or organic chemistry, or metallurgy, but not geology, evolutionary biology, or astronomy. The most you can do in evolutionary biology is make fruit flies speciate in the lab; the more interesting science comes from the fossil record or from genetic comparisons.

In observational sciences like the last three, falsifiable predictions are based on future observations: a radical change in the fossil record will correlate to evidence of global climate change or an impact event, a star that wobbles inexplicably probably has a planetary system, ice core samples indicating low temperatures in the last few million years will also indicate lower CO2 levels.

Personally, the evolutionary prediction I find the most breathtaking is the evolution of the eye. Darwin hypothesized how it might’ve evolved from simple light-sensitive cells. For someone working only from extant fauna, his predictions were extremely accurate.

But politically, one of the strongest points of evolutionary theory is the arguments Michael Behe et al field against it. Each time, they say that feature X couldn’t have evolved, in effect forcing a falsifiable prediction related to the fossil record on scientists. And each time, scientists manage to pass the test – the evolution of vision and color vision is well-understood now, paleontologists have managed to get a pretty solid grip on cetaceans’ return to the sea, and now biochemists are in the process of showing how the flagellum is reducibly complex.


December 6, 2006

Echidne’s post about physics versus economics is an absolute pleasure to read. She responds to Robin Hanson, a n economist who complains that the media isn’t taking economists who say that the minimum wage is bad seriously:

Consider how differently the public treats physics and economics. Physicists can say that this week they think the universe has eleven dimensions, three of which are purple, and two of which are twisted clockwise, and reporters will quote them unskeptically, saying “Isn’t that cool!” But if economists say, as they have for centuries, that a minimum wage raises unemployment, reporters treat them skeptically and feel they need to find a contrary quote to “balance” their story.

Echidne is right on the money in explaining the difference: physics also has better models.

Models can be very useful, but they are models. Natural sciences can test the formulas and models in laboratory circumstances. Social sciences don’t have that luxury, partly, because even if laboratories were used they would be artificial environments likely to affect the outcomes, not ways of holding external influences constant. This means that social sciences muddle through and actually study something more complicated than some of the physics models do, and it also means that we must view the social science models with a greater deal of scepticism.

It’s easy not to grasp how mathematized theoretical physics is. Theoretical physics is still scientific in the sense that it makes falsifiable predictions, but since the experiments themselves are so abstract, the amount of mathematical deduction that goes into a single prediction or a single interpretation of experiments is immense. When the media reports a breakthrough in superstring theory, it functionally treats it like a proof of a famous conjecture like Fermat’s Last Theorem or the Poincaré Conjecture.

Less mathematized sciences are never treated that way. Biology doesn’t receive that adulation, even though it’s hotter than physics lately; even without mentioning creationism, the media isn’t in that much awe of biology. It might call advances in physics discoveries of the fundamental nature of the Universe, but will never call an advance in gene-centric evolution even “the fundamental structure of evolution.” Stories about climate change, where models are about as mathematized as in biology, are rife with references to climate change skeptics, in part because of the opposite bias of the one Hanson is complaining about.

Meanwhile, economists aren’t even united in their belief that minimum wage laws increase unemployment. A 2000 survey of economists’ responses to various questions reveals that economists are far from libertarian on many issues. 38.9% agreed that “the distribution of income in the US should be more equal,” 27.9% agreed partly, and 31.5% disagreed. On the minimum wage question, 45.6% agreed that minimum wages increase unemployment among youth and unskilled workers, 27.9% agreed partly, and 26.5% disagreed. That’s not an anti-minimum wage consensus, but a normal disagreement that an objective media will report both sides of.

Sunday Evening Links

November 26, 2006

The 54th Carnival of the Godless is up on Hellbound Alleee. This fortnight’s edition’s theme is, believe it or not, Christmas shopping. The carnival’s highlight is vjack’s What’s a Little Atheist-Bashing Among Friends?, which explains,

How would I respond if I was in a group of co-workers who started making racist comments? Even though I am every bit as white as they are, I am quite certain that I would respond with outrage, attempt to correct the misconceptions, and ask them not to make such comments in my presence. Why the difference? Why am I more tolerant of the anti-atheist comments, especially considering that I am an atheist? I suspect my inaction here (I really don’t consider it tolerance) is due to the far greater frequency and social acceptability of such comments. But does this really make sense?

Timothy Shortell writes about illusions created by the entire self-help industry. He calls what he critiques “authenticity,” but the term is somewhat misleading; I think it’s a lot more instructive to see his post as a general critique of campaigns aimed at convincing people that they can only achieve true self actualization by consuming product X, where X can be a Ford Explorer, the Atkins diet, Christianity, Scientology, or speaking Esperanto.

Gordo comments about the hipness article and blog posts,

The New York Times got a lot of people buzzing with this story, about the the exodus of young, educated hipsters from New York to places like Stumptown (if you were hip, you’d know where that is). A lot of New York bloggers started saying some nonsense about New York being hip. Well, numbers don’t lie, guys.

Now that I think about it, Steve, Jen, Jill, and I all live in New York. On the other hand, the person who got bashed the most for being a snob is Amanda, a thoroughly un-snobby Austinite.

Shelley brings the news that cancer is apparently caused by faulty stem cells.

[Link] Current therapies treat all cancer cells the same. They’re aimed at shrinking tumours on the basis that the various cells within them all have similar powers to spawn new cancers and spread destruction.

But mounting evidence suggests that cancer’s real culprits — the roots of perhaps every tumour — are actually a small subset of bad seeds known best to the world as stem cells.

Monday Afternoon Links

November 20, 2006

GrrlScientist needs your help. She’s been hospitalized and is being kept against her will:

I know this sounds preposterous, and I treated these threats as such until recently when a crisis caused reality to set in and i delivered my “72 hour letter” to the staff. This “72 hour letter” petitions the courts to either release me or to schedule a court date within 72 hours so I can argue my case. For reasons I don’t understand, my letter was not delivered until today — 72 hours after i’d written it, so my court date is next Wednesday. I am presently seeking a lawyer, preferably pro bono who knows how to handle such things.

Josh Marshall finds a statement by Kissinger that sets up a new stab-in-the-back myth around Iraq (via Uncle Kvetch’s comment on Majikthise).

“If you mean, by ‘military victory,’ an Iraqi government that can be established and whose writ runs across the whole country, that gets the civil war under control and sectarian violence under control in a time period that the political processes of the democracies will support, I don’t believe that is possible,” Mr. Kissinger told BBC News.

Hat-tip to Jessica: the President of Nicaragua signed into law the comprehensive abortion ban. The New York Times notes, “Abortion has been illegal in Nicaragua for more than a century, and most women who decide to end unwanted pregnancies seek procedures at underground clinics.”

Amanda writes about McCain’s support for a constitutional amendment banning abortion. McCain is a long-term opportunist – he doesn’t flip-flop incessantly the way Kerry does, but instead builds a persona in line with what is popular. When Bush was popular, he was a maverick in order to capture pro-Bush independents; then when it became impossible, he started shoring up the base.

Trish needs help with a short story she’s writing.

I’m working on a short story that includes time in a rave. I haven’t been to a club in years. I plan to go to a few soon to get some story experience. The last bar I’ve been to was a hotel bar, which isn’t quite the same thing.

I’d like input from my readers. Please tell me about the clubs and raves you’ve been to recently. If you heard about cool things at clubs or raves that you liked but you hadn’t experienced it yourself, feel free to add that to comments, too. I’m going to go to a few good clubs in Boston soon for story ideas. This is going to be fun.

Mark Chu-Carroll refutes the creationist argument that the Sun is shrinking and thus the Earth can’t be older than a few myriad years. Not surprisingly, the argument is based on bad math and an insane theory of what powers the Sun.

Why I’m not into Evolutionary Psychology

November 15, 2006

In light of the slut-shaming mini-flamewar, Cairnarvon tried talking about promiscuity from an evolutionary point of view.

Sluttiness, from an evolutionary point of view, is pretty interesting. Talking about humans here, and clearly by sluttiness I mean sexual promiscuity with as many sexual partners as you can find. I don’t use the word slut to be inherently good or bad.

Obviously, for males, being a slut is a moderately sound strategy. STDs aside, in a species with relatively few kids per pregnancy, spreading your genes to as many mates as possible is bound to get you more offspring than a monogamous relationship would.

I suppose it’s also moderately interesting for a female to be a slut, what with the greater chance of getting pregnant, perhaps, and finding a wide variety of good mates for consecutive pregnancies.

The pressure for monogamous relationships comes from females, mostly. It’s comparatively easy for males to ditch them and leave them to raise their offspring on their own, at great expense to the mother, so it makes sense she’d want to share this burden.

The rest of the post tries to answer the question of why monogamy predominates by appealing to Dawkins’ memetics. The problem with that is that memetics is thin on falsifiability. The standard explanation of monogamy is that it results from men telling other men to only get one wife as to reduce competition. But it also reduces availability, since in a patriarchal society, a precondition of polygamy, it’s hard for a man to get multiple wives when their fathers support monogamy.

The more basal evolutionary-psychological explanation of promiscuity doesn’t hold much water, either. The pressure for monogamous relationship doesn’t come from women in general. Just because something has held true since Victorian times doesn’t make it a universal rule. The idea that women control access to sex is a relatively modern one, which only arose after capitalism required the patriarchy to reinvent itself by branding women as the guardians of male morality.

There’s a reason biologists are slowly abandoning Darwin’s sexual selection theory: it has the nasty tendency of ignoring social structures. In all but a small fraction of its history, homo sapiens has had a social structure based on packs of 30-40 hunter-gatherers (earlier the packs may have been even smaller; neanderthal packs were at 10-20). Inter-pack interaction existed but was small. Within the group, having too many children hurt everyone, including the men. Even a single birth of twins was deleterious.

The Cause of SIDS

November 2, 2006

Researchers may have discovered the cause of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome: a neural abnormality that makes the brain not realize it’s not getting enough oxygen until it’s too late.

Most babies will wake up, turn over, and start breathing faster when their carbon dioxide levels rise.

But in babies who die from Sids, defects in the serotonin system may impair these reflexes.

Such circumstances are far more likely to arise if a baby is placed face down in the cot.

While there still isn’t a cure, this lends theoretical credence to the empirical observation that babies are likelier to die if they’re prone rather than supine when they sleep. The only other observations about what triggers SIDS are empirical and apparently unrelated to the new finding: birth weight, prenatal care, small interval between successive births, etc.

But I’m still somewhat skeptical about the research because of its small sample size.

[Link] The researchers, led by Dr. Hannah Kinney, studied the autopsies of 31 babies who died of SIDS and 10 babies who died of other causes. Medulla oblongata nerve cell abnormalities were more common in babies who had died of SIDS than those who had died of other causes.

‘These findings provide evidence that SIDS is not a mystery but a disorder that we can investigate with scientific methods, and some day, may be able to identify and treat,’ Kinney said.

That implies a connection between medulla oblongata and SIDS, but not necessarily a causal one. First, having a sample size of 31 is barely out of the range where it’d be considered a case study. And second, the language used in the article suggests to me that “more common” is a fairly mild difference; compare that with microbial diseases, where there’s no disease without the microbe, and even lung cancer, 90% of the cases of which are traceable to smoking.

(Hat-tip to Evil Fizz)

News about Abuse

November 2, 2006

The first female genital mutilation trial in the US resulted in a conviction. The man who cut his daughter’s clitoris with scissors got 10 years (via Evil Fizz)

Britain is seeking to weaken its anti-torture laws (via Appletree). EU law forbids countries from extraditing anyone to countries that engage in cruel practices, including not just torture but also capital punishment. It’s illegal for Britain to even extradite a murderer to the US. Blair is trying to weaken that protection for countries that practice torture, so that it’s okay to extradite if the target country says it won’t use torture; note that the country’s mere word is enough, and no later check is needed.

Afghanistan is now a heaven for women’s rights, just like it was in 1998 (hat-tip to Echidne). With 60-80% of marriages being forced, most women still being forced to wear burqas, wives being sold to settle off debt, widespread honor killings, and prosecution of rape victims for adultery, it’s clearly an ideal feminist country.

The state-owned Russian natural gas company doubled the price of gas exported to Georgia, immediately after Georgian Foreign Minister Bezhuashvili went to Moscow for talks. Last year, Russia did the same to Ukraine. Autarky is never good, but neither is depending on a state-supported monopoly or cartel.

The Chinese government is doing everything in its power short of engineering a virus to make sure that there’s a bird flu epidemic this winter. In response to a study documenting the presence of mutations in the H5N1 strain, the agriculture ministry gave the standard “No, it can’t be true!” response, while holding back vital information from the WHO.

The US federal government is spreading propaganda about sex again. Says ABC, “The guidelines let states use federal grants to ‘identify groups’ of people between the ages of 12 to 29 who ‘are most likely to bear children out of wedlock.’ After identifying the groups, targeted programs can then ‘support decisions to delay sexual activity until marriage'” (this link via Aetiology, but see also Feministing, Pandagon, and Echidne).

Welcome all Kossacks

October 28, 2006

And thanks to DarkSyde for the plug. The plugging post is worth reading, if only because DarkSyde explains cosmic inflation in a remarkably clear, remarkably awe-inspiring way. After explaining the mechanism, he analogizes,

And that’s why today,at very large scales, the universe looks like someone took a stick of dynamite, put it in a can of paint (Paint starstuff/galaxies), set it off, and took a high speed photo of the resulting explosion showing streamers, sheets, drops, and fliaments of paint flying apart.

Go read the rest. Ultimately it’s a summary of a much deeper but less comprehensible post by Sean Carroll about inflationary models in cosmology.
Now I need to make sure I go to sleep at normal hours instead of just before sunrise, so that among other things I don’t post a welcome ten hours after the fact.

Friday Night Links

October 27, 2006

Liza of CultureKitchen writes about misogyny and the Sandinistas, in light of the total abortion ban its Congress passed yesterday, which imposes a 30-year prison sentence on women who abort. Liza explains how the ban is related to the betrayal of socialist principles by Daniel Ortega and his supporters, and talks about the intimate connection between feminism and Liberation Theology. Finally, she concludes,

Abortion would be completely contrary to Liberation Theology. There is no question about it. But for liberation theologists to push for a complete ban on abortion? That’s completely unheard of. I find it hard to believe that Liberation theologists would go on a full attack of women’s sovereignty. I believe the case is more about the corruption of the revolutionary movement, a corruption that is symbolized by Daniel Ortega’s 20 years of sexual domination and raping of his stepdaughter, Zoilamérica Narváez.

The French police seems determined to make sure that the riots of last year happen again this year. I didn’t mention the trigger of the original riots in my original article about them (sequel promised if the riots recur): two Arab-French youths were electrocuted while running from the police. France has enough ghettoization and police racism that putting more police officers in Arab areas will just make things worse.

As a consequence, the National Syndicate of Police Officers (SNOP) has demanded that reinforcements be deployed in the departement of Seine-Saint-Denis, just north of Paris, because ‘the delinquents in certain housing estates are preparing to violently ‘celebrate’ (last year’s) events.’

So great is the fear about a renewal of violence, that Interior Nicolas Sarkozy said this week he will draw up a bill that would make it a crime – rather than a misdemeanor, as it is currently – to attack police officers, gendarmes or fire-fighters and will propose a law to treat juvenile repeat offenders as adults in court.

The degree of repression countries will go to to avoid cracking down on discrimination is astounding. When Syria or Jordan slaughters Palestinians it’s understandable – neither has been famous for its democratic governance – but why France keeps trying the failed law-and-order solution is beyond me.

DarkSyde interviews Karen Wehrstein, a highly talented science and science fiction illustrator who’s responsible to, among other things, the cover of Kosmos, and many of DarkSyde’s Science Friday pictures. Besides being a great drawer and photoshop artist, she apparently has world creation ideas that make most popular science fiction look cretinous.

Gordo attacks coded racism in Republican ads and the Republican response to it.

When a Republican gets called out for being insensitive or for using coded racism, he turns around and says that his critics are trying to use race to divide the electorate. It goes like this:

Democrat: What’s your position on affirmative action?

Republican: I’m against it. If you want my opponent’s position, you’ll have to ask one of the many white women who work on his staff?

Democrat: Are you trying to say I’m too friendly with white women?

Republican: I don’t want to hug THAT tar baby.

Citizen: Tar baby? Isn’t that a bit insensitive?
Republican: I think YOU’RE being OVERsensitive. But I understand that you people are hot-blooded.
Citizen: What? That’s a bigoted stereotype! You take that back!
Republican: Take it back? Do you think I’m an Indian giver?
Citizen: Apologize!
Republican: See, this is what happens. Every chance you get, you people start mau-mauingg on the race issue, trying to divide us instead of uniting us.

The Republican base may hate the French, but its ethnic policies are remarkably similar to France’s: sweep the issue under the carpet, pretend everyone’s an equal citizen and no racism exists, and bash everyone who says that the emperor has no clothes for trying to divide the country.

Feminists for Whose Life?

October 26, 2006

Via Pandagon: Patricia Heaton of Feminists For Life apparently came out publicly against stem cell research. FFL strongly supports the right of a zygote to live, provided it doesn’t spontaneously abort the way 80% of zygotes do. It’s less enthusiastic about the rights of people like those in this ad:

Maybe far right conservatives want to give embryos and people the same rights, because they think people have the same cognitive ability as a blastula.