Posts Tagged ‘Science’

Guess Who, Fat Boy?

Friday, January 4th, 2013

Earlier this week, the Journal of the American Medical Association came out with a huge study of obesity that concludes that the obesity hysterics are, indeed, hysterical. Their results indicate that being moderately overweight or even very mildly obese doesn’t make you more likely to die than a thin person. In fact, it may make you less likely to die, to the tune of 6%. (Severe obesity, however, did show a strong connection to higher death rates).

Now you would think that this would be greeted with some skeptical enthusiasm. If the results are born out by further study, it would mean we do not have a massive pending public health crisis on our hands. It means that instead of using cattle prods to get moderately overweight people into the gym, we can concentrate on really obese people.

So is the health community greeting this with relief? Not exactly:

That’s the wrong conclusion, according to epidemiologists. They insist that, in general, excess weight is dangerous. But then they have to explain why the mortality-to-weight correlation runs the wrong way. The result is a messy, collective scramble for excuses and explanations that can make the new data fit the old ideas.

William Saletan at Slate lists a dozen different explanations for why this study is wrong, definitely wrong, absolutely wrong, no sir. Most of these cross him (and me) as trying to rationalize away an inconvenient scientific result.

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Swift Unveils the Gallery

Monday, December 31st, 2012

Not a bad bunch of pictures, if I do say so myself.

Post-Xmas Linkorama

Sunday, December 30th, 2012
  • Godspeed.
  • Heh heh. It turns out that some of those tests that say newborns have pot in their systems may be bullshit. Don’t you just love the War on Drugs?
  • You know, I actually think this guy gets it right. The whole “we’re miserable during the holidays” things always did cross me as a load of dingo’s kidneys. We see the stress of family and travel; ignore the absent stress of work.
  • As much as I respect the idea of building an ideal language, the idea is going precisely nowhere as Zamenhoff found out. Language is not about utilitarian efficiency. It’s about culture, history, nuance and tradition.
  • One thing I wondered while taking Sporcle’s blurred faces quiz is if the results would show a racial component: i.e., would white people be more likely to recognize the blurred features of other white people. This wouldn’t be about racism but about the way our brains process facial features.
  • Robot Cars and the Law

    Friday, December 28th, 2012

    As I often say about innovation, the technical problems are nothing compared to the pinhead legal problems. Verge has a good article up sorting through some of the legal and treaty issues (yes, treaty issues) involved in automated robotic cars. It’s definitely worth your time.

    However…

    The article seems unduly pessimistic to me. These are things that can be worked out — we have entire armies of lawyers in this country who stand to make millions getting everything sorted into legal precedent. And if these things prove to be safe — and I think they will — the economic pressure to work out the legal issues will be fierce.

    The one thing that bothered me about the article was this:

    The Geneva Convention on Road Traffic (1949) requires that drivers “shall at all times be able to control their vehicles,” and provisions against reckless driving usually require “the conscious and intentional operation of a motor vehicle.” Some of that is simple semantics, but other concerns are harder to dismiss. After a crash, drivers are legally obligated to stop and help the injured — a difficult task if there’s no one in the car.

    As a result, most experts predict drivers will be legally required to have a person in the car at all times, ready to take over if the automatic system fails. If they’re right, the self-parking car may never be legal.

    Did you see the subtext? The subtext is that if I’m in a crash with an automated car, there is no one around to render assistance to me.

    Well, maybe. Bleeding out while unconscious or seriously injured would be a risk (although it’s not like pedestrians and bystanders are going to disappear). But being in a collision with a robot would have some advantages over being in one with a human:

  • One of the lessons taught in driver’s education is how to avoid accidents or, if unavoidable, minimize the damage (e.g., rear-ending someone instead of swerving into traffic or pedestrians). Robots can be made to optimize this much better than human beings.
  • A robot can not be knocked unconscious and can call for help. Even if its CPU were destroyed, it can be on a network that will recognize the dropout and call for assistance to the last known location.
  • An automated car will maintain an extremely detailed and objective record of the accident, making fault easy to determine.
  • An automated car will not get out and try to help injured passengers, true. But this isn’t always a good thing. It’s not unheard for helpful bystanders to drag people with spinal injuries into para- or quadriplegia because of an irrational fear that the car will burst into flames.
  • Developing safety and reporting methods for automated cars will massively improve the ability of driven cars to avoid accidents, minimize damage and call for help.
  • Robot cars are coming, one way or another. As powerful as the legal pinheads are, the force of progress is simply too strong.

    Tuesday Linkorama

    Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012
  • Paul Ryan and the Republicans appear to be backing down on DADT. About time.
  • Apparently, there is a new blood test that could detect some types of cancer.
  • Yeah, I never thought much of the writing fever approach to teaching writing skills. You learn to play music by learning scales. You learn writing by learning vocabulary, grammar and sentence construction.
  • A fascinating profile of one of the CIA’s operatives. What’s telling is precisely why we provide aide to loathsome regimes.
  • Hmmm. Kids getting their grandparents’ Holocaust tattoos.
  • Toys. In. Spaaaaace.

    Thursday, September 27th, 2012

    I love this:

    The coolness and wow factors are there, yes. So is the idea that this sort of thing can be done so cheaply and easily. But the real gem is the look on that kid’s face. This is something he will never forget. I have to steal this idea for my kid one day.

    New Year Linkorama

    Monday, September 17th, 2012
  • I fear that Megan McArdle is right and that we are facing an awful bust in higher education. I recently that Emory is cutting whole departments. And we’ve been squeezed. At some point, the massive amounts of money poring into higher ed have to reach their asymptote, no? This is going to be ugly.
  • A fascinating article about why the atheist movement is so male-dominated. I won’t pretend I have an answer to this. I have to think about it quite a bit.
  • Was Obama elected by hordes of welfare recipients? Nope. This is, I think, a big reason many conservatives oppose efforts for mandatory voting. I oppose it myself, but for different reasons.
  • A great article on the state of science writing, the tendency of poor research to grab headlines (because poor research produces surprising bogus results) and the beauty of debunking. A must read.
  • A truly horrible story of isolation and psychological abuse being used to “discipline” kids. Honestly, we were better off with paddelings.
  • Why Science?

    Friday, September 14th, 2012

    As an astronomer, I’m always hit with the “what’s the practical use of this” question. My general response is, “Well, what’s the practical use of the Sistine Chapel?” Life can’t all be about practical down to earth things. There has to be beauty and art and discovery and awe. All our practicality has to be oriented toward something beyond ourselves.

    But there’s also this. Sometimes just monkeying around with science produces unexpected insight. So research into jellyfish produces an AIDS treatment; screwing around with microwaves produces lasers and going to the moon produces remote sensors to monitor patients.

    It’s a big universe out there and we’ve uncovered only a tiny fraction of its secrets. We should keep digging because we never know what’s going to turn up.

    Olympic Records

    Friday, July 27th, 2012

    This interactive graphic, showing how world records in olympic events have changed over time, is pretty damn cool. The improvement in the discus is particularly stunning.

    While part of this has to do with improved training and technology, these are just part of a larger trend of tapping deeper into the human potential. The people we were a century ago were a shadow of what we are now — well-fed people with all our teeth, marbles and bones who can live functionally into our 80′s. Vaccines and the reduction of childhood disease, in particular, have created an explosion in human healthy, lifetime and potential.

    I do think we are reaching the limits this side of genetic engineering. Watch how the records asymptote. I just hope the same isn’t true of our progress in science and technology.

    The Need To Explore

    Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

    Via the Bad Astronomer, I found this video talking about the ALMA array and the need for exploration that drives my profession.

    Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

    It’s worth watching, especially because it interviews scientists from one of best institutions of higher learning in the known universe: Mr. Jefferson’s. (Of which I might happen to be a graduate). Funny thing: I started out my career in radio astronomy and intended to pursue a career in it. Now I work in the gamma-ray regime, about as far away from radio as you can get and still be on the electromagnetic spectrum. But I still love the epic scale of radio telescopes. I’ve been to Arecibo. I would dearly love to see ALMA some day.

    Firewalking

    Saturday, July 21st, 2012

    I don’t know what annoys me more: that 21 people were burned fire walking in some confidence building bullshit; or that the organizers are blaming the burns on a lack of faith and concentration rather than a failure to either properly set or properly supervise this parlor trick.

    More from Penn and Teller here.

    The Dry Future

    Thursday, July 19th, 2012

    The WaPo has an article Looking at the current drought and wondering/speculating what will happen if and when such droughts become more common due to global warming.

    A lot of the hype for this is keying off a study that claims Texas’ 2011 drought was twenty times more likely because of global warming. This study has been loudly trumpeted around the punditsphere but needs to be taken with several helpings of salt water. The analysis is based on climactic modeling, a notoriously tricky discipline. It wouldn’t take much to make the 20 times go down a lot. Second, the 2011 Texas drought was an extreme event, on the tail of the probability distribution. If you shift the probability distribution just a little bit, the probability of an unlikely even shoots up dramatically. For example, if the likelihood of an event happening was one in a million and your analysis made it one in fifty thousand, that would be “20 times more likely”. But it is still an unlikely event and still at point where small assumptions can dramatically alter the results. Looking at their plots, 2011 was still an outlier. While there’s a great deal of research supporting the idea that global warming will produce a drier world (or at leas a drier USA), it’s sketchy to build policy on it.

    More importantly, the warming is inevitable. Even if we accept the current models; even we stopped all greenhouse gas emission today; the planet would continue to warm for another half century. We are long past the point of prevention; we are now at the point of adaptation, something the WaPo article only brushes against.

    There is hope in adaptation. The current drought has been more extensive than past droughts that caused food shortages and famine. But drought-resistant crops and better land management have prevented the catastrophe of the Dust Bowl. We have not even begun to tap the potential for adaptation. And it’s a potential we’re going to have to tap if the next century is to be as plentiful as the last.

    Breasts

    Sunday, July 15th, 2012

    For some reason, breasts have been in the news lately. Not one but two scholarly works are out, one of which is nicely skeptical about all the received wisdom about their form, function etc.

    Apart from my Y-chromosome issues, I find this subject interesting because of the discussions about precisely why men are attracted to women with large breasts. It’s simply amazing to read all the debates in evolutionary psychology which pass themselves off as science but are often little more than speculation (check out this baby for an example). I’ve heard all the “theories”, few of which are actually falsifiable. And all of them sound like rubbish to me.

  • Men are attracted to women’s breasts because they want their young to be well-fed. This is likely to be garbage as there is little, if any, correlation between breast size and the ability to nurse.
  • Men are attracted to women’s breasts because it indicates higher body fat and better nursing of children. See my response to the first explanation. I’d also note that breast size and body fat are not perfectly correlated. The most common body types are the “banana” and “pear” shapes.
  • Men are attracted to women’s breasts because they resemble women’s buttocks. This is a popular explanation but it also sounds like rubbish. First of all, it only deflects the question: “OK, wise guy: why are men attracted to women’s butts?” Second, this was clearly derived by people who have no idea what breasts looks like in the wild. Corsets and bras have only existed for the last half a millenium.
  • Men are attracted to women’s breasts because they swell during ovulation, signaling fertility. This swelling is subtle to anyone who is not experiencing it; far more subtle than the breast fetish tends to be. Moreover, many women do not experience breast swell during ovulation. And breast swell is far greater during pregnancy, when a woman, by definition, is not fertile. For our primate ancestors, it’s likely the very presence of breasts indicated a female was pregnant or nursing.
  • Men are attracted to women’s breasts because of socialization. Now this one really annoys me. Socialization doesn’t just happen on its own. Breast fetishism had to come from somewhere. It’s not like someone woke up one day and decided to tell all the men to eroticize boobs for some sort of oppressive reason. Breast attraction must have a long and deep history in our species to have affected our very evolution (humans females are the only mammals to have large breasts when they aren’t lactating).
  • To be honest, this debate tends to fill me with anger. All of these theories are presented with an incredible certainty, as though something had been proven. But none are supported by scientific evidence. They are mere conjecture and bad conjecture at that. Among other things, none allow for the fact that some men are not attracted to busty women. In fact, some men have a particular preference for women with small chests. Many cultures have a far less intense breast fetish than our own. And some men — like me — are attracted to a variety of physical types. So these explanation that big boobs appeal to something deep in our psyches or our genes leave me a little cold.

    These theories also ignore something very important: there may not be a reason. One of the things we’ve learned from evolutionary science is that we are not perfect creatures. We have many flaws which have been genetically selected over the generations. The reason we have these flaws is that they came along with something so useful that, on balance, we were better off. So intelligence may have come with bad eyesight. We are, and always have been, patchwork creatures. And the idea that evolution is a uniform process producing predictable results and that every aspect of our existence has some survival benefit is inconsistent with the known facts.

    In sum, men may be attracted to big boobs because of some random bit of programming that came along for the ride with something else. Or it may be an unusual manifestation of something that is useful. Looking for a definitive explanation is, in my view, dangerous because it implies that all our traits, all our behavior, have to have an explanation. They don’t.

    That having been said, I recently encountered a theory that makes some sense to me.

    I recently heard an interview with one of the authors of A Billion Wicked Thoughts, which applied the first objective analysis not to what people claim to consume on the internet, but to what they actually do. For example, far more men are attracted to women who are overweight than women who are anorexic. While the authors go too far in some of their conclusions, the interview did have one idea that resonated. The author was talking about why men fetishize things like dainty feet. He said, quite simply, that these are signs of femininity. They are things male brains — because of evolution, socialization or hormones — recognize as “this is a female; I can mate with her.” It is sexual signaling, no different from the bright feathers on a bird or the pheromones of an insect.

    This is probably the most sensible explanation for the breast fetish I’ve heard. It’s straight-forward and explains much of what the other theories don’t. Under this paradigm, men are attracted to anything their brains have decided is feminine. And breasts are just one of the easiest things to fetishize because they are such an obvious secondary sex characteristic; something women have that men don’t. A man can see a busty women from far away and recognize that it’s a woman. There doesn’t have to be a rationality behind it. He doesn’t have to be thinking about her ability to lactate or anything. It’s just something that his brain has latched on to.

    The real beauty of this theory, however, is that it does not have to be true of all men. If a man associates femininity with being small and petite, or having long hair and soft skin, or having a high-pitched voice — that’s what he finds attractive. He can be completely indifferent to mammary glands simply because his brain does not process that as a particularly feminine trait. Breast fetishism would simply be part of the larger paradigm that encloses all fetishes. Call it the General Theory of Ogling.

    (I should note that women are not immune from this sexual signaling, hence the preferences for broad shoulders, deep voices, etc. However, women tend to be less visual and their sexuality is more oriented around mate selection than mate identification. So if wealth or self-confidence or humor or whatever is what they regard as a signal of masculinity, that’s what they find attractive. This may also explain why women are often attracted to men who are obnoxious or even violent, since these can be masculine characteristics.

    I’ve often felt that natural selection, at least in humans, is something that women play a much larger role in than men. Men try to have sex with everything, superior or inferior. Women are the ones who are selective.)

    Of course, I would be remiss if not noting that this conjecture makes me feel better about myself. While I have always been very physically attracted to women, I don’t really have a “type”. My wife is blonde and curvy. My previous girlfriend is tall, brunette and slender. Before that was short and petite. Before that was short and absurdly busty (and possible artificial). And so on. I’ve been attracted to blondes, brunette and redheads; to tall and short; to slender and curvy. But I would define all of them as physically attractive in some way. In fact, I would say that I find most women attractive in some way. But if you narrowed it down just to the women to whom I have felt a strong physical attraction, you would still find a wide physical variety.

    That I am physically attracted to women of a wide variety of appearances used to bother me. But now it just means that my brain, for some reason, defines a broad spectrum of physical characteristics as female. Maybe it’s some subconscious “with your luck, you can’t be too picky” thought stream. But I suspect it’s just the way my brain works. I have broad interests in everything, hence the blog, hence the career in a massively interdisciplinary profession, hence the liberal arts education, hence the huge library. My interests tend to wander. And so does my eye.

    We are animals. And we are fools when we forget this. We are double fools when we have degrees in scientific disciplines and deliberately forget this. Our rational thinking selves are just the placid surface of a broiling animalistic mix of desires, passions and fears. We can’t pretend that every aspect of our lives — and especially the most basic aspect of our lives: our need to reproduce — are the product of reason and rationality. Nietzsche said that the degree and kind of a man’s sexuality reach up into the ultimate pinnacle of his spirit. Our spirits are animals. And our attractions are no different than an animal’s attraction to a set of big antlers or a particularly shimmery coating of scales.

    Tuesday Linkorama

    Tuesday, July 10th, 2012
  • Starry Night … in dominoes.
  • A great interview with the Skeptical Environmentalist.
  • The DEA can’t justify it’s own War on Drugs.
  • This post, on whether kids should hate their parents, deserves a feature-length post from me. Suffice it to say that I, uh, split he baby on this one. I’m my daughter’s friend when I can be but if she doesn’t hate me once a week, I’m not doing my job.