Archive for the ‘science’ Category

Sticking your head in the ground is a popular scheme of all science deniers, and for some reason that I’m still unsure of, the basic science of climate change, and a manifestation of that – global warming – has become incredibly politicized over the last few decades. The science really is settled as to the basics of what’s going on. Politicians and deniers will have you believe otherwise.

They often turn to ridiculous conspiracy theories and rants. One of the latest is by Christopher Booker from The Telegraph and parroted by Greg Corombos on World Net Daily: “Climate Guru: Brace for Massive Cover-Up.”

I’m not even going to get into his argument. It’s the same old tired crap, but it pleases people who desperately need confirmation that their conspiracies could possibly be real.

I experienced something similar when I did a massive, thoroughly researched podcast episode into claims of scientific foreknowledge by Billy Meier about Jupiter and Saturn. I showed without a doubt that the information Meier wrote about was known or already shown as very likely to be the case (as in, hypothesized and put out as specific predictions) by scientists before Meier wrote about it. Meier fans picked through it and harped on minutia (like the exact definition of “craters” or “rings”) rather than the overall point in order to disclaim my entire episode and analysis. In other words, complaining that one tree that looks a little sicker than all the healthy trees, and saying therefore the entire forest is dead.

Anyway, Phil Plait has utterly lambasted this latest attempt in his post, “No, Adjusting Temperature Measurements Is Not a Scandal.” In it, he explains what is meant by scientists when we “process” data. And he shows that independent groups have gone through completely different analyses of the data and gotten the same results.

It’s pretty thorough. I recommend just reading that instead of the WND article. Unless you want a headache.

I had a 1700-word post all ready to go, and then WordPress decided to delete it. Sigh. Here’s my attempted reconstruction of this highly informative topic:

Federal research grants are important. They provide money for a huge range of scientific research that otherwise would not be done. We, as a society, have decided that they are good, though both the left and right and everyone in between may disagree about specific programs.

Because they are public, certain laws and regulations exist whereby the public gets to know what their tax money is going to. And, there exist many website that will let you search them. Here’s one that I have found useful because it links to the search forms for what looks like all federal research funding agencies.

What information is shown is somewhat variable, but in general, you will find: The funding agency, the PI (principle investigator), the PI’s institution, Co-Is (co-investigators), the date the funding starts, the date the funding ends, the amount of funding, and an abstract that describes the research that was provided within the proposal. You won’t find the actual proposal because it contains proprietary information — not only sometimes classified information, but also the ideas and methodology behind the proposal (so the team doesn’t get “scooped”), and even the layout and style of the proposal itself (trust me, there are many ways to write a proposal, and some of them are very effective, while others are very ineffective).

The problem with this information is that to a non-expert, and without any of the broader context of the many pages explaining what the proposal may do and the implications for it beyond the immediate research, the proposal easily looks like a waste of money to the average person. And, despite a tiny fraction of the federal budget going to research grants, various bloggers, reporters, and even congresspersons will often pull up a random title and claim that it’s an amazing example of government waste.

Such seems to have been the case with a Free Beacon article titled, “Feds Spent $532,000 Studying Gay Hookup Apps” with the subtitle, “NIH project studied ‘arousal’ of gay men when using Grindr.” The image is of two men, ostensibly gay, laying on each other and smiling.

The World Net Daily subtitle is the same, but they slightly modified the title: “Feds Spent $432,000 Studying ‘Gay’-Hookup Apps.” See, they added a hyphen and put “gay” in “quotes” because “gay” is scary and fake and a choice, because it’s WND.

There are three distinct problems here, and I don’t know if there’s a good solution to any of them: (1) There is no context, making it easy to complain; (2) titles of proposals are often whimsical; and (3) people don’t realize that less than half of the money goes to the actual researcher(s).

The first issue is that when we write grant proposals, we write them at a level where someone in our field or closely related field can understand them. When I write a crater-related proposal, I try to generalize the abstract to explain to a general person familiar with planetary geology what I plan to do and why. I then spend several pages within the proposal giving background information so that someone who models the interiors of planets would be able to understand why I want to do an observational study of impact craters.

I don’t write my abstract so that someone who has a 9-5 job working for a law firm, or working retail, or who works in Congress, would understand it. That would simply require “dumbing it down” too much. I don’t mean to imply that those people are dumb; rather, we have a very limited amount of space to explain why we want to do the research, how we’re going to do it, the broader implications, the proposal team, the management structure, and justify the budget. If we also had to write it at a level that anyone could understand it, we’d never be able to get into details.

Therefore, what makes it into the abstract that would be made public should I win the grant will rarely make sense to a general person just picking it up randomly.

Similarly, we often write titles to try to stand out to the review panels. Something fun and whimsical, for example, to make someone smile. For example, one might entitle a proposal, “Studying Martian ‘Holes in One.'”

A congressional staffer or random blogger may pick that up thinking, “Wow, why is NASA funding something about golf on Mars?” In reality, my proposal is about studying meter- and decameter scale craters in a broad statistical study to try to understand where they are most common, how dense they are, and therefore what the likelihood is that a a future spacecraft may inadvertently land in one. This happened with the MER Opportunity when it landed on Mars eleven years ago. It turned out to be good because the crater’s walls let Opportunity see a lot of otherwise buried layers, and it was able to get out of the crater. But if the crater were a little steeper, or a little smaller, then the rover would not have been able to escape or it may have fallen over and not have been able to righten itself.

Now it seems much more important: You send a half-$billion craft to Mars, you’re going to be more willing to fund a $300k study into impact crater hazards for landing, right? But, a layperson may never get past the title and flag it for government waste.

And that leads into the third issue: We don’t get that money. On a proposal I wrote several years ago, just as an example, the total budget for the three-year proposal was $328k. Salary was $127k, a little over one-third of the total amount. That was my salary as a graduate student half-time for 1 year, and postdoc half-time for 2 years, and my then-advsior for 1 month each year. What did the other money go to? The vast majority was institutional overhead, which covers administration staff salary, budget office salary, building rent, lights, computer support, custodial staff, etc. Then there were benefits, like health insurance, life insurance, and retirement. There was also money in there for a new computer and software licenses so I could do the work. About $10k was travel to conferences and another $6k was publication costs: After all, I could do the most ground-breaking study ever, but if I never told anyone about it, then what’s the point?

So, while a study may look like it costs a lot, and overhead rates vary considerably across different institutions (and are generally higher at private companies versus public universities), a very very general rule-of-thumb is to divide the total amount by 3, and that’s salary.

That brings us back to the article in question. Now that you have all that in mind, let’s look at it. Using the NIH (National Institutes of Health) search form, here’s the grant, awarded to Dr. Karolynn Siegel, entitled, “Use of Smartphones Applications for Partnering Among MSM.” MSM is “men who have sex with men” (since many men are unwilling to identify as bi or gay but do have sex with other men).

While Free Beacon doesn’t seem to have much of a spin, and it does not allow comments so I can’t quite tell which end of the political spectrum it’s on, WND clearly does have an agenda: This study is a waste because who cares about gays (or “gays”) hooking up? What benefit could there possibly be!?

Well, take a moment and think more broadly about it from both a social and medical standpoint: Smartphones and GPS-enabled devices have drastically changed how we interact, so from a social standpoint we need research to better understand that phenomenon. From a health standpoint, it’s dramatically increased the ease of casual sex, especially among gay men where there is still a stigma of trolling the bars or streets for a partner. Heterosexuals have their own app (Tinder), and so the findings from a study of gay males hooking up could have implications for straight men and women, too. And, casual sex will increase the risk of STDs (sexually transmitted diseases). So, from a public health standpoint, understanding a strong new vector for how diseases spread is the first step to trying to determine ways to minimize that risk. Both for straight and gay persons.

If the blogger or WND had bothered to read the abstract on the NIH site, they would have found that (emphasis mine):

The study aims are: 1. Examine how and why smartphone applications are used for sexual partnering, the situations and locations in which they are used, in order to gain insights into how these use patterns might contribute to sexual risk behaviors. 2. Investigate the process by which MSM use smartphone applications to find sexual partners (i.e., who they look for, how they present themselves, how they communicate, extent of safer sex negotiation,and disclosure) to gain insights into how this process may contribute to sexual risk behaviors. 3. Investigate the sexual and emotional states (e.g., more/less urgency, arousal, impulsivity) that MSM experience when seeking or meeting sexual partners using smartphone applications and gain insights into how these states may contribute to sexual risk behaviors. 4. Examine the perceived need and acceptability of a smartphone delivered intervention and assess what MSM perceive as needed components for a smartphone-based sexual risk reduction intervention.

It also contains a public health relevance statement (likely unique to the NIH, since I don’t have to do that for NASA).

Meanwhile, the cost – $432k – may seem high. But, divide by three, and we’re down to around $150k salary. For a medical researcher, working for two years, at maybe half or a third of their time on this particular grant, that doesn’t seem very high anymore. Especially if most of it is given to graduate students who will be conducting the actual interviews with the 60 MSM in the study and Dr. Siegel is there for a month a year to supervise and then more at the end to crunch the data. In medical studies, there’s also money that is sometimes paid out to participants as compensation (I have no idea if that’s the case in this study, but I know it happens in others).

And so, we went from a sensationalist headline that clearly is meant to drum up a specific reaction (government waste! who cares about gays!?) but that’s because it leaves out any form of context as to the broader implications of this kind of study and why it’s being done. It also completely ignores that the amount of money in the federal budget for government-funded scientific research is somewhere around 3.4%. (FY2015 budget is around $3.97T, but science is $135B, and just under half of that is defense, leaving 1.8% for non-defense.)

And, World Net Daily got that reaction. In the 22 hours the article on their site has been posted, they have gotten 42 comments. They broadly fit into saying that President Obama is gay (which is another odd conspiracy they’ve been floating for years, and remember that being gay on WND is bad), that this is government waste of tax money, and that the study is stupid because it’s about The Gays.

Ignoring the first, some examples of the second are:

    • dan690: “The government says there is no room in the budget for cuts. Here is an excellent example of where to cut and there are thousands more.”
    • Tomas Cruz: “And they wonder why we reject every call for more taxes for this or that because it ends up with this nonsense.”
    • James Frost: “What the hell is going on with our officials? They spend our money on conducting such stupid research. But what`s the use? They`d better spend money on veterans, poor families, security measures. This gays have too much public attention!”

And examples of the third are:

    • Sharknado: “A government of perverts…just great…thanks a lot.”
    • ThoLawn: “What was the purpose to spend (waste indeed) half of million dollars to interview all that gays? What they’re going to do with that “research” results? Would it help to solve any problems? What a stupidity…”
    • HardCorePress: “Talk about in your face government sponsored hommoman wanna pump a guys *** pervertedness. This type of blatant sin has been seen by God and God will send his wrath upon this country. May it be nuclear fire to cleanse the cancerous mass of homosexuality (the pinnacle of debauchery and Obamanibale hedonism).”

That’s a serious question. I think I know the answer, but it’s a bit flippant, so if anyone has ideas, please let me know in the comments.

This was brought up by a post by WND’s Andrew Shea King, who wrote on January 12, 2015, “‘Pillars of Creation’ Evaporating.”

This was reporting that for th Hubble Space Telescope’s 25th anniversary, it used its latest camera to take an image of the famous “Pillars of Creation” within M16, the “Eagle Nebula.” These are so-named because they contain nascent stars that are still in the process of forming, and their high-energy ultra-violet light is blasting away the nebula that formed them. Hence the headline. They were first imaged in 1995 by the HST.

This is also one of the more strange WND posts that has a bunch of other news as part of it, so there are other topics completely unrelated to the headline. I mention this simply out of weirdness and that I haven’t used one of these types of WND posts before.

With that said, most of the 191 comments are about the headline and first story. And the highly rated ones are preaching Young-Earth Creationism or other very literal readings of the Bible.

Take, for example, “airstart” who has the hight-rated comment and wrote:

Since no one has ever witnessed the creation of a star only star destruction, (supernova) the dispersion of Eagle Nebula is not surprising. The whole universe is characterized (since the beginning) as suffering from entropy. God finished His creation activities and rested (stopped creating). After Adam’s fall God pronounced the curse on all creation. Things have been going down hill ever since, but Christ’s second coming will begin the restoration process.

There are a lot of responses and debate, partly spearheaded by “larryblk” (who wrote the one good comment about the Satanism story I posted yesterday). It also quickly devolved into an argument about evolution. Go figure. And it’s young-Earth creationism.

What is (sorta) ended with is fairly telling where “Leo” wrote, in part: “I think you are trying too hard to figure out exactly how things happened (or rather how God created things) instead of just looking at the evidence.”

In response, “larryblk” wrote, in part: “Of *course* I am. It’s called science. If your theory only works by telling people to not ask questions, then it answers nothing. Evolution explains why antelopes have four legs. Saying “because God” is no answer, unless God appears in person and explains why *exactly* He chose four. If your theory includes a conscious entity, it is a legitimate question to ask. And until you can produce that information, evolution is still the best explanation.”

This perhaps wasn’t the best example for my question, but I’m on a plane and can only view a limited number of comments that loaded before we took off. But, it shows a bit of context for my question: Why is the politically far-right often in bed with the young-Earthers?

Ever since the start of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that became briefly (and still in homophobic circles) known as the “Gay Plague,” the US FDA has banned every homosexual man (who admits it) from donating blood. Period.

This has long been viewed as discriminatory, especially these days when HIV is not a “gay plague” but affects all groups and genders and people of all sexual orientations. It also did not make sense that you could be a hight promiscuous adult prostitute and yet still give blood while gay men who had never had sex could not. As soon as you flip that li’l gay switch, your blood is tainted. Apparently.

And so, unsurprisingly, there has been pushback. Not only from LGBT rights advocates, but by doctors. Finally, it seemed, the FDA was going to lift its ban. And WND was not happy, publishing a full (though unattributed) article on December 24, 2014, entitled, “Blood-Donor Rules Bent by ‘Politics.'”

I find it ironic that “Politics” here is in quotes because politics is the only thing that’s keeping the ban in place.

The policy change, however, has been condemned not just by the far-right, but also by the left: The policy change is such that gay men may donate blood if they have not had intercourse for one full year. Which eliminates most men.

It would eliminate most straight men, too, if that were the policy for straight persons.

Even though HIV can lay dormant for years in a human body.

So, this is a token step in the correct direction, but it’s clearly political.

Meanwhile, the WND article is quite lengthy and ranting about misleading statistics (their statistics they give to bolster their claim are misleading).

If you want to have a sound blood donation policy, you need to look dispassionately at all races, all genders, all social factors, all occupations (i.e., my example about sex workers) and determine who has the highest chances of HIV infection. Then, you look at the screening process for blood and how good it is. Then you look at the statistics for what the chances are, given the screening tests, of any given group having a donation that is both HIV-positive and is missed in screening. And then you set your bans that way.

Just banning gay men for life, or banning gay men who have had sex more recently than a year ago, is just political and unscientific.

I sometimes just open up random WND astronomy snippets to see what the comments are like. Often, they are about the heavens declare the glory of god and all that stuff. But, more often than I’d like, especially if it has anything to do with NASA, there are mini-rants against or sarcastic comments about Muslims. Go figure.

Take, for instance, this five-paragraph snippet published from the Seattle Times on WND just six days ago: “Astronomers Seek Widest View Ever of Universe.” The article was about the construction of the LSST (Large Synoptic Survey Telescope) that won’t be completed for several years (it’s a big telescope). The article is all about science, all about the telescope.

And yet, the highest-rated comment is by “Nidalap” who wrote: “If they hope to get backing from NASA on this, there’d better be a Muslim outreach aspect to it………”

In lieu of a post yesterday, you get a 149-word ranty post today based on WND’s snippet, “Senate to Vote on Whether Climate Change Happening.”

There are so many things wrong with this, but when I put on my science outreach hat, the biggest issue here is that it gives the impression that science is up for vote.

Is 2+2=5? It might be if the Senate votes it is!

That sort of thing seems ridiculous to most people, but this is the exact same thing that this headline implies: If the Senate votes climate change is happening, it is! If they don’t, it isn’t!

Yes, I fully realize that this is an opportunity for everyone to score perceived points for their base, for conservatives to show that they don’t believe it and liberals to show they do. But the idea that they are voting on a scientific idea is just … UGH!!!

Sometimes, I’m a glutton for punishment. In two days, I’ll be a glutton, for it will be Turkey Day in the US, or, as I call it in my holidays-can-be-identified-by-their-colors terminology, the “Red, Yellow, and Brown” holiday. (Contrast that with red & green holiday, or blue & white, or pastels for Easter.)

Anyway, being gluttonous. Sometimes I open WND’s few-paragraph snippets of news stories that are about the latest science. Just to see what kind of hell the commenters will twist them into. Recently, we had “Supermassive Black Holes Aligned Across Universe,” and “Saturn’s Calming Nature Keeps Earth Friendly to Life.” (I admit I thought the latter was an astrology article.)

The first article can be explained by standard gravitational collapse and conservation of angular momentum: As massive structures formed early in the universe, gravity pulled them into a foam-like structure, with concentrations of mass and material in filaments and planes with relative voids between them. As you continue to collapse down, conservation of angular momentum is going to orient spinning structures in a similar way, and so galaxies having massive active black holes that spew radiation in sets (quasars) being oriented in similar directions isn’t outside the realm of possibility.

The second article is about the large gas giant planet, Saturn, acting early in the solar system’s history to help circularize Earth’s orbit. It’s based on a lot of different initial conditions and seeing what happens when the orbits are allowed to evolve through time. Basic, simple stuff; not sure if it was worth the press release, but this is just basic science that we do all the time to better understand how things may have been in the early solar system. Notice I used the word “may” there, for later.

As of the time I’m writing this, three days after they each came out, WND commenters have made 56 and 9 comments on each, respectively. Most are about the Judeo-Christian god. The top-rated comment on the first article is by “pebbie” who starts out quoting the article, and then responds:

“may be a hint that there is a missing ingredient in our current models of the cosmos”


“kingdad” chimed in with some off-topic information:

Black Hole was Obama’s nickname at those Chytown Bath Houses.
Dark Matter is what fell out of Obama after those Bath House visits.
Black Hole is where Marion Barry should be buried.
Dark Matter is what should be shovelled in on top of him.
Black Holes spewing stuff have nothing on the Congressional Black Caucus and all they spew. Nor on Pres. Obola, Eric Holder, Val Jarrett and the Rest of the Dum-as-crap Party members. Black Holes are where they stuff their heads most of the Time.
Dark Matter is what is in-between their Ears and all around them in their head stuffed positions.

But, 56 posts is few enough that some reasonable comments can get through, like 4th-highest-rated comment, by “Pete Dreeber:” “None of this should surprise anyone. The universe is ruled by gravity, the weakest force but the one that works over the longest distances. If supermassive objects were not aligned with one another on a cosmic scale, I would take that as evidence of God’s hand at work.”

On the second article, it’s much the same. Top-rated comment is by “Sam Huston:” “So many things had to come together perfectly for humanity to evolve on our planet that it is impossible to consider that God’s guiding hand was not involved. “As I have said so many times, God doesn’t play dice with the world.” – Albert Einstein”

But, “luke” has the second-highest with something reasonable: “We actually owe Jupiter and Saturn a big debt, inasmuch as they have protected Earth and the inner planets from constant bombardment from asteroids, comets and dust, to a degree…”

But then, there’s “Bonnie,” who wrote:

Oh wow….

I really enjoy reading fiction from time to time. Although I prefer non-fiction.

Reading an article that is riddled with “coulds”, “maybes”,
etc just tells me they know no more than myself about the subject, but they DO
know how to write and make money.

For instance: “…earth’s orbit COULD have been widely elongated”…(they don’t know) Another one: Jupiter and Saturn “…COULD have shaped other planets orbits” (they don’t know)

She used a computer model to study these two planets to see how they ”MIGHT affect earth” (she doesn’t know). But she went into great detail on how a
scenario may play out, such as tilting Saturn’s orbit would affect earth’s orbit which would do all sorts of things to earth, but this model did not take into consider the other, lessor inner planets and their potential pull on the subject. Well then, that kinda negates the whole study, doesn’t it?

But, Roy Barns at the University of Washington came to save the day when he suggested that implications for life in the universe are UNCLEAR. Wow. A profound statement! Also, he suggested that what an elongation of an orbit means for life is UNCERTAIN.

So, in conclusion, I think I just wasted my time because there’s nothing to learn here and the entertainment is minimal.

Remember that I told you to pay attention to that word “may?” The issue is the different use of language between scientists and many other people, but especially between scientists and Biblical literalists. Scientists are never certain of their conclusions, pretty much by definition. Every conclusion is contingent upon further data. That’s why scientists who are intellectually honest and careful about their language will not use definitive language, like “is, are, certain,” etc.

Biblical literalists, however, will. That’s because the Bible must be literal and true, and it is unchanging. Therefore, things “are,” not “could be.”

This is a super-long way of saying that Bonnie doesn’t understand science, and is using the actual strength and entire method of science against it because she simply doesn’t understand it.