November 9, 2011
A 2010 poll found that one in four Americans (and one in five people worldwide) believe that aliens have visited our planet. And many of these people believe that the evidence of these visits has been covered up by the government. Area 51, Roswell, mutilated cows in Colorado—there’s got to be some truth in that, right? And so two petitions were created on the White House We The People site, one calling “for the President to disclose to the American people the long withheld knowledge of government interactions with extraterrestrial beings” and the other asking the President “to formally acknowledge an extraterrestrial presence engaging the human race.”
The petitions easily reached the threshold of 5,000 signatures needed to get a response from the White House. But the signers are likely to be disappointed. Phil Larson, who works on space policy and communications at the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, wrote in the response:
The U.S. government has no evidence that any life exists outside our planet, or that an extraterrestrial presence has contacted or engaged any member of the human race. In addition, there is no credible information to suggest that any evidence is being hidden from the public’s eye.
He gives a few examples of ongoing and planned research—SETI, Kepler, the Mars Science Laboratory—that may lead to the discovery of alien life and then reminds us that the odds of finding alien life are probably pretty slim:
Many scientists and mathematicians have looked with a statistical mindset at the question of whether life likely exists beyond Earth and have come to the conclusion that the odds are pretty high that somewhere among the trillions and trillions of stars in the universe there is a planet other than ours that is home to life.
Many have also noted, however, that the odds of us making contact with any of them—especially any intelligent ones—are extremely small, given the distances involved.
While reading this, I was reminded of a conversation I had with Cassie Conley last year when I was reported a story about what will happen should we actually find alien life. Conley is NASA’s Planetary Protection Officer; she’s the one who makes certain that NASA missions don’t contaminate other planets and that any sample return missions don’t harm us here on Earth. She told me that after she took the NASA job, some people befriended her in the hopes of ferreting out NASA’s secrets about aliens. “I was dropped as an acquaintance immediately upon their realizing that, in fact, I didn’t have any secrets,” she said. “They were disappointed when they found out there weren’t any.” (But at least she had a good attitude about it all: “It was rather entertaining,” she said.)
I will admit that it is possible that some grand conspiracy exists, that a government or corporation could be hiding this information from us all. (I can’t disprove a negative.) But keep in mind what Conley says: “If you think the U.S. government is that good at keeping secrets, you’ve got a lot higher opinion of them than I do.”
In addition, such a conspiracy would necessitate excluding the scientists most interested and most qualified in this area, and all of them have committed to making a discovery of alien life public. “I think there’s a big misconception in the public that somehow this is all a cloak-and-dagger operation,” says Arizona State University astrobiologist Paul Davies. “It’s not. People are quite open about what they are doing.”
Even the White House.
October 24, 2011
A group of scientists and statisticians led by the University of California at Berkeley set out recently to conduct an independent assessment of climate data and determine once and for all whether the planet has warmed in the last century and by how much. The study was designed to address concerns brought up by prominent climate change skeptics, and it was funded by several groups known for climate skepticism. Last week, the group released its conclusions: Average land temperatures have risen by about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit since the middle of the 20th century. The result matched the previous research.
The skeptics were not happy and immediately claimed that the study was flawed.
Also in the news last week were the results of yet another study that found no link between cell phones and brain cancer. Researchers at the Institute of Cancer Epidemiology in Denmark looked at data from 350,000 cell phone users over an 18-year period and found they were no more likely to develop brain cancer than people who didn’t use the technology.
But those results still haven’t killed the calls for more monitoring of any potential link.
Study after study finds no link between autism and vaccines (and plenty of reason to worry about non-vaccinated children dying from preventable diseases such as measles). But a quarter of parents in a poll released last year said that they believed that “some vaccines cause autism in healthy children” and 11.5 percent had refused at least one vaccination for their child.
Polls say that Americans trust scientists more than, say, politicians, but that trust is on the decline. If we’re losing faith in science, we’ve gone down the wrong path. Science is no more than a process (as recent contributors to our “Why I Like Science” series have noted), and skepticism can be a good thing. But for many people that skepticism has grown to the point that they can no longer accept good evidence when they get it, with the result that “we’re now in an epidemic of fear like one I’ve never seen and hope never to see again,” says Michael Specter, author of Denialism, in his TEDTalk below.
If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that you think I’m not talking about you. But here’s a quick question: Do you take vitamins? There’s a growing body of evidence that vitamins and dietary supplements are no more than a placebo at best and, in some cases, can actually increase the risk of disease or death. For example, a study earlier this month in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that consumption of supplements, such as iron and copper, was associated with an increased risk of death among older women. In a related commentary, several doctors note that the concept of dietary supplementation has shifted from preventing deficiency (there’s a good deal of evidence for harm if you’re low in, say, folic acid) to one of trying to promote wellness and prevent disease, and many studies are showing that more supplements do not equal better health.
But I bet you’ll still take your pills tomorrow morning. Just in case.
This path has the potential to lead to some pretty dark times, as Specter says:
When you start down the road where belief and magic replace evidence and science, you end up in a place you don’t want to be. You end up in Thabo Mbeki South Africa. He killed 400,000 of his people by insisting that beetroot garlic and lemon oil were much more effective than the antiretroviral drugs we know can slow the course of AIDS. Hundreds of thousands of needless deaths in a country that has been plagued worse than any other by this disease.
If you don’t think that can happen here, think again. We’re already not vaccinating children against preventable diseases, something that will surely lead (and probably already has led) to lives lost. We have big problems to address in the coming decades—even greater changes to temperature, weather and water as the planet warms; a growing population—and we need to start putting our trust back into science, into the process that has brought us to where we are today, with longer lives, cleaner water and skies, more efficient farming. Because you have to admit, this is a pretty great time to be alive and it’s science that got us here.
February 9, 2011
Conventional wisdom says that it’s the most troubled kids that resort to bullying. Not so, say two University of California at Davis sociologists in this month’s issue of the American Sociological Review. Home life, grades, academic achievement, sports—they all have little to do with who bullies whom. Instead, it’s where you fall on the social ladder that counts.
That won’t be a surprise to many of us, including anyone who watched the movie Mean Girls, but with bullying occasionally turning deadly, it’s important to know who’s doing what and why. The sociologists used a survey of 3,722 students from the 8th, 9th and 10th grades in North Carolina to analyze patterns of bullying (defined as anything from hitting to name-calling to spreading rumors). They found that the higher up someone was in the social hierarchy, the more aggressive they were as a bully.
Up to a point, that is. The top two percent of kids in the social hierarchy were among the least aggressive on the bullying scale, on par with the kids at the very bottom. “The ones at the bottom don’t have the social power or as much capacity to be aggressive whereas the ones at the top have all that power, but don’t need to use it,” says study co-author Robert Faris. If those at the top were to bully their peers, it could be a sign of weakness, Faris says. “And, it’s possible that, at the highest level, they may receive more benefits from being pro-social and kind.”
Students in the 98th percentile of the social hierarchy—the ones that just don’t make it to the top—victimize others at a rate 28 percent greater than those on the bottom and 40 percent greater than those on the top. “Our findings underscore the argument that—for the most part—attaining and maintaining a high social status likely involves some level of antagonistic behavior,” Faris says.
Girls were less often physically aggressive than boys, and they were more likely to bully boys than boys were to bully girls. But when girls and boys developed friendships, aggression levels decreased. The exception was when romance was involved; dating leads to an increase in bullying.
November 2, 2010
The phrase “comparing apples and oranges” is often invoked when a person compares two items that are thought to be so different as to make any comparison invalid. But are apples and oranges really that different? According to TimeTree.org, Malus x domestica (the apple) and Citrus sinensis (the navel orange) are separated by about 89.2 million years of evolution, but they are both fruit trees. Surely there are valid comparisons that can be made. So where are the differences, and is a comparison between them truly invalid, as the idiom says?
To make my comparisons, I will draw from my own experience and several online sources, including a dietician’s analysis of the juices of the two fruits and a published study: “Comparing apples and oranges: a randomised prospective study,” by James Barone, which appeared in the British Medical Journal in 2000. Here are just a few characteristics:
|GROWN ON FRUIT TREE||Yes||Yes|
|COLOR OF FRUIT||Depends on variety||Orange|
|FRUIT SKIN TEXTURE||smooth||knobby|
|VISIBLE SEEDS IN FRUIT||Yes||Depends on variety|
|MEAN CIRCUMFERENCE OF FRUIT (cm)||25.6||24.4|
|MEAN DIAMETER OF FRUIT (cm)||7.9||7.6|
|MEAN WEIGHT OF FRUIT (g)||340||357|
|CAN BE EATEN||Yes||Yes|
|FIBER IN A LARGE FRUIT (g)||4.5||2.4|
|CAN BE JUICED||Yes||Yes|
|CALORIES (per 8 oz. serving juice)||117||112|
|POTASSIUM (mg, per 8 oz. serving juice)||295||496|
|VITAMIN C (mg, per 8 oz. serving juice)||103||124|
|FOLATE (mcg, per 8 oz. serving juice)||0||74|
As we can see from this small list, it is quite easy to compare apples and oranges. And they are remarkably similar in many ways. Although they may look and feel very different, the two fruits have a similar size and weight, and their juices have a similar caloric content and levels of vitamin C. However, they differ widely in fiber content of the fruit and in the potassium and folate levels of their juices.
In an earlier study (“Apples and Oranges—A Comparison,” published in the Annals of Improbable Research in 1995), Scott Sandford produced a spectrograph from dried samples of a Granny Smith apple and a Sunkist navel orange. He concluded that not only was it easy to compare the two, but the two fruits were remarkably similar. “Thus, it would appear that the comparing apples and oranges defense should no longer be considered valid. This is a somewhat startling revelation,” Sanford wrote. “It can be anticipated to have a dramatic effect on the strategies used in arguments and discussions in the future.” Well, he didn’t get that right, but perhaps we should consider dropping the use of this idiom.
March 2, 2010
Name of ship: RMS Titanic
- Passengers and crew: 2,207
- Sunk: April 14, 1912, collided with an iceberg
- Time to sink: 2 hours, 40 minutes
- Deaths: 1,517
- Survival rate: 31.3%
Name of ship: RMS Lusitania
- Passengers and crew: 1,949
- Sunk: May 7, 1915, torpedoed by a German U-boat
- Time to sink: 18 minutes
- Deaths: 1,198
- Survival rate: 38.5%
The tragic voyages of the RMS Titanic and RMS Lusitania have provided a group of economists with an an opportunity to compare how people behave under extreme conditions. (Their article appears in PNAS.) Despite the different reasons for sinking, the tales of the two ships carry some remarkable similarities: Both ships carried a similar composition of passengers and were unable to accommodate everyone aboard on the lifeboats. (In the case of the Titanic there simply were not enough boats for everyone. On the Lusitania, the ship listed to starboard after being struck by the torpedo and the crew was unable to launch all of the lifeboats.) Both captains ordered that women and children be given first priority on the boats. And both ships had a similar survival rate.
The composition of the survivors was very different, though. On the Titanic, women aged 16 to 35 (child-bearing age) were more likely to survive than other age groups, as were children and people with children. On the Lusitania, both women and men aged 16 to 35 were the most likely to have lived through the incident. There were class differences, too. First-class passengers fared the best on the Titanic but the worst—even worse than third-class passengers—on the Lusitania.
What happened? The researchers say it all comes down to time.
The passengers of the Lusitania had less than 20 minutes before their ship sank, and in such a life-and-death situation, social scientists say, “self-interested reactions predominate.” It didn’t matter what the captain ordered. The ship was going down and people reacted selfishly, and in such a situation, it would be expected that people in their prime (16 to 35) would be the most likely to win a seat on a lifeboat. In addition, because there were difficulties in launching those boats, people in that age group would have had an additional advantage because they were more likely to have had the strength and agility to stay on board a rocking boat or to climb back in after falling into the water.
The Titanic, though, sank slowly enough for social norms to hold sway. The passengers generally held to the rule of “women and children first” even though they could have easily overpowered the crew. And first- and second-class passengers may have benefited from the extra time in which they may have had earlier or better information from the crew or had other advantages.