Dead Bees and Research Ethics

Ugh. I did put “pureed bee heads” in a title, didn’t I? How did I not see I was titillating to get attention, not to inform? A friend called me out on my last post. I was aiming to get across the awe I’d felt reading that paper and learning the very amazing ways scientists learn new things — such as testing the effects of chemicals on neurons by isolating them from the animal and measuring electrical activity. Amazing! My friend, however, saw a crass post encouraging a simplistic view of the complexities of research (especially the last line). By focusing on the gross-out aspect, I was encouraging a kind of science conversation that can’t talk about how and why we do research in favor of “shiny!” or “gross!”

The Whitehouse Open Access Policy Props Up the Gatekeepers

Months ago I signed one of those Whitehouse petitions. The petition asked the President to require that science articles that were paid for with government money be made freely available over the internet. In short, we paid for it and should be able to read it. Surprisingly, the administration actually responded! I even got an email. Huzzah for participatory democracy! But, sadly, the policy is not as good as I’d like. The policy only directs the larger federal funding agencies (more than $100 million budget) to create policies that would require free online access a full year after publication.

Your Ivory Tower is Showing

A recent column in Nature argues for evidence-based policy on the subject of neonicotinoid pesticides and their effects on bees and other pollinators. Huzzah! I agree. More evidence in policy! But just because we want politicians to make decisions based on evidence, that doesn’t mean public opinion and values — which are partially driven by their knowledge of the issues — doesn’t also matter. So I was dismayed to see the piece end with:

Pesticides and Prediction

Without pesticides, farmers risk not growing enough to recoup their costs or growing crops that are too blemished to sell at market. But by using pesticides, farmers take on other risks: many are hazardous to those applying them, they can kill beneficial “non-target” bugs or plants, runoff can harm ecosystems and long-term over-use of pesticides can make convenient and safe methods of control less effective.

Pesticides are Complicated

I finally finished Pesticide Biotransformation and Disposition (you can see the few public notes I made, usually while riding the bus, here). It’s really more of a reference work but it’s given me a better grasp of the breadth of the question. As a side-effect, I’m even more annoyed at the simplification from anti-pesticide groups that dominates public perception of pesticides.

Taking People at Face Value

A lot of discussion is happening about whether the labels “anti-science” or “science denier” are accurate (or fair). Keith Kloor blogs about it regularly. A sprawling twitter conversation about denialism (and whether or not scientists are actually mostly Democrats or not and why) reminded me of why I don’t think it’s a helpful frame (never mind accurate). Simply put: we should take people at face value. Good argument requires a charitable outlook and most people making seemingly unscientific arguments believe they aren’t. Avoiding uncharitable assumptions makes for more fair and genuine arguments — and we’re far more likely to agree on something.

The Life You Can Save

In the spirit of the New Year, I am about to post something awkward. Normally people don’t talk about charitable giving. It’s not really considered polite to talk about it. It looks like you’re seeking praise. The act itself is supposed to be its own reward.

Finding My Way to Environmentalism

One of my earlier memories, about science or politics, was enthusiastically explaining to my dad that while we should stop using CFCs, we should also fix the ozone hole by sending up some high altitude planes and re-seed the ozone layer where it’s thin. I even drew pictures. Obviously, I was too young and ignorant to understand how hard that would have been. Thankfully, today it’s not nearly the problem it was due to a concerted international effort to restrict use of ozone-destroying chemicals. But I can honestly say I’ve thought of myself as some kind of an environmentalist for most of my life.

Your Citation Does Not Say What You Think It Does

Recently, Dr. Oz said some things that certain left-leaning folks have interpreted as condemning organic agriculture. Tom Philpott at Mother Jones wrote a piece about how Dr. Oz got it wrong citing various recent studies about pesticides. I thought most weren’t very convincing citations and he neglected to cite anything that pointed out most conventional food has fairly small or undetectable pesticide residues. But one study he cited completely contradicts the point he was trying to make.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Articles Aren't Gospel

Science is never “done”. We will never have all the answers tied up in a bow with no chance of there being changes later. There are theories that are pretty settled: we aren’t all going to start falling away from the ground unless something big happens (you know, like a huge, Jupiter-sized planet colliding with us). The fundamentals of evolution aren’t going to be contradicted, only refined. But to discover new knowledge a lot of modern scientific work is going to be on the edges of what we already know. Thus, it’s definitionally pretty tentative. A science paper is thus just one team’s (or author’s) view of some question. A science paper is not gospel. Just because it’s published “in a journal” doesn’t mean it’s good research or even that it’s remotely true.

Risotto Variations

I’ve eaten more rice the last couple weeks than I usually do in a couple months. I’m just not a rice person. It’s fine as long as there’s some sloppy curry all over it, but I’m not usually in the mood for straight rice. Risotto, including brown rice risotto (!), has meant I’ve been eating it several days a week. It’s cheap and not actually absurdly caloric .. if we can resist adding a bunch of cheese. Here are some variations that we’ve been doing off the basic recipe I last posted.

Simple Stories Suppress Your Voice

Activism often rejects nuance. In environmental activism, the story is often that an evil corporation is destroying the environment or your health with the support of a corrupt regulator. Elected officials don’t care either because they’re ignorant or paid off. The public has no power, often due to active misinformation spread by the corporate bad guy.

Pressure Cooker Risotto is Amazing

I recently obtained Modernist Cuisine at Home. Most of the recipes are, honestly, impractical or unlikely to ever be used. But it’s a pretty book and the attitude towards cooking as processes that have reasons behind them that aligns with how I think about food: it matters how it tastes at the end, not that a particular method was used.

GM Corn Oil is Just Like Non-GM Corn Oil

In a recent post, I had a footnote that claimed purified corn oil is basically identical regardless of whether or not it came from GM corn or not. I’d read up on it months ago and didn’t feel it necessary to provide explicit links since it’s not exactly a hard case to demonstrate. But it seems useful to have some of those links sitting around.

There's No Conspiracy: Agriculture is Complicated

Some recent articles on agriculture have simultaneously claimed that our current agricultural system has problems (it does) and implied there is a conspiracy to ignore risks and change the system. But both articles do their desired movement a disservice. They encourage conspiratorial and extremist view points in their adherents and imply that farmers are at the best lazy or stupid, if not outright dupes of large agribusiness. That’s no way to encourage real political and social change to improve our agricultural system to reduce environmental impacts. It just plays into a polarized narrative of amoral (or evil) agribusiness uncaring of its effects on the environment against noble environmentalist campaigners.

Election 2012: The Small Stuff

I’ve already gone over the major non-candidate items on my ballot. But I’m a completionist, so this post quickly goes over some smaller state and local questions.