ZOMG! Mothra! Mutant Fukushima Butterflies and Reading Science News Critically

The headlines are scary: “Mutant butterflies found near Fukushima plant”, “New casualties from the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan: mutated butterflies”, “Fukushima disaster spawns mutant butterflies”, “Mutant butterflies linked to radioactive fallout from Fukushima nuclear disaster”. Semi-serious references to Mothra and bad nuclear sci-fi abound. But what does it really mean?

Simplistic Stories and Missed Opportunities: GMO Crops and Tire Damage

This last Wednesday, the public radio show Marketplace did a story on how GMO crops are damaging tractor tires and a company is now making Kevlar tires in response. This story doesn’t seem to be inaccurate. But the explanation of the cause — tough GMO corn (or soy) stubble — is so simplistic that it leaves you misinformed. The glib explanation represents a missed opportunity to genuinely inform the public. Instead, people will think GMOs are so scary they can destroy tires that don’t have bullet-proofing. Reality is far more interesting.

Voter ID Laws Will Suppress Votes

Voter ID laws will in fact prevent more legitimate votes than fraudulent votes — by several orders of magnitudes. Identification is harder to get than you think in your comfortable home. Identification doesn’t prevent any kind of election fraud that is common. Voter ID laws use your belief in fairness to suppress legitimate voters.

Should We Use Clothianidin?

If you google “clothianidin” you’ll find that more than half of the results (even on the first page) are stories about how the pesticide kills bees and the EPA is (or was) covering it up. You might immediately conclude that it’s inconceivable that we haven’t banned it already.

Black Bean Burger Experiment

Some friends and I are planning to have a barbeque this Wednesday for Independence Day (like half the country no doubt). Since my partner and I are unlikely to want to eat meat burgers, I said I’d bring some veggie burgers. I’d planned to just slightly tweak the Veganomicon recipe but had an awesome thought earlier today: I have rye berries in my pantry and I bet they’d be tasty. But I shouldn’t inflict that on unsuspecting guests without testing, right? Fortunately, black bean and rye berry burgers are fantastic. See inside for an approximate recipe.

Better than GMO Labels: Pesticides, Worker Rights and More

Everyone seems to want GMO labels. Since there is little reason to believe current GM foods are unsafe, the only justification is that a consumer needs that information to make ethical purchases. “GM” is just a proxy — and not a good one — for a whole host of problems with our agricultural system that are far more deserving of ethics-based labels. Pesticide and fertilizer runoffs, overuse of water resources and mistreatment of workers are far more troubling problems in our agricultural system, but they get little attention. If consumers need a label to avoid GM food, then I submit consumers should have a way to chose producers who treat their workers better, pollute less and use resources better.

Genetically Modified Foods and Safety

Honest opponents of genetically modified foods do not actually claim that GM foods are unsafe. Instead they write about the lack of long-term safety studies or a lack of evidence for safety. Less scrupulous opponents will claim that very scary results have been seen from GE foods. This post is about a few of them and why they aren’t nearly so scary as they seem or in some cases are likely not even there.

Accuracy in Reporting Matters: GM Grass and Cyanide Gas?!

I’ve been sick at home today (well yesterday — Saturday), trying to do a literature search, so I’ve been on the internet way too much today. By happenstance I noticed a story that CBS News put out that drives home how important it is for news to be accurate and for readers to be skeptical. What happened today:

GMO Labels and Ignorance

Note: This post is part of a short series on issues around GMO labeling. See the intro post for more information.

The current proposals to label genetically engineered foods don’t actually give the consumer more information than they could have now with only a small amount of thought. Moreover, I think widespread ignorance and general fear of technology means that few consumers will actually become more informed as a result of labeling. The result might be a reduction of genetically engineered foods in the market for human consumption, leaving the even cheaper animal feed market to be fought over by large agribusiness. This could be bad for civilization as it makes it harder to use a particular tool to solve problems.

GMO Label Soapbox

Forgive me for a moment while I stay up on this soapbox and write some more about genetically modified organisms and labeling. After a few days discussing it in a few online forums, I feel the need to write a lot down. But I’m a really long-winded writer so there will be multiple posts. I considered not posting these at all, but with the California initiative and misinformation flying every which way, repetition is useful.

Bad Science, Bad Law

The Farm Bill is very contentiously trying to make its way through a divided Congress. Right now is amendment time. Senators Sanders and Boxer introduced some atrocious amendments around genetically engineered food that, thankfully, did not pass. They were justified by bad science, the text as written was over-broad and it would make a bad law.

Old People Smell, Ctenophores on Sea Stars and Triticale

I don’t have a long argument or paper for you to review this time. Instead, I have random awesome science.


  • The origins of triticale (and why the idea of quadrotriticale is awesome).
  • Neat tiny ctenophores living on sea stars. What are ctenophores? Find out!
  • Old people smell comfortable. No really.

Don’t worry: this post is pretty short, by my standards.

Three Local Tofu Factories

Today, I present to you something a bit less depressing: tofu! My partner, Adam, and I eat a lot of tofu. We’ve largely been purchasing our tofu from Thanh Son Tofu which is a little over a mile or so from our house (they are also carried at several local grocery stores including Uwajimaya). We’ve known about two other local tofu factories very close by as well so today we decided to get some from each and compare!

Conscience and Government Funding

Conscience rules for what government funds are complicated and unworkable if we treat everybody’s conscience fairly. Let’s stop treating the moral objections of those who oppose abortion as special.

Why I Mostly Eat Vegetarian Food

To begin, that title is very precisely worded. I am not a vegetarian. I am not a vegan. I have been teased because I’ve incautiously used the phrase “I’m mostly vegetarian” in the past. No, I choose to eat vegetarian (or even vegan) food, most of the time. This may be a confusing (and possibly indefensible) position but it is accurate. I have that choice, though, because I am no where near poverty or starvation (and, even at my poorest, starvation was pretty remote). But given that I have a choice, why do I?

A Little Idea from Science Online Seattle

Monday, I went to the first event for Science Online Seattle. I had seen a tweet last week about it and signed up on a lark. I wasn’t even sure I would go — it doesn’t seem necessarily like something for a non-scientist. I was encouraged to go when I realized that someone I already knew was going. Still, it’s a little strange to show up in a law school classroom (very nice classroom with outlets at every seat!) to a room full of strangers that you are under the impression are all Awesome Scientists. Fortunately, most of the discussion was about how to make science more accessible and useful to researchers, journalists and “laymen” alike. The livestream is available online so I won’t try to summarize all the points. The twitter #sosea hashtag has a lot of side discussion and comments.

Is industrial farming causing antibiotic resistant infections?

In my last post, I summarized a few of the, to put it politely, bad outcomes of industrial animal agriculture (“factory farms”). This style of very intense animal husbandry is mainly feasible because of antibiotics. But the current attempts to regulate antibiotic use have little to do with abuse of animals and everything to do with fears of disease in humans. In the previous post, I mentioned that there were “surprisingly few documented cases” of antibiotic-resistant bacteria being bred in livestock and then transferring to humans. I based this on my fairly limited memory of cases mentioned in Superbug by Maryn McKenna. I’d remembered being surprised when I read that book how few cases she gave.