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Posted 18 Aug 17 by arbelos in Books

I loved PhD Comics as a grad student. Frankly, I still find them quite relatable as an Assistant Professor (and in a few years, I can let you know if they’re relatable from a tenured professor’s standpoint!). So I was really intrigued when I heard that the author of PhD Comics, Jorge Cham, co-wrote a book (with Daniel Whiteson) called “We Have No Idea”. It’s not about being a grad student (though the title could probably be reused for a book about that as well); it’s “A Guide to the Unknown Universe”. As the title suggests, it’s about some of the current limits of our knowledge.

If you like popular science books, physics, and astronomy, I definitely recommend this book. Most popular science books talk about what we know, and if you end up with a nagging “but” or a question, it’s hard to tell whether it’s because details were left out, because you misunderstood the explanation, or because you stumbled on an question scientists haven’t figured out yet. This book is different because it explicitly discusses big-picture stuff science hasn’t figured out yet (and suggests some possibilities for what the answers could be). It’s written in the easy-to-read and humorous style of Jorge Cham but co-written with an experimental high-energy physicist, so you can be pretty sure the book is both entertaining and correct.

The book covers dark matter, dark energy, elementary particles, and time, among other things. Even if you’ve read books on these subjects before, reading a book that synthesizes our lack of knowledge in these areas is both enlightening and exciting.



Posted 17 Jan 17 by arbelos in Science
Let’s talk about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). But first, let me ask you a question. Are chainsaws good or bad? That’s a weird question, isn’t it? A chainsaw can be very useful if you need to cut something, but it can also be dangerous if you’re not careful or if you deliberately attack someone with it.

Now let’s go back to talking about GMOs. As I elaborate on below, it’s just as silly to ask whether GMOs are good or bad as it is to ask whether chainsaws are good or bad. Genetic modification is a tool. If used wisely, it can provide a significant advantage over traditional plant-breeding techniques. But it can also be used for evil. So my proposal is that we stop treating all GMOs as being the same (this also goes for people who love GMOs!) and instead think about what exactly is being genetically modified.

Let me demonstrate why this is important. Two very common genetic modifications out there are to (1) make crops herbicide-resistant (e.g., "Roundup ready corn") or (2) make crops produce their own pesticides (e.g., "Bt corn"). What effect would the first modification have? Well, it’s likely to increase the amount of herbicide farmers spray on crops because now you don’t have to worry about killing the crops themselves. This may be undesirable to the extent that higher levels of herbicide are more harmful to human health (although there’s no evidence that Roundup is harmful to human health unless you are stupid enough to swallow it in high doses) and to the extent that it contributes to the creation of weeds resistant to Roundup ("superweeds"). But making crops produce their own pesticides will likely decrease the amount of pesticide farmers spray on crops because the crops are making their own (oh, and for the record, organic farmers use Bt as a pesticide all the time). That could be a significant improvement for the environment, for crop productivity and (because less pesticides are used) for human health.

Fine, but these are only the intended consequences of genetic engineering. What about the unintended ones? Well, let’s think about traditional plant breeding where you’re letting the mutations in DNA happen naturally and selecting the offspring with the best traits. We’ve done A TON of that. How else do you think your banana or your “traditional” corn got here? And we really had no idea what was being altered in the plants’ DNA. It was essentially impossible to guarantee that the new variety was different ONLY in the desirable traits. By contrast, because genetic engineering is very targeted, we can be very confident that no other changes are taking place. So it’s pretty hard to claim that genetic engineering will produce unintended consequences (at least on a systematic basis) – I would be much more worried about that traditionally bred apple you’re eating.

But, you say, these traditional varieties have been grown for hundreds or thousands of years so if there were something wrong with the crops that we developed during this time, we would know by now. That’s certainly true if a mutation made a crop poisonous such that eating a bite killed you. But if we accidentally bred something that, say, doubled your chances of developing a certain kind of cancer if eaten for prolonged periods of time, there’s a good chance no one would have noticed because they were too busy dying of other things. And many fruits and vegetables do contain toxins naturally. So enjoy those glycoalkaloids in your "non-genetically modified" potatoes!

In summary, there is absolutely no reason to think that the entire concept of genetically modifying organisms is a bad idea. By all means, we should ask if a specific genetic modification can have adverse health or environmental consequences. But let’s stop being unscientific about this whole GMO thing by saying we shouldn’t do genetic modification at all.



Posted 20 Nov 16 by arbelos in Science
A while back, I posited a simple mechanism by which completely ineffective treatments can appear effective and maybe even gain prominence as "alternative” or “traditional” medicine. So then are all alternative medicines ineffective? After all, there's that famous joke: "Q: What do you call non-traditional medicine that works? A: Traditional medicine."

At first glance, there's a lot of logic to that idea. If something really works, won't it soon get incorporated into mainstream medicine? Here's a simple explanation for why the answer is "no".

In the US, non-traditional medicine can be roughly described as anything that seems like it’s supposed to make you healthier in one way or another, but with the cautionary label "This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease." If you want to “legally” be able to claim that something works, you need to have Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval.

Because FDA approval requires clinical trials, which are expensive, private companies will only undertake such trials if they expect to profit from the results. But private companies will not be able to patent most alternative medicines because most are by definition not novel treatments but ones that have been in use for years, decades, or even centuries. And you cannot patent something that isn’t novel. Instead, a reasonable expectation is that other companies will use the results to market the same medicine and the company who did the testing will not be able to recoup the trial costs by charging more for the medicine.

Thus, testing whether alternative medicine is effective is a “public good”: society (including other companies) captures most of the benefits, while whoever does the testing bears the full cost. This implies that the private market will under-test alternative medicine. In fact, the only reason private companies would test anything that they can’t patent is for PR purposes, which is probably a pretty weak incentive.

The WRONG conclusion to draw from this analysis is that alternative medicine is effective but overlooked by the private sector. But, as my previous post makes clear, alternative medicine could just be “correlated” with feeling cured or work as a placebo. So what do we do about this? The clearest implication is to have public funding of scientific research to test which alternative medicines do and do not work.

It’s true that there is already some testing of alternative medicine. But if you search for “alternative medicine research funding”, you basically get nothing (you get much better results for "dog diabetes research funding"). And given how prevalent the use of alternative medicine is, it seems like we should be funding more research of its effectiveness. It’s worth it (up to a point, of course) to spend some money up front and either put a definitive nail in the coffin of a useless approach or discover medicine that could be incorporated into everyday medical practice. Undoubtedly, some people will keep taking “natural” medicine no matter what research says. But we should figure out what’s true and what’s not.

If you’re interested, here are two great (and longer and more detailed) articles on alternative medicine: 1 and 2.



Posted 04 Feb 16 by arbelos in Science

Recently, the CDC recommended that sexually active women who don’t use birth control don’t drink. I’m not talking about not drinking heavily or not getting buzzed. Not drinking at all. Not even a little bit. Not even half a glass of wine. Because who knows what could happen? Even though there seems to be no good evidence that drinking half a glass of wine here and there will do anything bad to your baby, even if you know you’re pregnant (see here, here, and here, for example), why risk it?

So in the spirit of not risking, I think the CDC should extend their recommendations to women who aren’t on birth control to include: no skydiving, no skiing, no biking, no hot tubs, no ibuprofen, no caffeine, no deli meats, and no jogging. Wait, you say. But can’t pregnant women jog? Yes, but we actually don’t know whether it’s safe or not. Even though there isn’t good evidence that it’s NOT safe, why risk it? Clearly, pregnant women shouldn’t sprint, so maybe jogging is bad too.

Oh, and let’s not forget that pregnant women and their unborn babies die in car accidents all the time (here’s one from yesterday). I’m surprised the CDC has not recommended that pregnant women not get into cars. Or even non-pregnant ones. Let’s stay at home barefoot like nature intended.

Update: this article does a great job discussing other issues with the new CDC recommendations. Summary: CDC, I'm very very disappointed in you.



Posted 02 Feb 16 by arbelos in Science

There has been a lot of sickness around my household, prompting me to try to figure out what I could do to prevent myself from getting sick. I found myself taking probiotic pills, even though the germs around my house were not the kind a probiotic could help against. I also drank vitamin C mixes and in general kept wondering about what other non-clinically-tested thing I could take that maybe marginally works. And then I remembered one thing that we know works very well in many situations - sugar pills, aka placebos. In fact, they sometimes work even when people know they're taking a placebo (see here and here). So here's my great business idea: someone should sell placebo pills that people can take when they feel sick.

Now I know what you're going to say - there are many "placebos" out there in the form of homeopathic treatments and herbal remedies. Those things, however, are fairly expensive. Although there's some evidence that more expensive placebos provide more relief (see here and here), the market needs some cheap placebos too. And the best part is that you don't even have to deceive people. In fact, I was surprised to see that no one makes such a thing already (if you want to have a good laugh, google "placebo pills"). You're welcome.



Posted 30 Jun 15 by arbelos in General

Ever since a class I took in college, I've been skeptical about whether organic fruits and vegetables are better for you in any meaningful way. What happened in that class? The professor pointed out that the term "organic" does not mean that the produce was grown with no pesticides or herbicides; only that it was grown with non-man-made ones. But surely that's better than synthetic pesticides and herbicides? Maybe. Nature has produced some pretty toxic crap (think of all the plants out there that are poisonous to humans). It's not clear that being restricted to a subset of chemicals (i.e., ones approved for organic farming) will mean that organic food ends up covered with less harmful ones. Indeed, the best available evidence, summarized here, is that organic isn't necessarily better for you.

I think it's entirely appropriate to worry about the pesticide and herbicide levels in our food. But the organic label is at best a distraction because the distinction between man-made and natural chemicals is quite meaningless. At worst, it's harmful because it leads people to believe that they can avoid the negative impacts of chemicals by eating organic. What we really need is a way to know what was sprayed on the food we're eating and how much. Unfortunately, as long as people believe that "organic" = "healthy", that's unlikely to happen.



Posted 14 Jun 15 by arbelos in Musings on Economics

Last week, I received the following email about an awesome new organization:

Dear Colleague,

All of us who publish in scientific journals know the frustrations of the peer review process: endlessly waiting for an uncertain outcome.

We have built a website aimed at changing this situation. At www.scirev.sc researchers can share their experience with the review process and select an efficient journal for submitting their work.

We already received more than 1000 review experiences, which are freely available on our website. They provide information on the duration and quality of the different phases of the review process and help you select an efficient journal to publish your work. An overview of all reviews is available at www.SciRev.sc/reviews

As a corresponding author of a scientific paper, your experience is of great value to other scholars in your field. We therefore invite you to visit our website and fill in the short questionnaire with questions about the duration and quality of the review process. You also can rate the overall quality of the experience and provide a motivation for your rating.

Any experience is important, even a direct rejection (we once waited three months to hear that the journal was not interested).

Looking forward to receiving your review(s).
Janine Huisman & Jeroen Smits
SciRev.sc

P.S. If you like our initiative, tell your colleagues about it. The larger the community of researchers who share their review experiences, the more useful SciRev becomes to all of us.

 

I think this is a great initiative to (a) give researchers a better idea of how long journals take and (b) put pressure on journals to be faster with their reviews by creating transparency. Consider joining and tracking your own review experience!



Posted 29 Jun 11 by Tatyana in News
I just saw a story claiming that TSA agents are developing cancer from working near the body scanner machines and that the TSA is covering it up. Personally, I do wonder about the cost/benefit of the scanners. Of course, cancer "clusters” could be random, and the article didn’t mention anything about statistical testing. It also made the following statement: "Of course, if TSA workers who are merely standing near the scanners are already developing cancer, frequent flyers are also putting themselves in harm’s way by standing directly inside the radiation-firing machines.”


Posted 23 Jun 11 by Tatyana in Science
There is direct evidence that endorphins are released following a period of strenuous exercise. What it takes for endorphins to be released is unclear (and probably varies from person to person), but the consensus seems to be that the body has to cross over some threshold of strain before endorphins are released. I’ve certainly experienced this myself (I think). The first two miles or so of my recent runs are usually pretty tedious and unpleasant.  I get tired and want to stop. Sometimes I get side pains. But then I start feeling better and am able to run another three miles without significantly slowing down. I’ve never gotten side pains during the second part of a long run (and it’s not because I selectively stop running). So I do think the time-delayed endorphin release is real.


Posted 06 May 11 by Tatyana in Science

Many people are convinced that computers will soon (everyone has their own definition of "soon”) become integrated into our bodies, pointing to the fact that some people already have medically prescribed hearing aids, pacemakers, and even brain implants. Will we soon be able to control the TV directly with our brains? We will if Intel has its way.

I wonder how such implants will be regulated. Currently, medical devices areregulated by the FDA. It would seem unfair to have non-medical implants unregulated while medical ones are. I doubt the FDA is about to stop regulating the latter. So the logical conclusion I make is that someone will step up to be the regulator in this case. Who will it be? And will this change the picture of how "soon” these technologies will emerge?



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