Baloney Detection – By Easton White

More than 2,500 years ago, the first evidence for a spherical Earth was discovered by the Ancient Greeks. Around 500 BC, Pythagoras noted that the moon was a sphere and reasoned the Earth was as well. A few hundred years later, Greek mathematician Eratosthenes used simple geometry to estimate the circumference of Earth. He had surveyors measure the heights of shadows cast by sticks in the ground. From this, he was able to estimate the Earth was 28,738 miles in circumference (the real number is 24,902 miles). Today, we have images from spaces, satellites, and have even sent people into orbit and beyond. Yet, in the 21st century there are people who believe the Earth is flat (deemed “flat-earthers”), and there seems to be a growing number of them. The list of flat-earthers includes those with considerable influences, such as celebrities and YouTubers, as well as your average Joe. Flat-earthers connect with one another through social media and can even attend conferences together. When presented with evidence, of say photos from NASA, this information is deemed “unreliable.”

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Pictorial of how Greek philosopher Eratosthenes estimated the circumference of the Earth.

The idea of a flat-earth is itself pretty innocuous. No one is going to die or be taken advantage of for believing in a flat Earth. But what happens when the same line of thinking bleeds into other domains of life? In place of cancer medicine is faith healing, in place of counselors are psychics, and in place of vaccines are, well, not vaccines. Believing in these forms of pseudoscience can become a matter of life or death. Further, people are frequently swindled out of huge sums of money in exchange for pseudoscience.

Ultimately, these issues can arise from an inability or unwillingness to think critically. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. But, not all hope is lost. People can be taught and trained to think critically. Thinking critically is one of the core aspects of being scientifically literate. There are many different definitions of science literacy. A 1996 National Science Education Standards report used:

Scientific literacy is the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity.

Science literacy is one-part domain knowledge (the content) and one-part understanding how science itself operates (the process). The process of science centers on skepticism, critical thinking, and experimentation. Of course, not everyone is going to become a scientist, nor should they. How do we then train others to think like a scientist, to be scientifically literate?

To overcome this challenge, I created a new course at UC Davis for first and second-year undergraduates. The course is titled “Living in a Post-Truth World: How to Build Your Personal Baloney Detection Kit“. The first half of the title was intended to be provocative given the modern political era, but the second half is an homage to a book that is now more than two decades old.

In 1995, astrophysicist Carl Sagan published The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. In the book, Sagan advocates for a more scientifically literate public, especially in the face of an increasingly technological society. Although the book was published two decades, many passages ring eerily true today:

“We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces”

image2The book served as motivation and an outline for my course. The course met for 1 hour a week for 10 weeks, which in the grand scheme of things is not a lot of time. We opened the course by discussing Sagan’s Baloney Detection kit chapter. In the chapter, Sagan explores various tools to think skeptically about the world. These tools include quantifying whatever you can, entertaining multiple working hypotheses, and rejecting arguments based solely on authority. A lot of his arguments boil down to the line, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” This chapter served as the backbone for the rest of the course.

We explored a different topic each week. The goal was to provide students with various tools to recognize and call out BS. For instance, we had an entire class on thinking like a scientist. Students had to form hypotheses and run experiments to determine the contents of black boxes. Another class centered on common advertising tactics, conveniently the week after the Super Bowl. We had another class on what are commonly termed Fermi calculations. I began the class with a question: what is the circumference of the Earth? Naturally, no one knew such an obscure number and I stopped them from reaching for their phones. Instead, I described how Fermi calculations can be used to make such an estimate. The idea is that a series of reasonable guesses for various numbers in a calculation can end up giving an answer within the right ballpark—a back of the envelope calculation. Let’s see how this works for the circumference of Earth:

  • What previous knowledge do I have that might help me on this problem?
  • I know that the distance from LA to New York is something like 3,000 miles. The exact number doesn’t really matter.
  • I also know there are three times zones from LA to New York. Thus, there are 1,000-ish miles for each time zone.
  • Given 24 time zones around Earth, this puts us at a circumference of 24,000 miles.
  • The correct answer? 24,901 miles. We were close, and, in this case, damn close. We didn’t estimate 2,000 or 200,000 miles. We had the right order of magnitude.

Why is this useful? It can help you better understand big numbers that you might hear in the media or online. Suppose your friend is complaining about the “huge” budget of NASA. It would of course be useful to know what the budget of NASA is compared to the total budget each year. With a back of the envelope calculation you can determine that the yearly NASA budget is about 0.5% of the annual budget of the US, which is half a penny on the dollar. With some facts established, you can now have a reasonable conversation about its budget.

In addition to in-class projects and activities, students were required to analyze a pair of news articles. They had to apply their newfound baloney detection tools to critically evaluate the arguments in the news articles. I was impressed by their attention to detail, especially in being skeptical of numbers presented in the articles. They dug up original sources for numbers and explained if they found the evidence presented convincing or not.

Ultimately, I think the class was a small dent in a much bigger picture. I would like to see this type of skepticism and critical thinking taught throughout the education curriculum. This is not going to happen in 300-person university science classes that are chalked full of material. How do we re-design courses, and entire degrees, to be sure students are well-informed citizens when they leave university?

This course will be offered again sometime in 2019. All the course materials are available here. It is also worth noting that Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin West created a similar course, called “Bullshit Detection,” at the University of Washington. All of their course materials are available here.

Author: Easton White

Easton is a PhD Candidate in the Population Biology Graduate Group. His research involves using mathematical and statistical models to understand both ecological and evolutionary dynamics. He also teaches for the Biology Undergraduate Scholars Program and the non-profit Software Carpentry. You can read more about his work here.

An honest discussion on the labeling of GMOs

GMO labels are misleading, frustrating science and science-advocates

The marketing of non-GMO products agitates many scientists. Although the frustration towards fear-based marketing and the public’s frequent misperception of GMOs is warranted, the blame on marketing companies is somewhat misplaced. Instead, disgruntled scientists must heed advice from marketers themselves: perception is reality. The large portion of the public sees GMOs as negative (Pew Research Center). To change this, we, as scientists and concerned citizens, must mend the public’s attitude toward GMOs if we want progress.

“GMO” is a terribly vague term, but we are stuck with it (for now)

The term “genetically modified organism,” or “GMO”, is non-descript to scientists who actually study genetics (Escaping the Bench). There are multiple processes people can use to alter the genome of an organism (Biofortified).

Arguably, most modern plants that we consume have been genetically modified through evolution and selective breeding techniques used by farmers for centuries (Vox). Modern methods have evolved to hasten the process of improving plants, like mutagenesis or marker-assisted breeding. Recently, advances in scientific tools have allowed for more precision. Researchers can now change specific genes in an organism or add new genes to improve a crop, perhaps making it more resistant to drought or pests.

To many scientists, “genetic modification” describes all the approaches mentioned above, thus any product derived from any of those methods could be labeled as a GMO. However, many nonscientists may only describe the more modern techniques that enable precision adjustments to an organism’s DNA as GMO. To have an effective, productive conversation, everyone needs to be talking about the same thing. The World Health Organization (WHO) does not clearly define GMO. GMO-scare sites have broad definitions. And the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) itself does not even use the term GMO, preferring instead “genetically engineered” to describe products cultivated using modern biotechnology.

I will use what the National Academies of Sciences defines as “genetic engineering” to define GMO:

Genetic engineering means the introduction of or change to DNA, RNA, or proteins manipulated by humans to effect a change in an organism’s genome or epigenome. Genome refers to the specific sequence of the DNA of an organism; genomes contain the genes of an organism… The committee’s definition of genetic engineering includes Agrobacterium-mediated and gene gun-mediated gene transfer to plants as well as more recently developed technologies such as CRISPR, TALENs, and ZFNs.

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In layman’s terms, a GMO has had its genes altered by humans using modern techniques that would not happen in nature*. GMO, in this article, does not refer to selective breeding or techniques involving mutagenesis, although it can be argued that those products have been “genetically modified”.

The layman’s definition is too vague for a scientist working with GE crops—they must speak in specific terms (jargon) within their community to communicate effectively. The field of genetic engineering has reached an advanced stage where one must specialize to understand all of its nuances. In reality, an average consumer will only ever care about the “gist,” and the underlined sentence is the gist.

*Nature is absolutely wild and always reveals unexpected phenomena. For all we know, nature may be employing weird genetic techniques we haven’t yet realized. This is a major reason many scientists cringe at the term “unnatural.” However, many people may be more comfortable with the term “natural.”

Products are being labeled as non-GMO as if there is an alternative

Upcoming conversations about GMO labeling are unavoidable. The FDA has no requirements for GMO/GE labeling (yet) but is trying to establish a clear system. In the meantime, Vermont established requirements for GMO labeling and similar initiatives to label GMOs have been pushed in many states. In response, many companies have begun to label their products as non-GMO, leading to a confusing consumer landscape and a frustrated scientific community.

The annoyance (and sometimes anger) felt by scientists and science advocates or allies towards GMO labeling is warranted. Products that are not even available as GMOs are being labeled as non-GMO.

First, some products will never be genetically modified:

  • Water
  • Salt

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These products are non-living and not derived from living organisms. Thus, there are no genes to modify along the production line. Consequently, scientists get rightfully upset about the products’ nonsensical labeling because the labeling can play on a customers’ lack of scientific knowledge.

Other products are not currently sold as genetically modified:

  • Bananas
  • Grapes
  • Kale
  • Peanuts
  • Carrots
  • Strawberries
  • Almonds
  • Many, many more…

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These products give the consumer the illusion that they have a decision to make. In fact, there are only a handful of genetically modified crops available in the US (Genetic Literacy Project):

  • Alfalfa
  • Apple
  • Argentine Canola
  • Bean
  • Carnation
  • Chicory
  • Cotton
  • Creeping Bentgrass
  • Eggplant
  • Eucalyptus
  • Flax
  • Maize
  • Melon
  • Papaya
  • Petunia
  • Plum
  • Polish canola
  • Poplar
  • Potato
  • Rice
  • Rose
  • Soybean
  • Squash
  • Sugar Beet
  • Sugarcane
  • Sweet pepper
  • Tobacco
  • Tomato
  • Wheat

For more information on any of the GMOs listed above, click here. Corn and soy are common GMO crops that are found in many products and are also fed to livestock used in meat and dairy production. (The use of GMOs in livestock cultivation further complicates the question about what is labeled.)

Non-GMO labeling, especially when a genetically engineered version does not exist, is misleading. However, nothing will be accomplished if we assign blame or stew in anger.


Take a hint from the grocery marketing community

Current labeling guidelines are dictated by consumer requests

Labeling products as non-GMO perpetuates the public’s confusion. Hence, many scientists believe marketing companies are to blame for this. I intended to write this article about how bad non-GMO labeling schemes are, but I’ve concluded that many misleading food labels are the outcome of poor public understanding, not the cause.

peteI spoke with a seasoned grocery marketer, Pete Tucci (pictured left), about his company’s experience with GMO labeling, and product labeling in general. Tucci has 40 years of experience in a private label company, assisting in the sales planning of merchandise. He has aided in the development of new items, interfaced with suppliers, and brought products to shelves.

I wanted to know why marketers would engage in labeling campaigns that are so seemingly destructive to the scientific enterprise. I would like to fully disclose that Tucci is my dad. Our relationship is the reason why a marketer would talk to someone with such great skepticism towards the role marketers play in our society.

Obviously, Tucci’s goal is to sell his clients’ products. When packaging a grocery item, companies need the labeling to be honest, but they want their product to stand-out. What makes an item stick out? At one time it was being “low cholesterol.” Then it was “low carb.” It has been “low sugar,” “high protein,” “gluten-free,” “organic,” and more. Now, being “non-GMO” makes a product stand out.

Who decides what makes a product stand out?

Tucci explained, “[We] are looking to call out the meaningful attribute of that item…We try to be very transparent. We try to be very ethical and honest with the customer. We identify items as non-GMO.”

Personally, I was annoyed that identifying an item as non-GMO was seen as an ethical decision. Scientists work tirelessly to perfect GE technology with the goal of feeding a hungry, growing population in the face of extreme climate instability. Many scientists are driven by a moral imperative to find solutions to global problems, and many of those solutions involve genetic modification of organisms.

But then, Tucci elaborated, “Customers catch things on the shelf.” If a customer wants to know what is in a product, we will tell them. Increasingly, the customers are asking if their products contain GMOs. Tucci’s experience with customer concern about GMOs is not unique, PEW research center found that many Americans are concerned about GMOs, with 50% of U.S. adults always or sometimes looking for GM labeling when they shop for food (PEW).

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Moreover, “If customers are demanding non-GMO, we are going to see the possibilities of doing that.” Tucci’s clients (and many companies in the grocery business) are going to respond to the demands of their customers. If public opinion continues to steer people away from GMOs, GMOs will not be sold as much.

Then Tucci spoke a harsh truth: “In marketing, perception is reality. We don’t like to create a perception. We like to create the reality: This [the label] is what the item is. This is how you use the item. This is where we get the item.” Grocery marketers do not want to surprise their customers.

“A scientist might know more than the average consumer when looking at product labels. If marketers are putting ‘non-GMO’ on an item that would naturally not be a GMO item, that does not mean they are trying to mislead the customer. They are just telling the customer that doesn’t know [the product] is non-GMO. You might know it. But does every customer know it?” Most people are not scientists. Most people don’t know what GMO means. And sadly, a large amount of people fear GMOs.

As a last ditch, hopeful question, I asked, “Can a marketing company help to educate consumers about the science of GMOs?”

“Yes, I think… But, how much money can marketers put forward to tell the true story? Not enough. Not enough to overcome media, social media, free media. You’re stuck giving in. Look at what happened to organics. That’s the same thing that’s going to happen to GMOs.”

It is up to scientists to make perception equal reality. Marketers are not going to do it. They are neither equipped nor paid to educate the public.

Labeling can be good and consumers can be involved

Transparency is generally good, in my opinion. I do want to know what is in the products I am purchasing. When buying food, consumers may consider the nutritional value of the product, its safety, its environmental impact, or the business practices of the company that produces it. To weigh the factors considered when purchasing grocery items, products must be labeled.

Personally, I do not hesitate to purchase a product that is a GMO. However, I am not the only consumer. Scientists are not the only consumers—and not all scientists study and think about GMOs. The reality is that many consumers are now factoring-in whether or not the products they buy are GMOs.

If scientists and industries aggressively push back on the labeling of GMOs, this will create a narrative that GMOs need hidden. Historically, when consumers demand clear labels on food, industry opposes and distrust towards the food industry grows (Union of Concerned Scientists, sugar, overhaul of nutrition labels). Science is part of the food industry and part of that distrust, whether we deserve it or not. The majority of GMO labeling is a consumer-driven initiative. Do scientists want to deny the wishes of the consumer?

No matter your answer to that, the push for transparency is not going away. Label Insight is a company aimed at increasing transparency in industry. They are working with the FDA to create “the industry’s first scientifically accurate database of food ingredients, attributes and health claims.” Label Insight released  a report (not peer-reviewed) entitled “How Consumer Demand for Transparency is Shaping the Food Industry.” They argue that “lack of product information creates distrust and confusion amongst consumers.” Distrust and confusion are the exact opposite of what we want.

Furthermore, the majority of Americans do say the public should have a major role in GMO food policy decisions (PEW). If the public wants GMO food labeled, I think it should be. America is kind of democratic, right?

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We need to change the public opinion, but how?

GMO education and advocacy efforts only go so far

Instead of denying the wishes of the consumer to have transparent GMO labeling, we need to both educate the consumer and challenge the negative attitude around GMOs.

Educating the consumer is an enormous challenge. One study about the public perception of GMOs found that “[r]espondents who had relatively higher cognitive function or held illusionary correlations about GM food…were more likely to have an opinion that differed from the scientific community.” This means that opinions on GMOs is not based on education level alone, since intelligent people have been known to disagree with scientists. That is a hard truth to behold. We must figure out how to talk with those who do not understand the science and, at the same time, those who do and still disagree with us.

Importantly, increased understanding of science does not equate to an improved public perception of GMOs (Scheufele). Possibly because opinions are based on more than intelligence and understanding. They often result from gut reactions (disgust or anger), relying on intuitive reasoning that can be easily exploited by anti-GMO activists (Blancke, Scott). Thus, education about GMOs alone is not a promising tactic for improving consumer buy-in for them. But, it can help to make sure that both sides of the GMO labeling discussion are informed about the science.

A 2017 documentary, Food Evolution, offered both rational and emotional arguments in defense of GMOs. Food Evolution proudly displayed the wonders of GMOs and underlined how public misperception is preventing GMOs from helping farmers supply food. For example, the director chronicled the policy debate surrounding the use of ringspot virus resistant papaya in Hawaii. The use of the GMO papaya saved the papaya industry, but public backlash led to significant regulations on growing GMOs in certain parts of the state, the papaya being the only GMO crop allowed on the island. Although Food Evolution received praise for its accuracy, some still find it too fact-based to change faith-based opinions on GMOs. Nevertheless, Food Evolution is a solid effort at educating the public’s more about GMOs.

The label is coming, let’s use it

Regardless of whether clear labeling of all GMOs in food is ever federally mandated, I believe most food companies will end up labeling their foods as GMO or non-GMO. If food labels can negatively change public perception, could they also be used to positively change public perception? Scientists from Dartmouth College propose GMO labels could be created to inform the public about the purposes of genetic engineering by subdividing GMOs based on their transgenic traits, like pest resistance or environmental stress response.

Campbell’s has been vocal in mandatory national GMO labeling and acknowledges the evidence that GMOs are safe and are not nutritionally different than non-GMO counterparts. They operate with a “Consumer First” mindset to build trust with their customers. They are not ashamed of using GMOs in their products and offer information to curious customers on their website: “What’s in my food?”. They also voluntarily label their products as containing GMO ingredients, but not with the Non-GMO Project’s seal for “GMO avoidance.” Instead, they use a simple label and direct consumers to their website.

campbells

(Consumer Reports)

These efforts are great, but we need more of them. More importantly, we need to figure out how to change the negative emotions about GMOs that have been built by expert fear-mongerers. We need to do more than brood and preach to each other about how annoying it is. I don’t know how to fix this whole mess, but do I think we need to learn how to actually market our product.

In the end, to really combat misunderstanding, the fear of GMOs must be replaced with the hope offered by them. GMOs can produce food in the face of climate change, feed a growing population, provide poorer agricultural communities with disease- and drought-tolerant plants. GMOs can have a major positive impact on our world if we let them.

 

Sam Tucci

Professor Sir Charles Godfray: The Future of Food Giving Us Food for Thought

Insects are the subject of fear for many – but not for Professor Sir Charles Godfray. Dr. Godfray developed an interest in entomology at the age of 8 that has only grown over the decades. As the Hope Professor of Zoology at Jesus College in Oxford, Dr. Godfray has partaken in both pure and applied research. He is currently interested in food and food security and how they relate with economics and anthropology. While Dr. Godfray is able to “just do his thing” at his entomology lab, he also participates in other projects spanning different fields. One of his favorite work perks is “having the excuse to knock on the door of a social scientist or economist and engage with his or her way of thinking about things.”1

Ten years ago, Dr. Godfray was asked to lead a project: the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food. This project raises questions about the science and policy issues that global governments must grapple with as population and food sources evolve. Dr. Godfray is proud of this well-resourced project and is excited about its interdisciplinary nature. Dr. Godfray is also involved with another large interdisciplinary funding group called the Wellcome Trust. The rising consumption of meat and dairy is the fastest changing component in the world’s food system and is especially stark in China. Producing meat requires more resources, such as water, land, and waste management. How will these environmental footprints change? What are some of the health implications of eating red meat? Dr. Godfray and his team will explore these outcomes in a socioeconomic context.

The work of Dr. Godfray and other food systems researchers will be paramount in directing how society handles transforming populations and economies. To be successful, it will be crucial to obtain scientific information while avoiding biases from lobbyists. Since people care so much about food, there will be groups that lobby very strongly for one particular view.

“One of the hardest things is that it’s such a complicated world with people quoting different evidence and there are relatively few systematic reviews or meta-analyses.” – Dr. Godfray

For example, groups in both the US and the UK are making enormous claims about what raising cattle can do to carbon sequestration (the storage of carbon dioxide) in soil, falsely stating that meat production is beneficial for the environment (read the counter-evidence here). Now, it has almost become a social movement, rather than an evidence-based field.

Though facts are not absolutely clear in many other cases, policy must be implemented by integrating information with personal value judgments and weighing the benefits that different stakeholders will get. Dr. Godfray has outlined a few important questions to deliberate on if we ultimately do decide that it makes sense to shift diets in one direction:

  • What is the best way to implement policy to shift diets (e.g., taxing certain foods)?
  • How should we educate the public and get society on board?
  • How can we manage other factors that influence how people make dietary decisions (e.g., the social aspects of food)?

It will certainly be interesting to see if/how these shifts come to fruition and how society will respond.

In addition to conducting beneficial research, outreach is an important part of Dr. Godfray’s agenda. He believes we should prioritize improving information access, especially in the area of food systems, since it is both complex and highly contested. Dr. Godfray emphasizes the need for more trusted sources of information. In his opinion, universities should be improving on institutionally providing information. Here, one may consider a consortium of universities getting together, looking at the evidence, being honest about the data, and presenting it to the public in an effective and efficient manner.

***

So, what’s next? Dr. Godfray believes that the development of a global source of protein – artificial meat made from plants or cultured in lab – is up-and-coming. This is a hyped, developing area, where many people are trying to make profits with startups. Read this TIME article for more information about the details of artificial meat. Dr. Godfray expects that we will likely see exciting, genuinely disruptive food products in the next decade.

This technology raises its own questions about health and environmental implications, as well as interesting social science questions. How will this play out in the public sphere if people are given a burger purely out of plant material? Is this cool or is this “fake food” – or maybe somewhere in between?

Another popular food trend you may have heard about is sourcing protein from bugs. There are parts of the world, especially in Africa, where people eat bugs as part of their diet. In the future, Dr. Godfray predicts that insects will be increasingly used as proteins for animal feeds. Technology seems to be maturing in that area – check out Insects as Feed in West Africa’s site to learn more.

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In his free time, Dr. Godfray is a self-proclaimed fanatical natural historian and also enjoys music and opera. He enjoys spending time with his art-loving wife and states that it is refreshing to be married to someone that isn’t a scientist. Very recently, Dr. Godfray received the great honor of being knighted. When asked about how the experience was when he found out, he described it as “bizarre – very nice, but [he] always feel embarrassed talking to Americans about it… very, very funny feeling.”

Kind and humble, Dr. Godfray is a role model to the scientists of the world. He has provided his two most important pieces of advice for developing scientists:

 1) Never listen to advice given by old farts like me.

2) Do things that are intellectually fun. And be open-minded about what you think is fun!

 

Article researched and written by Hyun Jin, PhD Student in the UC Davis Department of Biomedical Engineering

Nevertheless, foreign DNA persisted

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A few months ago, an article surfaced and claimed that a woman contains DNA from every sexual partner she’s ever had. Surely unprotected sex can have legitimate consequences, such as unexpected pregnancies and/or risking numerous sexually transmitted infections. But, should females also fear their partners’ DNA persisting inside of them for the rest of their lives? Science says not really…

(Contraceptives can mitigate almost all of these risks.)

We tracked down the original scientific publication that inspired this claim and spoke with the head researcher, Dr. J. Lee Nelson, a member of Fred Hutch Cancer Research Center and Professor of Medicine at the University of Washington. The study, titled “Male microchimerism in women without sons: Quantitative assessment and correlation with pregnancy history,” aimed to assess how frequently microchimerism occurs and whether or not a woman’s pregnancy history can influence her likelihood of being a microchimera.

But what even is a microchimera? And what does it have to do with sex?

A chimera is an organism (ex. human, cat, etc.) that is made from cells that have different DNA, or genetic code. Usually, in organisms that have a lot of cells, all of the cells contain the same DNA. However, in chimeras, this is not true. Chimerism happens when two genetically distinct organisms merge—like a fetus absorbing its twin in the womb. Chimerism can lead to some interesting drama, such as “How a Man’s Unborn Twin Fathered His Child”. By definition, a microchimera is a little bit (“micro”) of a chimera. Indeed, microchimeras contain only a small amount of foreign DNA.

Note: a Chimera is a hybrid fire-breathing monster that comes from Greek mythology.

chimera-2027203_1280

Microchimeras are real and definitely not monsters.

To be a microchimera, you don’t need to absorb your twin! If you have ever received a blood transfusion or a bone marrow transplant, you were a microchimera for at least a moment in time. If you have ever donated blood, your DNA may be coursing through someone else’s veins, saving another person’s life and giving them the privileged title of “microchimera.”

Females can become microchimeras through pregnancy. In pregnant females, fetal material can cross the placenta and circulate through the mother. Interestingly, this form of microchimerism can last (even decades!) after the pregnancy has ended. This is where the confusion about having your partner’s DNA in you forever originated.

In this study, a team of scientists tested for male DNA in the blood of 120 women—some with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and some healthy. RA is an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system of a person with RA mistakenly assumes the person’s joint lining is a foreign invader and launches an attack against it. The researchers kept track of the women’s pregnancy histories, including whether they had ever been pregnant, had an abortion, had a miscarriage, or given birth. Researchers found that pregnancies can have a beneficial effect on RA: women who have given birth are less likely to develop RA, and arthritis symptoms can subside in pregnant women with RA. Researchers think this may occur because fetal cells and/or fetal DNA circulating in the mother’s bloodstream could temporarily trick the immune system into working properly again. It is a compelling hypothesis (with more work to be done) that will hopefully help those suffering from RA.

Dr. Lee and her colleagues did not find a difference between women with and without RA in terms of how often male DNA was found in their blood. They did find male DNA in 21% of women who had never given birth to a son. This means that a successful birth is not a requirement to becoming a microchimera.  Pregnancy history matters though—women who had elected abortions in their first trimester were the most likely group to have male DNA floating around in their blood, even when compared to women who had spontaneous abortions.

However, all scientific studies have limitations. In this study, there are two main limitations: 1) small sample size and 2) looking for male DNA, not foreign cells.

The study only looked at 120 participants to determine how common male microchimerism is in women. This number may sound like a lot of people, but in terms of making conclusions about the general population, it is fairly small. To make bold claims about the frequency of something in the population, you must look at thousands of people with a wide variety of age, ethnicity, medical history, and more. That does not mean this study drew irrelevant conclusions, it just means that more studies need to be done to support their work if claims are to be made about the entire human population.

Secondly, the study used a technique called PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, to test whether male DNA was present in the blood. PCR works by finding a specific gene or gene segment, and then making millions of copies of that segment. PCR is useful for figuring out how much of a certain gene is present. In this study, Dr. Lee’s team amplified a male gene (Y chromosome) with PCR to see how much of it was present in female blood.

Their PCR experiment could not find foreign female DNA. If women in the study were ever pregnant with a girl, this form of microchimerism was not detected. Looking for a male gene is a lot easier than looking for a foreign female gene, so most microchimerism studies focus on finding male microchimerism.

Additionally, this means that the study did not look for foreign cells, but only for foreign DNA. The idea that male DNA could be free-floating in the bloodstream cannot be excluded, meaning that fetal cells are not the only potential source of male DNA.

In their conclusions, Dr. Lee and her team explain that male microchimerism is not rare in women without sons. Some of the reasons for this include unrecognized spontaneous abortion, vanished male twin, and DNA of mother’s older brother transferred from the maternal circulation during her own fetal life. Dr. Lee explains that her team lists sexual intercourse as a potential cause for microchimerism because they are “just acknowledging a possibility brought up by others that there could be transient male DNA following intercourse…the thinking is simply that there is male DNA in sperm and that it may take a while to clear this.” To their knowledge, sexual intercourse has never been shown to be a cause of microchimerism.

Male DNA can actually circulate in female blood! Microchimerism can be linked to pregnancy, and thus intercourse. Although microchimerism has not been proven to result from recreational sexual intercourse, scientists will not rule this hypothesis out until they can accurately test it. And if it is proven true that DNA from your sexual partners may circulate in you, should we be scared? I don’t think so.

Copulation, the type of sexual reproduction humans and many other animals engage in, has been around for hundreds of thousands of years. The threat of male DNA in females, presumably, has not changed much since the dawn of homo sapiens. And there is no need to start worrying about it now.

So, why did these scientists even study male microchimerism? Well, before this paper, most microchimerism work only studied women who had given birth to a son. Dr. Lee and her group have shown that a successful birth is not a requirement to be a microchimera. Indeed, they found that male DNA was more likely to be found in a female’s blood if the pregnancy didn’t go to term, because of elected or spontaneous abortion. They also wanted to know if women with RA were different than healthy women in terms of microchimerism but found no difference.

New ways of becoming a microchimera are being discovered, too. A French group found male cells in female livers from fetal life to adulthood (Guettier). Guettier’s team indicated that alternative sources of male DNA in a female can be from a vanished twin, an older male sibling, or a prior miscarriage. In reference to this study, Dr. Lee notes that “there are obviously a number of different ways male cells can be acquired by a female.”

In my humble opinion, microchimerism is flat-out fascinating. It is not that rare for a woman to be a microchimera. And to my knowledge, there are no negative health consequences associated with it. Instead, it is being studied because of its potential to alleviate symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune disorders. So could retaining foreign DNA in your circulation potentially be an asset or just a simple process of evolution? Hopefully future studies on microchimerism will unravel its purpose.

 

References

Guettier C, Sebagh M, Buard J, et al. Male cell microchimerism in normal and diseased female livers from fetal life to adulthood. Hepatology. 2005;42(1):35-43. doi:10.1002/hep.20761.

Landy H, Keith L. The vanishing twin: a review. Human Reproduction Update. 1998;4(2):177-183. doi:10.1093/humupd/4.2.177.

Utter GH, Reed WF, Lee T-H, Busch MP. Transfusion-associated microchimerism. Vox Sanguinis. 2007;93(3):188-195. doi:10.1111/j.1423-0410.2007.00954.x.

Yan Z, Lambert NC, Guthrie KA, et al. Male microchimerism in women without sons: Quantitative assessment and correlation with pregnancy history. The American Journal of Medicine. 2005;118(8):899-906. doi:10.1016/j.amjmed.2005.03.037.

 

Authors

Lead author and expert contact: Sam Tucci

Background research: Maria Paz Prada

There’s a lot going on in your baby’s brain–and diaper

pexels-photo-256468

Invisible to the naked eye, trillions of microbes are in, on, and around your body. By the numbers, the amount of individual bacteria on you is nearly equal to the number of  cells that make up your body. These bacteria populations– termed your ‘microbiome’– and the impacts they have on their human hosts fascinate microbiologists, and rightfully so. Studies correlating bacterial species A to human trait Z are frequent, but their popularity on social media tends to be more affected by the click-a-bility of the headline than the soundness of their science.

One such paper generated considerable buzz this past summer, stating that bacteria in an infant’s poop can predict the child’s cognitive development. If there’s one thing I love more than poop jokes, it’s vague assurances that one weird trick can make kids smarter. Internet audiences appear to feel the same. The original paper stands as the most downloaded paper ever from the journal Biological Psychiatry, and coverage from myriad sources drew sizable attention. The IFLScience article alone racked up over 7,100 shares, the title unabashedly stating “The Poop Of Babies Reveals How Smart They’ll Be.” How valid are these claims? How robust was the study? We felt that it was our duty to find answers.

Looking at the study itself, the researchers used well-established methods in their sample collection, bacterial identification, and statistical analysis. Eighty-nine fecal samples, each from a different 1-year-old, were collected, frozen, and checked for bacterial contents through DNA sequencing. The diversity of the fecal bacteria (meaning the number of species observed) between and within samples was calculated and compiled alongside other traits, such as family income, delivery method, maternal and paternal ethnicity, breastfeeding, antibiotic use during pregnancy, and more. The children were also examined over a period of three years with a set of cognitive tests and brain scans. The outcomes of these cognitive tests were then compared to the different variables collected by the researchers. The study found that multiple variables were associated with the bacterial content of the baby poop, and the bacterial content of the poop was associated with cognitive development. While correlations between traits like family income and cognitive development were observed, the researchers primarily reported on the link between bacterial diversity and cognitive abilities.

In a press release, Dr. Rebecca Knickmeyer, the lead professor associated with the study, stated “the big story here is that we’ve got one group of kids with a particular community of bacteria that’s performing better on these cognitive tests…This is the first time an association between microbial communities and cognitive development has been demonstrated in humans.”  It’s particularly important to understand that this is only an association. However, the rest of the press release, and most the media coverage, were quick to suggest a stronger relationship. Were the media outlets accurately reporting what the science says?

Fortunately, Dr. Jonathan Eisen, an accomplished microbiology professor here at UC Davis, has been asking these kinds of questions of published microbiome studies for years. Dr. Eisen says that studies like these are often valid, but get oversold somewhere along the translation from the research bench to the general public. Regarding our questions on this study, he said, “many papers report correlations between microbiomes and some health or disease state. But then the press release or the scientist quoted claims a causal connection. It seems so simple, but so many people seem to butcher the ‘correlation does not equal causation’ concept.” When asked to put the study’s conclusions into his own words, Dr. Eisen responded, “the microbiome ​of baby’s poop is correlated to some aspects of their cognitive development and, as of yet, we have absolutely no idea why this is.”

This was not the first, and will certainly not be the last, study that finds interesting associations between aspects of the human microbiome and health. While these works build important foundations upon which further studies can elaborate, news media can be quick to overstate the connection. So, the next time you see a headline making a bold claim about your microbiome (or poop!):

  1. Ask yourself if they’re equating correlation and causation.
  2. Check if the claims are supported by the evidence.
  3. And, when in doubt, check if Dr. Eisen has given it his “Overselling the Microbiome Award.

 

Lead Author: Eric Walters

Literature Review: Caryn Johansen

Expert Contact: Sam Tucci

The “Elvis of E. Coli:” Dr. Carl Winter

Scientists rock. They do amazing things, like explore space, invent new technologies, and find cures for diseases. Dr. Carl Winter is another scientist who rocks, only he literally rocks out on his synthesizer, creating catchy tunes about food safety and science.

Version 3

Winter started making music about 20 years ago. He loved music, but couldn’t risk waking his sleeping children, so he purchased a synthesizer to work quietly with headphones on.

Winter always realized that science communication is an integral part of science. At the end of his PhD from UC Davis, he earned himself a AAAS fellowship and became a science writer for the Richmond-Times Dispatch Newspaper. He was warned that leaving academia for media could discredit him, but instead, the novel experience bolstered his skills and helped him to land an academic job. (He also highly recommends TA-ing as a great experience for preparing for academia).

“Academia is a privilege,” Winter states. He loves the freedom that comes with academia and the people that make his work life so enjoyable. He boasts about the UC Davis Food Science Department and is incredibly proud and grateful to be working with and near such creative and brilliant scientists. He has been in Davis since graduate school and has loved it too much to leave.

Academia has allowed Winter to transform himself 4 or 5 times, following the research paths he finds most promising and interesting from food contaminants to mycotoxins to, most recently, pesticides. There is an interesting dichotomy between the allowable levels of pesticides and the regulations in place. It stems from a misinterpretation of how safety standards relate to effective pesticide standards. Winter grows frustrated at misleading headlines that scare consumers about mythical dangers like the “dirty dozen,” and that incite “grocery cart shaming” for those not buying organic. “If you want to be concerned about something, worry about the workers,” says Winter. The workers on the fields are the only people exposed to levels of pesticides at levels high enough for concern. Ordinary consumers should shop comfortably, and make sure to purchase fruits and vegetables regardless of whether or not there is “organic” labeling.

Winters’ work in food safety has often been topical. In the early 1990s, he testified before Congress, explaining facets of the Delaney report. His sharply honed science communication skills allowed him to translate the technicalities of toxicology to Congress, allowing them to vote on a measure in which they were not fully educated.

Although he hasn’t testified before Congress recently, Winter is still an active voice and serves as the Director of the FoodSafe Program at UC Davis and is a board member for the Institute of Food and Agricultural Literacy. He has a level-headed view of how science fits into society, and realizes that values are more important than science. If people believe organic-local-nonGMO food is safer for their family, they will chose safety over science, even if it’s wrong. After a particularly frustrating consumer report, Winter released an original song, Political Hay, as a cathartic exercise. He actively blogs in efforts to debunk food safety myths.

Science communication has never been a separate endeavor from academia for him. When he started making music, it became part of his research. His funny music parodies have ruffled some feathers over the years. “There is always a fear of losing your credibility in academia. There is an expectation of seriousness that forces many to lose their personalities.” Allowing his personality to shine through his musical endeavors has helped to bolster Winter’s career. He even earned a USDA grant to incorporate music into STEM education.

As a professor at UCD, Dr. Winter leads a science communication course and even published a first-person paper on his anecdotal experience with the course. He hopes to expand the course to train new generations of scientists to communicate with the public. He has led many media trainings as well. (His course is in session– UCD grad students, feel free to enroll in the future!)

Dr. Winter has evolved throughout his career and dabbled in many different areas of food safety research and science communication. He knows that exploring interesting paths and getting to know yourself is critical to success and satisfaction in ones’ career. He keeps this in mind as he mentors his own students. For those who aren’t one of Dr. Winter’s trainees, he advises to blog. Develop a portfolio. And get to know yourself.

Dr. Winter is still evolving as a scientist, communicator, teacher, and musician. Check out his research here, his course here, and his music here!

Your Guide to Post-Traumatic Osteoarthritis

Bone and Joint Research Blog

Have you ever injured your ACL or sprained an ankle? If so, you, along with millions of others, may be at risk of developing post-traumatic osteoarthritis (PTOA). PTOA is huge problem worldwide, affecting about 5.6 million people in the US alone, and representing an annual cost of about $3 billion [1]. The incidence of PTOA is also expected to rise with rates of obesity and sports injuries [2,3]. However, few people truly understand what PTOA is, despite the sheer number of people affected by the disorder.

So what exactly is post-traumatic osteoarthritis?

Post-traumatic osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease that can lead to significant pain and loss of mobility. PTOA affects diarthrodial joints, which are your most movable joints. Diarthrodial joints include knees, shoulders, and fingers. Traumatic injuries to these joints that lead to sprains (overstretching or tearing of soft tissue) or bony fractures can eventually…

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Talking to your dog does not mean you are smart

Let’s talk about your pet. Specifically, about talking to your pet. Talking to a pet has received some media attention recently. A few articles cited scientific theories as proof that talking to a pet indicates higher than average intelligence. Baby-talk to your pit bull? Don’t worry, one article croons, it means you’re “one smart cookie.” Another article reassures you that talking to your dog makes you “smart AF.” Yet another article, talking to your pet means that you are both smart and creative. Congratulations!

Unfortunately for pet owners, talking to your pet does not indicate either higher than average intelligence or creativity.

What it does signify is that you are human, and you are expressing an ancient human behavioral trait – the ability of humans to project human emotions and intentions onto non-humans.

You have likely heard the term before – anthropomorphism. It was coined in the 6th century BCE by Xenophanes, a Greek philosopher and critic while observing that religious devotees often depicted deities as looking similar to themselves. Anthropomorphization is prevalent in art, religion, writing, language, and other expressions, from prehistory to contemporary times.

The oldest archeological example of transferring human traits to animals is referred to as the Lowenmensch figurine. Dated to about 40,000 years ago, this human figure has a lion head.

Humans also have a history of anthropomorphizing the environment and climate to help explain events: when a deity is angry and wrathful, disaster strikes.

An interesting scientific question is why do humans anthropomorphize? What is the psychology behind it and what is its role in society, if it has one?

Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago, researches the psychology behind anthropomorphism to answer these questions. His 2014 book Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want, argues that humans are constantly using personal interpretations of events to understand the actions and behaviors of other people and objects. He says the ability to recognize another human mind “involves the same psychological processes as recognizing a mind in other animals, a god, or even a gadget,” whether that mind exists or not.

In one experiment, Epley and collaborators imaged research subjects’ brains in an fMRI to test the hypothesis that strong anthropomorphization results in brain activity in the region of the brain associated with awareness of other humans. They found that anthropomorphism activated the region associated with self-projection and theory of mind, or our perception that others are separate from ourselves.

However, Dr. Cristina Moya, a professor of anthropology at UC Davis, noted:”Just because a brain region lights up during a given activity, it doesn’t mean that when that region lights up the person is engaging in that activity. That is, there could be multiple activities and thought processes that could produce a similar fMRI pattern. The argument commits the same fallacy as saying all Davis residents live in California, therefore if one lives in California one lives in Davis.”

Epley argues that there are basically three psychological reasons for anthropomorphism. First, it’s entirely reasonable for humans to interpret the world through their personal perceptions, as this is their foundational knowledge of the world. Second, humans anthropomorphize because they desire to explain things and to understand the world around them. Ascribing human explanations for the world helps make sense of chaos around us. And third, humans anthropomorphize for human connections when we are lonely.

So, a person might assign a human characteristic to explain why her dog is barking and try to reason with her dog to stop, especially when she feels lonely, but that doesn’t mean she’s smarter than average.

Dr. Alexandra Horowitz, an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Barnard College, also pointed out that we don’t know whether other species anthropomorphize. “We don’t know that other animals don’t think of and explain the world around them using extrapolations from how their own species works,” she said in an email. There is evidence that zoomorphism does occur and that the barking dog may be making canine-based assumptions about her owner. Anthropomorphism therefore does not even mark the intelligence of the human species, much less an individual’s intelligence.

Epley did not cover this in his report on anthropomorphism. Instead, anthropomorphism was reported as distinctly human. While it’s true that anthropomorphism is human-specific, the biological process underlying anthropomorphism is probably not. In other words, a dog could be engaging in “caninomorphism” when she projects dog-interpretation onto the actions of her owner.

Epley and others have made the case that anthropomorphism is a process similar to projecting personal interpretation of the world onto other humans and that this process plays a role in contemporary society. Unfortunately, although this does point to higher cognition in humans, it is not an indicator of individual intelligence.

Talking to your pet does not indicate that you are especially smart or creative. The articles that reported this seemed to have misinterpreted the phrase “human intelligence” to mean personal intelligence, rather than intelligence in an evolutionary context. In addition, there’s no evidence that the process behind anthropomorphism is human-specific. Nonetheless, anthropomorphising your pet reflects a pretty interesting human trait that may have been evolutionarily beneficial and may still play an important role in contemporary society.

About the Authors

Caryn Johansen, Eric Walters, and Taylor Reiter are graduate students at the University of California in Davis. This post was written as part of a project called “Science REALLY says” which seeks to ensure scientific data is accurately represented by the media. For more content from the UC Davis science communication group “Science Says“, follow us on twitter @SciSays and like us on facebook.

 

Acknowledgements

We thank Dr. Alexandra Horowitz (adjunct associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Barnard College) and Dr. Cristina Moya (assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California in Davis) for helpful comments.

 

References

Epley, N. (2014). Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think. Believe, Feel, and Want.

Epley, N., Waytz, A., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2007). On seeing human: a three-factor theory of anthropomorphism. Psychological review, 114(4), 864.

Waytz, A., Morewedge, C. K., Epley, N., Monteleone, G., Gao, J. H., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2010). Making sense by making sentient: effectance motivation increases anthropomorphism. Journal of personality and social psychology, 99(3), 410.

 

No, your baby is not racist.

Babies are terrible at a lot of things. They’re terrible at walking, they puke all over, cry at the worst times, and stare at people in the grocery store. No social etiquette whatsoever. But, contrary to recent media claims, they are not racist.

 

Saying that a baby can be racist misunderstands racism and child development. So, what’s with the headlines dogging on the youngest members of our society? We have this fascination (exhibit A, exhibit B) with attributing adult motivations and personality traits to babies. But babies aren’t just miniature adults.

 

baby1.jpeg

The science behind these racist babies headlines is much less terrible and much more interesting. Two recent studies from a group of child development researchers led by Dr. Lee Kang at the University of Toronto looked at how babies view race.

 

In the first, Dr. Kang’s group tested whether babies preferentially follow the gaze of a same-race woman or a different-race woman in a game of animal picture pop-up. The researchers began with a “learning phase” (see the figure below). During this learning phase, the woman always, never, or only sometimes looked at the animal picture. This would “teach” a baby whether the actress was reliable.

baby_figure.png

After going through the learning phase, the babies were given a test trial (the actual experiment). This is when the researchers watched whether or not the baby followed the gaze of the woman before the animal popped up.

 

The results are what you might expect: the babies followed the gaze of the familiar/similar looking woman (of the same race) more often than a different-race woman. But this was only the case when the women-gazers were only somewhat reliable. If the gaze of either woman predicted the location of the animal 100% of the time, the baby would follow the women’s eyeline equally as often regardless of race. Conversely, when each woman’s gaze was completely unreliable in indicating the location of the animal on the screen, the baby would follow neither.

 

This showed a couple things. First, babies weigh reliability by picking up patterns from which they then make decisions. In this case, these initial patterns are in the learning phase. The babies in this experiment were able to pick up on whether or not the women were reliable in predicting the animal pop-up and then decide to follow or not follow their gaze in the test trial. Second, the experiment showed that babies discern differences in facial characteristics. The more familiar a baby is with certain facial characteristics the more likely they will follow cues from those people in uncertain situations.

 

“babies discern differences

in facial characteristics”

 

In the second experiment, Dr. Kang and colleagues recorded how long each baby looked at pictures of different and similar-race adult faces as they listened to either happy or sad music. One of the most interesting findings of this experiment was the difference in response depending on the baby’s age. Older infants (9 months old versus 3-6 months old) were more likely to gaze at same race faces when paired with happy music and different race faces with the sad music.

 

The results of these studies point to a tendency of babies of a certain age to have preference for same-race faces, indicative of racial bias. Dr. Kang however, clarified that by saying that infants are racially biased “we mean that infants show a tendency to favor the individuals of one race over those of another emotionally or behaviorally, just like their strong preference for female adults over male adults, attractive adults over unattractive adults, adults speaking the native language over adults speaking non-native language, or even familiar adults over strangers.”

 

It would be interesting in the future to study the preferences of babies adopted by different-race families. This would allow scientists to determine if adopted babies prefer faces similar to their families or faces of their own ethnicity. This also raises interesting questions about when in developmental time babies start to conceptualize their own ethnicity by recognizing and comparing physical characteristics of other people.

 

baby2.jpg

 

What is immediately clear is that babies integrate multiple types of information from their environment (the faces they see, the voices they hear, the genders they interact with, etc.). In scientific terms, preference for one race over another is “racial bias.” However, it’s important to make the distinction between racial bias in the scientific sense, and racism.

 

Babies notice physical traits in others and test the patterns they create. This racial bias can be clearly contrasted with what we think of as racism, which Dr. Kang explains as when “an individual displays overtly negative attitudes towards people from another race group, subscribes overt stereotypes about them, and most importantly, discriminates against them in action.”

 

So what does it mean if your baby is racially biased? This shouldn’t be a cause for alarm…just yet. Of course, as Dr. Kang mentions, the most important question is whether “such early bias will grow into the overt form of racism in adulthood.” We don’t know the full answer to this question since more work needs to be done to make these direct connections, but it’s something Dr. Kang and his colleagues are actively interested in and aim to explore in the future.

 

“exposure to a diversity of

races reduces implicit bias”

 

What we can say is that these results lend a lot of weight to the role of environment on a child’s social development. A baby’s world during the first year of life is typically populated with same-race individuals. There is genuine concern that biases based on unfamiliarity, however innocent, could develop into unfair stereotypes. Dr. Kang suggests that parents “consider introducing their infants and children to books, people, and TV programs that depict other-race individuals as individuals, not as a group.” The impact of diversity on a child’s social development has been explored by Kang as well as other research groups, all of which conclude that exposure to a diversity of races reduces implicit bias in children and improves their ability to distinguish personal characteristics in other race individuals.

 

So, babies aren’t racist—they just act based on the familiar. And in a world so big and confusing for a baby, can you blame them? While it must’ve been tempting to write headlines calling babies “bigots” (maybe it’s the alliteration), that’s not what the studies aimed to test nor what they concluded. What the “racist babies” articles meant to say was that babies show preference for faces that look like theirs. And while it’s alarming to imagine that a fully-formed, socially present (and utterly shameless) person is sizing us up from the crib, babies are probably too busy trying to figure out the world around them to judge you based on your ethnicity.

 

About the Authors

Destiny Davis (author) and Sam Tucci (editor) are graduate students at the University of California in Davis. This post was written as part of a project called “Science REALLY says” which seeks to ensure scientific data is accurately represented by the media. For more content from the UC Davis science communication group “Science Says“, follow us on twitter @SciSays and like us on facebook.

 

Acknowledgements

 We thank Dr. Lee Kang (Professor of Applied Psychology and Human Development at the University of Toronto) for helpful comments.

 

References (*main studies discussed)

 

*Xiao, N.G., Wu, R., Quinn, P.C., Liu, S., Tummeltshammer, K.S., Kirkham, N.Z., Ge, L., Pascalis, O., Lee, K. (2017). Infants Rely More on Gaze Cues From Own-Race Than Other-Race Adults for Learning Under Uncertainty. Child Development. http://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.12798

 

*Xiao, N.G., Quinn, P.C., Liu, S., Ge, L., Pascalis, O., Lee, K. (2017). Older but not younger infants associate own-race faces with happy music and other-race faces with sad music. Developmental Science. http://doi.org/10.1111/desc.12537

 

Xiao, W.S., Fu, G., Quinn, P.C>, Qin, J., Tanaka, J.W., Pascalis, O., Lee, K.(2015). Individuation training with other-race faces reduces preschoolers’ implicit racial bias: a link between perceptual and social representation of faces in children. Developmental Science. https://doi.org/10.1111/desc.12241

 

Anzures, G., Quinn, P.C., Pascalis, O., Slater, A.M., Lee, K. (2010). Categorization, categorial perception, and asymmetry in infants’ representation of face race. Developmental Science. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7687.2009.00900.x.

 

Anzures, G., Wheeler, A., Quinn, P.C., Pascalis, O., Slater, A.M., Heron-Delaney, M., Tanaka, J.W., Lee, K. (2012). Brief daily exposures to Asian females reverses perceptual narrowing for Asian faces in Caucasian infants. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2012.04.005

 

Bar-Haim, Y., Ziv, T., Lamy, D., Hodes, R.M. (2006) Nature and Nurture in Own-Race Face Processing. Psychological Science. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01679.x

 

Heron-Delaney, M., Anzures, G., Herbert, J.S., Quinn, P.C., Slater, A.M., Tanaka, J.W., Lee, K., Pascalis, O. (2011). Perceptual Training Prevents the Emergence of the Other Race Effect during Infancy. PLoS One. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0019858

 

Kelly, D.J., Quinn, P.C., Slater, A.M., Lee, K., Gibson, A., Smith, M., Ge, L., Pascalis, O. (2005). Three-month-olds, but not newborns, prefer own-race faces. Developmental Science. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7687.2005.0434a.x

 

 

 

Wine won’t make you smarter, but your brain plays a big role in tasting

You might have noticed this headline circulating on the Internet:

“Drinking wine makes you smarter!”

As graduate students, we wish! These claims stem from an interview with Yale neuroscientist Dr. Gordon Shepherd on his new book, Neuroenology: How the Brain Creates the Taste of Wine. Unfortunately for wine lovers, these articles ran away with Dr. Shepherd’s take on the complex nature of taste.

The claim with the most mileage is that tasting wine is better for your brain than doing math problems or listening to music. Dr. Shepherd mentions these activities as reference points to demonstrate the complexity of tasting. But in an interview with us, he stressed that whether or not tasting is more engaging than math or listening is solely speculation. Indeed, the book makes no claims about the superiority of drinking wine over other activities. Dr. Shepherd’s writings are based on a series of peer-reviewed studies about the intricate science of tasting. Here’s what the experts agree on:

1) Flavor isn’t intrinsic to food; the brain is what creates the perception of flavor. This is similar to pain. A hot object is not inherently a painful item, but if you touch something hot, your body detects a potential source of harm and activates a set of neural pathways, which create the sensation of pain. Likewise, when you taste something, your brain is responsible for processing and synthesizing all of the sensory inputs into a “flavor” that you perceive.

“flavor is different from taste”

To sensory scientists, flavor is different from taste. Taste strictly refers to the sensations of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, or umami (savory). On the other hand, flavor results from a combination of tastes, aromas, and other senses. Even feel, sight, sound, and memory can contribute! For example, artificially changing the color of white wine to red makes us perceive the flavor differently. Flavor requires the integration of all of our senses, each with its own mechanisms and pathways, why is partly the reason so many regions of the brain are activated during tasting.

2) Eating is a surprisingly complex physiological process, and most of it happens unconsciously. For instance, mechanically manipulating and swallowing food requires fine motor control of muscles from the face, tongue, and throat, which the brain must coordinate with breathing and multiple sensory inputs. Smell alone is more complicated than “first meets the nose.” When most of us think about smelling our food, we imagine sniffing our meal as it lies in front of us; this type of smelling is called orthonasal However, a huge part is played by retronasal smell, which occurs when we breathe out and bring the air in our mouth to our nose. This brings volatiles, (i.e. airborne particles) from the food we’re eating to our olfactory receptors, which recognize the volatiles and integrate them into our flavor perception.

“like wiggling your hand around to find an object”

Since the brain must synthesize these many inputs to create the sensation of flavor, the tasting of food and wine is considered an active process. This makes tasting less like feeling a touch on your hand, and more like wiggling your hand around to find an object. Dr. Shepherd notes, “As a physiologist, to me that is the fascinating part.”

3) Neuroenology focuses specifically on the motor activity of manipulating wine, like the swishing of liquid with the tongue. But these same principles apply to the tasting of any food. So, does this mean that eating or drinking literally anything will make us “smarter”? Unfortunately, no. All this really means is that the act of tasting is a very rich sensory experience that involves many areas of the brain.

Keep in mind that heightened brain activity is not always a good thing! Dr. Shepherd writes that “there is evidence that in rodents fed on a high-sugar diet, brain cells are activated in areas such as the insula and the OFC, which are also activated by an addiction to cocaine.” We can all probably agree that binging on sugar and cocaine to become “smarter” won’t work out.

“The very concept of ‘intelligence’ is controversial”

That said, a study on master sommeliers did find that the regions of their brains involved in smelling were denser compared to non-experts. Master sommeliers also exhibited increased levels of brain activity during non-wine related smelling tests. So, it’s true that developing an expertise can cause actual physiological changes to the brain. As an expert in a particular field, your brain structure could become specialized in a similar way, but this does not necessarily equate to intelligence. The very concept of “intelligence” is controversial and difficult to measure or quantify.

“There is no magic food or drink

that will make you smarter.”

Furthermore, master sommeliers are extremely skilled at what they do. There are only 236 master sommeliers in the world, and this dearth isn’t due to a lack of interest. Master sommeliers must pass a series of notoriously difficult tests, including blind wine tastings, in which they’re required to accurately identify everything from the kind of grapes used, where the grapes came from, aromas present, alcohol and acidity levels, and more. We shouldn’t conflate their years of dedication and active training with our everyday wine tasting; their brains exhibit these qualities due to their rigorous training and preparation, not due to exposure to wine. We also caution that the authors consider this a “pilot study” on a small group of people who were not age-matched, and they recommend more studies to follow up on these findings. (For more, check out the studies on musicians, perfumers, or London taxi drivers)

“working on flavor is a wonderful way

to exercise your brain.”

So what’s the takeaway? There is no magic food or drink that will make you smarter. Rather, hard work and repetition will cause certain functional areas of your brain to develop in ways that can enhance specific skills. However, refining your tasting abilities can be an enjoyable way to develop greater sensory-cognitive skills. As Dr. Shepherd suggests, “working on flavor is a wonderful way to exercise your brain.”

 

 

About the Authors

Lynn Ly, Debbie Fetter, and Colin Shew are graduate students at the University of California in Davis. This post was written as part of a project called “Science REALLY says” which seeks to ensure scientific data is accurately represented by the media. For more content from the UC Davis science communication group “Science Says“, follow us on twitter @SciSays and like us on facebook.

 

Acknowledgements

 We thank Dr. Gordon Shepherd (professor of neuroscience at Yale and author of Neuroenology: How the Brain Creates the Taste of Wine) for helpful comments.

 

References

Shepherd, G. M. (2015). Neuroenology: how the brain creates the taste of wine. Flavour, 4(1), 19. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13411-014-0030-9

Small, D. M. (2012). Flavor is in the brain. Physiology and Behavior, 107(4), 540–552. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2012.04.011

Spence, C. (2013). Multisensory flavour perception. Current Biology, 23(9), R365–R369. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2013.01.028

Muñoz-González, C., Rodríguez-Bencomo, J. J., Moreno-Arribas, M. V., & Pozo-Bayón, M. Á. (2011). Beyond the characterization of wine aroma compounds: Looking for analytical approaches in trying to understand aroma perception during wine consumption. Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry, 401(5), 1501–1516. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00216-011-5078-0

Silva Teixeira, C. S., Cerqueira, N. M. F. S. A., & Silva Ferreira, A. C. (2016). Unravelling the olfactory sense: From the Gene to Odor Perception. Chemical Senses, 41(2), 105–121. https://doi.org/10.1093/chemse/bjv075

Banks, S. J., Sreenivasan, K. R., Weintraub, D. M., Baldock, D., Noback, M., Pierce, M. E., … Leger, G. C. (2016). Structural and Functional MRI Differences in Master Sommeliers: A Pilot Study on Expertise in the Brain. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 10(August), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2016.00414

Shepherd, G. M. (2017). Neuroenology: How the Brain Creates the Taste of Wine. NEW YORK: Columbia University Press. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/shep17700

Next level science communication: humanize, normalize, illuminate

Easton White, UC Davis PhD student, population biology

Typically, Science Communication seminars or workshops spend a lot of time convincing participants why science communication is important. I am beyond this point. And, furthermore, I think we as a scientific community are beyond this point. We know the importance of science communication for science literacy, scientific funding, and science policy. Scientists will either get on board or be left behind.

How do we move to the next level? I think small, focused workshops are one potential avenue. Recently, I attended a science communication workshop at the University of California, Davis. The workshop was hosted by two groups: The People’s Science and Science Says. Stephanie Fine Sasse, the Executive Director of The People’s Science, led the event. Stephanie and the workshop organizers executed a great workshop on several dimensions.

First, the workshop was limited to 30 people and the room was small, which made the time more intimate and focused. Second, organizers asked participants to prepare a lay summary of a recent paper prior to the workshop. This facilitated discussions about our summaries during the workshop. Third, the workshop was three hours in length, providing enough time to dive into specific issues. Lastly, Stephanie did a great job of discussing specific tactics scientists can implement moving forward. She illustrated her points through a number of good examples and participant exercises.

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Moving beyond the workshop setup, what did participants actually learn? To begin the workshop, Stephanie presented a brief history of science literacy and science communication. This set the stage for current challenges science communicators face. She argued that now scientists have to reach out to the public and science itself has to be more connected to society. She also pointed to solutions which work to engage the public in science, like citizen science projects. There were three major takeaways I took from Stephanie’s presentation.

1) We (scientists) need to humanize scientific research.

Here, Stephanie stressed the importance of including the scientist, and their story, when communicating science. This builds trust between the science and the public. It is important for people to understand scientists are people too, not just some expert in an ivory tower. Further, telling a scientist’s story creates a more interesting story for the public.

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2) We need to normalize science communication.

A lot of scientists worry about participating in science communication. They fear that colleagues may perceive them in a negative light. It will be important to create a culture within science where science communication is not only typical, but also incentivized. Tangible incentives for science communication would allow researchers more time to communicate their science. For instance, science communication could be part of a broader impacts statement in a grant or during the tenure process.

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3) We need to illuminate the scientific process.

Yes, it is important to explain the latest and coolest scientific findings to the public. However, it is equally important—if not more so—to discuss the scientific process itself. Again, the storytelling of science is important. Describing the process that led to the discovery has at least two benefits. First, describing the process helps people understand how science works. For instance, describing the way a drug is brought into development would hopefully make people feel more at ease about the process. In addition, learning about the process of science enables people to think critically themselves.

What practical, tangible steps can scientists take? First, scientists must carve out time for science communication. As we all know too well, if you do not plan something in your schedule, you will never get to it. Once an individual wants to engage in science communication, there are a number of questions one should ask themselves:

-What audience do you want to reach? This will determine the appropriate medium for communicating science.

-Are there groups that you can collaborate with to communicate your science? A number of universities now have groups focused on science communication, either informally through clubs or through a media communications department.

After answering these questions, the next step would be to develop the material for presentation.

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Moving forward it will be important to offer small and focused workshops. A small group enables a richer dialogue between participants and instructors. Focused workshops are important to get into the nitty gritty details of how to actually engage with science communication. Lastly, a small and focused workshop allows participants to test their ideas on a willing audience. The workshop can serve as a laboratory for experiments with new analogies, active learning exercises, or pieces of writing.

You can find more information here:

http://thepeoplesscience.org/#home

https://davissciencesays.com

8 bee experts weigh in on pollinator decline & Cheerios’ bid to save them

We’ve been hearing a lot about declining bee populations. As scientists, we’re concerned about our pollinator friends. So we interviewed 8 entomologists, bee-keepers, and other pollinator experts to cut through the buzz about bees.

The Gist

Honeybees are okay, but wild pollinators are at risk. The biggest threat is habitat loss, but climate change, insecticides, and diseases also spell trouble. Certain agricultural practices can help, and we can all do our part by planting flowers instead of keeping grassy lawns and encouraging city planners to do the same. If you got one of those wildflower packages from Cheerios, consider ditching those seeds for native ones instead.

To bee or not to bee

We asked the experts whether or not bees are in trouble. The overwhelming response: WHICH bees?

Honey bees are commercially managed by beekeepers and trucked around to pollinate crops from almonds to zucchinis. The “beepocalypse” first gained attention in 2006 when honey bees in the US were dropping like flies, especially during winter months. The varroa destructor, a nasty mite, is likely the main perpetrator along with diseases it spreads. Insecticides and fungicides could also factor in, but it’s unclear how big of a role they actually play in the field.  

But honey bees are not even native to the US, and they’re managed like livestock. So bees died, beekeepers upped their numbers, and now honey bee populations are stable, maybe even increasing. But honey bees aren’t the only bees – far from it – and they aren’t the only insects that pollinate food crops and other plants, which whole ecosystems depend on. What’s worse, when beekeepers cart honeybees across the nation, they carry parasites and pathogens that can spread to wild populations.

Some wild bees ARE at risk, particularly solitary bees, some species of bumble bees, and other non-bee pollinators. The rusty-patch bumble bee is considered an endangered species in the US, and many other species are on the red list in Europe. While there are over 20,000 species of bees in the world and 4,000 in the US alone, we only have population data on a few. More research (and more funding) could identify at-risk pollinators.

People vs Pollinators

Pollinators face many perils, but most experts agree food and habitat loss dominate. For pollinators, food means flowers/plants and habitats mean undisturbed places for nests/hives/colonies/larvae. We actually compete with bees for homes and food. If a prairie is plowed to plant acres upon acres of soybeans, pollinators in that field lose their livelihood. If a forest is cleared for a housing development or a golf course, the flowers wild bees depend on go too. If you weed and mow your own yard, you too are contributing to pollinator decline.

While we could probably live without golf courses and lawns, we do need homes and food. Planning developments, gardens, and farms with pollinators in mind can make a big difference. That means leaving ditches, parks, lots, and lawns in their natural weedy state whenever possible. If the weeds really must be cleared, plant flowers in their place instead of grass– Preferably local flowers that vary in shape and color and flower at different times.

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Screenshot from httpp://www.cheerios.com/bringbackthebees

Apiaries in Agriculture

Farmers have an extra challenge. They need to ensure their crops have ample room to grow and don’t get choked out by competing plants, but plowing or spraying stubborn weeds destroys habitats. Pollinator habitats can be managed within and around farms by planting cover crops, practicing crop rotations, or managing less-fertile land as refuges for insects. Technologies that help increase yield per acre may also help prevent more prairies, forests, or wetlands from being converted into farms.

Insecticides that stop hungry bugs from mowing down crops can also mean bad news for pollinators. It’s tough to study the specific role of insecticides, because any given bee might be exposed to multiple compounds at varying levels. These factors interact with other threats like poor nutrition and disease, so it’s nearly impossible to identify a single, direct cause.

The bottom line: anything designed to kill insects — from commercial insecticides to organic alternatives to home remedies — certainly can’t help. On the other hand, banning specific pesticides may not be the best approach. Farmers have to control pests somehow, and alternatives might not prove any friendlier to pollinators or farmworkers.

Scientists are working to develop pest control methods that are more specific, and plants that produce their own defenses, so sprays aren’t necessary. In the meantime, integrative pest management approaches that “balance the good guys against the bad guys” can help protect beneficial insects like bees.

The end all bee all

In short, there are many threats to pollinators, and we don’t really have a good understanding of exactly which bugs are threatened. Such a multifaceted problem calls for a multifaceted solution, and no silver bullet is going to do the trick. But we know that habitat loss is a big concern, and we can all help by remembering pollinators when we make land-management choices. That’s why Cheerios distributed 1.5 billion wildflower seeds for free. The idea is awesome, but experts worry the execution is not.

Trouble is, no pack of wildflower seeds can possibly be native to every region in the United States. While Cheerios did their homework to ensure that none of the seeds spawn from known invasive species, scientists are still concerned. Some of the flowers included are considered noxious weeds and could prove problematic for farmers. These foreign flowers may also compete for pollination with native species, giving the invaders an edge, and potentially harming pollinators with a specific taste for native plants.

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All our experts agreed that planting wildflowers is a great idea, but you should really try to plant flowers native to your home region. The Xerces society can be very helpful in that department, as can the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder.

That said, General Mills has really done some great things to help pollinators. As have other corporations including Bayer, Haagen-Daz, Monsanto, and more. Their efforts should be applauded.

Want to know more?

-Expert Q & A

-Reader-friendly & expert-recommended sources

Scientific literature backing these claims

A BIG THANK YOU to these great eight bee buffs:

 

beekeepers1.png

Dalton Ludwick is a doctoral candidate in Plant, Insect and Microbial Sciences at the University of Missouri. His research focuses on the management of western corn rootworm, a serious pest of corn, with Bt proteins.

Rea Manderino is a PhD student at SUNY – College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, NY.  Her research has focused on the impact of gypsy moth presence in North America, and this has included examining the far-reaching influences of non-native organisms in our native ecosystems. Rea is also co-moderator of ‘Relax, I’m an Entomologist’ on Facebook.

Val Giddings is a geneticist, an outdoor enthusiast, an amateur beekeeper, and a policy nerd. Like some folks have a wine cellar with varieties from around the world, Val has a honey cellar.

Dr Manu Saunders is an ecologist based at the University of New England, Australia. Her research focuses on beneficial insects that provide ecosystem services in crop systems, particularly pollinators and natural enemies of pest insects. She writes about pollinators, ecology and agriculture at https://ecologyisnotadirtyword.com/.

Beekeepers2.png

Jerry Hayes is the Honey Bee Health lead for Monsanto’s newly formed BioDirect business unit.  Before joining Monsanto he was the Chief of the Apiary Section for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. In that role he was responsible for the regulatory health of the 350,000 colonies in the State of Florida, a State highly dependent on Honey Bee pollination for agricultural success.  For the past 30 years Jerry has written a monthly column in the American Bee Journal called The Classroom and a book by the same name.  Jerry is a founding member of the Colony Collapse Working Group, a science advisory board member for Project Apis mellifera (PAm) , the Bee Informed Partnership, and he serves on the Steering Committee of the Honey Bee Health Coalition.  He has been author and co-author on multiple research papers that delve into how to understand and preserve honey bee health. In Jerry’s 35 plus years in the Apiculture Industry his overarching desire has been to create sustainable honey bee management practices while partnering with other segments of agriculture.  The cornerstone of his career has been to educate others that honey bees are the key pollinators and the critical role they play in agriculture; while in parallel encouraging the development of multi dimensional landscapes for the benefit of honey bees and all pollinators.

Rachael E. Bonoan is a Ph.D. Candidate who studies honey bee nutritional ecology in the Starks Lab at Tufts University. She is interested in how seasonal changes in the distribution and abundance of flowers (i.e. honey bee food!) affect honey bee health and behavior. Rachael is also the President of the Boston Area Beekeepers Association and enjoys communicating her research and the importance of pollinator health to scientists, beekeepers, garden clubs, and the general public. More info on bees via Rachael’s website www.rachaelebonoan.com or twitter @RachaelEBee

Kelsey Graham is a pollinator conservation specialist. Her graduate work has focused on invasive species and their impact on native pollinators and plants. She has used an interdisciplinary approach to provide a comprehensive assessment of an invasive species, the European wool-carder bee (Anthidium manicatum), within their invaded ecosystem. She will be defending her PhD in April 2017, and beginning a post-doctoral research position at Michigan State University in Dr. Rufus Isaacs lab, where she will study how landscape features impact the local bee community.

Dr. Maj Rundlöf is an ecologist and environmental scientist at Lund University in Sweden, currently visiting UC Davis as an international career grant fellow to work with bumble bees in Neal Williams lab. Her most recent research focuses on impacts of land use change and pesticides, particularly the disputed neonicotinoids, on bees and the pollination services they provide to crops and wild plants. A large part of her research is in the interface between conservation biology and agricultural production, aiming at exploring how we can support biodiversity while also facilitating food production. She has, for example, studied how farming practices influence plants, butterflies, bumble bees and birds as well as how created habitats influence crop yields and ecosystem services like pollination and biological control by pest’s natural enemies. The bumble bee, one of these pollinating insects, is her favorite study organism.

 

About the Author: Jenna E Gallegos is a 5th year plant biology PhD student at the University of California, Davis. Science Says is a science communication and outreach group composed of UC Davis graduate students and postdocs.

 

Gluten probably won’t kill you and a gluten-free diet probably won’t either

Gluten-free diets are all the rage. I mean, if your yogurt label says ‘gluten-free’ then gluten must be bad right? But wait, what about those recent headlines claiming there’s arsenic in gluten-free foods? Is it safe to eat literally anything?

If you feel this way trying to navigate nutrition advice, you’re not alone. According to headlines practically anything can either kill you or cure you. This might leave you feeling like science is wishy washy, and maybe you should turn to your pastor or yoga instructor for nutrition advice instead. The truth is, food science is nuanced and headlines are not. In this post, we’ll guide you through the gluten gamut and share some general tips for navigating nutrition science news.

First, unless you’re one of the less than 2% of people with Celiacs disease or a wheat allergy, you probably don’t need to worry about gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat that helps to give bread that nice gooey texture. Contrary to some claims that gluten is a byproduct of modern “genetic tinkering”,  we’ve been eating gluten since the dawn of wheat domestication about 10,000 years ago. We’ve only been digesting gluten-related news hysteria for about the last 6 years thanks to a book called “Wheat Belly”.

“Wheat Belly” was written by Dr. William Davis after he noticed that the health and weight of many of his patients improved when they stopped eating wheat. He attributes this difference to gluten and inflammation. In the science world, we call this kind of evidence “anecdotal” because it comes from casual observations not carefully controlled studies.  Scientists have tested Davis’s theory by administering controlled tests where (for example) people with self-reported gluten sensitivities consumed either wheat or whey proteins. So far, the evidence doesn’t match the anecdote.  

But reports of celiac disease and other wheat-related allergies ARE on the rise. There are several possible explanations for this. Our attention to the diagnosis of these conditions and the sensitivity of the tests required to confirm them has increased. Additionally allergies and autoimmune diseases like celiac are on the rise in general. We don’t yet know why this is, but one intriguing possibility is the hygiene hypothesis–basically, in our increasingly urbanized and sterile environment, children are exposed to less immune challenges, causing their immune system to mistake friend for foe. There is some evidence to support this hypothesis. For example, children who grow up on dairies or in close contact with pets are less likely to develop asthma and allergies.

That still doesn’t explain why some people feel better when they cut wheat out of their diets. Wheat has changed over the ages with breeding, so it’s possible that modern wheat could cause irritation, but it is difficult to say, because cutting wheat out of your diet means cutting a whole lot of other stuff too. Obviously if you give up beer, pizza, and cookies your health will improve. By eliminating wheat, you’d probably eat less processed foods which tend to be high in sugars, calories, salts, etc.

The promise of a gluten-free diet has lead 1 in 3 Americans to consider the switch, expanding a niche market into an advertiser’s dream. You can now buy gluten-free chicken nuggets, brownies, and even beer. What luck! Now we can go gluten-free and still have all the junk that typically hides in wheat-based processed foods. But headlines are now claiming that these foods may come with a side of heavy metals and arsenic.

In a study published recently by the University of Illinois, scientists found 50% more arsenic and 60% more lead in the urine of people on a self-reported gluten-free diet. Before you set fire to your pantry, food toxicologist Dr. Carl Winter noted that these “estimates are all below levels of concern identified by the US EPA,” but by less of a margin of safety than is typically allowed for compounds such as pesticides which are carefully monitored and highly scrutinized.

To put these amounts into perspective, Arsenic has an LD50 of 15mg/kg. That means if you fed a bunch of 1kg rats 15mg of straight arsenic, half of them would die. But rats are pretty small. It would take 900 mg of Arsenic in one serving to kill a Gwyneth Paltrow-sized rat. That’s about 5000 times more arsenic that you’d find in a typical 1 pound bag of rice. In urine, the limit considered safe for arsenic is 100ug/L which is still way more than the 12ug/L found from those on a Gluten-free diet (for comparison, those who eat gluten still peed 8ug/L of arsenic).

What’s more, the specific source of the arsenic in gluten-free diets is important. Although they didn’t directly test for it, the researchers speculate that these elevated levels of arsenic come from an increased consumption of rice. Many gluten-free products contain rice flour as a substitute for wheat flour, and according to UC Davis rice extension specialist Dr. Bruce Linquist, “arsenic is higher in rice than many other cereal crops due to the anaerobic soil conditions rice is grown under”. Other studies have found arsenic in rice-based gluten-free foods but not in gluten-free foods lacking rice. This doesn’t mean you should throw away all the rice in your cabinet either. As toxicologists like to say, the dose makes the poison. One study indicated that Asian households living in the US are only exposed to about 2.8 ug of arsenic per day from eating rice. There’s more arsenic than that in our tap water. 

So what’s the takeaway? Gluten probably won’t kill you and a gluten-free diet probably won’t either. Neither will rice or tap water. On the other hand, too much of absolutely anything can kill you. A small number of celiac patients have faced arsenic poisoning because they were unknowingly eating rice-based products 3 meals a day. For anyone, especially children, the FDA recommends a varied diet to decrease the risk of exposure to arsenic. The same strategy can be applied to many dietary concerns. Variety is good, homogeneity is bad. So although it’s cliche, a good rule of thumb is everything in moderation–even arsenic.

About the Authors

Jenna E Gallegos, Lynn Ly, and Eric Walters are graduate students at the University of California in Davis. This post was written as part of a project called “Science REALLY says” which seeks to ensure scientific data is accurately represented by the media. For more content from the UC Davis science communication group “Science Says“, follow us on twitter @SciSays and like us on facebook.

Acknowledgements

 We thank Dr. Carl Winter (food toxicology extension specialist, UC Davis) and Dr. Bruce Linquist (sustainable management of rice systems extension specialist, UC Davis) for helpful comments.

References

Bulka, C. M., Davis, M. A., Karagas, M. R., Ahsan, H., & Argos, M. (2017). The Unintended Consequences of a Gluten-Free Diet. Epidemiology (Cambridge, Mass.), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1097/EDE.0000000000000640

Kim, H., Patel, K. G., Orosz, E., Kothari, N., Demyen, M. F., Pyrsopoulos, N., … C, C. (2016). Time Trends in the Prevalence of Celiac Disease and Gluten-Free Diet in the US Population: Results From the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys 2009-2014. JAMA Internal Medicine, 108(5), 818–824. https://doi.org/10.1001/JAMAINTERNMED.2016.5254

Mantha, M., Yeary, E., Trent, J., Creed, P. A., Kubachka, K., Hanley, T., … Creed, J. T. (2016). Estimating Inorganic Arsenic Exposure from U.S. Rice and Total Water Intakes. Environmental Health Perspectives, (August). https://doi.org/10.1289/EHP418

Pietzak, M. (2012). Celiac disease, wheat allergy, and gluten sensitivity: when gluten free is not a fad. JPEN. Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition, 36(1 Suppl), 68S–75S. https://doi.org/10.1177/0148607111426276

Jara, E. a, & Winter, C. K. (2014). Dietary exposure to total and inorganic arsenic in the United States, 2006–2008. International Journal of Food Contamination, 1(1), 3. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40550-014-0003-x

Vierk, K. A., Koehler, K. M., Fein, S. B., & Street, D. A. (2007). Prevalence of self-reported food allergy in American adults and use of food labels. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 119(6), 1504–1510. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaci.2007.03.011

Munera-Picazo, S., Burló, F., & Carbonell-Barrachina, A. A. (2014). Arsenic speciation in rice-based food for adults with celiac disease. Food Additives & Contaminants. Part A, Chemistry, Analysis, Control, Exposure & Risk Assessment, 31(8), 1358–66. https://doi.org/10.1080/19440049.2014.933491

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 2007. Toxicological Profile for Arsenic. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Services. https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxguides/toxguide-2.pdf

US Food and Drug Administration. (2016) Arsenic in Rice and Rice Products. https://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/Metals/ucm319948.htm

Darren Seifer. (2012) Is Gluten-Free Eating a Trend Worth Noting? Report from The NPD Group. https://www.npd.com/perspectives/food-for-thought/gluten-free-2012.html

Fertility and fraying tips: What does your DNA say about when to have kids?

Having kids in your 30s has an amazing effect on your DNA…” “Want to live longer? Give birth in your 30s…” The headlines are seductive. I immediately wanted to print them out for my grandchild-less mom.

Too bad they’re not true. After looking at the study these articles are citing, here’s what the science really says.

First, aging is complicated. There are literally a lifetime of variables that compound, interact, and eventually contribute to our age of death. There are entire fields of research dedicated to studying how to live healthier for longer periods of time (like medicine!).

The 2009 Nobel prize in medicine was awarded to scientists who cleared up a major question in aging research. How does DNA protect itself during cell division? The answer is telomeres. Telomeres are repetitive bits of DNA that protect the ends of tightly wound strands of DNA called chromosomes. Each new round of cell divisions shortens the length of the telomere.

To understand why, it might help to imagine the vast rounds of division the cells in your body undergo throughout your lifetime. Your stomach cells divide and completely replace older cells in just a couple of days. Your liver cells turnover every 10 to 20 days (thank goodness). In fact, the majority of your cells are in constant flux. Dividing and growing, dividing and growing every second. Each time one of your cells divides, it has to copy its DNA. Given how often this happens it makes sense that the ends of the DNA strands might start to fray.

A telomere is to a chromosome what an aglet is to a shoelace. Over time chromosomes, like shoelaces, can fray and splinter. Chew a little bit and maybe nothing happens. Chew too much and problems arise. Telomeres don’t include important genes so you can gnaw more of them and the cell still runs okay. Like our own version of tree rings, short telomeres are an indicator of old age.

Researchers studying telomere length and longevity noticed telomeres fray less in some individuals who live long healthy lives. Indeed, some centenarians (people of 100+ years in age) have similar telomere lengths to those in younger generations.

The researchers of the study mentioned in those catchy headlines were curious to see if there was an association between telomere length and fertility. They found that mothers who gave birth at older ages were more likely to have longer telomeres than younger mothers. In fact, the oldest mothers had the longest telomeres.

I want to stress the words “more likely” in the above paragraph. There is an association between long telomeres and the age at which one gives birth, not a direct link. I’ll invoke the famous “correlation does not equal causation” phrase here, which means just because two things are observed together does not mean that one causes the other. Wearing a raincoat might be correlated to more car wrecks but wearing a raincoat doesn’t cause car wrecks and car wrecks aren’t why you put on a raincoat. The headlines suggest waiting to have children will make you live longer. More likely, women already apt to live longer remain fertile later in life.

As the scientists are careful to admit, there are several limitations to this study. First, their measure of prolonged fertility is the age at which the mother had her last child. But of course, not having a child does not mean that the mother is infertile. The study did not include other types of pregnancies that may not have resulted in a surviving child (ie. miscarriages, still-births, etc). The age at which a woman decides to give birth is also varied, personal, and influenced by a myriad of things. The researchers mention environmental and social factors such as economic status and familial relationships that factor into the decision. Finally, the participants of the study were all non-Hispanic white women, but populations differ in the length and stability of their telomeres.

Given what we know about telomeres and their impact on aging (long telomeres=more likely to live longer) and the conclusions from this study (prolonged fertility=more likely to have long telomeres) we can cautiously conclude that prolonged fertility might be a good indicator that the mother will live longer. Here’s a diagram to help:

baby

The significant association between maternal age and telomere length is interesting because it means there might be a genetic basis behind fertility and longevity. Because of the genetic component, you can see similar effects in blood relatives. So keep an eye on your siblings.

All in all, having good DNA (or long telomeres) could be the key to living longer. Having good DNA could mean that you stay fertile for longer too, but deciding to have kids later in life won’t make you live longer. The headline should read, “Good DNA has an amazing effect on your fertility.” But as any good scientific research study usually ends, more research is needed.

…A last word of advice, use protection when replicating.

About the Authors

Destiny Davis (author), Caryn Johansen (editor), and Jordan Snyder (editor) are PhD students at the University of California in Davis. This post was written as part of a project called “Science REALLY says” which seeks to ensure scientific data is accurately represented by the media. For more content from the UC Davis science communication group “Science Says“, follow us on twitter @SciSays and like us on facebook.

References:

Aubert, G., & Lansdorp, P. M. (2008). Telomeres and Aging. Physiological Reviews, 88(2).

Brown, L., Needham, B., & Ailshire, J. (2016). Telomere Length Among Older U.S. Adults: Differences by Race/Ethnicity, Gender, and Age. Journal of Aging and Health. https://doi.org/10.1177/0898264316661390

Fagan, E., Sun, F., Bae, H., Elo, I., Andersen, S. L., Lee, J., … Schupf, N. (n.d.). Telomere length is longer in women with late maternal age. CE. https://doi.org/10.1097/GME.0000000000000795

Franzke, B., Neubauer, O., & Wagner, K.-H. (2015). Super DNAging—New insights into DNA integrity, genome stability and telomeres in the oldest old. Mutation Research/Reviews in Mutation Research, 766, 48–57. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mrrev.2015.08.001

Harley, C. B., Futcher, A. B., & Greider, C. W. (1990). Telomeres shorten during ageing of human fibroblasts. Nature, 345(6274), 458–460. https://doi.org/10.1038/345458a0

Ishikawa, N., Nakamura, K.-I., Izumiyama-Shimomura, N., Aida, J., Matsuda, Y., Arai, T., & Takubo, K. (2016). Changes of telomere status with aging: An update. Geriatrics & Gerontology International, 16, 30–42. https://doi.org/10.1111/ggi.12772

Introducing: Science Says!

The former SPCG is now “Science Says”!! According to news headlines, science says a lot of things, but what do we really learn from scientific studies, and how do these findings impact our daily lives?

Wading through science-related news can be difficult, but science isn’t an elite league of geniuses or a collection of hard facts. Science is a process of gathering evidence from carefully controlled tests to gain understanding of the natural world. Our goal is to empower everyone to investigate how scientific findings impact their daily lives. We’re cultivating a community of science communicators to demystify the scientific process and challenge misconceptions. So what does science really say?

Science Distilled: Whale Tales and Shark Stories

Matt Savoca and Alexandra McInturf led a nautical edition of Sacramento Science Distilled on June 13th by sharing their whale tales and shark stories. The event was held outdoors in the courtyard of Streets Pub and Grub. The afternoon heat eventually turned to a cool and comfortable evening.

Savoca is a post-doctoral researcher at the Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University, right next to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Savoca has been interested in the environment since childhood.

“I was always generally interested in nature,” Savoca said. “When I was a kid, I collected zoo books and I loved visiting the museum of natural history. I was in the Boy Scouts and whenever we would go camping, I would be looking for animals.”

Savoca first explained some of the differences between the two main families of whales. Toothed whales, like orcas and dolphins, hunt prey such as fish and squid. Baleen whales, like humpback whales, use specialized filters to sift small organisms such as krill, shrimp, and small fish into their bellies. Savoca passed around a 3D printed replica of a baleen from a young, medium sized baleen whale.

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Replica baleen created through 3D printing. Strong, delicate hair are present on these structures in living whales to help filter food from ocean water. Photo from George Ugartemendia

“Even though they’re some of the most charismatic animals in the world, we have very little information on their basic biology, and that includes how they find food,” Savoca said.

Savoca showed the audience footage of whales breaching, feeding, and surfacing to breathe. The video footage, and other useful information like the speed and direction of the whale, were collected from tags researchers placed on the whales using suction cups.

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A tag to monitor whales for brief periods of time.  Photo from George Ugartemendia

“Whales have the perfect skin for suction cups!” Savoca told the crowd.

Savoca passed around two tags for the audience to inspect. Both tags were large and brightly colored to stand out from the blue ocean. After being placed on a whale, the tags operate for a few hours before naturally detaching and floating to the surface for collection. The data can then be catalogued and analyzed, offering up clues about where the whales travel and what they were up to that day.

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Multiple styles of tags for collecting different information about the daily lives of whales. Photo from Matt Savoca

“These whale species can mobilize interest in conservation in these environments,” Savoca said. “But these are also important animals in the ecosystem. They’re ecosystem engineers, they transport nutrients around. They’re important indicators of marine environmental health.”

McInturf is a Ph.D. candidate studying animal behavior at UC Davis and was similarly captivated by animals as a child.

“I wanted to be a vet for the first ten years of my life,” McInturf said. “I’ve always loved animals, I loved going to our backyard and playing in the creek. We used to take these annual trips to Florida — my aunt had a place down there — and I would be obsessed with the animals in the water.”

McInturf opened by discussing the movement of animals as they search for food and partners. McInturf suggested that if we knew more about where sharks assembled for meals or mating purposes, we could create marine sanctuaries which better protect vulnerable sharks. The biggest problem is that we simply don’t know much about where sharks spend their days or where they decide to breed.

“A lot of people don’t think of sharks as being social animals, and I think that’s probably fundamentally untrue,” McInturf said. “They have very large brain sizes, for the most part, relative to their body size. They’re known to form groupings in some species. This is a new area of study because we now have the technology to look at it.”

McInturf passed around tags used to monitor the location of basking sharks. These tags were much smaller than the whale tags Savoca displayed.

“One of my proudest moments is how I funded the tags for my first field season last year,” McInturf said. “We didn’t see any sharks at the surface, but they were breaching and launching themselves out of the water, which was amazing. We brought four tags over, and the way I paid for those was through crowdfunding.”

McInturf explained that sharks have bristly skin, so suction cups aren’t as useful. Instead, researchers use a small harpoon to implant the tags near the dorsal fin. McInturf compared the sensation of the tag implantation to piercing an ear, since a shark’s body is made of tough and flexible cartilage. The information collected by the tags help researchers understand where sharks travel during their daily activities.

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A basking shark tagged for research purposes. Photo from Alex McInturf, originally by Nigel Motyer.

McInturf showed a video detailing the daily migration of broadnose sevengill sharks in and out of the San Francisco Bay. The sharks follow the tides of the bay to search for food and mates. Researchers have even found baby sevengill sharks in the bay, which is quite a find — scientists have precious little data about where sharks grow and develop. Sevengill pups have to deal with the dynamic industrial landscape of the Bay Area on top of typical shark problems such as finding food, competing with other sharks and avoiding predators. Future decisions about land and water usage and development in the San Francisco Bay could be geared toward protecting vulnerable pups, but success is most likely if the public is involved.

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A still from a video detailing the tide of San Francisco Bay (red) and the position of a tagged broadnose sevengill shark (yellow). Photo from Alex McInturf.

“You include the public, you raise awareness of your research, but you also get to make everybody feel like they’re part of something important,” McInturf said. “I think that’s a link that people often miss. I think it’s hard for the public to feel invested all the time because we’re not including them in what we’re doing.”

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About the Author

George Ugartemendia is an MPH student at the University of California Davis.

How a dating podcast made me question sperm’s epigenetic integrity

by Nichole Holm

StockImage

I recently heard one of my favorite journalists, Mona Chalabi, discuss one of my least favorite subjects: how men are often encouraged to date younger women.

It’s true—the effect of age on women’s reproductive success is widely known. We’ve all heard of the “biological clock ticking” metaphor, and there’s over a century of data to correlate advanced maternal age with increased risk of genetic abnormalities in children.

However, Chalabi points out that this same encyclopedia of information does not exist for men. In fact, it’s only in the last few decades that any paternal characteristics were considered in fertility studies. Of course, this neglects a significant source of potential research, particularly given how many questions still exist in health and development, such as the causes of infertility, autism, cancer, and many other diseases.

There are a few known facts: respectively, men and women date, marry, and have children at very different ages. The average age for a woman to have her first child is 26 years old, while the average age for a man is 31 years old.

This disparity made me wonder if researchers are considering the father when studying the parental relationships between children and developmental risks. And naturally, because I am a genetics PhD candidate and self-proclaimed nerd, I became curious about the sperm—specifically, whether anyone has noted differences in sperm for men of different lifestyles, which could indicate transmitting different genetics to their children.

Such differences would be seen in the sperm’s epigenetic material. Epigenetics is a field of genetics, which studies the environment around our DNA that controls how genes are expressed.

If we think about our DNA as an instruction manual, it would have all the instructions to grow and keep a human alive. But epigenetic markers on top of our genes act like highlighters and sharpies, marking up the manual to highlight the areas that are important and redacting areas that don’t need to be read, effectively turning genes on and off.

Most of these epigenetic markers develop while we are still a developing embryo—which is why research suggests the maternal environment is crucial for the future health of a baby. Everything from maternal stress, pollution, smoking, and nutrition has been linked to significantly different epigenetic marks on their babies.

But one key difference in the epigenetics of males and females is how their sperm and eggs develop; females develop all of their eggs before they are even born, and release them one at a time once they hit puberty. According to Dr. Janine LaSalle at UC Davis, this means that the epigenetic marks on each egg are likely set in the time that an egg is released, so approximately within a 30-day window before fertilization.

Males, however, do not even produce sperm until they begin puberty, and that sperm is constantly created afterwards.

It was recently revealed that sperm epigenetics are not as stable as we once thought, leaving each newly created sperm susceptible to changes in its epigenetic marks. Recent studies looking into this have confirmed that the lifestyle and exposures of men significantly alters their own sperm’s epigenetics.

Smoking, cocaine, stress, obesity, and even exercise before conception can change not only the epigenetics of sperm, but also increase the risk of their children developing psychiatric and metabolic disorders. This means men’s experiences can change how their genes are expressed in their sperm, and possibly transmit to future children.

Since sperm are constantly generated throughout a man’s lifetime, they are also susceptible to new changes in their genes, called mutations. As men age, they can accumulate more mutations over time, and lead to what is called the Paternal Age Effect (PAE).

A number of syndromes such as Apert Syndrome, Achondroplasisa (also known as dwarfism), thanatophoric dysplasia, and Costello Syndrome are all associated with PAE. In addition, children are at an increased risk of developing some cancers, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder as paternal age increases.

Even still, not enough research has been done to determine the age at which PAE becomes a concern. Sperm banks limit the age of donors to 40 years old, but it is not nearly as well characterized in men as it is for women. And in spite of the data to support increased risks with paternal ages and exposures, paternal factors are still rarely discussed or considered as much as maternal age.

Overall, the script we have heard and probably repeated to ourselves is based on a great deal of one-sided data.

A mother’s contribution to a child’s health and epigenetics is clear, but data on how the father contributes is not as well known. This field is new, and could hold many of the keys scientists and families have been looking for as to why adverse birth events happen.

Ultimately, equal research into paternal genetics as well as maternal genetics is necessary to understand all components of development and disease. Reducing gender bias in research needs to go in both directions, ensuring the male and female characteristics are understood to better advance the field as a whole.

While men may be selective in a woman’s age, should women be equally as selective in a man’s lifestyle or age? With regards to the data skew highlighted by Chalabi, could further research into paternal epigenetics advance more than just science, but also society?

Time and research will tell.

 

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Acknowledgements:

Thank you to Dr. Janine LaSalle and Dr. Tom Glaser for sharing your time and expertise on maternal and developmental epigenetics, which enabled clarity on this report.

***Do you want to know a more advanced concept in prenatal epigenetics?

After an egg and sperm fuse [to form a fertilized zygote], most of the epigenetic marks are erased. Some are maintained, and the rest are reset according to the needs of the zygote throughout development. The amount to which these differently marked genes in sperm and eggs are remembered (without being erased) is still unknown, but definitely worth more research to understand.

 

Please, don’t kill this idea

This third round of essays contained some doosies—ideas risky enough to make any scientist cringe. A few truly jarring essays overshadowed this section and the subsequent book club discussion. The contentious essays were (in some people’s opinions) weakly argued and dangerous, and definitely deserving of a rebuttal:

Gary Klein boldly claims that Evidence-Based Medicine must die. This is a worrisome idea. Evidence-based medicine came about to rigorously test medical interventions in a standardized method to determine what medicines work, what medicines may be dangerous, and what medicines don’t really do anything. Without evidence guiding medical decisions, we are back to days without antibiotics, vaccines, chemotherapy, and other life-saving inventions. Klein argues that evidence-based medicine is not perfect because not every study can be replicated and, in a few extreme cases, results of clinical trials have been faked. Well, as a fellow book-clubber exclaimed, this essay is “trying to throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Yeah, science is not perfect. Nothing is. That is no reason to kill it, but more a reason to demand increases in rigor and integrity. Asking to kill evidence-based medicine because it isn’t perfect is reckless, and could dismantle trust in a medical system that strives to save lives.

In a similarly questionable essay, Dean Ornish tries to nix the idea of Large Randomized Control Trials. He calls out how some studies are poorly designed, which some studies are. In my opinion, poorly designed trials must die. Ornish takes his opinion to the extreme in stating that all large randomized control trials must die. The loose logic of his essays seems intended to make small studies about behavioral interventions appear stronger. Maybe the studies he mentioned just need a better design.

Tom Griffiths tries to argue that bias can be a good thing in his essay, Bias is Always Bad. Bias is bad. It makes for bad research questions, fraudulent and incorrect data interpretations, and a milieu of societal problems. Griffiths, however, is talking about a different kind of “bias” where it is used as a way to process digital images. Basically, he’s arguing that bias isn’t bad because some people have a different definition of bias. It’s a misleading argument, which may be intended to ruffle feathers with a flashy title. But the substance of the essay is arguing semantics, not thought-provoking ideas.

The last essay to which I will openly dissent is Richard Nisbett’s Multiple regression as a means of discovering causality. He argues that a statistical technique, multiple regression, is limited. And it is. Multiple regression is designed to determine which factors are correlated. Nisbett has a problem with people misusing this statistical technique. Well, that’s pretty obvious…Correlation doesn’t equal causation. All scientists know this. Bad scientists do abuse this. But the misuse of a statistical tool does not mean the tool needs retired (as the content of his essay argues); it means the misuse needs retired.

This reading section did contain some wonderful essays, too! Jamil Zaki’s The Altruism Hierarchy was delightful. Basically, it argues that the back-and-forth surrounding the meaning of altruism is trivial. Not only is figuring out a hierarchy of altruism “logically self-negating,” but it is “morally self-negating.” Zaki expresses frustration about how the science surrounding altruism strips the humanity from it, saying how “it’s profound and downright beautiful to think that our core emotional makeup can be tuned towards others, causing us to feel good when we do.” Honest and emotional human insights coming from a scientist like Zaki can hearten fellow scientists and humans, and I’m glad I read his piece.

Ian McEwan questioned the Edge question in his piece entitled Beware of arrogance! Retire nothing! The short, humorous, and poetic prose elegantly frames how even bad ideas need preserved, because that’s how science progresses. We learn from our mistakes, and it is dangerous to negate old ideas as meaningless.

Lastly, Robot companions by Sherry Turkle challenges us not to fight the developments of Artificial Intelligence, but to truly consider how we want robots to serve us. Do we really want to create a machine intended for companionship or love? Turkle “see[s] us on a voyage of forgetting.” As we embrace technological advancement, we must consider how a genuine, tenuous, and beautiful human experience shapes our relationships with others. Although AI geeks love to argue the seemingly limitless potential of robots to mimic humanity, robots will never truly have humanity.

Once again, this section provided plenty to discuss at our meeting—with equal amounts of frustration and intrigue (although surrounding different essays). It’s interesting, and maybe terrifying, to see the logical shortcomings of supposed scientific thought-experts in our society laid so bare. Discussing blatantly radical ideas does force reflection, both on the ideas and the identity of the authors. At the end of the day, these esteemed thinkers are simply humans, with ideas with which we may refute. Only time will tell whose ideas will die, but I for one really hope that evidence-based medicine and large randomized control trials live.

– Sam Tucci

This Idea Must Die: Intriguing concept, lackluster execution

In This Idea Must Die, John Brockman collected essays from notable thinkers of today to answer the 2014 Edge.org question: “What idea has become a relic blocking human progress?”

A nice feature of this book is that there is a lot about which we book-clubbers can opine: the essay selection, the ordering of the essays, the content of the essays, the writing style of the essays, the originality of the essays, the authors of the essays, etc. And opine we have!

The first few essays all pretty much said the same thing: there is no “Theory of Everything.” After reading the first essay, the following essays fell flat– the point had already been made. Although we read arguments dismantling the case for a theory that unified the mathematics describing the universe, it was hard for non-theoretical physicists to truly understand the point. Not necessarily because the writing was overly technical, although sometimes it was, but because the authors frequently failed to frame their arguments within a context relevant for an outsider to their specific field of research. Stereotypes of aloof physicists, out-of-touch with the real world, were thus reinforced. Bashing string theory while making the assumption that all humans follow and understand this debate is doubly condescending. And the redundancy of essay topics truly blunted the edginess of any attempt at a novel argument.

I will spare you my frustration about the jargon-filled and ego-laden, pseudo-arguments made in most of the essays—at least for now.

On a positive note, a few of the essays did teach us something new, and made us think deeper, drawing us to lines of thought far-removed from our typical work and interests. Like Infinity by Max Tegmark! Who knew there is more than one type of infinity?!

The essay on Entropy by Bruce Parker was similarly notable. It tackled a complex problem and was able to put in words the typical confusion many have when grappling with the concept of entropy, which measures the amount of disorder in a system. The idea also actually seems radical, and it is one of which I have never before heard. It was the type of intriguing essay I expected for a book teasing about retiring outdated scientific ideas.

Other favorite essays include “The Rocket Scientist” by Victorie Wyatt (my personal favorite thus far) and Indivi-duality by Nigel Goldenfeld (resonated with a few book club goers). Notice that you don’t need to own the book to read the essays, they are all freely available on edge.org.

Lastly, I must comment, the demographics of this book are pitiful.

timd authors

So far, of the 32 authors we have read 29 are male. Based on a crude googling of every author in this first section, the average age (where published online) is ~65 +/- 10 years. And, there are virtually no people of color. If we are looking to radically change the direction of science, asking a bunch of old, white dudes will not accomplish this goal. Regardless of the quality of any individual’s response, the scope of this book is blatantly narrow and we are certainly missing out on voices that are ready to argue an idea that must die.

Sam Tucci 

Attacks on science come from multiple angles

Attacks on science come from multiple angles

The War on Science is fought on multiple fronts. This week, Otto guided us through an exploration of the ideological war on science and the industrial war on science.

The Ideological War on Science

Scientists could learn a thing or two from evangelical Christians. Celebrity preachers and popular religious figures relate to their audience personally and emotionally, a feat at which scientists often fail. Scientists must welcome people into their awe-inspiring, life-changing, profound, and, yes, emotional world if we hope to be relatable.

Comparing how religious leaders and scientists communicate is one thing; comparing the merits of religion and science is another. Science and religion exists in a false dichotomy, a theme discussed in prior book club meetings and underlined in this section:

“The desire to create knowledge that motivates science ultimately shares some of the sames drives as that of its progenitor, religion. Playing to these drives is one way science can reach the masses, by helping them to understand the mystery and wonder of the world and our place in it, to find meaning and hope, and to make life better.”

Science does not exist to oust religion. Science exists to explain and understand our natural world. Indeed, many religious people (including scientists) find the discovery process deeply spiritual and enlightening. Scientific wonder can deepen the appreciation for our natural world, which in turn, can deepen a person’s faith in the existence of a higher power.

As science reveals the beauties and intricacies of the natural world, it never challenges the existence of God. Science tests hypotheses using the scientific method. For a hypothesis to be evaluated, it must be testable and capable of being disproved. The existence of God is an idea taken on faith. No physical method exists to test for the presence of God. Thus, science can never disprove God, and real science will never claim to do so.

Big-picture religious ideals are very different than adherence to a fundamentalist belief system. Science can, and has, disproved notions set forth by certain religious groups about the timeline of Earth’s formation, for example. This is because a hypothesis such as “the Earth was created 10,000 years ago” is testable. So we tested it.

The ideological war on science is coming from a group of fundamentalists who fail to see the beauty in science and deny the facts of the natural world as they are revealed to us through experimentation and thoughtful observation. Fighting an ideological war seems impossible, and it truly may be impossible to open the minds of a group of people deeply and emotionally invested in clinging to fundamentalist stories.

As a scientist and a Catholic (me, not the book club), it is disheartening to see this ideological war on science conflated to a war between religion and science in many media representations. This ideological war may never end, but that doesn’t mean that all religious people (most of the world) are at odds with science. To keep it this way, the process of science– the process of discovering the natural wonders of the world– must be discussed openly, with emotion, and with reverence.

The Industrial War on Science

Unlike the ideological war on science, I don’t have much sympathy or hope around the industrial war on science. The industrial war on science is a dirty game played by powerful people designed to sow doubt, fear, and uncertainty in our already complicated society.

Basically, whenever science uncovers information about our world that may cut into the profits of certain industries, the industries launch strategic public relations campaigns to discredit the scientific claims so they can keep making money. This is what happened with Big Tobacco in response to scientists uncovering the link between smoking and cancer. This is what is happening with Big Oil in response to science uncovering the relationship between man and climate change.

Otto mapped out the PR tactics in detail. The responses from big companies are predictable: underline the uncertainties in the studies, bash the scientists, play games with statistics, prey on fears, etc. But no matter how predictable big industry’s response to science is, their tactics are scarily effective.

Our book club struggles to understand one particular part of this industrial war: Who, as a person, is so devoid of a moral compass that she/he is willing to intentionally mislead the general public? Who would willfully commit themselves, along with the rest of the world, to a fate stemming from a disrupted global climate? Denying the truth of such a far-reaching issue like man-made climate change hurts all of us–including the willful deniers–in the end.

Money (therefore power) is the only practical reason someone would devise these deceptive PR campaigns. The book club realizes that everyone must pay the bills, but we wonder if there is not an alternative in which a person could financially support herself/himself and keep their integrity?

So what are we to do?

Can science fight the blaze of misinformation with the flame of knowledge? Can we sow the seeds of scientific literacy as effectively as those who sow fear and doubt?

Otto reminds us, “knowledge is power, so it follows that suppression of knowledge to protect vested interests ultimately weakens government.” Spreading scientific literacy empowers others to think for themselves. When people can think for themselves and reject the propaganda of vested interests, our democracy is protected.

But who can distinguish a single flame amidst a wildfire? Science has evidence and knowledge, but it seems knowledge just doesn’t spread as quickly as fear.

 

Written by Sam Tucci 

Edited by Destiny Davis

Science and democracy

If someone were to ask me on what the United States was founded, “science” would not be my first answer. Or even my second. But in chapter three, “Religion, Meet Science,” Otto argues that science is a core, founding principle of the US and democracy itself.

Religion and science are inherently intertwined: science is the “vehicle to religious understanding.” The Puritans, the first American settlers, believed both faith and the exploration of nature—God’s creation—grants access to the divine.  Through “observation and reason” of and about the natural world, God’s will is knowable.

But this idea was not unique to just our founding fathers. Otto traces this thinking back to the very birth of science in the Islamic Empire. Subsequently, within each community in which science advances, there is the same story arc: a clash between the church and scientists (or philosophers). When the church loses its status as the sole arbiter of knowledge, nature and its laws– as the creation of God– becomes the highest authority.

It was this power shift, from the church to nature, that gave rise to democracy. Science, as a system of observation and reason, is accessible to us all–one just needs the right tools.

My favorite summarizing tidbit was:

“If we can discover the truth by using reason and observation—i.e. by using science—then anyone can discover the truth, and therefore no one is naturally better able or more entitled to discover the truth than anyone else.” (p73)

This is the heart of democracy and an idea to which our founding fathers closely adhered to in the writing of our founding documents. There was an understanding that a nation founded on science is intellectually wealthy, economically wealthy, and innovative. Knowledge follows the thinkers, and thinkers tend to gravitate towards open, democratic and supportive societies.

But what happens when society is so divorced from the scientific process that they fail to recognize the value of curiosity-driven science? Or when society limits the types of questions science asks? This is at the heart of the perceived, but false, dichotomy between basic and applied science, or curiosity-driven science and problem-solving science.

Given the current debate over the value of basic science among those with the power to defund it, Otto lays particular emphasis to the import of basic science. Science for the sake of understanding is the foundation applied science is built upon. One is process. The other is form.

It’s impossible to read this section and not think about the oft-used economic argument for shifting funds away from basic science and towards applied science. Science is expensive. Very expensive. Scientists must justify every expense, and rightfully so. But a problem arises when funders do not understand the scope of basic science questions and therefore fail to recognize the value of research without a obvious problem to solve. The questions basic science asks are abstract and far-reaching. While the results of applied science are perhaps more tangible, the potential rewards from understanding how something works are vast and often unexpected. Increasingly, people do not see basic science as the foundation for the other and are therefore dangerously unaware of the potential damage limiting basic research could cause.

But, economics is not the only ax people wield against science. Otto also ties societies’ feelings about science to the social context in which it is done. By outlining several major scientific controversies, from the theory of relativity to vaccines to evolution to the big bang, we begin to see how powerful arrogance, self-interest, and fear are in motivating people. Reading this section put knots in my stomach as I saw parallels in what is happening in the United States today. Tribalism has taken hold and reason has no bearing on people’s opinions. It’s painful to think of what becomes of a world without reason.

However, Otto gives us hope at the end of chapter four with a beautiful example of how science can build bridges between ideas and people: When Pope Pius XII cited Edwin Hubble’s work in astronomy as proving the existence of God, science and religion were once again entwined. While the journey to this moment was tumultuous and long, I think it shows us that societies only move forward with science.