Sunday, May 25, 2014

Bad Science

Those who wish to think that Climate Change is a fiction invented for political gain by environmentalists and left-wingers persist in using the term “bad science” to describe the scientific evidence confirming global warming. Pondering that term, I think it begs redefinition. “Bad science” has come to mean any scientific (or perhaps I should refer to it as supposedly scientific) study that has been manipulated to prove a point and that, in the opinion of the person(s) referring to it as bad science, lacks integrity. Or in some instances perhaps not purposely manipulated, just not done correctly or in some other way has been corrupted by the method.

Recently I had a conversation with my brother Dan about whether or not microwave cooking damages food. That’s a topic for another time. However, in the course of our conversation, Dan wrote in an email:
You have to ask yourself this question each time you research something – “Is the conclusion I am drawing supporting a belief I already hold or refuting it?” If it supports a belief you already hold, take it as a warning, because most people cannot get past their own biases – they think they’re doing research but actually they are only researching to find the articles that support their beliefs. You have to keep looking and force yourself to read articles that disagree by competent researchers. I’ve seen books of statistics and research supporting why more gun ownership makes us safer, and yet I discount it all instantly because my personal bias is too strong the other way. I have to admit that I have no idea what the truth is because my personal belief that I am right is too strong. The same is now happening with climate change. 
Point being, we find it difficult to get past our foregone conclusions when we research or use research or select research or believe research. Remember that according to the laws of physics, the researcher impacts the research study simply in the act of observation. With that in mind, how true is any scientific study? Makes ya wonder.

When something we don’t like to believe is proven by scientific study, we are inclined to truck out the “bad science” label to dispute it. Sometimes the “bad science” label fits and sometimes it doesn’t. In Freakonomics, Steven Levitt argues that we don’t even know what we’re looking at half the time when we look at data because the truth in the data is often misinterpreted or obscured. We have to ask ourselves, “What is this data telling us?” We humans have an uncanny ability to look straight at things we can’t comprehend and not see them at all. We do indeed create our own reality.

I think the term “bad science” should be repurposed. For me the term “bad science” conjures misuse of effort and brainpower by scientists. I think of inventions, discoveries, and products that are harmful, dangerous, and destructive. I think of misguided and misdirected endeavors. So in my world “bad science” would be the science invested in things like developing weapons, agents of chemical and biological warfare, chemical pesticides and herbicides, toxic substances that harm humans, fracking techniques, methods of torture, and ways to harpoon whales. Good science would be the science invested in growing organic food, building sustainable communities, healing the sick, understanding children’s brain development, perfecting mechanical tools to improve access and mobility for the disabled, and building electronic methods of communication that bridge geographic divides.

Why waste human ingenuity and brainpower on perfecting a bomb with the power to destroy the planet? That’s more than “bad science” in my book. That’s proof of the failure of human intelligence. Expending brainpower on making nuclear bombs is quite beyond the scope of morality even. It’s plain stupidity. The conversation about what science is worthy of pursuing and what science should be left buried in the ground is the real conversation about science. Dan’s point about bias will rear its ugly head pretty early in that conversation, I imagine. If only we could go beyond “good or bad” and move into the realm of healing or harmful, constructive or detrimental, building or destroying, then perhaps we would be able to redirect our scientific efforts so that all the work of our hands contributes to a better world. I wish.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Poison Apples

I have two apples in the fruit basket on my counter that look picture-perfect and spectacular. But I don’t dare eat them.

These apples came to me free from my local grocery store. I stopped in to ask if they have any apple boxes I could take away. Apple boxes are terrific for packing and I’m hoarding boxes in preparation for our move. The store said they usually shred cardboard packing boxes, but that I should keep asking and they will give me any boxes they have not yet shredded. They gave me two boxes. When I got them home and opened them up to remove the packing material inside, I discovered two apples. I suspected there were a couple of apples in there because I could hear them bashing around inside in transit. It was clear from the labeling on the outside of the box that these apples are not organic. 

Apples top the Dirty Dozen produce list for containing the highest level of toxic pesticides of any fruits or veggies. According to Forbes Magazine, the number one fruit or vegetable to eat organic is apples. (Hoffman, 2013.) Apples from around the country tested by the USDA were found to have as much as 48 different kinds of pesticides on them. One pesticide commonly used on apples (Paraquat) is under scrutiny for a possible linkage to Parkinson’s Disease.

They not only contain pesticides, but 80% of non-organic apples grown in the U.S. contain a chemical called diphenylamine (DPA), used to prevent them from turning dark while in storage. My poison apples are proof-positive that DPA works. They have been sitting on my counter for over a week after being bashed around in the box and they still look perfect. Shiny and bright green. Beautiful. Laced with DPA for sure. DPA was banned in Europe in 2012 by the European Food Safety Authority because carcinogenic nitrosamine was found in DPA-treated apples. (Source:

Only 6% of apple farms in the U.S. are organic. If there was more demand for organic apples then more farms would convert to organic. This would not only be safer for consumers but also for the farmworkers exposed to the toxins sprayed on non-organic apples. Apples grow in all 50 states, so a conversion to organic apple orchards would have a widespread positive impact. Hoffman (Forbes, 2013) writes:  “If only a quarter of the public switched to buying and eating organic apples, more than $7 billion a year would be generated to support local organic farming.” Organic apples are not significantly more expensive than conventional apples at the grocery store if you don’t mind eating whichever variety is the least expensive at any given time (often depending on the season).
I feel like Snow White who opened the front door to the evil witch with a basket containing these two toxin-laced apples bouncing around in it. Obviously I don’t plan to eat my free apples. I might keep them to see how long they last before they begin to turn brown. Scary. The best use for these apples is decorative, like plastic fruit. They will hold up for weeks and provide an attractive decoration in my kitchen fruit basket as we continue to show our house to prospective buyers.

Pondering these poison apples, I have strengthened my resolve to complete my nutrition education and launch my new career as a nutrition consultant. If our systems collapse, no one will need a grant writer, but everyone will need food. Knowing how to grow and cook food, knowing how to prepare acorns to make them edible, knowing how to eat – those are skills that will serve me well in many a futuristic scenario. They serve me well in our present-day good-times scenario right now. I don’t want to leave that thought without saying that good storytellers are needed in future scenarios just as much as good food. There are many ways to nourishment, to feeding the spirit. I’m sticking with stories and organic apples.

Ron took a photo of the apples after he read this post. Here it is, if you want to see the beasts.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Survival Stored in the DNA

This week a research team at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) revealed that they successfully harnessed cells produced by a woman’s own immune response to destroy the cancerous tumors that were poised to rob her of her life. In other words, her body held within itself the cure for the life-threatening disease that she was battling. How sensible. How elegant. How game-changing.

Here are some further details of this brilliant story. Dr. Steven A. Rosenberg led the research team that saved the life of Melinda Bachini. Bachini was suffering from an advanced stage of cancer that had infiltrated her bile duct, liver, and lungs. Several bouts of chemotherapy had made no impact. Rosenberg’s NCI team sequenced the genome of her cancer and identified unique cells produced by Bachini’s own immune system that were already working in her body to attempt to kill off the mutated malignant cells. They then grew billions of these cells in the lab and injected them into Bachini’s bloodstream. Power in numbers worked in her favor and her immune response cells aggressively destroyed the cancerous tumors. Although Bachini’s tumors are not completely gone yet, they continue to shrink. The team calls the technique adoptive cell therapy. Rosenberg reports that the success experienced with Bachini demonstrates that the human immune system can mount a successful response against cancer. By isolating bio-individuated immune cells and giving them a boost in numbers, doctors can assist the body of a person with cancer in fending off the attack. This is, of course, a simplification of the process. (You can read more at the NIH Website.) Bachini, the mother of six young children, was given a few months to live in 2012. She is still alive and her tumors are melting away.

Here is another news item from this week, which may not at first seem related to Bachini’s cancer cure, but bear with me, it is. There is a thread running through this. This other story appeared in the N.Y. Times and was brought to my attention by my father. This story is about research conducted by biologist Timothy Mousseau (of North Carolina) in and around Pripyat, Russia where the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster occurred. Mousseau studies the impact of radiation on wildlife and he has discovered a number of creatures living in the Chernobyl area that have mutated to adapt to living in a high-radiation environment.  

Mousseau reports that some bird species “appear to have adapted to the radioactive environment by producing higher levels of protective antioxidants, with correspondingly less genetic damage.” Evolution is working in the favor of these birds. An interesting turn of events. I had written off the land surrounding Chernobyl, thinking it is “dead-landed,” like the land surrounding Fukushima. But hey, not so fast. Also interesting is the fact that Mousseau found the adaptations in some types of birds and not in others. Chaffinches and great tits, for instance, had evolved to produce these protective antioxidants, while barn swallows and robins had not and continued to be born with deadly birth defects. Mousseau has been studying wildlife in the area surrounding Fukushima as well. (You can read more at the N.Y.Times Website.) 

These two news stories work together to remind me that I should not make assumptions about the future of the planet or us humans. Things may look bleak, with climate change and increased radiation in our environment, cataclysmic tragic natural disasters occurring with frequency as a result of damage to the natural order. Things may look bleak with all the toxins causing ill health for people. Things may look bleak with the lack of humanity in our financial systems and the lack of common sense or compassion or intelligence in our political systems. Things may look bleak, but we have within us, within our very DNA, the ability to heal ourselves, the ability to change and adapt and evolve. The natural world is changing daily in ways far beyond our understanding. As Allan Lokos said, “Don’t believe everything you think.”

The future is taller, deeper, and wider than I could ever imagine. The future might still be bright.


Sunday, May 4, 2014

How Is That Funny?

I want to write a funny blog this week. Why is that so hard? Why is comedy so much more difficult to write than straight-serious? Probably because comedy is combustible and slippery. It can blow up in one’s face. What if I write something embarrassingly not funny? But I swear by humor. Humor is healing and delightful. Humor is the key to longevity, good parenting, productivity, friendship, and so much more. So why is it so hard to write?

I probably should have done some research for this blog. I suppose I could have googled “the psychology of humor” or “why is something funny?” You can google anything these days. I do, too. I could google “What color is my underpants?” and I would not only get the answer to that question but a satellite view of me, here in my study, with an X-ray-vision picture of my underpants. Google knows where to find me. Why are underpants funny? And are they singular or plural? Can I have a show of hands about ‘is’ or ‘are’ with respect to underpants?

A classic underpants family story about Ron goes something like this:  He was in line at the cashier in Mervyns’, where he was buying socks and underwear. The fellow in front of him told the cashier “They’re all of a sudden making us wear neckties at work now, so here I am buying a stack of ties.” After the man paid for his ties and left, Ron stepped up to the cashier and said, “They’re making us wear underwear at work now so here I am.” I think that’s funny. But then I married this guy based on his bizarre sense of humor. So what is funny about underwear? The neckties were not funny. The underwear was.

And what is it about farts? Why do people think farts are so funny? Especially the male variety of people. Men can’t get enough fart jokes. They also can’t get enough of farting, it seems, too. I have a good friend (will not name Jim to protect his reputation) who recently posted on Facebook “describe your last fart using a movie title.” The week he posted this, Ron and I went to visit him and we spent the two days coming up with movie titles and howling with laughter. You see how quickly men can get a woman to sink to their level. My best movie title was The Scent of a Woman. And now, whenever Ron farts, I shout La Bamba! I have stopped farting as a result of this traumatic series of conversations.

I have been reading some of the jokes that Obama delivered at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner last night. They are pretty funny. He said “Let’s face it Fox, you’ll miss me when I’m gone. It’ll be harder to convince the American people that Hillary was born in Kenya.” He also made fun of the botched roll-out of the healthcare website for the Affordable Care Act. When I think about why his jokes last night were so funny, I have to say it’s because they are so painfully true.

Comedy helps us laugh at our human foibles and failings. That’s probably why farts are so funny also. They remind us not to puff ourselves up. (Oops, was that a bad pun? Sorry about that. Bad puns are genetic. Got that from my father and I can’t help myself.) Farts remind us that we are inconsequential little human creatures trapped in messy uncontrollable bodies. No matter how lofty our ideals, we still have an ass. Without benefit of google, I have come to the conclusion that the best comedy is either magnificently true or magnificently not true. Our real human predicaments are funny. The absurd and unlikely are also funny.

When I started writing my blog, I wanted to write funny blog posts as often as possible. This turned out to be much harder than I had imagined. So my posts have been more serious in nature most of the time. I try to make them a bit inspirational. Perhaps insightful. I would like them to be more fun, like this post from back in 2008 when I first started the blog.

My 2008 is off to a good start. The unthinkable happened. My husband Ron cleaned his closet. I didn’t even ask him to do it. At first I wasn’t sure what possessed him, but then I realized it was very likely the avalanche of old clothing that tumbled out on our bedroom floor when he went to look for something to wear for New Year’s Eve. Once the clothes fell out we could see what he had back there. Squash racket. Wrapping paper (and I thought I had run out). Air mattresses (that’s where they went). Foot bath. Ping pong balls (we don’t have a ping pong table). Ping pong table (yikes, I guess we do have a ping pong table). One-year supply of biodegradable drain cleaner. 1982 Chicago phone book. Two boxes of old phone bills. Cuckoo clock. My nephew (thank goodness, my sister-in-law will be so relieved that he turned up).
I even noticed that he still has the photography dark room in the back corner of his closet. His dark room is a large cardboard box with two black sleeves for his arms. I’m not sure how exactly you develop the film in there. Especially since you can’t see into the box. And wouldn’t you think that cardboard would dissolve when it comes in contact with film-developing chemicals? Well, I guess I’m too thick to get how this system works. Although I have yet to recall any photos that Ron has developed in that box, I do know it has been in his closet for at least 25 years. But we can’t throw it out. I mean what if he discovered film that needed developing? In the meantime, it seems like a halfway decent repository for the old pairs of jeans that he swears he’ll get back into by the spring.
When I started my blog, I warned Ron that he was going to be fodder for my blog entries. He replied, “I expected it. I’m already the fodder of your children.”

That blog post was truer than true and also an exaggeration, thus false. It was absurd while at the same time it accurately described the challenge of a pathologically organized person married to a master of chaos. I didn’t have to google the psychology of comedy or my underpants to figure this out.

Before I give up on trying to give you a chuckle today, I want to share the masterful work of our resident family comedian, my 12-year-old nephew Benjamin. Here is one of his homeworks that my brother Dan recently shared with me. Benjamin apparently has a very wise fish. (Although I would tend to say that if you feel trapped you should move to a smaller house since that’s what I’m in the process of doing. But that might be a senior thing.)

by Benjamin Wachspress
1. Not everyone lives forever, so have fun.
2. Eat until you’re full and you will grow (a lot).
3. There is such thing as a second chance.
4. Suck it up and live on.
5. Look good.
6. Open your mouth when you want something.
7. Begging will get you everything.
8. Ignore people that annoy you.
9. Sleep a lot.
10. When you feel trapped get a larger home.

No fish were harmed in the making of this blog.