Friday, October 29, 2010
There are a few reasons why these shows work so well. Firstly, the average person doesn't know much about chemistry. Most people didn't like chemistry when they took it. It's a fairly difficult subject, and there is less logic in it than mathematics and it is less intuitive than the physics you usually learn in high school. Another reason is that unnatural chemicals are all around us. They're relevant.
I'm definitely not going to say that all of these reports are blown way out of control, I just want to point out that, as I have mentioned before, you shouldn't believe everything you hear, even if it's from "experts." As a few examples, consider the books Silent Spring and Slow Death by Rubber Duck. (As a disclaimer, I haven't read either book in it's entirety, only selections from each and both laudatory and critical commentary.)
Silent Spring was written largely as an attack on the use of DDT, which the author claimed was resulting in the near extinction of many animal species. Her book was a very large part of the decision by many countries to ban the use of DDT. In the developing world, the abrupt halt in DDT application resulted in thousands of malaria related deaths that would have been easily prevented had DDT continued to be used. Even if DDT was just as bad as they claimed it was, this would have been an awful decision, but as it turns out DDT doesn't seem to be nearly as bad for you as was originally claimed. Still, it sounds scary and people don't understand it, so, as usual, political policy trumps good public health policies.
Slow Death by Rubber Duck is a similar type of book. It discusses all of the things that you encounter everyday that contain chemicals that can kill you. Although several selections from the book bother me a bit (it bothered another group of people so badly they named a "bad science" award after the book), one is the section where the authors talk about the amount of BPA they find in their bloodstream after a week of self experimentation. I think this article does an excellent job of pointing out the key problem: yeah, levels of the chemical went up, but the levels were so small that it is very unrealistic to expect it to be causing a problem. In addition, just as with DDT, BPA doesn't seem to be as bad as it's made out to be. The results of studies on the health effects of BPA are so inconclusive that even the EFSA (the European version of the EPA) thinks it's silly to regulate it.
It seems that these types of problems in accounting for health effects pop up all over the place. In a recent article on one of my favorite websites, STATS.org, there is a discussion about attempts by government policy makers to use models relating vice-taxes and health to decide how much of a health benefit would come from a certain tax on alcohol. The article does an excellent job of pointing out the main flaws in the model. I thought this example was particularly interesting because in a recent posting I presented an article that discussed why alcohol may be good for you. Combining this and the criticism of the STATS.org author, the model used to predict health effects could likely be qualitatively wrong, meaning that the actual result would be overall worse health instead of improved health for certain levels of tax.
To wrap up, I want to present on last argument, and this is the subject of using LD-50 data to predict fatality rates from a chemical release. I think Alan Waltar did an excellent job of covering the problem with this in his book on nuclear energy, so I will use a modified version of his example here.
Let's assume there is a major chemical spill and arsenic is released. Arsenic is one of the most deadly poisons in the world. The LD50 for arsenic (the amount it takes to kill 50% of subjects exposed) is only 13 mg/kg body weight, so for a fairly average person weighing 80 kg it takes only 1040 mg to have a 50% shot at killing you. Let's say the 80 kg you is exposed to 104 mg of arsenic. What are your chances for survival. A quick bit of math says that it should be around 5%. What about if you were secretly given that 104 mg dose of arsenic for 10 days? It looks like the chance of death is about 50% again.
Well, it looks like, but it's not. To demonstrate how preposterous this is, consider water. Water is, believe it or not, toxic if you have too much of it. As a matter of fact, it's LD-50 has been measured to be 90 ml/kg (for rats, the unfortunate species on which most of these tests are performed). So if you still weigh 80 kg after your encounters with arsenic, it would take 7200 ml to kill you half of the time. Using the same analysis we used for arsenic, you would die 5% of the time whenever you drank 720 ml (about 3 cups) of water. If you kept this up for 10 days, you would have a 50% chance of dying. Actually, you'd probably be pretty dehydrated.
The point of this is to demonstrate why assuming the effects of chemical exposure scale linearly with the exposure amount is not just overly simplified, it's just plain wrong. Things are much more complicated than this, and using accurate measurements that don't apply will result in incorrect conclusions about the danger of certain scenarios. This is one of the reasons why practical options like dumping nuclear waste into deep ocean trenches will always be rejected. It's too easy to come up with a practical sounding and scary argument (and also because of monster movies, which always seem to involve a situation like this...)
To conclude: in the future, remember to be careful, but it's probably not as bad as they say it is.
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
When Darwin published the Descent of Man, one of the central revolutionary ideas of his work was that acquired traits were not inherited. On a practical level, this means that if you work very hard to get yourself in good physical shape and improve yourself mentally, your hard work will not bring any benefit to the genome of your children. They will be born the same regardless of your state of health at the time of conception.
This Darwinian genetic model (i.e. only genes matter and you can't change them) was a strong rebuttal to the dominant model of the time, Lamarkian genetics. The Lamarkian model, which assumed the inheritance of acquired characteristics, was dismissed by western cultures by the beginning of the 20th century, but it was used by the Soviet government to plan out their food crops program. The miserable failure of the program was seen as definitive proof that the Darwinian model was correct.
Still, we knew it couldn't be that simple, and since the 1940s a new field called epigenetics has been developing which blends characteristics of the Darwinian and Lamarkian models. Epigenetics is defined on wikipedia as "the study of inherited changes in phenotype (appearance) or gene expression caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence ." The basic idea is that genes expression can be modulated (genes can be turned on or off) without actually modifying any DNA.
A great new example of this is a recent study reviewed on Wired which found that diabetic mouse fathers can pass on diabetic traits to their children. For these mice, diabetes was certainly an inherited characteristic, but it was transmitted in a very Lamarkian way. This has profound implications for our society where an unsettling large percentage of people are obese. This study implies that you might now just be hurting yourself, your hurting your kids. In addition, there are the social aspects to consider (the nurture side of the nature vs nurture debate). Even ignoring any genetic changes, a child that grows up in a home with unhealthy eating habits modeled for him or her is most likely going to make similar choices when he or she grows up.
So what are the take home messages here? Firstly, science is great and awesome, but its important to realize that just because a scientist or group of scientists say something doesn't mean it's completely true, or even partially true. If something is important to you, read their work and try to understand their logic. Sometimes its very good, sometimes its not, but the fact that a group of intelligent people think something doesn't mean its correct.
Secondly, take care of your body, both for your sake, and the sake of your kids. If diabetic traits can be passed down, who knows what other genetic goodies you can give your children if you take care of yourself?
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
So from this, it seems the big lesson is God's faithfulness. We get into trouble, and God is always going to be there to save us, right? Yes and no. The truth, it seems, always merits a deeper look into things, and the Bible is certainly no exception to this rule. (In fact, it may be most true in this case -- but that's a discussion for another day.)
Certainly, this passage shows us that we are constantly in need of God's grace. But is also shows us that this grace comes in ways we rarely expect. In the passage, the Isrealites are first saved by Othneil. Othneil seems like the "sensible" choice. He is a man the community can admire just because of who he is, and he transitions into a leadership easily once God places His spirit upon Him. Othneil leads Israel to whoop up on their captors in open battle. O.k., nothing too special here. The Isaelites just needed a little help getting started, and they seemed perfectly capable of taking care of the rest.
In the next cycle, God raises up Ehud to save Israel. Ehud is described as"left-handed" in the text, which doesn't seem very special to us. But Tim Keller states that the way the verse is phrased seems to indicate that this person was not just left handed, but that his right hand was somehow damaged. I am not a Hebrew scholar so there would be little point for me to investigate the original text to see if this is true (I actually found this article that had a bit of a different take on this), but I can see why this could make sense. In many eastern societies the left hand is considered dirty. Often it was (and still is) used to wipe oneself after defecating. Knowing this, the people really tried to use the right hand for everything else, because the left hand was just plain dirty. If Ehud chose to use his left hand, I'm sure this was not a choice he made lightly out of some minor convenience. He probably did it because the right hand was just non-functional.
So, we have this guy Ehud who was possibly deformed and probably looked down upon as unclean because he had to use his poop hand for everyday activities. Not a good start. What God does with him doesn't really improve the situation. Ehud deceives the king of the conglomerate of nations ruling over the Israelites and assassinates him. When I first read this my first thought was: "well that's not very honorable." Even in modern warfare, engaging the enemy in open battle is seen as honorable, but tactics like utilizing snipes, spies, and assassins is looked down upon as "second class warfare." Why did God chose such a strange path to save Israel?
The question gets more obvious as the book of Judges continues past chapter 3. We see Deborah, a woman, raised up a a Judge. Later we see Gideon, a serious doubter and a person of little significance. Even further on we see Samson, a womanizer. Why would God use these people? The answer is given in a very beautiful way in 1 Corinthians 1:27-29. God does this so no one may boast, that God may get the glory instead of the individual.
So what does this tell us about how God acts in general? Well, first of all, He's complicated. If you think you have God figured out, what you're worshiping is probably not God, but some picture of Him that you have manufactured to make yourself feel comfortable. God is not something we can wrap our minds around. The book of Job does well summing this up.
If this is true, how do we balance our belief in God's faithfulness with our knowledge that we cannot fully understand Him? God says He is faithful and consistent, but He seems most consistent in doing things we don't expect. We are told our sins are paid for, yet we are told that we should expect suffering. We are told that we should follow the 10 commandments, yet Christ reveals that God's view of morality is actually quite a bit more complex than that. How do we maintain faith in such a complex God who we can't understand or predict?
This question brings us back to where we started, in Judges. We are told over and over again that the Israelites "forgot" their God. Does this mean that in one short generation any memory of God vanished from the collective mind of Jewish society? Doubtful. More likely, the Israelites forgot about who God is. Maybe they remembered what He had done, but their vision of God narrowed as they fell further away from Him. They constructed a comfortable vision of God based on His past actions, failing to maintain the fearful uncertainty commanded by an eternal God wholly beyond their comprehension. Such an understanding is the beginning of true faith.
I have come to see that maintaining faith in God is a balance between remembering His past faithfulness and expecting the unexpected from Him, remembering God is capable of acting in ways you will not be able to fully expect or comprehend and having absolute respect for His sovereignty in this decision. I hope God's unpredictability in your life is a reminder for you of the fact that the your life in controlled by a sovereign God who chooses the weak, the foolish, and the depraved to carry out His plan for drawing His creation back to Himself, so that He may receive all the glory on the day this plan is fulfilled. To God be the glory!
Monday, October 18, 2010
The Gospel of Wealth - David Brooks
I read his book "On Paradise Drive" a few weeks ago, and topics from that book have come up several times in conversation since then. I originally read his book because Ravi Zacharias (see his sermons online) mentioned him during one of his sermons on materialism. The books was very funny in some parts and very revealing in others. Brooks seems to be criticized consistently because he is a bit of a pseudo-scientist. He has a lot of cool ideas but he doesn't have a lot of facts to back them up. Regardless, I enjoy reading what he writes. I think he has a lot of good ideas and I like the way he expresses them. In this article his trademark sarcasm comes across in his discussion of America's obsession with headroom, and he also mentions a book by a mega-church pastor that actually looks like it's worth reading. You can see a short video about the book here.
Intelligent Individuals Don’t Make Groups Smarter - Wired Blog (Brandon Keim)
This article talks about research on the subject of collective mind intelligence. The basic question is "what individual traits allow people to work well together in groups?" Interestingly, the article finds that individual intelligence has little to do with the ability of a group to perform.
As a side note, when I was reading this I was thinking somewhat about my "theory" that the intelligence of a mob is inversely proportional to its size. A group of people can make decisions that no individual in their right mind would ever make. This research that shows that individual intelligence matters very little is a first step toward showing this to be a viable theory...
In Climate Denial, Again - NYT
Climate change is something that I have really tried to keep myself informed on. I don't claim to be an expert, but I have been a part of research on modeling alternative energy systems, I go to many seminars and lectures on engineering approaches to new energy sources, I read many articles and books on the subject, I actually saw Al Gore give his talk on global warming, and I even published a review paper on applications of certain materials to carbon dioxide capture and storage. Even with all this, I have to say that global warming may or may not be a problem. Yeah, I know -- not a very exciting conclusion.
But I'm not alone. I actually am in company with many other scientists I have conversed with, and with somebody named Bjorn Lomberg. Bjorn is an economist who is famous (or perhaps infamous) for his book The Skeptical Environmentalist, which discusses a lot of evidence that raises doubt on the legitimacy of the global warming debate. His most important point, however, is that focusing on global warming just does not make economic sense right now. You can see a great video of one of his talks on why global warming should not be our highest priority here.
Having read all this, I get a little frustrated when people use the word "skeptic" like a slur, and hang all other who don't want to do "whatever it takes" to stop global warming on the cross of "denialism."
This is a complex topic. Top scientists at top institutions do not agree on how data is modeled, and and even on whether the earth is heating up or cooling down. For example, Prof. Lindzen at MIT has proposed a theory about feedback systems in climate called the Infrared Iris Effect. Check out the wikipedia article for a taste of just how certain people are about this theory. I worked with another scientist who models the effects of clouds in climate. The uncertainty associated with clouds is so large that a small variation could drown out all other effects in nearly any climate model.
So, if you want to read this article and get a taste for why the discussion never goes anywhere (i.e. misinformed and emotional accusations and labeling) go right ahead. Realize, though, that you probably won't learn anything new about global warming. However, if you are interested in reading about the sometimes extreme tactics used by environmentalists to advance their cause in a rather entertaining form, check out the book State of Fear (granted, it's not scientifically rigorous but it's a good start). Or, if you'd rather watch a video, check out Penn and Teller's take on things. Just remember that anyone who claims to have it all figured out probably has no idea what's going on.
Nuclear fuel report challenges key assumptions - From MIT
Earlier this year I read the book America the Powerless, which is a very pro-nuclear book that discusses all the benefits of nuclear energy, why it fell out of favor, basic fuel cycles, readiation health hazards, etc. This book also discussed how breeder reactors and the thorium cycle could together lead to a supply of nuclear energy that was well beyond even that available from coal (for which we have a multi-hundred year supply). After reading that book and also recently reading a great article in Science about nuclear energy, this was really not a big surprise. Still, I thought it was nice that MIT agrees, because when they say it's o.k. people tend to listen. Hopefully we'll make a shift toward this very clean, safe, environmentally friendly, and inexpensive form of energy soon.
Why Alcohol is Good For You
This is the first of what will probably be many articles from Jonah Lehrer, the author of How we Decide and Proust was a Neuroscientist. Although I haven't read either of his books yet, his articles are similar in style to those from Malcom Gladwell (meaning they're pretty awesome).
This article talks about the upsides and downsides to drinking alcohol. This one goes beyond the traditional arguments about a glass of red wine being good for you and discusses a study that examined how drinking in general effects your life expectancy. It is found that drinking makes you live longer, even when alcoholics are included in the data. Lehrer goes through several reasons why this could be the case in his article, but I want to focus on one in particular -- the idea that people who drink are happier because of the calming effect of the alcohol and it's ability to relieve stress. Stress is very damaging to the body, so I think this is a good point.
So my next thought was whether this could be extended to smoking. Could smoking, in some circumstances, actually be a beneficial activity? Perhaps there is a healthy balance of using smoking to relieve stress but not smoking so much to give yourself a sure shot at emphysema. In this case the adage "all things in moderation" rings especially true.
The articles above were the ones I found most interesting, but the ones below weren't too bad either, so I included themas well.
Rare and Foolish - Paul Krugman
This article discusses China's willingness to use economic power to achieve political ends. The view he takes is that the U.S. government should have done a better job of protecting America's ability to mine rare earth metals. My thought is this: would China's attempts to use economics in politics be effective if American government wasn't so tied to industry, or the industry so tied to government? I sure don't think so.
Tales of the Tea Party - NYT
In this article the author discusses the tea party movement and why it just doesn't seem to go away, and especially why efforts of a largely liberal media to discount the movement are falling flat. Since I identify largely with libertarian ideals, I have tried to educate myself on some of the principles of the tea party. It's good to see that the crazy ones are not messing things up too much for the rest of the tea party members who are actually pretty reasonable and, in my opinion, have some pretty good ideas.
I hope that was informative. Article dumps like this should occur every few weeks, whenever I get tired of research for a day and feel a desire to visit my RSS feeds and learn something new.
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
"One must not think slightingly of the paradoxical…for the paradox is the source of the thinker’s passion, and the thinker without a paradox is like a lover without feeling: a paltry mediocrity." – Soren Kierkegaard
The first several times I read it, I had a hard time wrapping my head around the meaning of this quote. After a discussion with a friend tonight, I think I finally had a glimpse into its meaning.
We were discussing several things, but above all much of it came down to faith. Faith is, in itself, a contradiction and a paradox. Faith in God means we have supreme confidence in the sovereignty of the actions of God, and yet by that very acceptance of His sovereignty, we have complete uncertainty about the path He will choose for us. In brief: if we perfectly submit our lives and actions to God, we have no idea what will happen.
As an aside for the science buffs, this is nicely paralleled by the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which is simply stated as: if you perfectly know your position, your momentum has infinite uncertainty. In our example, position is your relationship with God (your complete and perfect submission), and momentum is your life (what happens to you).
The natural question that follows is: how does this play out in our lives, day to day? Practically, how can we take any action, since if we fully accept the idea of an infinite God, we have to recognize that our knowledge of Him is infinitely lacking?
This problem of action in the midst of paralyzing uncertainty about the morality or “correctness” of an action is a reoccurring topic of existentialism known as “angst” or “anxiety”. Kierkegaard sums it up by saying that “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” If we are to maintain that God is in complete control and we will never understand His ways, how are we ever supposed to even start to act in a way that He would approve of?
In my life, this often takes the form of a “it just doesn’t matter” philosophy. Since God is sovereign, everything that plays out happens because He said it should play out that way. Now, we are told in the Bible that “all things work out for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose.” Yet we are told that in this world we “see through a glass, darkly”, so our view of the world and God’s actions in it is obscured by a layer of misunderstanding about who God is and what His plan is for redeeming His creation. We just don’t know what God’s plan is or how it’s working out, and it would seem that our actions matter so little that it really shouldn’t matter what we do.
But I feel like if we fully embrace this ideology, we miss out on something very important. If we stop concerning ourselves with the outcomes of our actions (because, for example, even if we act correctly we are not guaranteed a "good" outcome), and if we see everything that happens as occurring “just because” and we don’t fight to understand the meaning behind all this, we stop caring. If we don’t care, we can’t love.
I feel like that’s often where I end. I come to feel that any actions on this earth have so little eternal meaning (and I have so limited understanding of them) that I stop concerning myself with life in general. If I saw somebody drowning, I would not hesitate to jump in to try to save them, even at the expense of my own life. This sounds great and virtuous, because we are told that the greatest love is for a man to “lay his life down for his friends.” The problem is this: I would be acting because I value my life so little, not because I value their life so much.
I think this distinction is really non-trivial, and it brings us back to the idea of how to act in faith – in the way God wants us to. The answer is, as Kierkegaard hints, a paradox. We must both have perfect love for people (which means having compassion and genuinely caring about them) and have perfect submission to God (which means we are o.k. with the outcome no matter what it is). I think if we lean too much toward having compassion and caring we become can become depressed because we feel hopeless to help these people who are suffering. If we lean too far toward submission to God we can become cold and uncaring. The correct position seems to be not somewhere in the middle (e.g., God is fairly sovereign but perhaps if I care enough I can change things), but at both ends at once.
These kinds of paradoxes are what compel us to stay close to God. When we are honest in our study of God’s word, we realize the teachings there are very hard, and we realize living in this way is not possible without Christ directly interceding with us at every step. One of my favorite verses is the following: “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” Here we see that even when we cannot even pray correctly, the spirit corrects our prayers.
In the same way, I believe the spirit can guide and correct our actions. One of my constant prayers is that God will make me miserable when I am off the path He has set for me, and that He would not give me rest or solace until I get back on that path. I personally find that such prayers of self-chastisement are nearly always honored by God.
So, what have we covered here? God is complicated and cannot be understood. We are asked to have perfect faith in God. We are asked to love others. This is an impossible task. God send us the spirit to guide us on this task, and He sent His son to repair the relationship between us that has been severed so severely by our complete inability to follow these "simple" commands.
Personally, I reach the same conclusion I usually come to when I really dig deep: God is awesome, and He has a heck of a great plan to work things out between us.
Sunday, October 3, 2010
I had a conversation the other day about the morality of voting as a Christian. My question was about voting for or against gay marriage rights.
From what I have seen, there seems to be one dominant view in Christian society about voting on gay rights. The idea is that voting to allow gay marriage will result in the destruction of the "family unit" and a consequential degradation of the moral fabric of society at large. Marriage, they argue, is an institution under God, and allowing gays to enter into the covenant of marriage desecrates that covenant to the point of meaninglessness.
On the surface, their logic seems to make sense. Allowing same sex marriages would certainly change the very visible definition of marriage in the United States from man-woman to human-human.
Still, when I consider the incredibly high rates of divorce and marital infidelity, I have to wonder if our current idea of marriage is really what was planned all along. Is divorce itself not a desecration of the covenant of marriage? Last time I checked the rate of Christian divorces was about the same as the rate for non-Christians. What about marriages between non-Christians? People who do not believe in God to get married every day -- is this not a desecration of equal magnitude and importance?
My idea is that marriage by the state and marriage by the church are two completely different things. Marriage by the state is a legal covenant, while marriage in the Church adds another layer -- a spiritual covenant. For some reason, people in the Church seem to believe that allowing gays to have a union defined as "marriage" will take away from what they have. In my mind, it doesn't matter if it's called the same thing -- it's obvious enough to me that the spiritual covenant of marriage in the church is something completely separate from anything the state can establish.
Do I think gays should be married by the Church? Nope. In my view, marriage in the Church should be the pairing up of two Christians (i.e., people who have given over control of their lives to Christ). Although I think sinners are married in legitimate Biblical marriages everyday in the Church (because we all DO sin), I think in this circumstance the Church would be condoning this sin. Perhaps just as importantly, it would also be putting two people in a position where sin is easier, instead of helping to lead these people to find freedom from this sin. Sin is not o.k., not in any form. Although the Church should love and accept you with your sin, it should never wink at it or suggest it doesn't matter.
So, in sum, marriage in the Church is wholly separate from marriage by the state, and gay marriage in the Church should not be allowed. Gay marriage is really no threat to the institution of marriage in the Church.
So if the answer is not a definite “vote no”, does that mean it should be “vote yes”? I will close with a question, which will perhaps be the subject of future postings.
Does voting to confine the rights of others to fit within the Biblical view of morality line up the Christian mission?
I personally didn't, and still don't, believe I fall into either of those categories. Rather what made me change my mind is that I started reading a few blogs. I found information posted on blogs in the form of book reviews, new perspectives on research, politics, and philisophy, and many other subjects that piqued my interest.
After consuming a certain about of information from these sites, I finally came to the conclusion that I may have something to contribute to the discussion. So if you were randomly searching the internet and bumbled across this page, you are exactly my target audience, and I hope you find something useful here.
So, what should be expected in terms of posts? I will try to keep my posts short and informative, although I realize both terms are relative. I will not try to keep my posts confined to a certain theme, otherwise I may start feeling obligated to comment on things I don't care about. Instead, I will write on things that are interesting to me, regardless of the subject area.
What do I want from you? Sure, you can read and not comment. I rarely if ever comment on any blogs I read. But, if you feel so inclined, even if you have no idea who I am, please comment. Comment on my thoughts. Comment with your thoughts. Comment on my writing abilities -- part of the reason I am doing this is in hopes that they improve. I can not guarantee that I will respond or even read your comment every time, but perhaps someone else cruising along on the WWW will find your comment and find it more interesting or enlightening than my original post, and I certainly hope that happens from time to time.
Who do I expect to read this post? I guess that will be people who are confused by later posts, or are for some strange reason interested in why I started blogging. If you are confused, I apologize, and I hope you find your answers. If you are just curious, well, I hope this did it for you.