Important Scientific Study Suggests Opening Your Eyes Affects Your Brain

I just saw a story from NPR reporting on a study that finds that mobile phone antennas can increase glucose production in the brain near where the antenna is located [1]. The NPR report of the study suggests that the researchers did control the variables and controlled for bias; they put a mobile phone on both sides of the subject’s head, they did not tell them which phone was on, and they conducted PET scans of the brain before and after the phone was on.

Their conclusions are that exposure to the radio waves from mobile phones can increase glucose production in the brain by 6%. Before you freak out, it’s worth noting what the researchers say in response to these findings:

Volkow says that level of increase in brain metabolism is not terribly dramatic — studies have shown that just opening your eyes can produce a much greater change in brain cells that process visual information. And scientists say it’s hard to know what to make of the change. [1]

Glucose – sugar – is needed by the brain during processing. Clearly, some people who don’t understand the basic science of electromagnetic waves (e.g. mobile phone radio waves cannot ionize atoms)  but who crave the need to blame medical problems on phones are going to interpret this study any way they like. So I began to think to myself: if I were to misinterpret the statements and findings of these researchers, how should I do it?

Wait, I have it!

Important scientific study finds that opening your eyes or thinking pose a higher risk of increased brain sugar levels than mobile phones. If mobile phones cause brain cancer, looking or thinking must turn the brain to mush. It’s just good [sic] science.

[1] http://www.npr.org/2011/02/22/133968220/cell-phone-radio-waves-excite-brain-cells?ft=1&f=1001&sc=tw&utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter

Do the experiment

Democracy is not a single, mono-cultural form of governance. When I studied democracies in college, the single most striking thing that I learned is that no two democracies are exactly alike. There is U.S. democracy, French democracy, German democracy, Russian democracy . . . every place where people have asserted their right to govern has led to a new experiment in democracy, and a new variation on this seemingly singular idea. Democracy  and evolution go hand-in-hand. It is at the least ironic, at worst fatal, that free peoples in a democracy like the U.S. are more and more rejecting evolution as a law of nature; the very idea they reject is at the foundation of their freedom to think wrong things.

But I say, do the experiment. If Americans want to reject evolution and take on a faith-based approach to life, then too they must abandon vaccines and expose themselves to easily treated but deadly disease; they, too, must forgo technology, the latest stage of human evolution, and become candle-powered Luddites in an electric world. If they wish to abandon understanding and knowledge in education and instead replace it with feeling and “common sense,” then let them live with the consequences of a total misunderstanding of the universe. After all, if democracy is a million experiments all playing out at the same time, then wrong ones must necessarily fail while useful ones must necessarily succeed.

Is that really a good idea, though? Such thinking seems dangerously pre-20th century, when abuse of the original notion of evolution led to confirmation bias for Victorian ideas about “class” and “fitness to survive.” The danger of abandoning the ignorant to themselves is that their threat is not confined to their own kind. Those who fail to vaccinate because of a total misunderstanding of vaccination threaten the innocent children of those who understand the benefit of vaccination; whooping cough and its resurgence is just one warning sign of the dangers ignorance brings to all free peoples. The idea that evolution is just one notion among many in biology threatens the next generation of doctors and nurses; those who hold to anti-scientific biological views will inevitably  become real threats to the health of a nation. Should we cede our nation to armies of homeopaths and chiropractors, people who seem to hold little understanding of simple chemistry, statistics, or the movement of gas in the joints of the human body?

Science gives us a chance to understand the consequences of our choices, and so we cannot abandon our democracy to the ignorant. The founders of the U.S. rightly foresaw that an educated public is necessary to the proper functioning of a democracy. Democracy cannot long survive if individuals en masse are cheated of the tools of thought and reason. Science and education are crucial to this. Democracy is science, a principle that yields a hypothesis that yields a test and a result of the test. Democracy is science, but it also critically depends on science.

And so I am intrigued by the experiment playing out in Wisconsin, a state quite dear to my heart. It’s a political experiment – the first real test of “Tea Party” ideas being thrust upon a free people. The Guardian hosts a nice opinion piece about this experiment [1]. A Tea Party-backed Governor is trying to rapidly change the landscape of Wisconsin politics using the ideas that brought him to power: ideas of rejecting federal support (no money for broadband access), breaking unions, and depriving public employees – including teachers – of the only benefits that make their jobs an alternative to private sector employment. Wisconsin has become a petri dish, a phrase I gladly borrow from the Guardian piece, for the Tea Party.

So let’s do the experiment. If these Tea Party ideas win, we’ll see what happens to public education and state infrastructure in Wisconsin. I’ll see if my nephews and nieces still can have a quality public school education, or if instead they are thrown into a place where teachers have no incentive to teach (e.g. no job stability).  We’ll see if my sister-in-law, a state social worker, has any incentive left to do her job or any control remaining over her employment destiny. Yes, it threatens a great and formerly progressive midwestern state. But one assumes that if these ideas are wrong, their failure will be so spectacular that they will serve as a terrible warning to other states about tea Party ideas. If they are right, then Wisconsin should prosper and become an educational and scientific hub. For if democracy thrives on education and science, then surely the signs of a healthy democracy are educational superiority and scientific prowess. If Wisconsin can continue to be a leader in these things in a decade, then we know the Tea Party was right. If not, then we’ll know the Tea Party was just Right-wing.

To paraphrase a great scientist: there is grandeur in this view of democracy, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this country has gone cycling on according to the Constitution, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

[1] http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/feb/16/wisconsin-republicans

The Nend of Global Climate Change

“Well,” declared Joe Average Citizen as he stared at his TV and watching anomalously high snowfall rain down on much of the U.S., “I guess global warming is over!” This simple statement, uttered by at least two people within earshot of me in the past two weeks (and likely by countless others in the U.S.) represents several of the mistakes people commonly make regarding global climate change:

  • It’s “global climate change,” not global warming – some places may get colder, others warmer, but overall weather patterns – climate – will change.
  • Weather and climate are not the same thing
  • Cyclic weather extremes (e.g. El Nino or La Nina) happen, but what matters are long-term average climate effects ACROSS the globe, and certainly not just in one or another narrow geographic region (e.g. a continent is too small).

Yes, the U.S. has been pummeled by snowfall this year. A few weeks ago, my father noted that Connecticut is 44 inches above its average snowfall number for Jan/Feb. The normal average is less than 10 inches. This is a 400% increase in snow fall.

So is climate change over? Alas, no. A quick search of Google for live climate data yields the NASA Global Surface Temperature Analysis [1]. You can enter in a month of data you want to chart and compare that data to long-term temperature averages. I chose to plot January temperature data for the globe and compare it on a map to average data from 1951-1980. The red spots indicate anomalously HIGH temperatures, the blue spots anomalously LOW temperatures. We see that the U.S. was in quite a cold snap in January, 2011. But Europe was in a hot snap. At their extremes, parts of the U.S. were 4 degrees Celcius below average, and parts of Europe were 4-7 degrees Celcius ABOVE normal. In part of Europe, people might argue the opposite: global climate change is accelerating (if one equates only heating with that change). I watched Swiss students boarding planes to the U.S. to go skiing in January. That’s not the usual trend for skiing this year; in fact, it’s usually quite the other way around.

What’s the message? Don’t mistake weather for climate. Don’t mistake change for warming. Don’t mistake one year’s harsh weather as a clear sign of all future years. Respect science, respect data, and be careful about making personal or political policy statements based on narrow-scope, cherry-picked, short-term data. It’s not the end (the “nend”) of global climate change.

[1] http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/maps/

It happened over delicious guacamole

This weekend, Jodi and I traveled to Wisconsin to celebrate the 3rd birthday of our twin nephews.  Over a delicious bowl of guacamole, I engaged in a conversation with a couple who were friends with my sister-in-law (the mother of the twins). We quickly came to the recent Republican plan to cut the Federal budget across the board, including the unique national agencies that spend on basic research in science. Quick and important fact: this conversation was held over a delicious bowl of homemade guacamole, in a kitchen in Franklin, WI, a town firmly in the district of Paul Ryan (R-WI). Congressman Ryan is a leading Republican in the fight to shrink the Federal budget.

From my previous posts in this blog, you pretty much should know my feelings about the importance of Federal investment in basic research. However, I was the one stunned into silence as my sister-in-law’s friend said, “It’s outrageous that at a time when the U.S. wants to maintain scientific leadership it is trying to cut basic research from the Federal budget. There are no companies that want to support this kind of research anymore. There are no more Bell Labs. You never know what this research is going to bring, and you never do it for the reasons that it’s useful later.” That’s a paraphrase, but these are all things he told me over the course of many minutes. And I didn’t once have to get on the soapbox. He dominated the conversation, and I was so happy.

It felt good to be the scientist standing in the kitchen, munching on chips and guacamole, stunned into silence by the words of a very passionate citizen with a deep interest in science.