The pitfalls of doing reactive science

Posted in Crop science, Science with tags , , , , , on 14/01/2014 by sangomasmith

Note:  A lot of the papers I’ve linked to are behind paywalls. Which is sad and sort of it’s own entire story. Nevertheless, you can read the abstracts and get an idea of what is going on.


One of the papers I’ve been wanting to talk about is this fellow from 2012. It’s a pretty boring, dry piece if you’re not intimately involved in the minutiae of crop research, detailing the results of a series of experiments (each the subject of it’s own paper) designed to see whether one particular form of BT-expressing corn (the MON 88017 line) is dangerous for non-target arthropods. This, it turns out, is done by feeding the stuff one way or another to an almost ludicrous number of creatures (caterpillars of various species, bugs, wasps, spiders, mites and on and on) and seeing if any of them suffer any sort of developmental damage or mortality. What the review found, in almost all cases, is that the risk to non-target organisms is minimal.

What this article represents – what makes it interesting beyond the dry recitation of tests and figures – is as a sort platonic ideal of the dangers of doing what I tend to think of as ‘reactive’ science (in that it’s a reaction to external events). This crop, which has been grown since 2005 (and had been in development and testing since something like 1995), has just been through 7 years of tests to determine if it has any effect on organisms which, from all that we know about the Cry toxin that Bt encodes, it should have no effect on. And the reason? This.


In may 1999, a paper was published in Nature which seemed to show that the larvae of monarch butterflies raised in an environment where they were exposed to the pollen from Bt-expressing maize plants were negatively affected by the experience (slower growing, less hungry and with higher mortality). Although issues were soon raised about the methods and applicability of the paper, it was seized upon by environmental groups as proof positive that Bt corn, and GMOs in general, were evil and dangerous. Following this, a flurry of papers were produced examining the the issue from every angle: how much Bt was in GM corn pollen, how likely it was to come into contact with the monarch larvae and how much would be needed to induce negative effects. A result of this can be seen in this 2001 review article on the whole affair.


And the result? Nothing. There isn’t much bt in the pollen, the amount of milkweed plants (which the monarch larvae feed on) hanging around close enough to get dusted is low, the amount of pollen that would actually land on one of these plants if it was in the right place is negligible and the timing of the pollination and the lifecycle of the butterfly is far enough off so that it would be very rare for this to happen anyway. Overall, the evidence overwhelmingly shows that bt pollen from GMO corn is not a threat to the monarch butterfly.

And yet, even today, you still have a good chance of this being brought up whenever GM crops are discussed in the public sphere.


This is the central problem of doing science when politics is involved – it takes exponentially more time to debunk something than it does to simply claim it. To rebuff a single, badly put-together study can take years of careful testing by scores of researchers and burn through massive amounts of money. And by the time you do so, public opinion has likely moved on. When doing science as a reaction to hysteria or panic, all you end up doing is wasting money and effort: the hysteria will have already solidified into common knowledge (which you then have to fight against) and the extra burden of research will have diverted effort away from more important things. Which is how you end up with dull, boring, meticulously-researched papers looking at the 1000-and-1 ways in which an existing product has no negative consequences.


This central asymmetry; between claiming a negative outcome and then proving the claim negative, is one of the central factors driving a lot of the stupid, anti-scientific debates that we as a society keep having. Scientists are prime targets for reactive science, we fall into this trap again and again. In the end, though, it isn’t scientists that pay the price (we still get to keep on doing our jobs, after all). It’s society at large, in the form of the lost opportunities that reactive science creates.


A more productive post

Posted in media, pedantry, rant, Science with tags , , , , on 12/01/2014 by sangomasmith

I recently went blog-diving and found this charming specimen who, between saying things that make sense, seems to be particularly vexed by feminists (and women in general, if his other mentions are anything to go by). Now, the combination of finding this particular rough diamond and hanging around here too much got me all het up to write a post blasting the smart misogynists for being the clueless dipshits that they are. Ultimately, however, I realised that (as Scalzi pointed out) you just cannot get concepts like ‘privilege‘ across to these bozos without whickering and whining. They are just too bitter, clueless and invested to hear. So instead I’m going to try for something a little more tangental: a brief explanation for why these guys may have a point about some of the people they find wretched or disgusting (thanks for that, Scott). And why it doesn’t much matter.


The problem is simple: it takes a certain amount of resources and connections to get the word out. This means that, barring miracles or outside intervention, a rich, upper-class person who works in the media is going to have an easier time reaching an audience than a poor person working as a janitor. Which means that, more often than not, the people writing about the poor and dispossessed are going to be neither. Which can be a problem if, for instance, you’re trying to dig down to the essence of what it means to be poor. It can also weaken your personal case for whatever it is you are arguing for – folks will inevitably leap onto the fact that your personal experiences are overblown or minor compared to the real suffering that you’re trying to connect to. And there is a core of truth to this – it really is hard for a white, cosseted, upper-class person to really get what it means to be down and out in a racist country. Or for a pampered, academic feminist to really get what it means to be a woman living in a world where your worth to society is measured principally by the number of male children you can raise to adulthood.


However, there is a known human faculty which is supposed to help alleviate this problem. We call it ’empathy’. It is, like all things human, not a perfect faculty – one’s personal experiences and biases will always creep in to colour things. But it is useful for that most human and humane of tasks: the long mile in someone else’s shoes. I should mention the word ‘useful’ again, because empathy is also about more than just getting the feels when you realise what someone else’s plight is. It is also a hard-edged tool: the culmination of our fine-grained, meta-cognitive, social senses. Which is why it tends to be the first thing that tends to go whenever a brain is damaged or malfunctioning.


Most feminists, whatever I may think of their individual lives or arguments, tend to at least display empathy. That the ones with the biggest platforms may also tend to be the ones who encounter the least actual sexism in their daily lives (you know, aside from the inevitable rape threats any time they say anything in the public sphere) does not mean that what they say has suddenly been rendered worthless. What unites my little collection of misogynist  internet assholes, on the other hand, is a stunning lack of empathy. This may not even be their fault – it is one of those biological failings of the male gender (along with stupid risk taking and much higher crime rates) that we tend to be more afflicted by neurological disorders.


So when they accuse those evil(or wretched, or disgusting) feminists of being self-serving, vain, deceitful, clueless, arrogant, out of touch, creepy, grasping, pathetic etc. perhaps they are just looking into the mirror and failing to see any reflection but their own?

Something about biotech for a change

Posted in Crop science, rant, Science with tags , , , on 07/01/2014 by sangomasmith

This is an interesting piece on the problems associated with trying to legislate GMOs – namely that being anti-GMO is turning into the climate change denialism of the left.  And to think I’d allowed a shred of optimism to colour my worldview on the subject.


Way back at the beginning of 2013 Mark Lynas, who played a pretty big part in getting the anti-GMO ball rolling in the first place, issued a public mea culpa for his past actions. This, along with some encouraging news about the use of GMOs to counter citrus greening, led me to briefly become optimistic that the worst of the stupidity was over.


It was not to last

Mark Lynas’ speech led to a backlash from his previously loyal supporters rather than the reappraisal that I think he was hoping for. He’s still sticking to his guns, but then the man is nothing if not committed to his principles (whatever they may be at any given moment). Elsewhere, destruction of trial fields in the European Union has become so pervasive that research there has all but stopped. Elsewhere, Golden rice suffered another setback when a large field trial in the Philippines was destroyed.

Look at any article on the subject and you will see a slew of comments from conspiracy theorists, anti-corporate crusaders and nature-anthropomorphising pseudo-environmentalists all repeating the same tired myths about GMOs*. It reminds one of the climate change denialists – folks who have decided that their worldview is more important than facts and will fight tooth and nail to stay in their little bubble.


We will see if this year is any better than the last. But I’m not getting my hopes up.


*For people who wish to play anti-GMO bingo:

anti GMO Bingo


With thanks to this guy

Why you should never read comments, new year’s edition

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on 03/01/2014 by sangomasmith

I find the ongoing issue of representation in video games very interesting. Firstly, because both I and my wife love video games – although we have very different play styles and our tastes don’t always overlap. Secondly, because its one of those cases where the entire industry seems to have been set up on a premise that just seems unfounded.


And yet, here we are in 2014, busy debating the vile treatment that gets handed out to female video game developers, fans and critics. Look at the comments (although seriously, don’t) and you see the same crap come up year in and year out. You can almost set your watch by how quickly any article covering these topics will be plastered in screeds by dudebros explaining how, like, we should all just chill and be less sensitive. Or how having dudes with big pecs totally makes having every single female character look like they were designed by Rob Liefeld okay.

It all blurs together eventually. Games, movies, media, workplaces, society and the world all just seem to have this sickness when it comes to discussing the idea of gender. So, in the interests of maybe advancing the cure (even if only by a tiny, tiny fraction), here is an argument that maybe you haven’t seen before yet:


Forget about arguments concerning morality, or equality, or diversity, or undoing the wrongs of the past. I want you to think about society and production. Let’s assume, shall we, that talent is equally scattered amongst everyone. Every kid – black, white, boy, girl, gay or straight – has an equal chance of being talented at something (writing, just to be non-controversial). Only once that talent has been nurtured, has been given an opportunity to grow, can it truly be used to it’s full potential.

I want you to imagine the best piece of writing, the best book you can think of from this last year. How many talented folks, all writing away, had to be doing their thing for one of them to produce this? And didn’t the same group of people also produce five other great books, and 50 decent ones? Now I want you to imagine that, over night, we could double the amount of people. Doesn’t it follow that there will suddenly be two amazing books for you to read, ten great books and a hundred decent ones for when you get bored? It’s simple maths, after all.


Now I want you to imagine the same scenario, but with everything. Maths, science, art, music, comedy, sports, movies – everything. This is what equality is. This is why you want as many people as possible doing things they’re talented at – because to do anything less is to deny everyone – including yourself – the best that we could possibly be producing. It would be worth it, in fact, to give even undeveloped talents a shot at the prime time just to widen the future pool of geniuses that could come in and produce amazing things for us in the future.


But what if, instead, we halved that number? When you argue against equality in video games; when you say that sexism is okay because it’s always been okay, or that we shouldn’t be pushing to include more women because we’ve already got what we want – what you are doing is denying yourself the opportunity to double the amount of great games you could play.

When you argue that women (or people of colour, or gay people) shouldn’t be in a particular profession – and make no mistake, that’s exactly what you are arguing for when you fight against things like gender equality in the workplace –  what you are arguing is that they cannot exhibit and achieve the same levels of talent as other folks. I would want to be damn sure that I had solid, irrefutable, biological evidence of that before making such a huge claim.


So when you argue the right to continue to have your endless seas of brown macho-shooters and tit-centric female characters, be advised you’re actually doing is fighting against your own self interest. You could just be the reason why you missed out on the best game of your life.

The problem with meme sites

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on 23/12/2013 by sangomasmith

First up: I have absolutely no problems with Jennifer Lawrence. I think its wonderful and awesome how she comes off in interviews as this quirky, quotable, genuine person. Neither do I have problem with kittens doing random things. Or stories about rescue dogs. Or even stories about your dog.

I don’t have a problem with memes either. Over-exposed though they are, I am perfectly content to browse through pages of advice ducks, doge images, fail gifs and the like.


What I absolutely do have a problem with is the realisation that these things are the good stuff, the gems buried beneath mounds and mounds of aweful racist, sexist, nationalist, dumb tripe. The realisation that the (presumably literate and computer-literate) folks who post on these public bulletin boards genuinely believe that, for example, afirmative action is some sort of reverse racial aggression comparable to segregation and apartheid. Or that when a man does something stupid it’s because he’s stupid. When a woman does it, it’s because she’s a woman. Or that men somehow need championing and protecting from the dangerous feminists ruling society.

Seriously, I’d post examples but there’s no point. Just go to 9gag, scroll down the front page a bit and an there it is.


I really don’t need to know this about my fellow man. And I really, really don’t need to see this stuff sandwiched between the cute and harmless stuff that I came there for in the first place.


This has been your pointless and whiny rant for the day. You may now carry on with your life.


The new Hobbit movie

Posted in Uncategorized on 19/12/2013 by sangomasmith

So, back into posting. And first up, something which has absolutely no relevance to the usual subjects for this blog.

I actually don’t have too much to add to the existing debate here, except that I am a big fan of the book and loved the LoTR movies (and a giant pedant). ‘An unexpected journey’ was, for me at least, a perfectly serviceable film. But ‘the desolation of Smaug’ seemed, well, shoddy.


The reasons, it seems to me, have to do mainly with pacing and production. The pacing, I think, got ruined by the switch to a three-movie format for the release. Which would have been fine, if that is what had been planned all along. As it is, my ‘ideal’ approach would have been to split the movie along the same lines as the book (which had a noticeable shift in tone): the more light-hearted, travel adventure-oriented stuff going in part one and the desolation of Smaug/battle of five armies in part two.  Once you throw that away, the best compromise is to make the films about the journey, the dragon and the battle respectively.


The first film ended exactly right for that sequence, but the second seems to have missed the logical progression by shoving in an imagined climax (the fights in Erebor and Lake Town) at the expense of the book climax (the death of Smaug). I honestly can’t see why they had to do it this way, unless the third film was going to end up short. Even then, you’d start the last film with a climax (big no-no) and move into a boring second act before having a completely separate one at the end. It just seems like a mess all around.


The second problem is production. The switch to digital effects over the more prop-oriented stuff used in LoTR seems to have resulted in strange, unfocused visuals. This is very obvious in the extensive use of digital actors for action sequences, where the eye has time to pick out the unnatural way that even the best-animated figures move (as an aside, it says something that the first comment by both my wife and I upon exiting the film was about how terribly that damn horse moved).


Another problem is that the practical props and makeup seemed to have lost quality somewhat. Perhaps it is the way it was filmed – 48fps, with its higher clarity, is supposedly very good at making traditional movie props and effects look shoddy – but a lot of stuff just looked off. The biggest offenders (for me, at least): Dwalin’s bald-head wig and the prop weapons from Lake Town. The latter, especially, just looked terrible and prop-like compared to the amazing work used in LoTR.

A lot of this, of course, is just pointless nit-picking. It just seems indicative, to me at least, of rushed production when compared to the minute, obsessive detail lavished on the previous movies. This, and it’s stand-out nature compared to the phenomenal values seen in the rest of the production, ties in with the first problem by implying that the end product we saw just wasn’t what had been intended from the start. The long hand of executive meddling, seen in the decision to split the movie into three, had far-reaching consequences for the films.


Do go and see it though: the sequence with Smaug alone is worth the price of admission.


P.S. – my last post (bemoaning my complete uselessness in regards to actually posting stuff) was my hundredth. Go figure.

The longest Hiatus

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on 19/12/2013 by sangomasmith

Oy vey.

First up, an explanation: I just reached the point with work and my personal life where posting had to stop. Even my limited posts were taking up time that was needed with other things. And once you stop, the temptation is to forget about things in the expectation that they’ll fade away. The internet, however, sees all and stores all. So here this blog lay, for nigh on three years, abandoned and forgotten. Until now (?)

I can’t promise that I’ll post frequently, I’m sad to say. From here on out this blog will be strictly a hobby, with posts when and if I feel like writing about something. So now, having reached this point, I will gently pick up the reigns and try again…