Spoons. Frying pans. Industrial-sized irons. The blogosphere has been awash lately with the eclectic mix of objects that stick to a six-year-old Croatian boy’s stomach. In an unfortunately serious story, CBS reported that “Magnet” boy can carry upwards of 55 pounds of metal on his chubby little frame. What they forget to mention is that the boy’s “magnetic” abilities miraculously extend to mostly non-metal objects too, such as plastic TV remote controls and cell phones.
Since Monday’s news that a few thousand birds fell from the sky on New Year’s Eve over Beebe, Arkansas, the world has gone a little crazy with talk of the “aflockalypse”: the mass bird deaths that have been documented worldwide.
Bird die-offs have been reported in not only Arkansas but also in Italy, Sweden, Louisiana, Texas, and Kentucky. Die-offs of other animals, including thousands of fish in Arkansas, Florida, New Zealand and the Chesapeake Bay have also been noted, while dead crabs washed up on UK shores.
Causes ranging from UFOs, monsters (our personal favorite), fireworks, secret military testing, poison, shifting magnetic fields, and odd weather formations have been blamed for the deaths, but researchers are saying these types of die-offs are normal. It’s simply a coincidence that a few big ones happened right around the new year–and once the global media started paying attention to wildlife mortality, we saw examples everywhere.
BoingBoing quotes Smithsonian Institution bird curator Gary Graves on the Arkansas bird die-off that got the conspiracy theory ball rolling:
He doesn’t think these bird deaths are a sign of anything nefarious–or, at least, nothing more nefarious than local people taking it upon themselves to stress out a large roost of “nuisance” birds until it flies away. There’s a head count associated with that kind of thing, he says, and it’s not particularly odd to see a few thousand birds die this way. But, with roosts numbering in the millions of birds, that’s not a large percentage lost. The only thing different in this case, he says, is that the dead birds landed on lawns, rather than in the wilderness.
Those people living in areas with higher numbers of mobile phone towers have more children, new research is showing (spreadsheet). Matt Parker at The Guardian’s Notes & Theories blog did the analysis of publicly available data and found the correlation:
Could it be possible that mobile phone radiation somehow aids fertilisation, or maybe there’s just something romantic about a mobile phone transmitter mast [aka tower] protruding from the landscape?
The data show that there is a very strong correlation between the number of cell phone towers and the birth rate in communities. For every additional phone tower, there are 17.6 more babies than the national average, Parker writes in his blog post:
When a regression line is calculated it has a “correlation coefficient” (a measure of how good the match is) of 98.1 out of 100. To be “statistically significant” a pattern in a dataset needs to be less than 5% likely to be found in random data (known as a “p-value”), and the masts-births correlation only has a 0.00003% probability of occurring by chance.
With all that fancy math talk, this sounds pretty conclusive, huh? But read on.
While watching the science news for you here at Discover blogs, we’ve seen our share of bad science coverage. Most of the time, we let it slide. Most of the time, we write the truth and hope to overshadow the erroneous and exaggerated stories. But this time… this time we’re calling it out.
Last week’s coverage of the bacteria that live in Mono Lake, CA was over hyped because of a cryptic message in a NASA press release (namely, that the discovery would “impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life”). And even after all the build up, the early embargo break, and a long press conference, many news outlets STILL got the story wrong.
Though it might work for The DaVinci Code, apparently citing the bible doesn’t fly in a scientific journal. Virology Journal apologized yesterday for publishing a paper titled “Influenza or not influenza: Analysis of a case of high fever that happened 2000 years ago in Biblical time,” which attempts to diagnosis “a woman with high fever cured by our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Yesterday, journal editor Robert F. Garry apologized for the paper’s publication and announced that Virology will retract the piece. The blog Retraction Watch, where we found this story, posted a response from the paper’s lead author, Ellis Hon:
“As an article for debate, there was no absolute right or wrong answer, and the article was only meant for thought provocation. Neither was it meant to be a debate on the concept of miracles. My only focus at the time of writing was ‘what had caused the fever and debilitation’ that was cured by Jesus.”
Here’s what we know about the social networking site, Facebook. It can mysteriously suck away large portions of your day, and make you sneaky, nosy, and narcissistic. It can also, in some extreme cases, cause carpal tunnel syndrome from clicking through the bazillion vacation pictures you posted online. But does Facebook cause syphilis? The short answer is “no.” The longer one is “Are you nuts?”
But that didn’t stop British tabloid The Sun from cranking up its imagination and posting an article titled “Sex diseases soaring due to Facebook romps.”
The piece was based on a British National Health Service (NHS) report that noted that syphilis cases in the Teesside region, an area of northeast England, were up four fold. It said casual sex in the area had spiked and as a result of people not using condoms, a surprising number of women had contracted syphilis. So, from fewer than ten cases in 2008, the number had now gone up to 30.
The CIA’s experiments with mind-control and hallucinogenic drugs are well documented. It’s hard to forget about programs like Operation Midnight Climax, in which the agency studied the effects of LSD by dosing unsuspecting clients at brothels. But did the agency go so far as to send an entire French village on an acid trip that killed a few people and institutionalized a bunch more? According to The Telegraph, the CIA did just that in 1951.
For years, people familiar with “the incident of the cursed bread” (or le pain maudit) have subscribed to the theory that villagers in Saint-Pont-Esprit in Southern France suffered massive delusions because they all ate bread contaminated by ergot, a hallucinogenic fungus. After eating bread from a local baker, the villagers reported such delusions as the conviction that they were missing body parts or had animals in their stomachs.
Now, The Telegraph reports that the incident was not “ergotism” caused by the fungus, as previously believed, but was actually a bad trip caused by the CIA, which had spiked the village bread with LSD, or maybe just sprayed LSD into the air. Quite a story, huh? Too bad it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.
Lately when we’ve picked on people for bad science reporting, it’s often been anti-vaccine nonsense in the Huffington Post, or The Telegraph for going way overboard on one story or another. Today, though, it’s The Daily Beast, running columnist Tunku Varadarajan’s “A Skeptic’s Guide to Copenhagen.” And Varadarajan earned both contempt and some praise for this piece.
Given the title, Varadarajan certainly isn’t trying to hide what he’s doing; it’s a big tent revival for people who agree with him. The piece trots out one global warming non-believer talking point after another: suggesting the East Anglia hacked e-mails affair shows a widespread conspiracy, taking the word “trick” in the emails out of context, saying the sun is “the likeliest global warming culprit,” painting a handful of scientists like Freeman Dyson as heroic for “dissenting from the warmist consensus” and dismissing the rest as a bunch of villainous sheep, and so on.
“Meat grown in laboratory in world first,” trumpets the headline of an article in The Telegraph.
The article went on to explain that Dutch researchers have grown in vitro meat in a laboratory, which is essentially edible fake meat grown in a test tube using the cells of a livestock animal. Sounds cutting-edge, right?
But we here at DISCOVER, we’ve seen a pile of other headlines over the past decade that make it clear that lab-grown meat is nothing new.
A sampling of previous articles: Serving up man-made meat (2005), Test Tube Meat Nears Dinner Table (2006), Scientists develop method for home-grown meat (2006), Scientists Flesh Out Plans to Grow (and Sell) Test Tube Meat (2008).
Nonetheless, according to The Telegraph:
Scientists have managed to grow a form of meat in a laboratory for the first time, according to reports. Researchers in the Netherlands created what was described as soggy pork and are now investigating ways to improve the muscle tissue in the hope that people will one day want to eat it.
It’s a great headline and opening (regardless of whether anyone will eat something as delectable sounding as a soggy hotdog), however researchers have been growing tiny bits of meat in their labs for years. The non-bylined Telegraph article does not mention that the idea of in vitro meat has been around since the 1930s, and the modern technology was born from a little agency named NASA, which was looking for a way to feed hungry astronauts, as reported in a 2008 Time article [emphasis added]:
2009 represents a double-dip of Charles Darwin milestones. A plethora of Darwin stories in the press have marked his 200th birthday. And today, as 80beats has already noted, is the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, an occasion that sparked another round of Darwin fever.
TIME, however, observed the day by posting a Q&A with British author Dennis Sewell, who is selling a book on “how often — and how easily — Darwin’s big idea has been harnessed for sinister political ends.” Sewell isn’t an evolution denier, but rather among the crowd crowing that Darwin was a racist and responsible for inspiring eugenics.
Sigh. While it’s probably true that Darwin was influenced by the racial attitudes of his time and place—Victorian England–DISCOVER has covered the other side of that coin: that the scientist was an abolitionist and rather progressive for his day. Even Ray Comfort, in his rambling, Darwin-bashing introduction to a “new edition” of Origin that creationists passed around college campuses recently, concedes: “However, after much research, I do concede that you won’t find anything in Darwin’s writings that would indicate that he in any way felt blacks were to be treated as inferior or that his views of them were due to their skin color.” Even if the opposite were true, and Darwin the man was actually a howling racist, Darwin’s theory of evolution would still smash the fallacy that different races belong to different species.