Archive for November, 2008

Weekly News Roundup: Thanksgiving Edition

By Melissa Lafsky | November 26, 2008 12:08 pm

• The New York Times advises us to approach the Thanksgiving meal “the way a CEO might.” Uhh, not even sure where to start on that one.

• Some good news this holiday: Cancer diagnoses are on the decline.

• The newest in medical technology: A barcode chip that tests your blood for disease.

• The latest in climate change research: A shrimp on a treadmill. Seriously.

• You know it’s bad out there when gaming companies are seeing their stock take a hit.

• And to top it off, the financial crisis hits Google. It’s official: No one is immune.

• Sketchy study finds that more people believe in aliens and ghosts than God. Or perhaps they just think God is an alien?

• And here’s a fun idea in the obesity era: health waivers for Thanksgiving dinner guests. More casserole, anyone?

Insult to Injury: Katrina Kids Widely Sickened by FEMA Trailers

By Melissa Lafsky | November 25, 2008 3:03 pm

Newsweek reports that the children displaced by Hurricane Katrina who spent the longest amount of time in government-provided temporary housing—a.k.a. FEMA’s toxic trailers—are “the sickest I have ever seen in the U.S.,” according to Irwin Redlener, Children’s Health Fund president and a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

The ailments, according to a study of 261 post-Katrina kids, range from mental health disorders to anemia, and are astonishingly widespread: Forty-one percent of the children are anemic—twice the rate found in minors in New York City homeless shelters—and 42 percent have respiratory infections and other problems likely linked to the excessive formaldehyde in the trailers.

As we’ve discussed on Discoblog, formaldehyde is a probable carcinogen as well as an allergen, and is used in many products, including the wood used to build these disaster homes. The formaldehyde gas levels in FEMA’s trailers were so toxic that Katrina victims began complaining of illnesses, including breathing difficulties, bloody noses, and even gas-linked deaths, almost immediately after they moved into them.

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MORE ABOUT: children, katrina

Will Global Warming Be Great News for Russia?

By Melissa Lafsky | November 24, 2008 6:04 pm

Ever since global warming awareness rose to the international level, there’s been quiet but persistent tittering among experts over whether climate change might actually be good for some regions. Given that the biggest of these regions has always been Russia, it’s not a huge shock that Russia Today jumped on the recent U.S. intelligence reportGlobal Trends 2025: A Transformed World.” In particular, the Russian press loved the report’s claim that within the next 17 years, Russia’s profit from climate change will be the biggest in the world.

From the article:

One of the reasons is the expected lengthening of the sowing term, but the key factor would be an easier access to oil and gas fields in Siberia and in the North, including the Arctic shelf. This will be a great success for the Russian economy, according to the NSC report, and the Arctic waterway would also open huge prospects for Russia.

However, the authors of the study warn of the possible threats: the infrastructure of Russia’s Arctic territories may be destroyed, and also new technologies may be needed to exploit fuel fields in the area.

Yeah, there’s always that downside

RB: 20 Years Later, Andy Revkin Responds to Groundbreaking Global Warming Story
RB: Global Warming Denial in the Senate: The Latest Chapter

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Climate Change, Energy
MORE ABOUT: global warming, russia

Are Scientists to Blame for the Financial Crisis?

By Melissa Lafsky | November 24, 2008 1:13 pm

When the fed is spending $7.4 trillion to clean up the wreckage, you know someone’s gotta take the blame. So who should shoulder it? Scientific American thinks at least some of the fault belongs with the physics and math whizzes who built the risk models that dug our grave.

In a byline-free editorial, the magazine traces our woes back to a 2004 meeting in which the SEC agreed to lift a rule specifying debt limits and capital reserves “needed for a rainy day.” This move provided the requisite billions that banks pumped into mortgage-backed securities and derivatives. And who created the structures for these impossibly complex schemes that caused the mass bank implosion? Wall Street’s band of “lapsed physicists and mathematical virtuosos,” also known as “quants,” who “both invented these oblique securities and created software models that supposedly measured the risk a firm would incur by holding them in its portfolio.”

Given that hindsight is 20-20, we now realize that all these models are really only accurate for a limited period of time, at a very narrow confidence level—meaning that whenever those conditions aren’t fantasy-scenario optimal, the actual risk can be enough to incite a global meltdown. Good to know!

So should we be tarring and feathering the brains who built the beam we used to hang ourselves? It’s hardly that simple, a fact that Sci Am acknowledges while still laying on the heavy guilt:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Goes to Washington

Weekly News Roundup: Hawking Drugs on the Radio

By Melissa Lafsky | November 21, 2008 1:39 pm

• Just when you thought it was safe to put the abortion debate to rest: Bush tries to sneak in additional “protections” for hospital employees who don’t wish to perform the procedure.

• Practicing physicians aren’t the only ones on the take from drug companies; now it’s radio hosts as well.

• A new survey finds bad news for China’s soil—and its food supply.

• All that technology love can work both ways: Verizon employees are caught peeking at Obama’s private cell phone records.

• Could HIV prevention come in the form of a pill?

• And are “climate-smart chickens” worthy of their name?

• And finally, one of the best, and most honest, run-downs of what’s really happening with women in science.


Is Bobby Kennedy Really the "Anti-Science" Choice for EPA Head?

By Melissa Lafsky | November 20, 2008 4:51 pm

Now that the worldwide euphoria over Obama’s victory is abating, it’s time to look at some dismal facts: The air is still thick with pollution, the globe is still warming, and the science community is in a frenzy over who the president-elect will choose to head up the battered, broken EPA.

The short and distinguished list of candidates includes include former Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection head Kathleen McGinty; California Air Resources Board chairwoman Mary Nichols; Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection head Ian Bowles; Kansas governor Kathleen Sibelius; New Jersey environmental commissioner Lisa Jackson; and, finally, environmental lawyer, activist, and prolific blogger Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

While all are talented and have the potential to breathe life into the foundering agency, the one receiving the biggest pounding is Kennedy. Across the Internet, science writers have lambasted the longtime environmentalist for his alleged “anti-science” views—in particular, his public criticism of vaccines.

There’s no question that Kennedy has been vocal in his campaign against the CDC, particularly regarding its stance on Thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative. In 2005, he published a controversial piece in Salon charging that the government had concealed data showing that Thimerosal-containing vaccines were harmful. Critics excoriated the article, and Kennedy has since been labeled a traitor to science and affixed with the anti-vaxer label.

Still, the reality isn’t quite so simple. While Kennedy has indeed pointed accusatory fingers at certain vaccine practices—and has fallen victim to the “hand-picked studies” effect on at least one occasion—the charges that he’s a full-on anti-vaxer are incorrect and arguably irrelevant.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Climate Change, Energy, Health Care

Another Facet of the Health Care Crisis: Miserable Doctors

By Melissa Lafsky | November 19, 2008 4:26 pm

Not only are doctors becoming increasingly, frighteningly scarce, but they’re also hating life. A recent survey of 11,950 primary care docs and specialists done by the Physicians’ Foundation found that 60 percent would not recommend medicine as a career, while 42 percent said professional morale is either “poor” or “very low.”

The reasons for all this depression can be boiled down to insurance companies and policy headaches:

“The reported reasons for the widespread frustration among physicians include increased time dealing with non-clinical paperwork, difficulty receiving reimbursement and burdensome government regulations. Physicians say these issues keep them from the most satisfying aspect of their job: patient relationships.”

Food for thought, Obama? As for all those Medicare cut proposals being thrown around, 82 percent said their practices would be “unsustainable” if pay cuts were made. A whopping 94 percent reported that the time they spend on non-clinical paperwork has gone up in the past three years, with 63 percent saying the paperwork leads to less time spent on each patient.

And of course, there’s the shortage, which is already alive and well: 78 percent of the physicians surveyed believe there’s an existing dearth of primary care doctors, while 49 percent say they plan to reduce the number of patients they see, or even stop practicing over the next three years. Yikes.

RB: Get Thee to Medical School!

MORE ABOUT: doctors, economy, happiness

Karl Giberson Wants God and Science to Just Get Along

By Melissa Lafsky | November 19, 2008 3:11 pm

Karl Giberson, physics professor, author, and P.Z. Myers nemesis, thinks—perhaps rightfully—that there’s no reason you can’t have it all: knowledge and understanding of evolution, belief in God, and adherence to Christianity. Planting his feet in such a roiling middle ground puts him in a unique position that warrants discussion. Enter the Templeton Foundation, self-appointed adjudicator of the God-science debate. In Monday night’s event at the Harvard Club in New York, the organization brought Giberson together with resident agnostic Michael Shermer, an author and the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine.

In a rather tepid exchange (though after Hitchens, a fistfight would seem tame), the two men danced around what’s wrong with creationism, why religion may be more than a result of evolutionary psychology, and whether there’s a “reason” to believe in God.

Shermer got things rolling with a question about why evolution and Christianity—which, he said, is “about God’s relationship to Christ”—are so consistently combined in American culture. “The U.S. has always been very religious and very entrepreneurial,” Giberson responded. “And assaulting religion turned out to be successful entrepreneurially.” True enough, though a fundamentally weak point when you consider that promoting religion has been just as—if not more—profitable.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Science & Religion
MORE ABOUT: atheism, god, science

New U.K. Science Minister Cites "Future-Telling Power" Among His Qualifications

By Melissa Lafsky | November 18, 2008 3:45 pm

The British government recently appointed a new minister of science, and he’s quite a character. Aside from being a millionaire with a PhD in robotics who left his position in the Ministry of Defense (a body that has been known to house interesting sorts) to race sports cars, Lord Paul Drayson of Kensington is also, he says, a wee bit psychic. In a recent interview with the U.K. Times, he professed to have “an uncanny ability ‘like a sixth sense’ to know and predict some events instinctively.”

Drayson returned to the government last month, when he was given a cabinet seat and made the Minister of State for the newly-created Committee for Science and Innovation. While his background has long combined science and business—he was the co-founder of PowderJect Pharmaceuticals, one of the country’s biggest suppliers of vaccines and other drugs—it hasn’t been without scandal. In 2002, when Drayson was still running the company, it recalled its supply of a tuberculosis vaccine after it failed to meet “end of shelf life” specifications. The recall came amid whispers that the company had secured large vaccine contracts with the government because Drayson was a generous donor to the party in power.

In the interview this week, Drayson clarifies that he’s not claiming “extra-sensory” or paranormal powers; rather, his future-seeing talents are more the “hyper-instinctual” variety, circa Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, a book Drayson admires:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science & Religion
MORE ABOUT: Britain, mild delusions

Coming Soon: The President's Weekly YouTube Address

By Melissa Lafsky | November 17, 2008 6:33 pm

How does President-Elect Obama love technology? Let us count the ways. Among the features the incoming administration is adding to its much-anticipated technology ramp-up is a video version of the weekly Democratic address. From now on, the president-elect will record the address on video, then his staff will upload it to none other than YouTube, as well as Obama’s Web site (for the first video, go here).

And fear not, technophiles—there’s more. From the Washington Post:

In addition to regularly videotaping the radio address, officials at the transition office say the Obama White House will also conduct online Q&As and video interviews. The goal, officials say, is to put a face on government. In the following weeks, for example, senior members of the transition team, various policy experts and choices for the Cabinet, among others, will record videos for

Of course, not all of this techno-political bonanza is 100 percent original: The current administration’s Web site “offers RSS feeds, podcasts and videos of press briefings,” while the “site’s Ask the White House page has featured regular online chats dating back to 2003.” Granted, it’s pretty safe to assume online video clips of Bush didn’t garner quite the same enthusiasm.

RB: Obama Blogs? President-Elect Launches Web Site, Embraces Internet
RB: Politicians v. Technology: Obama, McCain Battle the Internet
RB: Obama Changes His View (Or, at Least, His Web Site) On Technology

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