Category: Reality Checks

Reality Check: Science in the Courtroom

By Melissa Lafsky | June 18, 2008 3:10 pm

courtroomForensic Science
DNA evidence, fingerprint analysis, toxicology, and other “hard evidence” sources have gotten so popular—and so advanced—that juries (and lawyers) are bending to the so-called “CSI Effect“—despite the longterm frequency of sample contamination and lab errors.

Not that we’re putting down forensic evidence—for all its faults, it has worked courtroom miracles across the globe.

After taking full advantage of the post-Patriot Act world, the FBI may finally be getting a legal—and Congressional—smackdown for its cavalier attitude towards people’s desire not to be spied on.

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Reality Check: Health Care

By Melissa Lafsky | June 18, 2008 11:43 am

Highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) has changed the face of HIV, limiting new infections and allowing the infected to live a somewhat “normal” life. But while the spread is slowing, AIDS deaths are far from over, both at home and abroad. Sub-Saharan Africa, not to mention China, Russia, and Indonesia, continue to see higher infection rates, and treatment is only reaching about 30 percent of those who need it. And, of course, there’s the matter of the two “separate” epidemics, and the taboos that come with acknowledging—and treating—them.

The Pharmaceutical Industry
As the race for new drugs grows ever tighter, Big Pharma companies have begun outsourcing R&D to China and India, while creeping ever closer to the “scientific research/private interests” divide. Meanwhile, activist groups are calling for greater social responsibility in the industry—and the the American Medical Students Association is calling for more policies on financial conflicts of interest—with good reason.

The Doctor Shortage
Conflicts of interest or no, we’re in for a serious shortage of doctors in the near future—bad news as the baby boomers hit their golden years. As for the doctors currently practicing, many of them are pretty unhappy.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health Care, Reality Checks

Reality Check: Science & Religion

By Melissa Lafsky | June 18, 2008 11:05 am

The intelligent design/creationism battle continues, with outspoken scientists tackling their opponents head-on. Influentials in the Catholic Church, meanwhile, have been discussing whether evolution was governed by randomness or God’s intention.

But the people—the American ones, at least—are still fond of their God-created species. Then again, maybe people’s stance on evolution depends on the way you ask the questions.

Science Finds God
Lest ye think that science and religion can never co-exist, some evolution-supporting scientists are totally into God. Others have even gone so far as to use one (science) to figure out the other (religion).

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Reality Check: Climate Change

By Melissa Lafsky | June 17, 2008 3:56 pm

climateGlobal Warming
First question: Is it real? Yes, it is. While the deniers have been going strong for years, leading to forehead-slapping patterns of government inaction, it looks like even anti-global warming proponents may finally be coming around. And not a moment too soon, given that those glaciers are still melting, the oceans are still rising, and the land is still warming.

Next question: What are we going to do about it? Thus far, Europe has been looking to the cap-and-trade system, which hasn’t been without its bumps. Despite the troubles it’s had in the U.S. so far, chances are it’ll be adopted here at some point after November.

There’s also the idea of sequestering all that carbon, an option that states like New York—as well as the Big Oil companies—have embraced.

Plus there’s no forgetting methane, the greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Efforts to dampen the most egregious methane emitters have focused on its biggest source: livestock burps. Luckily, there’s research in the works to, er, rectify the problem.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Climate Change, Reality Checks

Reality Check: Food and Obesity

By Melissa Lafsky | June 13, 2008 4:20 pm

The good news: Child obesity rates in the U.S. have finally stopped rising. The bad news: Even if the rates have stabilized for good, experts say levels are already so high that the epidemic will continue for decades. More bad news: Obesity increases the risk of everything from stillbirth to heart disease. And more bad news: Rimonabant, once hailed as an anti-obesity wonder drug, has now been associated with multiple deaths in the U.K. Still, on the upside, all those cases of bariatric surgery may be curing diabetes.

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Reality Check: Science in Wartime

By Melissa Lafsky | June 10, 2008 12:41 pm

The threat of terrorism is a fixture in the public consciousness, and scientists are doing everything from scouring the Internet to concocting vaccines to come up with ways of thwarting the next attack. Still, all the attention—and funding—given to preventing bioterrorism or dirty bombs may be based on assumptions that are at best overblown, and at worst flat out inane.

Nuclear Weapons
The number of nukes in the world—as well as the number of countries that have them—isn’t dropping any time soon, leaving scientists worried about the environmental fallout should one or more of them ever be used.

Military Technology
Can robots commit war crimes? It’s worth discussing, as robotic weapons technology continues to reach new levels of sophistication. Meanwhile, weapons advancements are emerging from labs as fast as scientists can generate them—with inspiration sometimes coming from the unlikeliest of places. Innovation hasn’t been restricted to deadly weapons—the non-lethal side has seen development of ideas from heat beams to laser guns to taser shotguns.

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Reality Check: Science and the Election

By Melissa Lafsky | June 9, 2008 2:14 pm

At last, the presidential race is narrowed to two. But before the field was narrowed, three of the Republican presidential candidates openly stated that they didn’t believe in evolution, while the GOP nominee has supported teaching intelligent design in schools—which may be a foregone conclusion, given that between 12 and 16 percent of high school biology teachers currently consider themselves creationists.

Stem Cell Research
The current President’s position on funding for stem cell research hasn’t exactly been friendly. But hope glints on the horizon: Obama has vowed to overturn Bush’s restrictions, and even McCain has announced he will support federal funding—though with strings attached.

Iowa’s role in the presidential caucuses gave ethanol a boost, and McCain has stated that he “see[s] a bright future for ethanol”—though he’s admittedly “wary” of government subsidies for the fuel, and his support has appeared to wane in the wake of rising food prices. Obama, meanwhile, has pledged to boost the renewable fuel standard to at least 60 billion gallons by 2030 and require that all new vehicles be “flexfuel” by 2012.

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Reality Check: Energy

By Melissa Lafsky | June 9, 2008 11:13 am

EnergyFossil Fuels
Despite all the furor over alternative energy sources, fossil fuels continue to power our lives. Yes, oil is starting to dwindle in supply, but we could always drill for the stuff in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge … and save ourselves a buck per barrel 20 years from now. And global reserves of coal—recently thought to be enough to last for centuries at current levels of production—might actually be significantly lower: “peak coal” could apparently sneak up on us pretty fast.

Luckily, scientists have been hard at work searching for ways to mitigate the global warming impact of fossil fuels, such as carbon dioxide storing technology at coal plants—though you may not want to hold your breath for the “clean coal” movement.

Instead of using petroleum, which is imported, pollution-causing, and slowly disappearing, why not simply power your car with plants of all shapes and sizes? But when something sounds too good to be true, it often is, and our favorite new fuel alternative may wind up being a damaging and waste-producing dud—and one that’s winning us no friends in the international arena.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Energy, Reality Checks

Reality Check: Biotech

By Melissa Lafsky | June 2, 2008 11:40 am

biotechStem Cells
The last three decades have been quite a ride in the world of stem cells. Since they were first isolated in mice in 1981, they’ve rocked the global scientific community with their potential healing abilities—and also sparked massive political and religious debate.

Scientists have been getting results with microRNAs, which have been used to successfully differentiate stem cells, and have even managed to re-start dead animal hearts using cell transplantation. Meanwhile, for women, the stem cells in your menstrual blood may come in handy for your health down the road—though exactly how handy remains to be seen.

And while the longterm political and religious furor over stem cells continues to rage on, the ongoing development of embryonic stem cell-like cells raise scientists’ hopes for miracle cures that would make even the Pope happy.

Bioengineered Meat
Meat is in trouble. Between inhumane farming practices, an increase in livestock-borne diseases, and the problems inherent in generating enough beef, pork, and chicken to feed an ever-growing population, a carnivorous future isn’t looking rosy. So leave it to scientists to begin developing lab-grown meat, created from cells of living animals. The “lab meat movement” has made “glacial progress” in the past few years, to the point where PETA has offered a $1 million prize to the first scientist/s who can “produce commercially viable quantities” of it by 2012. After that, all that’s left is finding a way to rid consumers of the “ick factor.”

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biotech, Reality Checks, Stem Cells
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