I’ve written before about the most lovable molecule on the planet, oxytocin, and how it isn’t the warm and fuzzy chemical it’s purported to be. Though you’ll often hear it referred to as the ‘love hormone’ or the ‘trust molecule’, oxytocin has a wide variety of effects in our bodies. For the most part, though, scientists (and especially the media) have focused on how it affects our behavior—how sniffing oxytocin changes how so-and-so group of people act when doing such-and-such. But this month, scientists from University of California Berkley reported on a completely different effect of oxytocin—one that has nothing to do with love, trust, or how we behave—and it’s one that might just make the most overhyped molecule on the planet deserve a little bit of the love it gets.
Last week, BuzzFeed published an article titled “19 Reasons Not To Go To The Beach This Summer.” In reality, the article contained only one reason—and as they hinted, it “rhymes with shmarks.”
— Kyle Hill (@Sci_Phile) June 20, 2014
Not surprisingly, the article—which BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith claimed was meant as a “parody”—upset a lot of shark scientists, science communicators, and BuzzFeed readers. Yet BuzzFeed stuck to their guns, saying that clearly, those who find the article distasteful lack a sense of humor and simply don’t get the joke.
— Christie Wilcox (@NerdyChristie) June 19, 2014
— Katharine The Shark (@Shark_Katharine) June 21, 2014
We got it, BuzzFeed—we just didn’t think it was funny.
“Jokes” like this one (and the very real fear that BuzzFeed is “mocking”) are part of why so many shark species are declining or already threatened. The idea that sharks are dangerous, deadly, and otherwise unwelcome where we want to swim is devastatingly common. The pervasive, irrational fear of sharks isn’t something to make light of, particularly when such fear has real consequences for wildlife conservation. For example, the fear of shark attacks on beaches is what the Western Australian government used to justify implementing a massive shark cull that more than 100 shark scientists and 2/3 of Western Australians oppose. So far, the cull has cost over a million dollars and killed more non-target sharks than targeted ones, yet the government still plans to continue the cull for years to come.
Besides, if you’re going to make light of death at the beach, you should at least make it statistically valid. Maybe you should fear the beach—but not because of the Chondrichthyes beneath the waves. Sharks generally avoid people, and even when they don’t, the odds that you’ll be killed by a shark are unbelievably low. Since the 1500s, there have been less than 500 fatal shark attacks worldwide. Sharks kill less than five people every year globally and less than one person per year in the US. As the Dodo pointed out, there are far deadlier things to be afraid of.
Of the many reasons why beaches aren’t safe, sharks are the least of your worries. To show you what I mean, I present to you 19 beachy things that are more likely to kill you than sharks—in proper BuzzFeed form.
A. 20% of college women are sexually assaulted during their tenure at the university, and
B. 12% of rapes are reported to law enforcement
His overall message is that, clearly, women are lying about being assaulted to gain the “privilege” of victimhood, based on this mathematical argument:
The statistics are: One in five women is sexually assaulted while in college, and only 12 percent of assaults are reported. Simple arithmetic demonstrates that if the 12 percent reporting rate is correct, the 20 percent assault rate is preposterous. Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute notes, for example, that in the four years 2009 to 2012 there were 98 reported sexual assaults at Ohio State. That would be 12 percent of 817 total out of a female student population of approximately 28,000, for a sexual assault rate of approximately 2.9 percent — too high but nowhere near 20 percent.
Or, to put it into math equations:
98 reported assaults (at Ohio State) = 12% of the assaults that occurred
98 / 0.12 = 817 (total assaults)
817 / 28,000 = 0.029;
which means only 2.9% of the 28,000 female students at Ohio State have been assaulted.
Therefore, the 20% statistic is far too high, thus women must be lying about assault.
Here’s the thing: experimental design matters when it comes to statistics. There are several ways you can go wrong when interpreting statistics, any of which can be accounted for if you simply pay attention to the science that generated them—which George clearly didn’t. Read More
The more research is conducted on the effects of trawling, the harder it is to make a case for why it is allowed—anywhere, ever. It’s especially hard to argue for high seas bottom trawling, the kind that dredges up roughly twice the area of the United States every year and, since the United Nations couldn’t agree on terms, is currently unregulated. Now, a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences adds to the mounting evidence that our hunger for piscine protein is laying waste to parts of the planet we have never even seen, leading to lasting changes in the sea floor that prevent recovery.
Most of the discussion on climate change focuses on startling images of potential loss: the city of Miami underwater due to rising sea level or the lone polar bear on an ever-shrinking iceberg. But some of the greatest impacts of our continued inability to curb our carbon appetite are surprisingly small—little changes that may ultimately have big implications. It’s the butterfly effect—except, in this case, I literally am talking about butterflies. Read More
When you’re stung by a box jellyfish, you know it almost immediately. These somewhat squarish shaped cnidarians are armed to the bell with some of the most painful venom in the world. Long tentacles are packed with millions of stinging cells, called nematocysts, each with its own microscopic, needle-like harpoon-tipped tubule waiting to plunge into your flesh and inject the animal’s intense venom. The pain is not only debilitating, it can also be deadly. More than 60 deaths from box jelly stings have been reported in the last forty years.
Being stung is an awful experience. The best course of action is to remove any tentacles quickly to ensure that nematocysts that haven’t fired don’t get the chance to add their venom to the sting, and then treat for pain. Luckily enough, scientists discovered early on that vinegar (~5% acetic acid solution) irreversibly prevents nematocysts from firing, allowing people to rinse off tentacles without causing more trauma (which is also how the folk remedy of peeing on a sting originated, though vinegar is more effective and far less gross). For this reason, vinegar has been the go-to emergency response to box jelly stings for more than twenty years. It is currently the primary recommended treatment by the Australian Resuscitation Council, the American Heart Association and the American Red Cross.
“Now (we’re saying) don’t do what we’ve been telling you to do for the last 30 years,” Jamie Seymour, associate professor at James Cook University, told reporters at The Australian. Seymour’s sudden change of heart is the result of new research published by him with colleagues from the Cairns Hospital, including lead author Philippa Welfare. Other news sites have been quick to cover the story which originated in a press release from James Cook University, warning that “vinegar on jellyfish sting can be deadly” and that “Queensland researchers have discovered the cure can kill.”
Not so fast, guys.
Oxytocin has perhaps the best reputation of any molecule on the planet. In a culture of chemophobia where any compound is fair game for attack, oxytocin has been heralded as “The Source of Love and Prosperity“. If you listen to the tales, this “moral” molecule—the “trust hormone“—is the “most amazing molecule in the world,” and is your one-stop shop for love and happiness. All you have to do is give someone a hug, and your brain will be flooded with the magic stuff.
But as many (most notably Ed Yong) have pointed out, oxytocin isn’t the sweet compound we’re told it is. Sure, it has been associated with generosity, desire, and trust, but oxytocin has a dark side, too. It can increase envy and gloating, promote cliques, and even decrease cooperation. Now, a new study published today in PNAS adds to the molecule’s moral ambiguity: huffing oxytocin can lead to dishonest behavior if that behavior is seen as being for “the greater good”. Read More
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill. At the time, it was the biggest oil spill in US history. As far as the cleanup is concerned, the Exxon spill is far from over. But Exxon isn’t the spill that weighs on American minds. I wrote the following post in June of 2010, when an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil platform stole the title of the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. 21 years after Exxon, and BP proved that oil spills are still a big problem—four years after Deepwater Horizon, has anything really changed?
Oil supplies the United States with approximately 40% of its energy needs. Billions upon billions of gallons are pumped out of our wells, brought in from other countries, and shipped around to refineries all over the states. 1.3 million gallons of petroleum are spilled into U.S. waters from vessels and pipelines in a typical year. Yes, it would be great if we never spilled a drop of oil. No matter how hard we may try, though, the fact is that nobody is perfect, and oil spills are an inevitable consequence of our widespread use of oil. The question is, once the oil is out there, how do we clean it up?
Nowehere is this issue more glaring than in the Gulf of Mexico right now, where 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil are spewing out of the remains of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig every day. The spill has enraged an entire nation. But perhaps my grandfather put it best, when I asked him what he thought about how BP and the US is responding to the spill.
“They’re friggin’ idiots.” Read More