Tagged: Science

The Washington Post embarrasses itself

I just dashed off an angry letter to the Post about their recent article, UFOs exist and everyone needs to adjust to that fact. I reproduce my text below.

The above article is apparently a fairly subtle joke that has taken in the Post’s editorial team. Surely you wouldn’t post something so afactual and nonsensical without a disclaimer in a serious “Perspective” demi-editorial? Surely you should at least have had an article by a person competent in some sort of science? I find it hard to believe you were taken in.

On the off-chance you took that … set of words … seriously (I’m eliding my more strident description), may I suggest you consult Professor Massimo Pigliucci (CUNY), or Professor Steven Novella (Yale Med), or someone from the CSI (Center for Skeptical Inquiry)? Massimo in particular as a philosopher and scientist could point out both the factual incorrectness of some of the assertions, and the logical fallacy blatantly present in the phrase, “… but even those skeptics could not completely rule out the possibility that extraterrestrial activity was involved.”

I await your retraction.

Carl Fink

The article is a hot mess of nonsense. I’m embarrassed for every newspaper editor, just because their colleagues published this waste of photons.

(Image courtesy Wikipedia user D J Shin)

Non-GMO means “evil”


Today I sent the following to two manufacturers of almond milk.

I like one of your products. Because of a misleading, unnecessary label on the package I’m reluctant to buy it.

To be specific, I like your almond milk (specifically the unsweetened and unflavored variety). It’s nutritious, low in calories, supplies lots of calcium which I happen to need from time to time, and tastes just fine.

But you had to stick that “Non GMO” logo on the package.

It isn’t exactly false, it’s just morally wrong. No almonds currently on the market are genetically modified, and no water is GMO. Those are the ingredients of unsweetened almond milk. The label is misleading because it falsely implies that your competitors do use GMO almonds.

It’s also morally wrong because NOT using GMO almonds, if they did exist, would be unethical. GMO crops use less land and less fertilizer and less pesticide to produce the same amount of food. This is not only profitable for the farmer, it means that we can feed everyone using less land, which allows more land to be wild, or used for solar or wind production. By being non-GMO you would be harming everyone.

It may be worth pointing out that there are NO KNOWN UNDESIRABLE EFFECTS from the consumption of GMO foods. In many hundreds of scientific papers, no real evidence of any harms has ever been detected. You’re also falsely implying that GMOs are bad. They simply are not.

So your label boils down to two misleading implied claims, to justify doing something that causes harm to everyone.

I strongly urge you to remove that undesirable label from your products. Until you do … well, as I said I’m reluctant to buy products that advertise that they are unethical.

Carl Fink

Pardon the ALL CAPS for emphasis, I was using web contact forms that have no boldface.

So anyone know of a non-non-GMO brand of almond milk. It also has to be non-organic. (“Organic” means “farmed inefficiently for no good reason.”) Thanks.

(Image created by De Cora, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.)

No GMO = Me Not A Customer

Letter written to Freedom Foods, reproduced below:


Just thought I’d mention: I ran into your products in a store. Nutritionally they were exactly what I was looking for, except.

Except they contain no genetically-modified organisms. This is exactly saying “These products destroy the environment.” Non-GMO crops offer no nutritional or health advantage, but need more cropland to grow the same amount. By excluding GMO crops you are quite literally helping to destroy the wild and uncultivated lands, while forcing the use of more pesticides and fertilizers.

So I can’t, in good conscience, buy your products.

Please do the right thing and use GMO crops.

Thank you.


Note to other food sellers: this is a policy. I can’t help you destroy the world by promoting pointlessly inefficient agriculture.

Cloned crayfish swarm conquers Europe

… and moves on to the rest of the world!

OK, this is seriously weirder than the mad science plot. Science Magazine reports that a hybridization event among slough crayfish (native to North America) resulted in a triploid strain appearing, all female and reproducing by self-cloning.

Triploid! You all have two copies of every gene, one inherited from your mother and one from your father. There are exceptions, e.g. people with Down syndrome have three copies of all or part of one chromosome. The marbled crayfish is the super-powered version: it has three copies of its entire genome, two near-identical copies (presumably from one ancestral clone-parent) and one of another proto-parental genome.

It’s the only known decapod crustacean to reproduce asexually. It does it fast, it’s displacing other organisms all over the place.

It may not be obvious to a non-biologist how deeply weird this is. Polyploidy (having more than two copies of each gene) is common in higher plants, but it’s very, very rare in animals, and this speciation event happened in the 1980s, so very recently.

The Science article is very readable, and if you’re interested I recommend it.

(Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons user Selso)

Gluten sensitivity: is it a thing?

First off, there is most certainly a real medical condition called celiac disease. It involves a measurable immune reaction to foods that contain gluten. Gluten is a protein-starch complex (but often described in non-technical and medical writing as just protein) found in some grass seeds, such as wheat, rye, and barley, but not others like rice and corn. It is not found in any foods other than those made from these specific grains.

Celiac is apparently found in about 1% of the population.

Some medical authorities and lay people also assert the existence of “Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity” (NGCS). As you might expect, this describes people who are sensitive to gluten in some way, but not through the (partially) known mechanism of celiac disease. To quote a BBC article by “Doctor Chris” van Tulleken, “Although many people who do not have coeliac disease claim to suffer gut symptoms like bloating and nausea when they eat gluten – and even other things like “brain fog” and tiredness – these have not been linked to any physiological changes that can be measured and hence used to make a clinical description and diagnosis.”

Someone with my background wonders if a claimed syndrome that has such a wide variety of symptoms which correlate to nothing measurable might be a result of pareidolia, the tendency of the human brain to find patterns in noisy data, even when no such pattern is real. Examples of what I have just named “pareidolic diseases” include Morgellon’s Syndrome, chronic Lyme disease, and Candidiasis/Yeast Allergy. They share having relatively common, non-specific symptoms (e. g. fatigue, stomach upset) and not being detectable by any lab tests, even when (as with Lyme disease) there is a well-known, effective test available.

Dr. van Tulleken’s “Trust Me, I’m a Doctor” team conducted a study to test the reality of NCGS. The found 60 people, some of whom claimed to experience NGCS, and put them on a gluten-free diet including (experimenter-supplied) gluten-free pasta, but for two weeks (randomly selected?) of the study period, each was given pasta containing gluten instead. The team then analyzed the subjects’ reported symptoms, and also performed lab tests to show inflammation and IgE (antibody) levels. The study was double-blinded, in that neither researchers nor subjects knew in which two week period the subjects were eating gluten until after the study concluded. The subjects acted as their own controls by experiencing both with- and without-gluten diets.

The results: subjects did in fact report feeling fewer gut-related symptoms like bloating during the gluten-free weeks. Variation in other symptoms (e.g. tiredness) was not statistically significant. There was also no significant correlation between gluten-free diet and the lab values being measured.

Dr. van Tulleken does state in the linked BBC article that it’s likely at least some subjects knew which weeks they were eating gluten-containing pasta. And as he concedes, this can easily explain the slight variation in the digestive symptoms.

A weakness he apparently did not realize in his analysis: the two pastas are very clearly made with different recipes. It’s perfectly possible that the gluten-containing pasta that was used has some other difference from the gluten-free one that explains the gut symptomology, perhaps an herb or a preservative that some people are really slightly sensitive to. It’s  possible that the gluten-containing pasta just has less fiber (for one possible example), and that the additional fiber in the gluten-free food aided the subjects’ digestion. Dr. van Tulleken doesn’t provide the recipes/brands for the two foods, making it hard to speculate beyond that guess.

Also, the subjects were eating food they selected and purchased themselves, aside from the pasta. Since as far as one can tell from the BBC article they weren’t asked to record their consumption, it wouldn’t be difficult for this dietary variation to randomly cause one group to score higher on some symptoms.

I’m surprised that Dr. van Tulleken did not report whether the self-diagnosed NGCS sufferers showed greater incidence of gut symptoms than the non-diagnosed. If NGCS is real (and not universal in the population) then a difference between NGCS patients and the rest of the subjects would certainly exist.

It is not stated in the article, but I suspect Dr. van Tulleken’s group does not plan to publish these results in a peer-reviewed journal, which seems to me to be disappointing. I’d love to read in more detail about the protocol and results.

As published, the results seem completely compatible with NGCS being a pareidolic disease. They are also consistent with NGCS being a real syndrome, but with only a small effect (at least in the experimental circumstances). Note that with its weak protocol and small sample size (n=60) it isn’t strong evidence for anything.

I suggest that Dr. van Tulleken’s group or someone else repeat the experiment but with the subjects eating identical diets (entirely supplied by the experimenters, ideally, not just gluten-free with the subjects buying their own food). However, each subject would be required to swallow 10 identical capsules per day. For the “control” period the capsules would contain a non-gluten protein. For the “experimental” period, the capsules would contain gluten proteins. That would make it impossible for the subjects to detect which weeks include gluten from the flavor/texture of their food, and also eliminate the possible effect of other ingredients in the two different pasta recipes.