From the Greek meaning 'heavy with wine'
A blog devoted to science and reason
Written after a glass or two of Pinot Noir.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Are You Smarter Than an 8th Grader?

You have probably already seen this test; it's been all over ABC News, FaceBook and has been emailed back and forth. It comes courtesy of the Bullitt County History Museum.

On the museum site with the test's answers, the curators warned that
obviously it tested some things that were more relevant at that time than now, and it should not be used to compare student knowledge then and now.

However, it's quite clear not everyone has read this advice. Here are some comments from the Huffington Post:
  • For all the arm chair critics, what this shows is how far our expectations have fell.
  • What this test shows is how low our expectations are for what children ought to know today.
  • You feel threatened by this test because it shows how lacking our education system is.
  • They valued education much more than people do today.
  • This test reflects a decided dumbing down of the US population to my mind.
By the way, can anyone find the grammatical error in the first comment?

[Scroll down.]

To these critics, I say
Here's one thing that California 8th graders are expected to do in math.
Students use linear equations and systems of linear equations to represent, analyze, and solve a variety of problems. Students recognize equations for proportions (y/x = m or y = mx) as special linear equations (y = mx + b), understanding that the constant of proportionality (m) is the slope, and the graphs are lines through the origin. They understand that the slope (m) of a line is a constant rate of change, so that if the input or x-coordinate changes by an amount A, the output or y-coordinate changes by the amount m ⋅ A. Students also use a linear equation to describe the association between two quantities in bivariate data (such as arm span vs. height for students in a classroom). At this grade, fitting the model, and assessing its fit to the data are done informally. Interpreting the model in the context of the data requires students to express a relationship between the two quantities in question and to interpret components of the relationship (such as slope and y-intercept) in terms of the situation.
From the reading standards for information:
Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including analogies or allusions to other texts. 
From the writing standards:
Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.
From the speaking and listening standards:
Delineate a speaker’s argument and specific claims, evaluating the soundness of the reasoning and relevance and sufficiency of the evidence and identifying when irrelevant evidence is introduced.
From the language standards:
Use knowledge of language and its conventions when writing, speaking, reading, or listening.a. Use verbs in the active and passive voice and in the conditional and subjunctive mood to achieve particular effects (e.g., emphasizing the actor or the action; expressing uncertainty or describing a state contrary to fact).
I could go on with the literacy standards for history, social studies, science, and technical subjects, but I won't. I'll get to my point.

People often confuse knowledge with intelligence. Knowing what the name of the climate zones is still important, especially today with the rate the climate is changing, but knowing those zones is useless out of context; that is, unless you're appearing on Jeopardy or playing a bar trivia game.

Smart people know a lot of stuff, but smart people know what do do with that information.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Kirk Hastings' Pants Are on Fire

CREDIT: PhotoBucket

We last saw Kirk Hastings when he wrongly accredited some creationist mumbo-jumbo to a respected science journalist. He has yet to correct the FaceBook page Freedom From Atheistic Scientism. Isn't there a word when a person makes a claim he knows to be false?

This is not the only time Kirk has distorted the truth, but first let me insert here my thanks to Question Kirk Hastings, a FaceBook page dedicated to documenting Kirk. 

Here is Kirk quoting Colin Patterson, a paleontologist affiliated with the British Museum and a Fellow of the Royal Society.
Out of context that statement might seem to express doubt in modern biological theories. However, when one reads that statement in context, it takes on a whole new meaning.
Gillespie's book [Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation]is a historian's attempt to explain the amount of space that Darwin gave to combating the creationist arguments. Gillespie shows that what Darwin was doing was trying to replace the creationist paradigm by a positivist paradigm, a view of the world in which there was neither room nor necessity for final causes. Of course, Gillespie takes it for granted that Darwin and his disciples succeeded in this task. He takes it for granted that a rationalist view of nature has replaced an irrational one and of course, I myself took that view about eighteen months ago. Then I woke up and realized that all my life I had been duped into taking evolutionism as revealed truth in some way. 
Furthermore, Patterson gave the "fairly rumbustious talk" that this statement came from at an informal meeting dealing with systematics (classification).  In a letter, Patterson wrote "my talk was addressed to professional systematists, and concerned systematics, nothing else."

One more example of taking something out of context. Here Kirk repeats a statement from a radio and YouTube commentator.
What did Stephen J. Gould really write? 
The fossil record with its abrupt transitions offers no support for gradual change. All paleontologists know that the fossil record contains precious little in the way of intermediate forms; transitions between major groups are characteristically abrupt.
 How does Gould feel about being quoted in such a dishonest manner?
Since we proposed punctuated equilibria to explain trends, it is infuriating to be quoted again and again by creationists -- whether through design or stupidity, I do not know -- as admitting that the fossil record includes no transitional forms. The punctuations occur at the level of species; directional trends (on the staircase model) are rife at the higher level of transitions within major groups.
I find it funny that this example is used on Wikipedia as an example of quoting out of context.

What does Kirk have to say for himself. On a different FaceBook page he administers, The Question Irreligiosophy Project, he writes
Creationists can make mistakes like anyone else, and I haven't seen that they generally have any problem correcting them when necessary (after all, they believe the Bible when it says "You shall not lie"). 

Lest I be accused of lying, here is the screen shot.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Is a Pesticide a Dietary Supplement?

Those dietary supplements you take have all been shown to do what they claim, right? Plus, they've been shown to be safe to consume, right? No one would market what they know or suspect might be harmful, right?

No, no, and no.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has regulatory power over drugs, and drugs are "intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease" and include "articles (other than food) intended to affect the structure or function of the body." 

The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) essentially forbids  the FDA from acting against manufacturers of dietary supplements. Senators Tom Harkin (Iowa) and Orrin Hatch (Utah) were the primary sponsors of the DSHEA.

Supplement makers use the following disclaimer:
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
I put this text in the smallest font possible, because that's often how one finds it. Here it is in a more readable font size.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
One supplement provider, Matt Cahill, is going to jail for the death of 17 year old Leta Hole. Sorry, that's incorrect.  He pled guilty for mail fraud and "introducing a misbranded drug into commerce." He spent two years in federal prison. 

Chemical Structure of DNP
The drug he misbranded was 2,4 Dinitrophenol or DNP.  It is used in the production of pesticides and explosives. It was used as a dieting aid in the 1930s, because it increases metabolic rates, but DNP was quickly recognized for its toxicity.

Just months before beginning his prison term, Cahill started a new company and began selling a steroid he marketed as Superdrol. Superdrol contained a steroid Cahill found in a book. Cahill said that Superdrol was safe and felt qualified to make that determination.

What qualifications does he have?  "I had a scientific background in school, I just don't have a degree." He says he was enrolled for a time in an exercise physiology program at Nassau Community College, but can't remember taking any chemistry classes. The sales of Superdrol provided a tidy income while he was in jail. He later sold Superdrol to another supplier, and Jareem Gunter was banned from NCAA competition and needed a new liver.

Cahill is now facing charges of "introduction and delivery of unapproved drugs into interstate commerce" for Rebound XT.

Never letting federal charges get in his way, Cahill has "tons of great formulas," and has introduced Craze. Craze was listed by bodybuilder.com as New Supplement of the Year in 2012 and a nominee of 2013 Pre-Workout Supplement of the Year, but Craze is currently unavailable from the website's store.

What does Craze have in it? A traditional Chinese medicine called dendrobrium, a type of orchid; however, authorities are questioning whether the ingredients are as natural as claimed. Swedish scientists tested Craze and found substances that are chemically related to amphetamine. 

Meanwhile, the money continues to roll in.

NOTE: The primary source of this post if the USA Today investigation into Matt Cahill

For more information on the shame that is the DSHEA, see Quack Watch and Science-Based Medicine.

Thursday, August 8, 2013


This past month there have been numerous stories about how all the gold in the universe was created.  Just google "gold neutron star", and you'll see what I mean. So being me, I wanted to read the original research: An R-Process Kilonova Associated with the Short-Hard GRB 130603B, E. Berger, W. Fong, and R. Chornock of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. (1)

I first gave it a cursory read. I couldn't find a mention of the creation of gold anywhere, so I took advantage of technology and used the Find command in my browser. Nothing there, but then I realized why. Someone at Harvard must have written a press release, and in order to get the media interested in the research - which is legitimately important - they  made it sexy and what is sexier than gold.

So I sat down to read the kilonova paper carefully. I didn't have to read far before I read the phrase r-process and Justin Huang's graduate level nuclear physics class came to mind. [Although r-process is in the title, my mind didn't click in until later.]

First some background for those of you not nuclear or astrophysicists. After a microsecond, protons and neutrons formed and couple of minutes or so later, the universe had cooled enough for primordial deuterium, and helium nuclei to form.  Many years later, 379,000 actually, electrons combined with these nuclei to form atoms. It wasn't until a hundred or so million years that stars began to shine.
CREDIT: Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA 304)
of NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO)

Fred Hoyle and his colleagues in a classic paper (2) showed how the elements other than hydrogen and the primordial helium were created. I won't go into a long explanation of stellar evolution, but the elements up to iron were created by nuclear fusion. The Sun is fusing two hydrogen nuclei into a helium nucleus and this process releases a lot of energy (we call it sunshine). I'm oversimplifying here, but when the hydrogen in our Sun is depleted in about 5 billion years, it will start to fuse helium. When the helium is gone, our star will be a very hot ball of carbon and oxygen. The Sun will be a white dwarf - basically a very large and very hot diamond in the sky. 

Stars more massive than the Sun will keep fusing and shining up to the point where iron is formed. The process stops there because to fuse iron and elements heavier than it requires an input of energy.

If you now look at a periodic table, you should wonder where did all the other elements like gold come from. There are two processes that are responsible for these heavy elements: the r (rapid) and s (slow) processes. The s-process cannot create elements heavier than lead and this method occurs in old giant stars. 
The Periodic Table of the Elements with hydrogen, helium, iron, and gold highlighted.
Hoyle et al. suggested that the r-process occurred in type II supernovae. This sort of supernova comes about when the thermal motion of the nuclei is not enough to counteract the effect of the star's self-gravity. The core of the star collapses and the outer layers are violently ejected. Depending on the initial mass of the star, the result of the core collapse is either a neutron star or a black hole.

The problem with this hypothesis is that given the abundance of the elements either most supernovae did not expel much matter or that supernovae ejects only a small amount of the material. Given the intensity of a type II supernova, either possibility seems unlikely.
The Crab Nebula, the aftermath of a supernova.
One possibility was the collision of neutron stars (3), and here we're back to the kilonova paper. Berger and his co-workers present evidence of "the presence of excess near-IR emission matching the expected brightness and color of an r-process powered transient (a kilonova)" and the inferred mass ejected during the collision "matches the expectations from numerical [neutron star] merger simulations."

My head exploding.
CREDIT: Gil Thorpe
Look at that ring on your finger or the chain around your neck. Then imagine two neutron stars colliding. 

(1) An R-Process Kilonova Associated with the Short-Hard GRB 130603B, E. Berger, W. Fong, and R. Chornock, http://arxiv.org/abs/1306.3960v2.
(2) Synthesis of the Elements in Stars, E.M. Burbridge, G.R. Burbidge, W.A. Fowler, and F. Hoyle, Reviews of Modern Physics, Vol. 29, No. 4, pp. 547 - 650 (1957).
(3) R-Process in Neutron Star Mergers, C. Freiburghaus, S. Rosswog, and F.K. Thielemann, The Astrophysical Journal, Vol. 525, No. 2, pp. L121-L124 (1999)

The United States Bullion Depository, Fort Knox, KY, shown here in a scene from the James Bond movie Goldfinger.
CREDIT: United Artists/Eon Productions

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Bearing False Witness

So when I ran across this post on the FaceBook page, Freedom From Atheistic Scientism. I was intrigued, because the man behind this page, Kirk Hastings, cited an article in the journal Science. If you're not familiar with Science, it and Nature are arguably the two foremost journals in science.

I was at home and didn't want to run to the college library, so I used our online library resources to download a copy of "The Solar System's New Diversity." (R.A. Kerr, Science, vol. 265, 1994, p.1360-1362)
CREDIT: Science

I must have spent an half of an hour trying to find anything that resembled the alleged statement. I was really confused until I realized something.

Now when I first started writing this piece, I was going to start with a few verses like Exodus 20:16 or Matthew 19:18, but then I realized that we all know, no matter what our religious beliefs or non-beliefs are, that lying is unethical. Don't most of us feel a twinge of guilt for even telling harmless, little white lies?

So I engaged Kirk Hastings.

First he tells me I'm wrong. So I want to make sure that he and I are writing about the same article. I even offer to trade copies with him. Furthermore, in an effort to track down the origin of the statement, I found two sites that have it verbatim, and these are the only two sites with these words. I'm not too surprised to find the Center for Scientific Creation and Sound Doctrine.

Both of these sites have the identical passage - not just the statement in question, but the entire text of the pages are the same. Neither one attributes it to Kerr or to anyone else.

So I see two possibilities:
  1. Kerr did say it, and Kirk has the wrong article, though this implies that the authors of the two web sites plagiarized the excerpt, and in academia, this is perhaps the most egregious form of lying.
  2. Kerr did not say it, Kirk is bearing false witness, and either Center for Scientific Creation or Sound Doctrine is the original author.

Kirk once again claims that Kerr writes those words in that particular article, and notice he writes that contesting the truth of his claim is "pointless nit-picking."

I'm just amazed with Kirk's comment here. He can't admit that he falsely attributed those statements to Kerr, so he transfers the responsibility to me for not accepting it as authentic. Truly mind blowing.

Kirk then throws two other statements at me. Why? Maybe he realized that he cannot defend his ascribing the passage to Kerr and wants to divert the conversation.

Kerr has been a science journalist for Science since 1997 and has a Ph.D. from the University of Rhode Island in chemical oceanography. Now I'm not appealing to authority here, but sometimes credentials do count.

Usually what happens at FaceBook pages like Freedom From Atheistic Scientism,* one gets banned after pointing out the errors, but as of noon Aug. 4, I'm still allowed to comment. I'm puzzled.  No lie.

I've been banned!

* I've been banned at The Question Evolution Project, United Seekers of Truth, and True Dinos.