Tag Archives: science

Why Scientists Should Not March on Washington

Scientists in Canada, supported by scientists around the world and global science journals, protested attempts to cut science funding and censor scientists from speaking out under Canada's Conservative government led by Stephen Harper, who was defeated in 2015. Above, scientists from the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver, Canada, take part in a nation-wide protest in September, 2013.  © Deborah Jones 2013

Scientists in Canada, supported by scientists around the world and global science journals, protested attempts to cut science funding and censor scientists from speaking out under Canada’s Conservative government led by Stephen Harper, who was defeated in 2015. Above, scientists from the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver, Canada, take part in a nation-wide protest in September, 2013. © Deborah Jones 2013

ANDREA SALTELLI 
March, 2017

The April 22 March for Science, like the Women’s March before it, will confront United States President Donald Trump on his home turf – this time to challenge his stance on climate change and vaccinations, among other controversial scientific issues. The Conversation

But not everyone who supports scientific research and evidence-based policymaking is on board. Some fear that a scientists’ march will reinforce the sceptical conservative narrative that scientists have become an interest group whose findings are politicised. Others are concerned that the march is more about identity politics than science.

From my perspective, the march – which is being planned by the Earth Day Network, League of Extraordinary Scientists and Engineers and the Natural History Museum, among other partner organisations – is a distraction from the existential problems facing the field.

Other questions are far more urgent to restoring society’s faith and hope in science. What is scientists’ responsibility for current anti-elite resentments? Does science contribute to inequality by providing evidence only to those who can pay for it? How do we fix the present crisis in research reproducibility?

So is the march a good idea? To answer this question, we must turn to the scientist and philosopher Micheal Polanyi, whose concept of science as a body politic underpins the logic of the protest.

Both the appeal and the danger of the March for Science lie in its demand that scientists present themselves as a single collective just as Polanyi did in his Cold War classic, The Republic of Science: Its Political and Economic Theory. In it, Polanyi defended the importance of scientific contributions to improving Western society in contrast to the Soviet Union’s model of government-controlled research.

Polanyi was a polymath, that rare combination of natural and social scientist. He passionately defended science from central planning and political interests, including by insisting that science depends on personal, tacit, elusive and unpredictable judgements – that is, on the individual’s decision on whether to accept or reject a scientific claim. Polanyi was so radically dedicated to academic freedom that he feared undermining it would make scientific truth impossible and lead to totalitarianism.

The scientists’ march on Washington inevitably invokes Polanyi. It is inspired by his belief in an open society – one characterised by a flexible structure, freedom of belief and the wide spread of information.

But does Polanyi’s case make sense in the current era?

Polanyi recognised that Western science is, ultimately, a capitalist system. Like any market of goods and services, science comprises individual agents operating independently to achieve a collective good, guided by an invisible hand.

Scientists thus undertake research not to further human knowledge but to satisfy their own urges and curiosity, just as in Adam Smith’s example the baker makes the bread not out of sympathy for the hunger of mankind but to make a living. In both cases this results in a common good.

There is a difference between bakers and scientists, though. For Polanyi: “It appears, at first sight, that I have assimilated the pursuit of science to the market. But the emphasis should be in the opposite direction. The self coordination of independent scientists embodies a higher principle, a principle which is reduced to the mechanism of the market when applied to the production and distribution of material goods.”

Polanyi was aligning science with the economic model of the 1960s. But today his assumptions, both about the market and about science itself, are problematic. And so, too, is the scientists’ march on the US capital, for adopting the same vision of a highly principled science.

Does the market actually work as Adam Smith said? That’s questionable in the current times: economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller have argued that the principle of the invisible hand now needs revisiting. To survive in our consumerist society, every player must exploit the market by any possible means, including by taking advantage of consumer weaknesses.

To wit, companies market food with unhealthy ingredients because they attract consumers; selling a healthy version would drive them out of the market. As one scientist remarked to The Economist, “There is no cost to getting things wrong. The cost is not getting them published”.

It is doubtful that Polanyi would have upheld the present dystopic neo-liberal paradigm as a worthy inspiration for scientific discovery.

Polanyi also believed in a “Republic of Science” in which astronomers, physicists, biologists, and the like constituted a “Society of Explorers”. In their quest for their own intellectual satisfaction, scientists help society to achieve the goal of “self-improvement”.

That vision is difficult to recognise now. Evidence is used to promote political agendas and raise profits. More worryingly, the entire evidence-based policy paradigm is flawed by a power asymmetry: those with the deepest pockets command the largest and most advertised evidence.

I’ve seen no serious attempt to rebalance this unequal context.

A third victim of present times is the idea – central to Polanyi’s argument for a Republic of Science – that scientists are capable of keeping their house in order. In the 1960s, scientists still worked in interconnected communities of practice; they knew each other personally. For Polanyi, the overlap among different scientific fields allowed scientists to “exercise a sound critical judgement between disciplines”, ensuring self-governance and accountability.

Today, science is driven by fierce competition and complex technologies. Who can read or even begin to understand the two million scientific articles published each year?

Elijah Millgram calls this phenomenon the “New Endarkment” (the opposite of enlightenment), in which scientists have been transformed into veritable “methodological aliens” to one another.

One illustration of Millgram’s fears is the P-test imbroglio, in which a statistical methodology essential to the conduit of science was misused and abused for decades. How could a well-run Republic let this happen?

The classic vision of science providing society with truth, power and legitimacy is a master narrative whose time has expired. The Washington March for Science organisers have failed to account for the fact that science has devolved intowhat Polanyi feared: it’s an engine for growth and profit.

A march suggests that the biggest problem facing science today is a post-truth White House. But that is an easy let off. Science’s true predicaments existed before January 2 2017, and they will outlive this administration.

Our activism would be better inspired by the radical 1970s-era movements that sought to change the world by changing first science itself. They sought to provide scientific knowledge and technical expertise to local populations and minority communities while giving those same groups a chance to shape the questions asked of science. These movements fizzled out in the 1990s but echos of their programmatic stance can be found in a recent editorial in Nature.

What we see instead is denial toward science’s real problems. Take for instance the scourge of predatory publishers, who charge authors hefty fees to publish papers with little or no peer review. The lone librarian who fought this battle has now been silenced, to no noticeable reaction from the scientific community.

Trump is not science’s main problem today – science is.

Creative Commons

Andrea Saltelli has worked on physical chemistry, environmental sciences, applied statistics, impact assessment and science for policy. His main disciplinary focus is on sensitivity analysis of model output, a discipline where statistical tools are used to interpret the output from mathematical or computational models, and on sensitivity auditing, an extension of sensitivity analysis to the entire evidence-generating process in a policy context. At present he is in at the European Centre for Governance in Complexity, a joint undertaking of the Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities (SVT) – University of Bergen (UIB), and of the Institut de Ciència i Tecnologia Ambientals (ICTA) -Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona (UAB). The ECGC is located in the UAB campus in Barcelona. His latest works include Science on the Verge, a book on the crisis of science, a series of article of criticism of the Ecological Footprint  He is an Adjunct Professor, Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities, University of Bergen, University of Bergen.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Churchill essay on aliens timely reminder of modern dangers

This is photograph MH 26392 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums. Photo by Cecil Beaton, UK government, public domain

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, circa 1940-`945. Photograph MH 26392, Imperial War Museums collection, by Cecil Beaton, UK government, public domain via Wikimedia

By Elizabeth Tasker, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) 
February 18, 2017

Buried within the archives of a museum in Missouri, an essay on the search alien life has come to light, 78 years after it was penned. Written on the brink of the second world war, its unlikely author is the political leader Winston Churchill.

If the British prime minister was seeking solace in the prospect of life beyond our war-torn planet, would the discovery of a plethora of exoplanets aid or hinder such comfort?

The 11-page article – Are We Alone in the Universe? – has sat in the US National Churchill Museum archives in Fulton, Missouri from the 1980s until it was reviewed by astrophysicist Mario Livio in this week’s edition of the journal Nature.

Livio highlights that the unpublished text shows Churchill’s arguments were extremely contemporary for a piece written nearly eight decades previously. In it, Churchill speculates on the conditions needed to support life but notes the difficulty in finding evidence due to the vast distances between the stars.

Churchill fought the darkness of wartime with his trademark inspirational speeches and championing of science. This latter passion led to the development of radar, which proved instrumental to victory over Nazi Germany, and a boom in scientific advancement in post-war Britain.

Churchill’s writings on science reveal him to be a visionary. Publishing a piece entitled Fifty Years Hence in 1931, he detailed future technologies from the atomic bomb and wireless communications to genetic engineered food and even humans. But as his country faced the uncertainty of another world war, Churchill’s thoughts turned to the possibility of life on other worlds.

In the shadow of war

Churchill was not alone in contemplating alien life as war ripped across the globe.

Just before he wrote his first draft in 1939, a radio adaption of HG Wells’ 1898 novel War of the Worlds was broadcast in the US. Newspapers reported nationwide panic at the realistic depiction of a Martian invasion, although in truth the number of people fooled was probably far smaller.

The British government was also taking the prospect of extraterrestrial encounters seriously, receiving weekly ministerial briefings on UFO sightings in the years following the war. Concern that mass hysteria would result from any hint of alien contact resulted in Churchill forbidding an unexplained wartime encounter with an RAF bomber from being reported.

Faced with the prospect of widespread destruction during a global war, the raised interest in life beyond Earth could be interpreted as being driven by hope.

Discovery of an advanced civilisation might imply the huge ideological differences revealed in wartime could be surmounted. If life was common, could we one day spread through the Galaxy rather than fight for a single planet? Perhaps if nothing else, an abundance of life would mean nothing we did on Earth would affect the path of creation.

Churchill himself appeared to subscribe to the last of these, writing:

I, for one, am not so immensely impressed by the success we are making of our civilisation here that I am prepared to think we are the only spot in this immense universe which contains living, thinking creatures.

A profusion of new worlds

Were Churchill prime minister now, he might find himself facing a similar era of political and economic uncertainty. Yet in the 78 years since he first penned his essay, we have gone from knowing of no planets outside our Solar System to the discovery of around 3,500 worlds orbiting around other stars.

Had Churchill lifted his pen now – or rather, touched his stylus to his iPad Pro – he would have known planets could form around nearly every star in the sky.

This profusion of new worlds might have heartened Churchill and many parts of his essay remain relevant to modern planetary science. He noted the importance of water as a medium for developing life and that the Earth’s distance from the Sun allowed a surface temperature capable of maintaining water as a liquid.

He even appears to have touched on the fact that a planet’s gravity would determine its atmosphere, a point frequently missed when considering how Earth-like a new planet discovery may be.

To this, a modern-day Churchill could have added the importance of identifying biosignatures; observable changes in a planet’s atmosphere or reflected light that may indicate the influence of a biological organism. The next generation of telescopes aim to collect data for such a detection.

By observing starlight passing through a planet’s atmosphere, the composition of gases can be determined from a fingerprint of missing wavelengths that have been absorbed by the different molecules. Direct imaging of a planet may also reveal seasonal shifts in the reflected light as plant life blooms and dies on the surface.

Where is everybody?

But Churchill’s thoughts may have taken a darker turn in wondering why there was no sign of intelligent life in a Universe packed with planets. The question “Where is everybody?” was posed in a casual lunchtime conversation by Enrico Fermi and went on to become known as the Fermi Paradox.

The solutions proposed take the form of a great filter or bottleneck that life finds very difficult to struggle past. The question then becomes whether the filter is behind us and we have already survived it, or if it lies ahead to stop us spreading beyond planet Earth.

Filters in our past could include a so-called “emergence bottleneck” that proposes that life is very difficult to kick-start. Many organic molecules such as amino acids and nucleobases seem amply able to form and be delivered to terrestrial planets within meteorites. But the progression from this to more complex molecules may require very exact conditions that are rare in the Universe.

The continuing interest in finding evidence for life on Mars is linked to this quandary. Should we find a separate genesis of life in the Solar System – even one that fizzled out – it would suggest the emergence bottleneck didn’t exist.

It could also be that life is needed to maintain habitable conditions on a planet. The “Gaian bottleneck” proposes that life needs to evolve rapidly enough to regulate the planet’s atmosphere and stabilise conditions needed for liquid water. Life that develops too slowly will end up going extinct on a dying world.

A third option is that life develops relatively easily, but evolution rarely results in the rationality required for human-level intelligence.

The existence of any of those early filters is at least not evidence that the human race cannot prosper. But it could be that the filter for an advanced civilisation lies ahead of us.

In this bleak picture, many planets have developed intelligent life that inevitably annihilates itself before gaining the ability to spread between star systems. Should Churchill have considered this on the eve of the second world war, he may well have considered it a probable explanation for the Fermi Paradox.

Churchill’s name went down in history as the iconic leader who took Britain successfully through the second world war. At the heart of his policies was an environment that allowed science to flourish. Without a similar attitude in today’s politics, we may find we hit a bottleneck for life that leaves a Universe without a single human soul to enjoy it.

Creative CommonsThe Conversation

Elizabeth Tasker is an Associate Professor at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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Science wars in the age of Donald Trump

By Andrea Saltelli &  Silvio Oscar Funtowicz
November 19, 2016

Rosetta's lander, Philae, separates from the probe en route to the comet.

Rosetta’s lander, Philae, separates from the probe en route to the comet. Photo: ESA

If Brexit signified the end of facts, what does the election of Donald Trump tell us?

Apparently, a new battle in the history of the science wars. But the alleged “end of facts” is the result of a superficial understanding of the deeper crisis in the role of science and expertise.

So this new episode in the science wars represents a distraction from more substantial societal challenges to democracy and the idea of science as “speaking truth to power”.

Reductionist interpretations of this kind may lead scientists and apologists to engage in futile disputes about Trump’s views on science, aggravating an already polarised state of affairs.

In the previous episodes

Bitter discussions reminiscent of old science wars have been lately populating the academic media and the blogosphere, including the discrediting of scientific findings in the high-profile fields of medical research, nutrition, and of the very use of fundamental statistical tools. These conflicts are clearly seen as dangerous for science, and for its societal functions.

The end of facts – or, better, the idea that facts are the result of a process of social construction and deliberation – was a key insight of postmodern philosophers. This position was described by their detractors as relativism.

A worrying consequence of the present condition of the crisis of science is that, in some circles, the blame for the supposedly loss of faith in expert knowledge is put on postmodernist thought itself, thus confusing the diagnosis with the problem.

Even before Trump’s election victory, an article in the journal Scientific American, aptly titled A Plan to Defend against the War on Science, describes the context as a war between science and anti-science, and denounces postmodernists for having undermined science’s claim to objectivity, and for having laid the philosophical foundation for the rise of authoritarianism.

The article argues that “if there is no objective evidence that has ultimate credibility, how is one to settle competing claims of truth, such as those made by Trump?” The implication is a link between anti-science, authoritarianism, and Donald Trump.

The sins of philosophers

Some philosophers announced the end of modernity, intended as the age heralded by Enlightenment, where scientific knowledge was invested with a privileged status previously held only by religion. More than 20 years ago, modernity was described by Stephen Toulmin as Cosmopolis. Toulmin argued that the agenda of modernity is now exhausted, and his reflections on the end of an idea, of a main narrative, help us to understand our present.

Contemporary historian Yuval Noah Harari describes the “now” as the “Age of Trump [where] humans lose their ability to make sense of rapid global change, and the old story collapses and leaves a void”.

We find a similar historical moment in the thoughts of the Italian politician and philosopher Antonio Gramsci, writing while imprisoned by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in the early 1930s. He described the crisis as precisely “the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

Harari urges us to overcome our moment of disillusionment and anger, and to refresh how we think about our present predicament.

Perhaps this is an occasion where philosophers’ warnings are useful and not dangerous: to give them hemlock rather than attention is not conducive to political and intellectual progress.

Is there a war between science and anti-science?

We surely live in an era of increasing inequality and polarisation, where dominant interests bring their power and resources to bear in order to come on top, for example, to defend the interest of the fossil fuel industry.

Still, the Scientific American article, and the reactions to Trump’s election, transform the crisis of science into an American party-political affair: the intellectual left against the ignorant right. Science is thus dragged into the political arena, where critical and legitimate questions (institutional, constitutional and societal) are portrayed as a confrontation between science and anti-science.

A curious illustration of the confusion in science circles is provided by the American Physical Society, which on November 9 congratulated Donald Trump on being elected president, and then retracted the press release, apologising and expressing regret for the offence it caused.

How should we interpret this episode? The flurry of reactions from the house of science seem to betray the fear that the new president will address science with his most famous one-liner: “You’re fired!”.

Climate, with its knot of uncertain facts, conflicting values and high stakes, is the most conspicuous battlefield where we are asked to take sides by the warring factions, with no prisoners taken.

We should ask ourselves if the crisis is only a matter of which view is more scientifically sound or politically correct, in an array of controversial issues, such as climate, GMOs, pollinators and pesticides or shale-gas and fracking. This interpretation would, after all, be a reassuring perspective, but there are more fundamental challenges at stake. In particular, the call to scientists to man the barricades and to defend their contested method, raises the spectre of a new battle in the science wars.

Old disputes resurface

Between the 1980s and 1990s, humanities and the natural sciences fought over matters of quality, prestige and moral authority. Natural scientists resented being investigated as a strange new species by self-styled anthropologists, and disliked the postmodern critique of the claimed objectivity and value neutrality of science.

The conflict reached a climax when a hoax paper was accepted by a cultural studies journal in 1996. Written by physicist Alan Sokal, the article was supposed to prove that social scientists had no control on the quality of their production. The implicit point was that such an occurrence would be impossible in the exact sciences with their communal process of peer review.

Today, the debate on science’s lost quality would cast doubts on this simple conclusion.

Nothing good came out of the science wars, only a lasting diffidence between ex-warriors; a bad name for postmodernism in natural sciences circles; and a growing disdain for a Cartesian worldview in scholars of the humanities.

The election of Donald Trump illustrates the hazards encountered when scientists and scientific institutions alienate themselves from historic global changes. Against this background, the pretence that there is no crisis, or bickering over the exact fraction of non-reproducible results or wasted resources, appears pointless.

This alone would be a good reason not to restart a useless war.

The ConversationCreative Commons

Andrea Saltelli is an adjunct professor at the University of Bergen.  Silvio Oscar Funtowicz is an Adjunct Professor,  Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities, at the University of Bergen. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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How GH Hardy tamed Srinivasa Ramanujan’s genius

By Béla Bollobás, University of Cambridge
April, 2016

Jeremy Irons as GH Hardy and Dev Patel as Srinivasa Ramanujan in The Man Who Knew Infinity. Warner Bros publicity photo

Jeremy Irons as GH Hardy and Dev Patel as Srinivasa Ramanujan in The Man Who Knew Infinity. Warner Bros publicity photo

Throughout the history of mathematics, there has been no one remotely like Srinivasa Ramanujan. There is no doubt that he was a great mathematician, but had he had simply a good university education and been taught by a good professor in his field, we wouldn’t have a film about him.

As the years pass, I admire more and more the astonishing body of work Ramanujan produced in India before he made contact with any top mathematicians. Not because the results he got at the time changed the face of mathematics, far from it, but because, working by himself, he fearlessly attacked many important and some not so important problems in analysis and, especially, number theory – simply for the love of mathematics.

It cannot be understated, however, the role played by Ramanujan’s tutor Godfrey Harold Hardy in his life story. The Cambridge mathematician worked tirelessly with the Indian genius, to tame his creativity within the then current understanding of the field. It was only with Hardy’s care and mentoring that Ramanujan became the scholar we know him as today.

In December 1903, at the age of 16, Ramanujan passed the matriculation exam for the University of Madras. But as he concentrated on mathematics to the exclusion of all other subjects, he did not progress beyond the second year. In 1909 he married a nine-year-old girl, but failed to secure any steady income until the beginning of 1912, when he became a clerk in the Madras Port Trust office on a meagre salary.

All this time, Ramanujan remained obsessed with mathematics and kept working on continued fractions, divergent series, elliptic integrals, hypergeometric series and the distribution of primes. By 1911, Ramanujan was desperate to gain recognition from leading mathematicians, especially those in England. So, at the beginning of 1913, when he was just past 25, he dispatched a letter to Hardy in Cambridge with a long list of his discoveries –- a letter which changed both their lives.

Although only 36 when he received Ramanujan’s letter, Hardy was already the leading mathematician in England. The mathematical scene in England in the first half of the 20th century was dominated by Hardy and another titan of Trinity College, J.E. Littlewood. The two formed a legendary partnership, unique to this day, writing an astounding 100 joint papers. They were instrumental in turning England into a superpower in mathematics, especially in number theory and analysis.

Hardy was not the first mathematician to whom Ramanujan had sent his results, however the first two to whom he had written judged him to be a crank. But Hardy was not only an outstanding mathematician, he was also a wonderful teacher, eager to nurture talent.

After dinner in Trinity one evening, some of the fellows adjourned to the combination room. Over their claret and port Hardy mentioned to Littlewood some of the claims he had received in the mail from an unknown Indian. Some assertions they knew well, others they could prove, others they could disprove, but many they found not only fascinating and unusual but also impossible to resolve.

This toing and froing between Hardy and Littlewood continued the next day and beyond, and soon they were convinced that their correspondent was a genius. So Hardy sent an encouraging reply to Ramanujan, which led to a frequent exchange of letters.

It was clear to Hardy that Ramanujan was totally exceptional: however, in spite of his amazing feats in mathematics, he lacked the basic tools of the trade of a professional mathematician. Hardy knew that if Ramanujan was to fulfil his potential, he had to have a solid foundation in mathematics, at least as much as the best Cambridge graduates.

It was for Ramanujan’s good that Hardy invited him to Cambridge, then, and he was taken aback when, due to caste prejudices, Ramanujan did not jump at the chance. As a Brahmin, Ramanujan was not allowed to cross the ocean and his mother was totally opposed to the idea of the voyage. When, in early 1914, Ramanujan gained his mother’s consent, Hardy swang into action. He asked E.H Neville, another fellow of Trinity College, who was on a serendipitous trip to Madras, to secure Ramanujan a scholarship from the University of Madras. Neville’s wrote in a letter to the university that “the discovery of the genius of S. Ramanujan of Madras promises to be the most interesting event of our time in the mathematical world …”

Ramanujan sailed for England in the company of Neville, and arrived in Cambridge in April 1914.

I cannot but admire Hardy for his care in mentoring Ramanujan. His main worry was how to teach this astounding talent much mathematics without destroying his confidence. The last thing Hardy wanted was to dent Ramanujan’s fearless approach to the most difficult problems. To quote Hardy:

The limitations of his knowledge were as startling as its profundity. Here was a man who could work out modular equations, and theorems of complex multiplication, to orders unheard of, whose mastery of continued fractions was, on the formal side at any rate, beyond that of any mathematician in the world … It was impossible to ask such a man to submit to systematic instruction, to try to learn mathematics from the beginning once more.

On the other hand there were things of which it was impossible that he would remain in ignorance … so I had to try to teach him, and in a measure I succeeded, though I obviously learnt from him much more than he learnt from me.

For almost three years, things went extremely well. In 1916 Ramanujan got his BA from Cambridge and his research went from strength to strength. He published one excellent paper after another, with a great deal of Hardy’s help in the proofs and presentation. They also collaborated on several great projects, and published wonderful joint papers. Sadly, in the spring of 1917 Ramanujan fell ill, and was in and out of sanatoria for the rest of his stay in Cambridge.

By early 1919 Ramanujan seemed to have recovered sufficiently, and decided to travel back to India. Hardy was alarmed not to have heard from him for a considerable time, but a letter in February 1920 made it clear that Ramanujan was very active in research.

Ramanujan’s letter contained some examples of his latest discovery, mock theta functions, which have turned out to be very important. A main conjecture about them was solved 80 years later, and these functions are now seen as interesting examples of a much larger class of mock modular forms in mathematics, which have applications to elliptic curves, Borcherds products, Eichler cohomology and Galois representations – and the nature of black holes.

Sadly, Ramanujan’s recovery was short-lived. His illness returned and killed him, aged just 32, on April 26 1920, leaving him only a short time to benefit from his fellowship of the Royal Society and fellowship of Trinity.

Ramanujan’s death at the height of his powers was a tremendous blow to mathematics. His like may never be seen again, and certainly such a partnership as that which Hardy and Ramanujan built will not either.

The ConversationCreative Commons

Béla Bollobás is a Professor of Pure Mathematics  at the University of Cambridge. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The trailer for Warner Bros. film The Man Who Knew Infinity, released in April.

 

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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Why cats are fussy, and dogs will eat most anything

By Hannah Rowland, University of Cambridge
November, 2015

"Feed me." © Deborah Jones 2015

“Feed me.” © Deborah Jones 2015

Anyone who’s watched a cat throwing up after munching on grass knows that our feline friends aren’t natural plant eaters. So you might be surprised to discover that these carnivorous animals share some important genes that are more typically associated with herbivores. And this might help explain why cats aren’t always easy to please when it comes to food.

New research suggests that cats possess the genes that protect vegetarian animals from ingesting poisonous plants by giving them the ability to taste bitter. Animals use their sense of taste to detect whether a potential food is nutritious or harmful. A sweet taste signals the presence of sugars, an important source of energy. A bitter taste, on the other hand, evolved as a defence mechanism against harmful toxins commonly found in plants and unripe fruits.

Evolution has repeatedly tweaked animals’ taste buds to suit various dietary needs. Changes in an animal’s diet can eliminate the need to sense certain chemicals in food, and so receptor genes mutate, destroying their ability to make a working protein.

One example of this comes from strictly meat-eating cats, who can no longer taste sweetness. But if bitter detection evolved to warn of plant toxins, then it stands to reason that cats, which (usually) eschew plants, shouldn’t be able to taste bitter either. Humans and other vegetable-munching animals can taste bitter because we possess bitter taste receptor genes. If cats have lost the ability to taste bitterness, we should find that their receptor genes are riddled with mutations.

Geneticists at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia scoured the genome of cats and other carnivorous mammals like dogs, ferrets, and polar bears to see if our carnivorous cousins have bitter genes. They were surprised to find that cats have 12 different genes for bitter taste. Dogs, ferrets, and polar bears are equally well endowed. So, if meat eating animals are unlikely to encounter any bitter morsels, why do they boast genes for tasting bitterness?

Taste test

To find out, Peihua Jiang, a molecular biologist at Monell, put cat taste buds to the test. He inserted the cat taste receptor gene into human tissue cells in the lab. When combined, the cell and the gene act as a taste receptor that responds to chemicals dropped onto it.

Jiang discovered that the cat’s taste receptors responded to bitter chemicals found in toxic plants and to compounds that also activate human bitter receptors. The cat bitter taste receptor, known as Tas2r2, responded to the chemical denatonium benzoate, a bitter substance commonly smeared on the fingernails of nail-biting children.

So why have cats retained the ability to detect bitter tastes? Domestic cats owners know how unpredictable cats’ dietary choices can be. Some of the “presents” cats bring to their owners include frogs, toads, and other animals that can contain bitter and toxic compounds in their skin and bodies. Jiang’s results show that bitter receptors empower cats to detect these potential toxins, giving them the ability to reject noxious foods and avoid poisoning.

But how often do meat-loving cats actually get exposed to bitter and toxic compounds in their diet, compared with the plethora of plant toxins that their vegetarian counterparts have to contend with? Jiang suggests this is not enough to explain why cats have retained such an arsenal of receptors.

Instead, cat taste receptors may have evolved for reasons other than taste. In humans, bitter taste receptors are found not only in the mouth, but also in the heart and in the lungs, where they are thought to detect infections. It remains to be seen if feline bitter receptor genes also double-up as disease detectors.

The discovery of feline bitter receptors might explain why cats have got a reputation as picky eaters. But their unfussy canine counterparts have a similar number of bitter taste receptors – so why are cats so finicky? One answer might lie in how the cat receptors detect bitter-tasting compounds. Research published earlier this year by another team of researchers showed that some of the cat taste receptors are especially sensitive to bitter compounds, and even more sensitive to denatonium than the same receptor in humans.

Perhaps cats are also more sensitive to bitter chemicals than dogs, or they may detect a greater number of bitter compounds in their everyday diet. Food that tastes bland to us or to a dog could be an unpleasant gastronomic experience for cats. So rather than branding cats as picky, perhaps we should think of them as discerning feline foodies.

The ConversationCreative Commons

Hannah Rowland is a Lecturer in Ecology and Evolution & Research Fellow at Zoological Society of London, University of Cambridge.  This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Science and “the environment” should not be separated

The Spout on Newfoundland's East Coast Trail near fishing village of Bay Bulls. Photo by Greg Locke. © 2009

Science based on outdoor study of the natural world is easily (and often) overshadowed in the frenzied excitement over gadgets and numbers. Above, the Spout on Newfoundland’s East Coast Trail near fishing village of Bay Bulls. Photo by Greg Locke. © 2009

By Manu Saunders, Ensia 
August, 2015

Does the natural world have any relevance to modern science? Of course it does; but sometimes it seems like that’s not the case. This is a myth perpetuated directly and indirectly through media, policy decisions, academic disciplines, even some science engagement initiatives: that the natural world is somehow separate from science.

Some people assume that any discussion of science automatically includes ecology, botany, entomology and other natural sciences. In some contexts, it might. But, as our immediate surroundings become increasingly engineered and artificial, science based on outdoor study of the natural world is easily (and often) overshadowed in the frenzied excitement over gadgets and numbers. The tangible outcomes and “wow” factor inherent in the physical sciences and technologies (mathematics, chemistry, engineering) have effortlessly commandeered the scientific spotlight.

Just have a look at your favorite online news website. Under what category do environmental stories appear? Are they included under science? Or are they singled out as an unrelated topic?

Out of 14 of the most popular English language news websites in the world (from comScore’s global and U.S. top 10 lists), only three sites (BBC, NBC and New York Times) combine “Environment” and “Science” news stories together under one category. Five sites separate the two as unrelated topics; five have a science category only, with minimal coverage of natural environments; and one site has neither science nor environment news categories.

The power of communication to build and sustain myths, intended or not, is often underrated.

The act of separating science stories on medical breakthroughs and astronomical wonders from stories that cover ecosystems and biodiversity unwittingly enhances the myth in readers’ minds that science and nature are mutually exclusive. Combining science with technology is even more damaging, because it distances science further from natural systems and processes.

Myths as Dominant Ideologies

The power of communication to build and sustain myths, intended or not, is often underrated. In cultural theory, myths are dominant ideologies that are maintained through media and popular culture. So, separating all those sixth extinction and climate change stories from the science category in media simply perpetuates the myth that they are not scientific issues.

Yet, despite the popular portrayal of science as lab coats, space travel, gadgets and mind-blowing math, in reality, science is more closely aligned with the natural world around us. Science is about generating and sharing knowledge about the structure and behavior of the natural world. Technology is about the functional application of that knowledge to produce tangible outcomes.

This distinction goes beyond semantic pedantry. Science is independent of technology; they are not identical and they are not replacements for one another. If we reduce science to a technological sector removed from the natural world, its relevance to society becomes limited. It becomes another “industry” with a finite customer base, shifting its focus from the pursuit of knowledge, which has far-reaching benefits for all, to the tangible, immediate outcomes it can provide a certain sector of society.

What will be the consequences if the perceived connection between scientific endeavor and the natural world continues to weaken?

When this myth is perpetuated beyond popular media, it can have damaging impacts. The current Australian government, for example, spent more than a year without a minister of science at all, before tacking science onto the industry portfolio after public outcry. The industry minister, Ian Macfarlane, even suggested a new approach to scientific research funding, where funds could be awarded to universities based on the number of patent registrations, not the number of published scientific papers. His comments highlight a common misconception — that the vast majority of scientists work on creating and developing products that can be commercialized.

Critical to Understanding Our Place in the World

What will be the consequences if the perceived connection between scientific endeavor and the natural world continues to weaken? Presenting nature study as a pleasant but scientifically irrelevant hobby may have beneficial effects on our health and well-being, but it will damage our understanding of environmental issues and therefore our understanding of science.

Far from being self-indulgent, knowledge of natural sciences is critical to understand our place in the world and manage the environmental, social and economic challenges we face. How can we understand how environmental change will impact an ecosystem — and the human communities within it — if we don’t know what species and ecological interactions make up that ecosystem? How can we achieve sustainable agriculture if we don’t understand the ecological nuances of the pest, pollinator and predator communities that use the agricultural landscape? Technologists don’t create food, fiber and shelter; ecosystems do. But that can be hard to believe in a world where biotech ag and test-tube meat command so much of the spotlight.

So how do we make sure natural sciences share the spotlight dominated by technology and physical sciences? It’s a challenge, to be sure; and human psychology plays an important role. Gadgets and machines do things; their functionality builds on the momentum of the initial “wow” to sustain the audience’s interest. In contrast, much of the contemporary communication about ecology and natural history focuses on the beauty and vulnerability of nature. In a technological society that is increasingly removed from that beauty and vulnerability, this approach can have a hard time competing for public interest.

Everything in nature holds a story we can connect to. And we haven’t even come close to hearing them all.

The key is to communicate science in a way that is engaging and relevant to everyone, a goal that requires multiple complementary strategies, not just one. Ideally, science should be presented as a balance of natural and technological, so that scientists and nonscientists alike believe that ecosystems, organisms and ecological interactions are as essential to science — and ultimately society — as mathematics, engineering and technology.

Studying nature teaches us about interactions, consequences and survival. What could be more essential to all of us? Through natural sciences, we learn how environmental change affected us, as well as other living things, in the past (paleoecology). We learn how some of the tiniest organisms on Earth can make us sick or keep us alive (entomology). We learn that controversial species (such as wolves or dingoes) are a critical part of our local ecosystems (ecology). And we learn that we can’t fully understand the implications of these interactions, unless we identify and classify all the organisms involved (taxonomy).

Nature is useful and functional to you and me, not just as a resource opportunity or a “happy place,” but as a raison d’être. After all, ecosystems and organisms do things too — they are our natural life support system. Bees, flies and wasps pollinate crops and control insect pests so we can harvest food and fiber; wetlands purify the water we drink and mitigate flooding near our homes; birds and beetles scavenge wastes so we are less likely to suffer from disease.

The list goes on and on, because everything in nature holds a story we can connect to. And we haven’t even come close to hearing them all. The latest groundbreaking technology is indeed a great scientific story to share. But the story of how the natural world works — the world we all live in and depend on — is even more engaging.View Ensia homepage

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Related on F&O: 

Wanted: A new story of humanity’s place in the world, by Philip Loring, July, 2015

Ignorance of science worsens global crises, warn researchers.  By DeborahJones, 2012  (*unlocked)

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*Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal, of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by you, our readers. Some of our work is behind a paywall because we do not carry advertising or “branded content,” or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Please support us, with a subscription (click here for our subscribe page) or a donation, and/or by spreading the word.

 

 

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Up close with Pluto

By Monica Grady, The Open University  
July, 2015

After a decade-long journey through our solar system, our New Horizons spacecraft made its closest approach to Pluto today, about 7,750 miles above the surface -- roughly the same distance from New York to Mumbai, India - making it the first-ever space mission to explore a world so far from Earth

After a decade-long journey through our solar system, our New Horizons spacecraft made its closest approach to Pluto today, about 7,750 miles above the surface — roughly the same distance from New York to Mumbai, India – making it the first-ever space mission to explore a world so far from Earth. NASA

As I began typing this column, NASA’s New Horizon mission was on its final approach to its primary target, Pluto. By the time I finished composing my deathless prose, the main mission was over. And I’m not a slow writer.

Launched in January 2006, the spacecraft has travelled for nine and a half years for a flyby lasting only about 15 minutes. It doesn’t sound much of a reward for all the effort of designing and building the spacecraft – but for planetary scientists, the data coming back from the mission is pure gold.

For now all we can do is wait. Early in the morning on July 15, New Horizons is expected to phone home and confirm that the fly-by went well. Later that day the first high-resolution images should start trickle back to Earth – revealing what Pluto and its moon Charon actually look like up close. However, it will take nearly a year for all the data from the instruments aboard the spacecraft to come back.

But what is so exciting about Pluto? It isn’t even a planet anymore! When the New Horizons mission was conceived, Pluto stood (or rather, orbited) proudly as the ninth, and newest, planet in the Solar System. But eight months after New Horizons left Earth on its journey to Pluto, the International Astronomical Union downgraded Pluto from “planet” to “minor planet”.

Pluto’s change in status has, however, definitely not diminished the importance of the mission. Indeed, it has probably enhanced the scientific significance of the findings. Back when we thought Pluto was a planet, it was merely the last member of a series which represented a progression from the inner rocky and metallic bodies such as Mercury, through the gas and ice giants like Jupiter and Neptune, to Pluto – a small body of ice and rock.

But we now know that Pluto is not an isolated entity – it is the largest body in a huge family of primitive objects, many of which have their own moons. According to current models of how the solar system formed, there were once several hundred thousands of objects beyond Neptune, but Jupiter’s motion scattered most of them much further out from the Sun.

There are, however, still likely to be more such remaining bodies, known as Trans-Neptunian Objects, than the asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter. These objects are probably even more primitive in nature than some comets, which have been modified as they approach the Sun.

We already know that methane and ammonia ices are present on Pluto – but are there any higher hydrocarbons, or biologically interesting compounds such as amino acids? It will be interesting to see how analysis of the surface ices compare with results from the Rosetta mission or from the Dawn mission at Ceres. Can we draw any comparisons with the photo-chemistry on Saturn’s giant moon, Titan? Will Pluto demonstrate that trans-Neptunian objects are the most unchanged and unprocessed objects in the Solar System?

Previous images of Pluto have been poorly resolved – the best view by the Hubble Space Telescope is of a fuzzy grey blob (see image below). But over the past few weeks, we have been able to enjoy increasingly more detailed images taken by the New Horizons spacecraft on its approach to Pluto. For example, we’ve learned that the planet is slightly bigger than we thought. We have also seen features on the surface, including what are probably ice-caps.

Although the closest approach to Pluto will be over in a matter of minutes, the amount of data captured will be immense. It could help us answer a number of questions about Pluto – such as the distribution of different ices (water, ammonia, methane), the relationship between rock and ice and the presence of a thin atmosphere. The fly-by could also shed light on whether there are indeed craters on the body and whether there is any evidence of resurfacing.

Image of Pluto and its moon Charon. NASA

Image of Pluto and its moon Charon. NASA


There is no expectation that cryovolcanism or ice geysers will be observed on Pluto, it doesn’t have the same gravitational heat source derived from a giant companion such as the case for Jupiter’s moon Europa. But it is in a binary system with its almost equally-sized moon, Charon – so it may surprise us yet.

For me, one of the highlights of the coming months will be synthesis of three sets of data – from New Horizons on Pluto, Dawn on Ceres and Rosetta-Philae on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This will give us real insight to comet-asteroid interrelationships, and the primitive material from which the Solar System was built.

Whatever comes from the fly-by, we already have enough fresh information about our far-distant neighbour to ensure it is no longer seen as an underworld, the underdog of our planetary system. It is not the last planet to be visited but it is the first trans-Neptunian object to be seen – and so becomes a member of a very exclusive club.

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The Conversation

Monica Grady is Professor of Planetary and Space Sciences at The Open University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Related on F&O: Our blog post,  Pluto: Notably quotable, includes recommended reading.

 

 

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Journalism has value: please help sustain us with a hat tip donation (every two bits helps), or by buying a subscriptionFacts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Subscribe by email to our free FRONTLINES, a blog announcing new works, and the odd small tale. Look for evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. Some of our original works are behind a paywall, available with a $1 site day pass, or with a subscription from $2.95/month – $19.95/year

 

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Left in the Brain: Potentially Toxic Residue from MRI Drugs

Magnetic resonance angiography. Photo by Ofirglazer, Creative Commons via Wikipedia

Magnetic resonance angiography. Photo by Ofirglazer, Creative Commons via Wikipedia

by Jeff Gerth, ProPublica  
June, 2015

With a family history of breast cancer, Marcie Jacobs decided in June 2001 that an MRI screening was her best preventive option.

As is common with MRIs, Jacobs was injected beforehand with a contrast agent, a drug that helps sharpen the resulting images. But after a few of these treatments, she began noticing some strange cognitive effects. Jacobs began missing meetings. Over the next several years she had additional MRIs. The math skills that were crucial to her job as finance manager started deteriorating, she said.

Jacobs eventually wound up on disability. She stopped worrying about cancer 2013 and started worrying about imaging drugs.

This month, two prominent experts in the radiology community joined in the concern, calling for more research into the possible health risks after three recent studies found that gadolinium, a potentially toxic metal, wound up in the brain tissue of MRI patients who used two different contrast agents.

Editorializing in the journal “Radiology,” Dr. Emanuel Kanal at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and Michael Tweedle at Ohio State University, said the studies “called into question” the “safety of at least some” of these agents. The two urged radiologists to change their prescribing habits, although not to stop using the drugs because of their proven benefits to patients. (Related video.)

Nine gadolinium-based contrast agents are sold in the United States. The two in question, Omniscan, made by GE Healthcare, and Magnevist, manufactured by Bayer HealthCare, once dominated the contrast agent market. Both GE and Bayer, in statements, said they were monitoring the issue and noted the new studies had not found any clinical impact, such as brain injury.

As ProPublica has reported, contrast agents like Omniscan had been on the market for years when, in 2006, they were linked to a crippling, sometimes fatal condition called nephrogenic systemic fibrosis, or NSF. The Food and Drug Administration put a “black box” warning on the drugs the following year, saying patients with kidney impairment may be at risk of NSF because they were unable to excrete the gadolinium.

ProPublica first disclosed in 2009 that the agency ignored two of its own medical reviewers who wanted to ban Omniscan for patients with severe kidney disease. In 2010, the FDA did act, recommending that GE’s drug and two other agents shouldn’t be used in patients with impaired kidneys. The other drugs were Magnevist and Optimark, sold by Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals.

The new studies cited by Kanal and Tweedle have set off alarms because they show that even patients with healthy kidneys are retaining gadolinium from Omniscan and Magnevist. Estimates are that about one-third of the 20 million MRIs in the United States each year use one of the nine contrast agents.

Doctors now routinely screen MRI patients for kidney problems before injecting them with contrast agents, and scientists believe that NSF has essentially disappeared. The new studies don’t speak to the clinical effects, if any, of gadolinium in the brain. But in an interview, Kanal said the findings ought to make radiologists think twice about which agents to prescribe.

“We can use an agent today that does not retain gadolinium in the brain to the degree that those other agents do,” he said, referring to Omniscan and Magnevist. Given that the alternatives are “at least as efficacious” as the other two, he asked, “Why are some still prescribing the agents that do accumulate in the brain over the other options?”

Jacobs has no medical proof, but she’s convinced the two drugs are behind her problems.

As her symptoms worsened, Jacobs said she underwent a series of tests that found accumulated traces of gadolinium in her breast, thigh, liver and brain. Doctors were puzzled because she had no history of kidney disease and did not fit into the identified at-risk group.

She recovered old records and determined that she received Omniscan for her first 11 imagings and Magnevist before the last, in 2007. Jacobs said she eventually began a difficult, extended program to remove gadolinium from her body.

Researching on the Internet, Jacobs found a support group around the issue. Then in March, a radiology journal, Health Imaging, featured the group in an article on the new gadolinium research. That same month Jacobs started a Facebook group that is now composed of researchers as well as dozens of patients with similar gadolinium experiences and no evidence of kidney disease.

Jacobs said the new studies “confirm that the linear gadolinium-based contrasting agents such as GE’s product Omniscan and Bayer’s product Magnevist are being retained at much higher levels than radiologists and the FDA have acknowledged.”

She hopes the FDA might pull the two agents from the market.

In a statement, an FDA spokesperson said the agency is “carefully reviewing” the new studies to “better understand the potential consequences to determine what further action is needed, which may include taking steps to ensure the public is aware of these preliminary findings.”

Kanal, who has been advising the FDA and also chairs the American Board of MR Safety, said the new studies have “the entire international radiological community 2013 and the FDA 2013 on edge, as this is an entirely unanticipated finding.”

GE Healthcare told ProPublica that as part of its commitment to safety a new company internal task force reviewed the studies and other data and continues its work.

After finding “no signs or symptoms of potential injury to the brain” associated with Omniscan and “no evidence of cytotoxicity (cell toxicity) in published autopsy studies” the task force concluded that “continued use of Omniscan according to approved product labeling” is appropriate, GE said.

Bayer told ProPublica patient safety is its “primary concern” and said it had reached out to the authors of the original research studies “to clarify their findings,” even though “none of these studies indicate any clinical implications.” The company said it was continuing to monitor the situation.

GE and Bayer have confidentially settled hundreds of lawsuits 2013 many involving deaths 2013 while denying liability for their contrast agents.

In 2013, one case went to trial in Cleveland and resulted in a $5 million verdict against GE. A federal appeals court upheld the verdict last year. By then the plaintiff, who had NSF, had died.

The contours of the contrast agent market have changed in recent years. Both Magnevist, once the leading agent, and Omniscan, also a top seller, have lost market share since the FDA restrictions in 2010. GE said its market share was about 10 percent last year; Bayer declined to cite a figure.

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Read more reporting on drug safety by senior reporter Jeff Gerth.  ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.

 


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Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Subscribe by email to our free FRONTLINES, a blog announcing new works, and the odd small tale. Look for evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. Some of our original works are behind a paywall, available with a $1 site day pass, or with a subscription from $2.95/month – $19.95/year. If you value journalism, please help sustain us.

 

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A new age of ignorance

protest-455714_1280

TOM REGAN  
February 27, 2015 

On Thursday of this week in the U.S. Senate, James Inhofe, the Republican senator from Oklahoma, brought a snowball into the chamber. Inhofe, a champion climate change denier, stated that the snowball and the recent cold temperatures in Washington, D.C., proved that climate change was a hoax. 

Ordinarily this would just be a laughable incident. Anyone who knows anything about climate change will tell you that is just not about global warming. The rise in temperature around the earth affects other weather patterns, resulting in worse storms like tornadoes or hurricanes or an unusual rise in snowfall and colder temperature in other areas. Or that while it was very cold on the East Coast (it is winter after all), the West Coast was actually much warmer than it supposed to be. 

But Inhofe is the head of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works committee, which means he gets to highly influence policy about climate change. It would be like a member of the Ku Klux Klan being appointed the head of a anti-racism committee. It’s that ridiculous.

A few states over, in Kentucky, a gentleman named Ken Ham is on a ridiculous mission of his own. Mr. Ham, a New Earth apologist and a fundamentalist Christian, is building a theme park of which the central attraction will be a life-size replica of Noah’s Ark. This is not Ham’s first venture in this area as he has already constructed the Creation Museum, whose central theme is that the earth is only 6000 years old.

Like Sen. Inhofe, Ham has relentlessly attacked scientists and dismissed their findings as biased nonsense. In his view, evidence of the ancient age of the Earth or of evolution are just plots by left-wingers to undermine Christianity and society.

In Texas, there have been noisy confrontations for the past couple of years with the state’s conservative-controlled Board of Education over new science and social studies text books. Conservatives want the new textbooks to reflect what they call a more “accurate” picture of science and history. This means altering or eliminating information on evolution and climate change in science, while in social studies cutting back on lessons about the history of slavery. They even tried to eliminate the works of some founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson because his works champion a more open-minded and less religious attitude towards things like life and education.

Ordinarily this wouldn’t matter much as Texas is only one state. The problem is, however, that it is a very big state with a lot of students and a lot of textbooks. And so publishers, in order to save costs, tend to use the Texas textbooks in many other states.

Sadly, I have a limited amount of space in which I can write about these things, or else this article might stretch to dozens of different areas and examples, and tens of thousands of words.

It’s not just that a new kind of ignorance has been embraced across America by many people — it is being championed by those on the right. 

Most, but not all, of this ignorance is based in conservative religious beliefs. And while it’s true America has a long history of confrontation between these religious beliefs and science, seldom has there been a time when these beliefs have more potentially disastrous long-term consequences. Unlike other Western nations where religious belief is seen as just one component of a society’s composition, in America it is often the dominant factor that decides how decisions are made.

Sometimes more liberal and progressive religious beliefs help move society in the right direction, such as with civil rights in the South during the 60s. Catholic nuns were among the most outspoken proponents of President Obama’s health care initiatives in 2009. But these days, more moderate religious voices are often drowned in a tsunami of fundamentalist religious dogma that strain to hold back American society from meaningfully addressing issues like climate change or human rights for groups like women and ethnic minorities.

But it would be a mistake to blame it all on religion. Conservative businessmen who control groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, or individuals like the Koch brothers, manipulate this ignorance among their “followers” in order to maintain their prodigious cash flows. As a result they pour millions of dollars into the political campaigns of conservative politicians who champion this new ignorance. They use money to basically shout down any voice that calls for a more scientific and reasonable approach to any issue that challenges their financial interests.

“On the right, they’re pretending that our truthfulness is what’s really important to them, which ironically is not true,” John Stewart, host of the Daily Show on Comedy Central, said on the show recently. “What matters to the right is discrediting anything that they believe harms their side.”

In a dangerous time for America to embrace this new ignorance. As the average yearly temperatures around the globe continue to rise, as huge chunks of the Antarctic ice sheet break off because of this warming, as terrorist groups like ISIS not only killed hundreds of people but destroy centuries of cultural artifacts and historic documents in the name of religion, now more than ever we need to champion the tools of reason and scientific inquiry as the backbone of our society 

Ignorance maybe bliss, but ultimately it leads down the road to perdition..

Copyright Tom Regan 2015

Contact Tom Regan:  motnager@gmail.com 

Post-script, March 2: After writing this column, it occurred to me to add that it’s not just those in the right who are guilty of falling into ‘the new age of ignorance’ paradigm, but more than a few on the left as well. Most of those who subscribe to the anti-vaxxer movement might also be found at a pro-environmentalist rally, protesting against the Gaza war, or campaigning for Democratic congressional or senatorial candidate. While those on the right, particularly at conservative news organizations like Fox “News” are championing the anti-vaccination movement supposedly based on their belief in the liberty of the individual, it really just boils down to another attack on science and reason. It’s unfortunate that those on the right or the left who choose to dismiss often overwhelming relevant science inquiry as “biased,” because it conflicts with their personal beliefs, seem to make so much more noise than those who are actually pointing in the right direction.

 

Tom Regan Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the National Film Board in Canada, and for the Christian Science Monitor and Boston Globe newspapers, and National Public Radio, in the United States. A former executive director of the Online News Association, he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92.

 

 

 

 

 

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Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for select journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Help sustain us by telling others about us, and purchasing a $1 day pass or subscription, from $2.95/month to $19.95/year. To receive F&O’s free blog emails fill in the form on the FRONTLINES page.

 

 

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Tide turning against climate change deniers

The gathering of the information that sustains climate-change certainties intermittently involves men and women in extraordinary activities, as this image suggests. It was made in the summer of 2010 during an examination of the ice atop the Chukchi Sea, in the Arctic Ocean, by three American government agencies, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard and the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. KATHRYN HANSEN/NASA

The gathering of the information that sustains climate-change certainties intermittently involves men and women in extraordinary activities, as this image suggests. It was made in the summer of 2010 during an examination of the ice atop the Chukchi Sea, in the Arctic Ocean, by three American government agencies, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. KATHRYN HANSEN/NASA, public domain

TOM REGAN  
November, 2014

In his book The Believing Brain author Michael Shermer, the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, makes the following proposal: belief comes first, then the reasons for belief comes second. So to use an example, an individual might believe in ghosts, so she will then find the reasons to support that belief. That cold spot in the attic is not caused by a deficiency of heat from the furnace, but by the presence of a supernatural being. 

This is also the way the world of climate change deniers work. First comes the belief that climate change does not exist, second comes the search for reasons to support that belief. And, as we have seen repeatedly, any reason will do. The result is that anyone who even remotely suggests that climate change is bogus is latched on to and held up like a conquering hero, regardless how dubious their credentials are.

 However, if a one-time climate change skeptic goes over to the other side, the community’s response is to bitterly accuse them of being “bought off” or pressured into changing their opinion. This was the case of for scientist Richard Muller who publicly doubted the existence of climate change but after repeated experiments on his own came to the conclusion in 2012 that it did indeed exist.

 Now it’s also fair to say that for those of us who do believe that climate change is real, the process is the same. But the reasons for our belief are grounded in study after study after study by some the world’s best scientists which shows the existence of global warming caused by human activity.

Perhaps the best example of this landslide of evidence was the now famous skit in which comedian John Oliver, tired of the media’s choosing one spokesman for and one spokesman against climate change to reflect the scientific outlook on the issue, brought up three people to represent climate change deniers on a panel, and 97 others who represented the scientific community’s actual position that global climate change is real. 

 

 

But we know, of course that it won’t make any difference. Because if you believe that global warming is a hoax, like Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma – who will soon be in charge of the very Senate committee that is responsible for responding to global climate change – then all of the scientific studies and facts and proofs in the world won’t make one bit of difference. Because it’s the belief that matters not the evidence that disproves it. Unlike Mr. Muller, who as a scientist is supposed to have an open mind towards the possibility of his initial conclusions being wrong, Sen. Inhofe is under no such obligation.

No, the good senator is not likely to change when Republicans receive millions of dollars in funding from gas and oil and coal companies, whose opposition to global climate change is all about the Benjamins and not because they may or may not believe in it. One might hypothesize that the only reasonable way to expect the GOP to change is for someone with even more money, who believes in climate change, to provide them with funding. Politics runs on the theory that belief is an economic system and that the beliefs of highest bidder are the right ones.

The one thing that might change their mind is how people vote in an election. Now it’s fair to say that for much of the past few decades while scientists have been warning us about the problems of climate change, the issue of itself has not been much of a vote bonanza . In fact, the GOP has often used it scare voters by saying if we make the changes necessary to save the climate, and maybe the world, you’ll lose your job. It’s a pretty powerful argument if you live in a place where the effects of climate change may not be as pronounced as they are in other areas. For now.

But something is happening. And you saw that something reflected in the recent agreement between China and the United States about climate change.

The fact that China, the world’s biggest economy, (at least in terms of its size, not necessarily its actual wealth making potential) is willing to say “Okay, we recognize there’s a problem so were going to do our best to cap our emissions by this particular date regardless of the fact that it may slow us down economically” is fairly important. Unlike America, where your political stance often reflects your belief about climate change, regardless of any scientific evidence, Chinese leaders – who are a pretty uniform lot and basically make decisions that support the economy while suppressing public freedoms – have made the decision that climate change is a problem.

And when you have countries like this, who for so long fought against any treaty that would lower carbon emissions, changing their minds, this undermines another pillar of the climate change skeptics house built on the sand of dubious science and carbon producers’ billions. It also becomes a potentially powerful argument in the hands of those who are trying to convince voters to support politicians you want to stop climate change.

So as climate change increasingly produces killer hurricanes, tornadoes and and polar vortexes, as huge chunks of Antarctic ice break off from the continent because of warming temperatures, as small islands around the world begin to vanish as sea levels rise, it is going to become harder and harder for climate change deniers to avoid the obvious. Many of them will, of course, but here’s hoping enough American voters wake up to the realities of a warming global climate because as the recent United Nations final report on climate change recently said we are almost out of time to make any difference at all. 

 Copyright Tom Regan 2014

Contact Tom Regan::  motnager@gmail.com

Further reading on Facts and Opinions*:

In Expert Witness, Mark Maslin answers his question, How does the IPCC know climate change is happening?   In reporting, Verbatim: Climate change to cause food shortages, mass extinctions, flooding, excerpts the fifth IPCC report, with a summary by Deborah Jones. Also read F&O ‘s Natural Security columnist Chris Wood; Tzeporah Berman in The Pointy End and also on finding hope in environmental activism and on The Ugly Oil Sands Debate. ”Expert Witnesses” Brad Allenby writes On Geoengineering: a case for sophisticated thinking and Bradley J. Cardinale looks at  Biodiversity in the Anthropocene.  Desmond Tutu makes An Argument for Carbon Divestment.

Our blog post, Focus on Climate Change, includes select reactions to the IPCC report and a few recommended readings elsewhere.

 

United States Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory Photo by Donald K. Perovich, public domain

United States Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory Photo by Donald K. Perovich, public domain

 

Tom HeadshotTom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the National Film Board in Canada, and for the Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, and Boston Globe in the United States.

The former executive director of the Online News Association, he was  a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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