science

it's official: we are going crazy, and we're exporting it to the world

A recent study by San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge looked at Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) test results for high school and college students from 1938 through 2007. (The results will be published in a future issue of the Clinical Psychology Review.) The MMPI is one of, if not the, most popular personality tests, which measures (or claims to measure) people's mental health along ten different axes.

Twenge found that in 2007, five times as many people surpassed the threshold to be considered to have mental health issues as did in 1938. Especially high were the increases in hypomania and depression. And this doesn't even consider the vast numbers of people taking antidepressants and other meds that alleviate the symptoms the MMPI asks about.

Now, add to the fact that as a nation we're going crazy, the fact that we're exporting our model of mental health to the rest of the world. We've been aggressively preaching that "mental illnesses" should be considered a "brain disease", in the theory that this would help remove the stigma around them.

According to the research of Professor Sheila Mehta of Auburn University, though, this in not actually the result: considering mental illness as a neurological defect actually tends to make other people treat the sufferer less kindly. Mehta has actually studied how other people treat those they believe have a "brain disease", versus those who they believe have a psychosocial problem. She says, “Viewing those with mental disorders as diseased sets them apart and may lead to our perceiving them as physically distinct. Biochemical aberrations make them almost a different species.”

This may be why schizophrenics in the United States and Europe, where the "brain disease" idea holds sway, have a significantly higher relapse rate than those in other countries. More "primitive" notions of mental illness may actually help keep the troubled individual in the social group, and religious beliefs that attribute their problem to "evil spirits" or somesuch may allow for calmness and acquiescence and a less stressful response.

hysteria -- too much vitamin A?

A week or so ago, I found myself in a conversation about the nature of mental health diagnosis. I've always found it interesting how no one is "hysterical" any more -- if you read books on psychology from a few decades ago, there's a great deal of discussion about that condition, where as it seems that now it's almost never discussed. I've always taken that as an indicator of how at least part of the concept of "mental illness" is a social construction.

However, I stumbled across this abstract of a paper in the journal Social Science & Medicine, which notes "Experimental and clinical studies of nonhumans and humans reveal somatic and behavioral effects of hypervitaminosis A which closely parallel many of the symptoms reported for Western patients diagnosed as hysterical and Inuit sufferers of pibloktoq ['arctic hysteria']. Eskimo nutrition provides abundant sources of vitamin A and lays the probable basis in some individuals for hypervitaminosis A through ingestion of livers, kidneys, and fat of arctic fish and mammals, where the vitamin often is stored in poisonous quantities." [emphasis added. -tms]

Excessive vitamin A is well known to be toxic, and can result in birth defects, liver abnormalities, and CNS disorders. There's also some evidence linking excessive intake with osteoporosis, but the picture is not clear.

T Pyxidis supernova could kill us all! (in 10,000,000 years or so)

Just in case you need something fresh to worry about: recent observations of T Pyxidis, a rare "recurrent nova" consisting of a white dwarf and a sun-like companion orbiting each other -- show that it is much closer than previously thought (just 3,260 light years) and that it could eventually (in about ten million years) go supernova.

A supernova that "close" (in cosmic terms) could alter our atmosphere and destroy the ozone layer, with cataclysmic results for life here on our pale blue dot.

were we eating grains 100,000 years ago?

Until fairly recently, it was generally thought that the use of grains for food was a Neolithic innovation, that we only started eating grain after we started farming. But around 2004, analysis of a 23,000 year old site in Israel showed that the inhabitants were eating wheat and barley, as well as small-grained grasses -- and even suggested that they were baking grain-flour dough back that far. That makes breaking bread an ancient tradition indeed.

Now comes evidence suggesting (but by no means proving) that human use of grains for food may go back as far as 105,000 years:

Two years ago, Mercader and colleagues excavated a cave in Mozambique called Ngalue. They uncovered an assortment of stone tools in a layer of sediment deposited on the cave floor 42,000 to 105,000 years ago. The tools can't be directly dated, but Mercader presumes that the ones buried deepest in the layer are at least 100,000 years old. Other researchers had identified tubers as an important food source during the Stone Age, so Mercader decided to check for starch residue on 70 stone tools from the cave, including scrapers, grinders, points, flakes, and drills.

About 80% of the tools had ample starchy residue, Mercader reports today in Science. The starches came from the African wine palm, the false banana, pigeon peas, wild oranges, and the African potato. But the vast majority--89%--came from sorghum, a grass that is still a dietary staple in many parts of Africa.

According to Mercader, the findings suggest that people living in Ngalue routinely brought starchy plants, including sorghum, to their cave. He doesn't have definitive evidence that they ate the grass but says it seems likely. "Why would you be bringing sorghum into the cave unless you are doing something with it?" he asks. "The simplest explanation is that it would be a food item."

climate change and the CRU break-in

Back in August, I said "Seems we can look forward to the same sort of lies, manipulation, and manufactured outrage about climate change we're currently enjoying about health care." I hate to say "I told you so", but as we see the same sort of wacko conspiracy theories and the same sort out-of-context quoting as was applied to the health care debate being applied to the stolen emails and documents from the Climate Research Unit at East Anglia University...well, I told you so.

So what's really going on here?

First, some background on the science. We know, as certainly as we know anything, that the greenhouse effect is real, that carbon dioxide, methane, ozone (essentially, ozone up high good, ozone down low bad), and CFCs are greenhouse gasses whose presence in the atmosphere makes the planet warmer.

We know for certain that human activity -- the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, certain agricultural techniques -- is adding to levels of these gasses. CO2 levels have risen from about 280 to nearly 380 ppm over the past century and a half, and this CO2 does not come from the oceans outgassing CO2. It's from burning fossil fuels and from deforestation.

These points are simply not open for debate among rational people. If you wish to dispute them, please go wait in line behind the creationists, the "death panel"ers, the "birthers", the "a missile hit the Pentagon and the WTC was brought down with a controlled demolition!" variety of "9/11 truthers", and the Holocaust deniers. Thanks.

We also know with a high degree of certainty that the planet is warming up. This conclusion takes us into the realm of history, which is never as certain as physics or chemistry -- we can't re-run history like we can a physics experiment. And our knowledge of history is very biased: we have the best data from regions where there were literate civilizations, and have to rely on paleontological methods for the rest of the world. Still, while the details are fuzzy, our certainty that the planet warming is very high. That doesn't mean that measured surface temperatures for every year will be warmer than the previous one, any more than every day in May is going to be warmer than the one before.

You can see some some pictures and some details of the temperature trends here and here.

Knowing that the planet is warming, and knowing that we're doing stuff that tends to make the planet warm up, most people would jump to the conclusion that the first is caused by the second.

But scientists are professional skeptics, and thus have to account for extraordinary possibilities. It could be merely a coincidence: the planet does have natural warming and cooling cycles and natural fluctuations in atmospheric CO2 levels. Real skeptics recognize that this would be an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence -- something on the order of claiming that "yes, Smith pointed a gun at Jones and pulled the trigger, and Jones got a hole in him and died, but the wound actually came from a meteorite that coincidentally hit that precise place at that exact time". Possible, but not something that's going to be accepted over the more usual explanation -- Smith shot Jones -- without some significant evidence.

Real skeptics remain open to the presentation of such evidence, but so far, none has come to light. Proposals that the warming can be accounted for by changes in cosmic rays or by changes in solar luminosity (i.e., the the sun getting brighter; see also Peter Laut's paper here) -- changes that would have to just happen to correspond with the uptick in industrial activity -- haven't panned out.

On the other hand, corporate shills, or those who hold to religious beliefs that their god gave mankind the planet to tear up like a spoiled kid messing up a fancy car, or that "property rights" or "markets" are more important than people, have strong incentive to deny the science. Instead they hold that the IPCC, NASA, NOAA, the National Academy of Sciences, the science academies of Brazil, China and India, and numerous other scientific organizations, are all engaged in a sinister conspiracy, with the apparent goal of undermining the national sovereignty of the U.S. and restricting it's God-given right to spew whatever it wants into the atmosphere, in order to...well, that part of the batshit crazy conspiracy theory has never been clear to me. I guess climatologists just hate freedom.

Given the politicization of science, and the prevalence of this sort of batshit crazy conspiracy theory, we can perhaps understand why some climatologists would express frustration -- even express it rudely -- in e-mail intended to be private, shop-talk between colleagues.

So, with that background, let's look at a few of the bits of stolen e-mail causing the most buzz. Time and space only permits me to refute a small part of the batshittery here, but if you want to dig deeper, the discussion threads at realclimate.org are a good place to start.

CBS: most "swine flu" cases not even flu

The H1N1 insanity continues: CBS News reports that the CDC advised states to stop testing for H1N1 flu and stopped counting individual cases back in July.

While we waited for CDC to provide the data, which it eventually did, we asked all 50 states for their statistics on state lab-confirmed H1N1 prior to the halt of individual testing and counting in July. The results reveal a pattern that surprised a number of health care professionals we consulted. The vast majority of cases were negative for H1N1 as well as seasonal flu, despite the fact that many states were specifically testing patients deemed to be most likely to have H1N1 flu, based on symptoms and risk factors, such as travel to Mexico.

...

With most cases diagnosed solely on symptoms and risk factors, the H1N1 flu epidemic may seem worse than it is. For example, on Sept. 22, this alarming headline came from Georgetown University in Washington D.C.: "H1N1 Flu Infects Over 250 Georgetown Students."

H1N1 flu can be deadly and an outbreak of 250 students would be an especially troubling cluster. However, the number of sick students came not from lab-confirmed tests but from "estimates" made by counting "students who went to the Student Health Center with flu symptoms, students who called the H1N1 hotline or the Health Center's doctor-on-call, and students who went to the hospital's emergency room."

California, for example, looked at 13,704 specimens from "swine flu" patients -- and found that 86% did not have influenza, 12% had non-H1N1 flu, and only 2% had H1N1.

We've previously mentioned how only a small percentage of "flu" cases are actually influenza, and how the CDC's figure of 36,000 flu deaths a year is fantasy.

36,000 people die from flu annually in the U.S? Probably not.

There's a statistic I've been hearing a lot lately: according to the CDC, 36,000 Americas die from the flu every year. Mostly I've been hearing this from (well-intentioned) people pushing flu vaccination.

(Please note that this figure is about the regular seasonal flu, not the H1N1 strain, and -- except for one note below -- I'm not commenting on H1N1 here.)

Now that's a heck of a figure. 36,000 a year? If that's right, then every two years more Americans die from flu than were killed in Vietnam -- there are 58,195 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.

2,993 people were killed in the 9/11 attacks: if the 36,000 figure is right, every year the flu is a dozen 9/11s.

Now, that seems odd. I'm too young to know anyone who died in Vietnam, but I knew two people who died in the 9/11 attacks. Of course, that's a non-random distribution -- I live on the East Coast -- but I don't think I know anyone who's died from the flu. If in my adult life I've lived through 240 9/11's worth of flu deaths, it seems like I ought to know somebody affected. These numbers don't seem to make sense, and my skeptic bone is starting to itch.

So where does this 36,000 figure come from? Do they actually test people who die from flu-like symptoms for the influenza virus and count them? Well, no. According to their own website, "CDC does not know exactly how many people die from seasonal flu each year."

And they also admit that the 36,000 figure is not deaths caused by flu, but "flu-related" deaths:

Seasonal flu-related deaths are deaths that occur in people for whom seasonal influenza infection was likely a contributor to the cause of death, but not necessarily the primary cause of death.

Keep this in mind as you hear about deaths supposedly from the H1N1 pandemic: most of these will never be verified by any hard evidence that H1N1 infection was the primary cause of death. Instead, the more people think the H1N1 is a killer, the more they will attribute ambiguous deaths to H1N1. It's the same principle that makes the Law of Fives work.

So the CDC's 36,000 figure is not based on actually counting deaths caused by flu, but based on the use of a statistical model to guess at the number of "flu-related" deaths, because otherwise they'd get (in their opinion) too low of a count:

Möbius strip building

I don't know if it will prove at all practical, but if it does, the Möbius strip-shaped library building proposed for Astana, Kazakhstan may be the coolest building ever.

For those with a low math-geek quotient, a Möbius strip is a surface, like a strip of paper, given a half-twist and formed into a ring. In this way one side becomes the other -- in effect, the strip only has one side!

In the case of this building, the exterior is continuous with the central courtyard, and the walls become the roof.

UK offers apology for treament of Turing

Alan Turing was one of the most brilliant mathematicians of the Twentieth Century -- indeed, one of most brilliant mathematicians ever. During World War II he was instrumental in breaking the Nazi's "Enigma" code. In the process, he developed much of the theoretical framework for the field of computer science. The mathematical model of computers that every comp sci major learns about, the "Turning machine", was his invention. Every time you use a computer -- such as reading this -- you are benefiting from his genius.

But let's get back to the fact that he helped defeat the Nazis and thus helped save the UK, and all of Western civilization.

Usually, people who help save a nation are treated with gratitude. But Turing was gay.

In the homophobic society in which he lived, that was a crime. His security clearance was revoked, he was prosecuted, and sentenced to "chemical castration" via hormone injections. In 1954, he committed suicide.

Over 55 years later, the UK has finally apologized for its wretched treatment of this heroic genius.

and I thought the right-wing pundits were crazy....

I've heard so much insanity from the politicians and pundits lately that it's refreshing to see some good ol' fashioned non-partisan crazy. Check out Alfred Lambremont Webre's claim that NASA is bombing extraterrestrial civilizations on the moon:

The NASA moon bombing, a component of the LCROSS mission, may also trigger conflict with known extraterrestrial civilizations on the moon as reported on the moon in witnessed statements by U.S. astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, and in witnessed statements to NSA (National Security Agency) photos and documents regarding an extraterrestrial base on the dark side of the moon.

If the true intent of the LCROSS mission moon bombing is a hostile act by NASA against known extraterrestrial civilizations and settlements on the moon, then NASA and by extension the U.S. government are guilty of aggressive war which is the most serious of war crimes under the U.N. Charter and the Geneva Conventions, to which the U.S. is subject.

LCROSS, the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, is a real mission. And it is indeed going to crash into the moon -- just like meteors do all the time. But it's going to crash into the south lunar pole, where there might, in the shadow of a crater, be water ice. NASA is going to see if there's any water in the dust kicked up.

It's not going to hit the "dark side". So and ETs bases there are safe. (Chuckle.) Anyway, they would have to be dug in deep to protect themselves against natural impacts. Most of those natural impactors are of course much smaller, but are also traveling orders of magnitude faster. We're making this one happen where and when we want, but impact-wise, this is no big deal for the moon.

As for claims that Aldrin and Armstrong saw ET spaceships: rubbish. They saw a adapter panel from their upper stage, didn't know what it was at first (thus it was, literally, a UFO -- or perhaps more precisely, an unidentified orbiting object -- for a time), but later identified it.

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