Monsanto may be gone, but the lawsuits against the former agricultural company live on. When German life sciences company Bayer acquired the agribusiness behemoth earlier this year, they inherited around $15 billion in revenues, $2.2 billion in profits, as well as at least 8,000 lawsuits. Most recently, Northern California groundskeeper Dewayne "Lee" Johnson, who sadly is dying of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, successfully garnered $78 million from the company after winning a civil suit contending that chronic exposure to Monsanto's weedkiller Roundup caused his cancer, even though his claim sharply conflicts with a mountain of scientific evidence.
Jury judgments such as these are unfortunately based on poor thinking rather than reasoned thought. Fear of supposedly insidious chemicals and GMOs, all created by "Monsatan," drives people to irrational decisions.
Perhaps the best example of this occurred back in 2011. The Organic Seed Growers & Trade Association (OSGTA), a group representing a quarter of the nation's organic farmers, sued Monsanto to "protect themselves from being accused of patent infringement should [their crops] ever become contaminated by Monsanto's genetically modified seed." Yes, organic farmers were suing Monsanto in order to prevent themselves from being sued by Monsanto.
In court, they claimed that Monsanto sues organic farmers when genetically modified soybean, corn, cotton, sugar beet, and canola seeds blow into organic crops and germinate. They further claimed that this threat had sowed a "climate of fear" throughout the organic farming community.
Medical education in the United States is generally regarded to be the finest in the world, and for that, you can thank Abraham Flexner. In 1910, the Louisville native and education reformer published an in-depth, damning, and eye-opening report on the state of American medical schools. In the quarter-century after the Flexner Report's publication, the entire medical profession was dissected, examined, and reforged, transforming from an unregulated free-for-all to an expert, science-based endeavor.
American medical education was in a sorry state in the early 20th century. More than 160 institutions pumped out 4,400 graduates each year, most of whom were woefully undertrained and received uneven instruction. With no agreed upon standards, many schools focused on pseudoscientific fields like electrotherapy, homeopathy, chiropractic, and naturopathy. For a patient seeking medical attention, there was no standard of care, just a daunting morass.
Seeking to cure this sickness was philanthropist and business magnate Andrew Carnegie. In the waning years of his long and fruitful life, Carnegie dedicated himself to giving away much of his amassed fortune, which tallied near $400 billion in today's dollars. One mission he particularly deemed worthy was improving healthcare in America. As part of this goal, he turned to Abraham Flexner.
Henry Pritchett, head of the Carnegie Foundation, heard about Flexner by reading his first book, The American College, which heavily criticized lectures as a method of teaching. At his own experimental college preparatory school, Flexner promoted hands-on learning and eschewed traditional tests and grades. Impressed, Pritchett tasked Flexner with surveying the quality of medical schools throughout America and Canada and providing suggestions for their improvement.
The 1950s, 60s, and 70s were perhaps the golden age of UFO sightings in the United States. Futuristic advances in technology, thought-provoking science fiction, deep government distrust, and copious psychedelic drugs all combined to produce widespread visions of otherworldly airborne objects.
But this wasn't the first time that thousands of Americans were astonished by strange events in the sky. Between the 1880s and early 1900s, Americans from California to Boston were convinced they saw "airships" and flying "machines" buzzing the skies. Mind you, many of these accounts came out well before the Wright brothers flew the world's first powered aircraft over a distance of just 120 feet. Some airship sightings described great dirigibles with passengers onboard. Others simply reported moving lights in the night sky. One even told of an alien craft more than 150-feet long, completely featureless apart from its rudder.
Some journalists and newspapers were skeptical, but many more published the accounts uncritically to captivated readers. In the winter of 1909, during what can only be described as an "outbreak" of airship sightings in New England, tens of thousands of people claimed to see all manner of flying objects performing feats no aircraft of the day came close to accomplishing.
"It all began on 12 December, when prominent Worcester businessman Wallace Tillinghast told a Boston Herald reporter he had invented the world's first reliable heavier-than-air flying machine," Stephen Whalen and Robert E. Bartholomew recounted in the New England Quarterly.
Gwyneth Paltrow's lifestyle brand Goop claims to be "open-minded," and they want you to be, too, especially when it comes to the blatantly BS products that they sell. Never mind that there's no reputable evidence that Goop's overpriced vitamins, supplements, potions, and gadgets actually work. If you're open to the possibility that they work, then maybe they will...
But Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop completely misunderstand what it means to be open-minded. They seem to think that open-mindedness means being willing to believe that jade eggs will revitalize one's vagina (when inserted, of course), that bottled crystals boost spirituality and healing, that monk oil supports a "sexy inner-knowing," and that essential oil will "rejuvenate and shift energy as it treats the skin." But believing in this sort of magical mumbo jumbo doesn't making you open-minded. It simply makes you gullible.
"Being open-minded also means being open to the possibility that a claim is wrong. It doesn't mean assuming every claim is true or refusing to ever conclude that something is simply false. If the evidence leads to the conclusion that a claim is false or a phenomenon does not exist, then a truly open-minded person accepts that conclusion... Open-mindedness works in both ways."
For as long as men have noticed their penises, they've been trying to make them larger. Admittedly, there's no actual evidence to back that assertion, but it's probably a fairly safe assumption. There is, however, plenty of evidence that modern techniques for penis enlargement are mostly pseudoscience, and you should steer clear of them.
To achieve a phallus like that of Priapus, a Greek god of fertility, unscrupulous purveyors sell all sorts of supplements, devices, and injectables. The vast majority do not work and may actually cause harm.
Dietary supplements are most commonly purchased, and are widely accessible via nutrition stores and online retailers like Amazon. AlphaMAN XL pills promise that their ingredients, including "Macuna Pruriens (L-Dopa), Polypodium Vulgare, Yohimbe Bark, Saw Palmetto, Muira Puama, L-Arginine & Panax Ginseng," will provide "2+ Inches in 60 days." Extensions IV goes farther, advertising up to a "4 inch gain," a bold claim indeed, as that would nearly double the length of the normal erect penis. The makers of each supplement present no evidence to back their claims, and if they did, it would almost certainly be fraudulent. Boosting the size of your penis through dietary means is physiologically implausible; it's simply not how the body works.
While dietary supplements won't do much for your penis, they do have the potential to cause bodily harm. Between 2007 and 2016, at least 776 supplements were found to be adulterated with unstudied or unsafe ingredients. Almost half of these supplements were meant to enhance sexual performance.
Dark matter supposedly makes up 85% of the matter in the universe, but so far, efforts to catch hypothesized dark matter particles have all ended in failure. Weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs) are no-shows at grand experiments housed in Italy, Canada, and the United States. Even tinier axions have not been detected either. Neutralinos, born out of supersymmetry, may look nice on paper but so far have no bearing on reality.
By definition, dark matter is hard to find, but its glaring absence is growing harder and harder to ignore. As Korey Haynes pointed out at Discover:
Decades ago, scientists were confident about the existence of the “luminiferous aether” as a medium to carry light. Now, that’s looked back on as a clumsy belief that should have been dropped far earlier than it was. Scientists persisted because they were sure that light, like sound, required a medium to move through in spite of the evidence piling up against that concept. Having been fooled once, scientists have to ask: Is dark matter the new ether?
Astrophysicist and blogger Ethan Siegel thinks that claim is overblown.
A cloud of controversy hovers over scientific research on transgender identity, but not necessarily because of the research itself. Ideologues threatened and unsettled by gender fluidity question research they don't like, while activists on the opposite side do the same. Bias is antithetical to properly assessing scientific findings, so slanted discussions often don't get anywhere.
Today, I'll turn to the scientific literature to tackle three controversial questions about transgender identity.
1. Can gender dysphoria, in which a person's gender identity does not match their gender assigned at birth, be affected by social factors?
Maybe. A recent study published to PLoS ONE drew condemnation from some and praise from others. Lisa Littman, an Assistant Professor of the Practice of Behavioral and Social Sciences at Brown University, surveyed 256 parents of teens experiencing rapid-onset gender dysphoria. The collected surveys revealed that gender dysphoria was linked to a prior increase in social media/Internet use and "seemed to occur in the context of belonging to a peer group where one, multiple, or even all of the friends have become gender dysphoric and transgender-identified during the same timeframe." This suggests that social interactions may affect feelings of gender dysphoria.
The Ancient Egyptians were quite fond of mummification, and not only of humans. In fact, far, far more animals were ritually preserved than people. Cats were revered and thus were regular targets. The process supposedly allowed the beloved pets to travel to the afterlife with their masters. Felines were also sacrificed and preserved as religious offerings, often to the cat-like goddess Bastet. Archaeologists unearthed so many cat mummies that by the end of the 19th century more than 19 metric tons worth were shipped to England for use as fertilizer.
Another animal, the ibis, was mummified on an even greater scale. Over four million of the distinct birds were buried at the catacombs of Tune el-Gebel alone! Half a million more have been unearthed at Saqqara, the great necropolis for the Ancient Egyptian capital Memphis.
The finds understandably excited 19th century archaeologists, but they also fascinated naturalists. After all, here was a bounty of 2,000 to 3,000-year-old exquisitely preserved specimens to study! But out of the research erupted controversy. As Australian scientists Caitlin Curtis, Craig D. Millar, and David M. Lambert recently recounted in PLoS Biology, the mummified birds sparked what may have been the first true debate about evolution.
The learned dispute pitted two giants of biology against one another. French naturalist Georges Cuvier, who is sometimes called the "founding father of paleontology," faced off against Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, best remembered for his now disproved theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics. However, in the "Sacred Ibis debate," Lamarck was on the correct side of history.
Exercise may be the best thing you can do for your health. Habitual exercise supports a healthy weight, prevents cardiovascular disease, treats type II diabetes, slows the progression of Alzheimer's, alleviates depression, and helps you sleep, among many other benefits.
But is exercise such a great thing for testicular health?
That's the focus of a new review paper published to the European Journal of Applied Physiology. University of Aveiro researchers Bárbara Matos, Rita Ferreira, and Margarida Fardilha teamed up with John Howl, a Professor of Molecular Pharmacology at the University of Wolverhampton, to parse through the mixed literature on testicular function and exercise.
To briefly summarize, physical activity is generally beneficial for male reproductive health, especially if it treats obesity, but certain types of exercise and overtraining can produce negative effects. Now let's dig in to specifics.
Aristotle, Plato, and Pythagoras are hailed as intellectual giants and great founders of scientific thought, and it would be difficult to deny them this lofty description. In the 500s BC, Pythagoras was one of the first to recognize that the Earth was a sphere, he came up with the term "cosmos" to describe the universe, and he laid the groundwork for mathematics. Plato subsequently formed Western philosophy as it is known today. His student, Aristotle, immersed himself in astronomy, biology, physics, and geology, and made bountiful observations in all those fields. He hypothesized, gathered data, and formed conclusions, though he never eactually performed experiments.
Yet despite the collective accomplishments of Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle, astrophysicist and legendary science communicator Carl Sagan was not a fan.
The trio flourished during a time of great awakening on the Greek islands. At the same time, another less heralded Greek philosopher, Democritus, was making profound discoveries as well. He was the first to recognize that everything is made of of infinitesimally small parts with spaces between them – atoms. He advocated experiment, insisting that mere perception through the senses is insufficient to arrive at true knowledge.
"Pythagoras had a very different method. He believed that laws of nature can be deduced by pure thought. He and his followers... were thoroughgoing mystics," Carl Sagan said in Cosmos.
The New England Patriots quite predictably kicked off their 2018 National Football League campaign with a win on Sunday. As the victories add up, they're sure to make this year their 18th winning season in a row, a success almost certainly followed by yet another trip to the playoffs (their tenth in a row), and subsequently followed by an extended run in the postseason. One has to wonder if this all-too-predictable plot ever gets boring for Patriots fans...
For everyone else, it's easy to despise the Patriots for their success, their aura of smugness, and for Tom Brady's repeated peddling of pseudoscientific BS. There's one thing the team should be admired for, however: they win because they actually heed science's findings about football.
Football is a game steeped in tradition, and for coaches and general managers, relying on game sense and intuition has long been the norm. But these vague abilities are easily influenced by myth, anecdotes, and cognitive bias. Hard data provides far better guidance. The Patriots seem to recognize this, and fill their organization with numbers wonks who actually act on what evidence tells them.
This wise strategy begins before the season even begins, with who the Patriots select to be on their team in the NFL draft. Unlike many other teams, which pursue prized players like puzzle pieces and sometimes trade away multiple players and draft picks to get them, the Patriots tend to diversify. Like investors putting their money into a range of stocks rather than going for broke on a couple, the Patriots regularly trade away their higher picks in the first round for more selections in the 2nd and 3rd rounds (there are seven rounds in total.) This is right in line with what economists Cade Massey and Richard Thaler found in a study they published back in 2005. The duo showed that players selected in the first round receive outsized salaries for what they actually accomplish. At the same time, players in the second and third rounds tend to be paid much less but still perform nearly as well on the playing field.
Many children first curiously gaze up at the night sky to "connect the dots." When they do, they see a wondrous array of pictures: animals, hunters, objects, gods... the stars are alive!
To kids in North America, one of the most recognizable pictures is the Big Dipper. Formed of the stars Dubhe, Merak, Phecda, Megrez, Alioth, Mizar, and Alkaid, the ladle-like image is actually part of the larger constellation Ursa Major. The Big Dipper is not an official constellation; it's an asterism, basically an unofficial constellation.
And since it is unofficial, that means cultures all over the world see the Big Dipper quite differently. In Germany, Scandinavia, Romania, Hungary, and Italy, children are introduced to the set of stars as an enormous wagon.
Some in China see Wenchang Wang, a Taoist deity, accompanied by two attendants.
Every day, tens of millions of Americans sit atop a foul cesspit of waste for minutes or even hours, not considering the awful risks to which they are exposing themselves. The toilet may seem innocuous and even funny to most, but in truth, it's anything but.
In 2008 alone, 234,094 nonfatal injuries occurred in American bathrooms, a quarter of them near the toilet. A rare few deaths happened as well. Bruises to the buttocks and dislocations of the hip occur when sitting or falling down on an unforgiving toilet seat. Hemorrhoids result from straining to defecate.
Also of concern are chemicals used to sanitize toilets. Bleaches and other cleaning solutions are poisonous if consumed, and may increase your risk of cancer if you use them. Moreover, the onset of childhood autism closely follows potty training. There might be a link.
Toilet proponents might shrug off the risks of noxious chemicals. They also might suggest installing wall-mounted grab bars, buying "Squatty Potties," or using child seats to minimize physical dangers, but those fixes are mere bandaids sure to fall off. There's a simpler solution: why don't we just do away with toilets and instead defecate and urinate outdoors?
Feathers work remarkably well for flight. Fairly rigid, yet light, with a lot of surface area to push against air molecules, they permit birds to soar to great heights. Yet scientists are now starting to realize that feathers did not originally evolve for flight. Case in point, paleontologists are now finding feathers on dinosaurs whose size rendered them incapable of leaving the ground for anything more than a leap. Turns out, the same properties that make feathers great for flying also make them wonderful for insulation.
This makes feathers a quintessential example of a process called exaptation. While it seems they originally evolved to help maintain body temperature, their form and function has since adapted for flight.
"Exaptation is rampant in evolution," writes Anastasia Thanukos of the University of California Museum of Paleontology. "Any evolutionary process that involves co-opting a trait for a new function results in an exaptation. This means that all reasonably complex traits are likely to represent a layering of exaptations and adaptations."
The earliest ancestors of turtles likely evolved shells not for protection, but to serve as platforms for burrowing underground. Legs seem neatly adapted for locomotion on land, but leg-like limbs were present in a 375-million-year-old fish known as Tiktaalik, and were likely used for propping the fish up in shallow water. There are exaptations in genes, too. A gene called Distal-less controls coloration on the wings of butterflies, but since it's found in many other animals, it likely had different jobs in the ancient past. Human symbolic thinking may even be an exaptation, argues paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall, since the brain regions that control it evolved long before signs of language or art first appeared in the archaeological record.
Scarcely a week goes by without some public discussion of superbugs, new contagions, or disease outbreaks. Humans fear the insidious threats we cannot see. But we are not the only species to experience devastation at the hands of an infectious foe. Here are four horrifying animal diseases:
Hendra Virus: In Australia, it's hard to find a veterinarian who doesn't subtly wince at the word "Hendra." Harmless enough on paper and fragile outside a host, Hendra virus is anything but harmless in horses. A slight wobble in an equine's step coupled with listlessness in its demeanor are the initial signs of infection, followed by rapid deterioration and death. Hendra kills 80 percent of horses it infects, and can even rarely cross over into humans, where it kills with similar efficiency. It's for this reason that many veterinarians will not treat a horse with symptoms of Hendra if the animal has not been previously vaccinated.
Chytridiomycosis: According to at least one group of scientists, it's “the worst infectious disease ever recorded among vertebrates in terms of the number of species impacted, and its propensity to drive them to extinction." Chytridiomycosis is caused by two types of chytrid fungi, and it has infected about 30% of all amphibian species in the entire world. Three percent of all frog species have gone extinct because of it. Chytridiomycosis affects the skin of amphibians, often causing it to thicken. Having "thick skin" may be seen as beneficial to humans, but to amphibians, it's deadly, as many species absorb nutrients, release toxins, and even breathe through their skin.
White-Nose Syndrome: A dusty cap of white fungus resembling a dab of powdered sugar is the hallmark sign of of this syndrome, which began infecting North American bats back in 2006. Since then, white-nose syndrome has laid waste to bat populations in 33 U.S. states and seven Canadian provinces, sweeping mechanically and menacingly across the continent from where it originated in New York. The aptly named Pseudogymnoascus destructans is the architect of the deadly disease. The fungus erodes the skin of bats, particularly on the wings, leaving the little critters with open wounds. Infection eventually results in weight loss, dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, and death. At least 5.7 million bats have died as of 2012. That number has surely elevated into the tens of millions by now.
Mercury is a mesmerizing element. Liquid at room temperature, yet dense enough that coins will float atop its surface, it has wowed a great many students in high school science classes over the decades.
Unfortunately, it is also incredibly toxic, releasing vapors that can acutely destabilize the central nervous system and, over time, damage the brain, kidney, and lungs, sparking symptoms like tremors, vision impairment, hearing impairment, speech impairment, as well as death.
Gallium closely mimics mercury's otherworldly appearance, though unfortunately lacks its prodigious density. But what gallium lacks in mass, it makes up for with other fascinating properties. Its melting point is roughly 85.7 degrees Fahrenheit, meaning it can be melted in the palm of one's hand, molded to form a shape, then quickly returned to solid form in a refrigerator. Gallium is also one of the few materials that expands when it solidifies, a trait only shared with water, silicon, germanium, antimony, bismuth, and plutonium.
Over the last three years, Theranos has toppled from a $9 billion company to bankruptcy. As Wall Street Journal investigative reporter John Carreyrou exposed, the company's proprietary blood-testing technology never really worked. Founder Elizabeth Holmes, who was heralded as the next Steve Jobs, raised close to a billion dollars from investors by sharing her dream of replacing needle blood draws with less painful fingerpricks for medical testing, but it was a dream that never was fully realized. In touting that fake figment of her imagination for over a decade, she defrauded investors, misled regulators, and put patients at risk. For her misdeeds, Holmes has been fined $500,000, barred from leadership in a public company for ten years, and was recently indicted on charges of wire fraud and conspiracy.
One of Theranos' most appalling missteps was launching their blood testing technology to the public in dozens of Walgreens stores even though many at the company knew that it produced inaccurate results. Holmes' hasty and haphazard actions exposed as many as 176,000 customers to compromised health information. Some patients were diagnosed with life-threatening conditions they never actually had, prompting them to receive unneeded medical tests, incur unnecessary costs, and experience psychological trauma.
For lying to and endangering consumers, Theranos' fall was much deserved. Another, comparable industry deserves to share that fate: homeopathy.
On face value, Theranos and homeopathy may seem worlds apart. One is a medical testing company born in Silicon Valley. The other is an alternative medicine which suggests that taking toxic compounds diluted to obscurity in water can cure the ailments they might otherwise cause. But at their cores, both homeopathy and Theranos aim to shake up the evidence-based medical establishment with wild, false claims that put the public at risk. Homeopathic products are physiologically implausible and do not work, yet there are "remedies" available for potentially life-threatening conditions like asthma attacks, influenza, and cancer. Studies show that alternative medicine like homeopathy dissuades cancer patients from pursuing evidence-based treatments. People who choose alternative medicine to treat their cancers experience rates of death between two and five times higher than patients electing conventional therapies.
Earlier this year, a young American veteran of the War in Afghanistan became the first person to receive a successful total penis and scrotum transplant. A medical team at Johns Hopkins Hospital performed the complicated, 14-hour procedure.
To date, five individuals have received penis transplants, one in China, two in South Africa, and two in the United States. Each event is vigorously reported in the popular press, but as is typical, the coverage often contains more cheerleading than context.
In a recent article published to the journal European Urology, Johns Hopkins University urologist Hiten D. Patel provides that missing context, along with some skepticism.
"In the wake of the world's fifth human penile allotransplantation, an important question resurfaces—what in the world are we doing?" he writes.
Space is brutally inhospitable to human life, so it's a small wonder that out of the 561 people who have ventured beyond the safety of Earth, only three have died there. Five times as many have perished due to crashes or explosions when rocketing away from our planet or re-entering its atmosphere.
The three brave spacefarers who lost their lives in space were cosmonauts Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev. All three died on the Soyuz 11 mission of Jun 1971.
While Soyuz 11 ended in sadness, the vast majority of the mission progressed gloriously. Dobrovolsky, Volkov, and Patsayev lived aboard Russia's Salyut 1 Space Station, the very first space station, for twenty-three days, setting the record for the longest stay in outer space at the time. During their mission, the bold cosmonauts wowed Russians back on Earth with live television broadcasts, projecting hope and depicting a bright future. Patsayev also became the first man to operate a telescope in space. The spectrograms he produced of the stars Vega and Beta Centauri with the station's ultraviolet telescope were later published in the journal Nature.
On March 16, 1926 in Auburn, Massachusetts, American engineer Robert Goddard launched the first liquid-fueled rocket. The flight lasted a mere 2.5 seconds and ended anticlimactically 181 feet away in a snow-covered cabbage field, but it would prove to be one of the most significant flights in history.
Ninety-two years later, liquid-fueled rockets are the norm for spaceflight. Towering, explosive behemoths standing sixty times taller than Goddard's original rocket blast humans beyond the boundaries of Earth's atmosphere. Each launch is a true spectacle, offering testament again and again to humankind's collective potential to transcend barriers and reach new heights through brains and cooperation.
But will rockets remain our primary transportation to space into the far flung future? Or will they eventually be replaced by new methods and technologies?
Rockets, after all, are far from perfect. Seven astronauts have died during launches. By chemical engineer Don Pettit's calculation, "sitting on top of a rocket is more dangerous than sitting on a bottle of gasoline!" He ought to know, he's done it a few times. Pettit has flown five missions to the International Space Station and has tallied 369 days, 16 hours, and 41 minutes in space. At age 62, he's NASA's oldest active astronaut.