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Science Roundup: Jan. 26, 2006

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On the Moral Innocence of Plant Life

This retraction references an article that I posted earlier.

The most frequent misinterpretation we find in the media is that emissions of methane from plants are responsible for global warming. As those emissions from plants are a natural source, they have existed long before man’s influence started to impact upon the composition of the atmosphere. It is the anthropogenic emissions which are responsible for the well-documented increasing atmospheric concentrations of methane since pre-industrial times. Emissions from plants thus contribute to the natural greenhouse effect and not to the recent temperature increase known as ‘global warming’. Even if land use practices have altered plant methane emissions, which we did not demonstrate, this would also count as an anthropogenic source, and the plants themselves cannot be deemed responsible.

Perhaps I am reading too much into this but my suspicion is that the Max Planck people got themselves a bit of hate mail causing them to go into full backpedal mode. In any case, they qualify their earlier findings with the statements that 1) the effect is not large and 2) humans are still responsible for all the bad gases. Given their calculations at the end of this article I will buy the first proposition.

With respect to number 2, methane is methane is methane, whether it comes from us or a plant. Assuming global warming is true (I am not going to argue for or against primarily because I do not also want to receive hate mail), methane was a greenhouse gas before we were here and is one now. So unless they are labeling all the methane the plants are making or this methane behaves in a physically different manner than the rest, the plants are warming up the planet too.

I love the need for this qualification, especially at the end when even the plants that we planted are not responsible. Has this debate about global warming become so harsh and perverse that it relies on the moral worth of flora?

Wow, ‘Panda Porn,’ There’s An Image for You

After Thailand’s most popular animal couple failed to mate, zoo officials are gearing up for plan B — a DVD they hope will get Chuang Chuang and Lin Hui in the mood for love.

The pandas’ first mating season — a three-day window — came last week. Despite a widely-publicized encounter between Chuang Chuang, a 6-year-old male, and 5-year-old Lin Hui, the mating apparently was unsuccessful.


Because of that, Prasertsak has prepared a DVD of pandas having sexual intercourse to show the couple, hoping the demonstration — call it panda porn — will inspire them to make a love connection.

I don’t know if I really need to comment on this. It doesn’t really need help. I guess if that porn doesn’t work they could always try toys. I shudder to think what those would be…

Two Economists: American Deficit = Dark Matter, Jake: Two Economist’s Brains = Dark Matter

Most economists conclude that America earns a higher return on its overseas assets (eg, EuroDisney) than foreigners earn on investments in America (eg, Rockefeller Centre). They don their anoraks, immerse themselves in the data and try to work out why this might be so. Messrs Hausmann and Sturzenegger turn the question on its head. It is not the $36.2 billion of income that is the mystery, they say. The anomaly lies in the $2.5 trillion of debt. If America is still coming out ahead of foreigners, then, contrary to popular belief, it must still be a net creditor. America must have more foreign wealth than we can see.

The two authors have borrowed a name for this invisible wealth: dark matter. In theoretical physics, dark matter is the stuff in the universe that we can identify only by its gravitational pull. For the Harvard economists, dark matter is foreign wealth, the existence of which we can infer from the income it provides.

How much of it is out there? You can calculate a price for an asset from the earnings it provides. Messrs Hausmann and Sturzenegger elect to value America’s net foreign assets at 20 times their annual earnings, which corresponds to a 5% rate of return. Valued at this ratio, America’s national “portfolio” of foreign assets and liabilities is really worth $724 billion, not minus $2.5 trillion. What is more, if its foreign assets are as stable as the authors say, it follows that “the country has not been running a deficit.”


Not all physicists regard dark matter as an elegant theoretical solution to the mysteries of the universe. Many think it is a bit of a fudge. Just a few months before the concept was introduced into economics, two theorists were hoping to dispel it from physics. Physicists, you see, expect beauty as well as truth from their theories. Economists, alas, must settle for one or the other.

Um…I don’t know if you economists knew this…but we sort of made dark matter up. We got lazy one day doing long addition, and when the answer didn’t work out we just added something in. Right now the experimental evidence about the nature of dark matter is about as solid as that for the existence of elves and fairies. Under the circumstances, using a concept we made up to suggest that the deficit doesn’t exist may not be wise.

Omega-3 Jamboree

Omega-3 Does Not Prevent Cancer, Review

Omega-3 fatty acids probably do not help prevent any type of cancer, according to a review that evaluated every cited study looking into the question.

“Taking dietary supplements or regularly consuming fish doesn’t appear to reduce the risk of developing cancer,” says Catherine MacLean, of RAND Health in Santa Monica, California, US, who led the study.


MacLean and her colleagues scoured the literature for studies on omega-3 consumption and cancer incidence. After reviewing 5145 papers, they found 38 that were prospective studies observing how omega-3 consumption affected the risk of cancer over time.

Several studies looked at omega-3 consumption and breast cancer and, while some found favourable associations, others found the opposite.

Similarly, nine studies looked into omega-3s and colorectal cancer, seven investigated prostate cancer, three examined lung cancer and two each looked at lymphoma, ovarian cancer and pancreatic cancer. Again, there were trends found in both directions. A study on skin cancer actually found a small but statistically significant increased risk, though MacLean suspects that it is experimental “noise”.

Listen people. Let me tell you a little secret about what gives you cancer. Life gives you cancer. Living in a world being continually doused in gamma and UV rays gives you cancer. And unfortunately food is probably not going to be enough to stop it — not vitamin C or no carbs or Omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega-3 is a great example of confusion about correlation and causation. Scientists observe that countries that eat large amounts of fish get less of certain types of cancers. They conclude that perhaps the fish consumption and cancer reduction are related. This does not necessarily mean that they are. It could be that all the people eating a lot of fish are also running around the block a hundred times. It could be that whatever environmental toxin is giving people cancer is simply not present in their country. Or it could mean that Omega-3 does actually prevent cancer, but you have to take it at doses that no normal person would ever consume. Who knows…

The problem is not that scientists are exploring these possibilities. The problem is when some people (particular those working at supplement companies) assume that these statements are true and start marketing them. Soon everyone is eating fish oil, and my world is permeated with that lovely fish oil smell that we all like so much. And there is still a whole lot of cancer.

Here is another article on this Omega-3 business:

Omega-3 Linked to Child Intelligence

Perhaps the most startling finding was that the children of those women who had consumed the smallest amounts of omega-3 fatty acids during their pregnancies had verbal IQs six points lower than average. That may not sound much, but it would have a serious effect on a country’s brainpower if it were widespread. And the finding is particularly pertinent because existing dietary advice to pregnant women, at least in America, is that they should limit their consumption of seafood in order to avoid exposing their fetuses to trace amounts of brain-damaging methyl mercury. Ironically, that means they avoid one of the richest sources of omega-3s.

Dr Hibbeln, however, says his work shows that the benefits of eating such fish vastly outweigh the risks from the mercury in them. Indeed, in the Avon study, it was those children exposed to the lowest levels of methyl mercury who were at greatest risk of having low verbal IQ.

The researchers’ second finding was that at 3½ years of age, those children with the best measures of fine-motor performance were the ones whose mothers had had the highest intake of omega-3s. Their third finding was that a low intake of omega-3s during pregnancy led to higher levels of pathological social interactions such as an inability to make friends as a child grew up.


Some caution is needed. Studies such as this one, which rely on correlating one variable with another, are not enough to draw firm conclusions on their own, since correlation is not necessarily causation. But these results are supported by several lines of data. One is that the graphs show “dose response” curves—in other words, different levels of omega-3s have different effects. There is also a lot of experimental work showing that omega-3s have behavioural effects on adults. One of Dr Hibbeln’s other studies, for example, showed that omega-3 supplements given to violent alcoholics reduced their anger levels by a third within three months.

This is more logic that I find somewhat questionable. Just because you need something for appropriate development of a fetus does not mean that taking more of it makes your kid smarter. There are lots of things pregnant women need — like folate. Omega-3 might be necessary for correct development, but may not have other effects. This can cause low IQ at the low end that simulates dose response.

I also don’t believe that alcoholic business at all. Nutrition makes alcoholics less violent. Most alcoholics’ general nutrition is so poor that they show up to the ER with chronic B12 deficiency — which gives you a whole special kind of crazy called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (look it up). I want to see evidence that they just didn’t give them a warm meal along with their Omega-3 dose.

Laughter Paves the Way for Romance or A Questionable Statement That I Would Nonetheless Like You to Believe

The idea that funny people are attractive may seem obvious. But there have been very few scientific studies to examine whether or not this is true.

Eric Bressler of Westfield State College, Massachusetts, and colleague Sigal Balshine of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, did this by asking more than 200 male and female college students to examine photos of members of the opposite sex. Some had funny quotes pinned beneath them, such as: ‘My high school was so rough we had our own coroner.’ Others had bland ones: ‘I’d rather walk to school than take the bus.’

Women ranked the humorous men as better potential partners, the researchers found – and as more friendly, fun and popular. Men’s view of a woman, on the other hand, appeared to be uninfluenced by her wit.

Bressler suspected that men and women do, in fact, both value a sense of humour in a mate, but that they might be looking for slightly different things: women valuing an ability to be funny and men valuing an ability to see the joke.


According to one theory, proposed by psychologist Geoffrey Miller at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, women prefer funny men because their wit reveals an active and healthy brain – and a fine set of underlying genes. “It’s a very powerful and reliable way to show creativity and intelligence,” Miller says.

Yeah, that’s right ladies. I also enjoy long walks and candlelight. Feel free to email me anytime to get some of my highly evolved mate quality.

Incidentally, the subtitle on Nature for this article is “Studies suggest humour signals big brain and good partner-potential.” This paper presents absolutely no evidence for this assertion. What it apparently shows is that women were not lying when they said that they like funny men. This does not in any way prove that they actually are better mates for any objective reason.

It is, however, convenient for me personally for women to think this; therefore, I will say without qualification that men who are funny are not only better mates but have huge members. This study definitely proves it.

A little personal plug. My site has moved to http://www.purepedantry.com. Feel free to visit. If you do you will notice that we have added a podcast in where I discuss most of this stuff along with why the movie Underworld is really, really bad.

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  • Very funny ! especially the panda porn thingy 😉