sitting skeleton

Remember when sitting was the new smoking and pop sci blogs constantly told you that should you fail to get a standing desk, say goodbye to years off your life? And so you rushed out to get some sort of a conversion kit so you can stand at your current desk, or petitioned your boss for new office furniture to ward off the Grim Reaper and diligently stood while you worked so you’d dodge diabetes, hypertension, and all the other health problems related to the great evil of your glutes meeting cushions. If you’re feeling tired and sore from all that standing around, here are some good news and bad news. The good news is that you can finally afford to sit down to rest your weary rear end because a newly published study of over 5,000 people found no increases in mortality associated with sitting. But the bad news is that sitting down too long is still an issue and so is standing all day because you can do damage to your circulatory system and muscles thanks to nature really not adapting us to being immobilized in an office for much of the day.

What the researchers of the study note is that too much media coverage of the issue has been about sitting vs. standing instead of inactivity vs. being active. Their subjects were a fairly active group of office workers in London who easily got in a few hours worth of activity per day and all that walking around and hitting the gym drastically helped lessen the damage of sitting for long stretches of time. In fact, the authors basically credit the city’s walkability and public transport in maintaining their cohort’s overall lack of suffering from conditions found in sedentary workers in previous studies. Therefore, they suggest, public policies aimed at making people healthier are being myopic when they advocate simply standing up at work as a panacea. It makes sense to focus on work because that’s when most white-collar workers are immobile by necessity for as much as 50 hours a week. But if employers aren’t willing to arrange for more moving around at work, cities can step in to encourage more walking, and undo much of the daily damage.

And that’s really the point here. Modern office jobs are so centered on being chained to a desk, in front of a computer that it’s very difficult to get people more active at work. Even if they stand up for long stretches of time, they’re still not moving much and aren’t gaining a lot of benefit for all their padded mats and ergonomic setups. When they’ll then get into cars to drive home, with every destination afterwards requiring driving, we’re taking an already problematic situation and making it a lot worse. It’s the key reason why Americans suffer from obesity to such a degree; a lot of time spent in the office is followed by navigating cities designed for cars, not people, and a total lack of portion control thanks to cheap, plentiful food, a third of which still ends up going to waste. Whether they stand or sit all day at work isn’t nearly as important as whether they could get some activity into their lives, even if they do visit a gym on a regular basis. So go ahead, sit down or stand up, whatever feels best. Just remember that you also need to do more than just stare at the screen once you do if really want to extend your life, instead of just hoping to.

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alien liftoff

Imagine a relatively ordinary white star much like our own, because despite appearing yellow in our skies, it’s actually bright white. Now, increase its size by half and add a pattern of dimming when observed by planet-hunting telescopes which blocks up to a fifth of its light in uneven and eyebrow-raising events. Whatever is causing them can’t be a planet, but it can’t exactly be dust clouds from early planetary formation because this star is is a mature one. Believe it or not, this star exists and it has a name of sorts: KIC 8462852. It’s the talk of the Planet Hunters forums, a collection of people who volunteered to analyze data on some 150,000 stars to help find transit events, that is, the dimming of a star’s light when a planet passes in front of it. For six years, no one has been able to figure out its patterns of irregular dimming every two years until a team of astronomers finally came up with the idea of alien comets being pulverized after the star pulled them into its orbit, releasing vast clouds of gas and dust able to produce these dips in light.

Although the explanation isn’t airtight, the general consensus is that it’s the best we can do for now with the information we have and that more observations will be needed to confirm this. At the same time, however, science editor and writer Ross Andersen decided to get a tad creative and talked to the paper’s lead author, Tabetha Boyajian, to see if the team had any other ideas to explain these odd dimming patterns, then followed up with an astronomer at Penn State who shares her opinion that as big of a leap as it sounds, we couldn’t completely rule out aliens. It’s really a matter of timing. Despite swarms of comets colliding and depositing gas and dust into a solar system being a fairly normal event, the odds of it happening exactly at a time when we will spot it around a particular star is quite low because the debris would be quickly consolidated by both its orbital motion and the gravity of the star. And this means that KIC 8462852 could be an interesting test for an idea long floated by SETI that advanced alien civilizations could be using space solar with a modified Dyson Sphere to efficiently power their orbital infrastructure.

Now, while this is intriguing, there’s still the question of just how likely this explanation is since it requires a few major assumptions the exocomet hypothesis doesn’t. Lucky timing is not exactly the same as positing that a currently unseen planet is home to an intelligent alien species that’s centuries ahead of us from a technological standpoint to build a space solar grid, or could have instead built a kind of semaphore to attract the attention of nearby species. This species would have to be space-faring, fairly mature, resource rich, and not mind that another intelligent alien race would be able to figure out that it exists and where, certainly realizing that anyone looking for intelligent life would find seemingly unnatural dimming patterns of their home star a point of interest just like we have. By contrast, comets careening across the cosmos being drawn into a solar system in the last few thousand years just by chance is very likely, especially considering that if volunteers at home didn’t notice the data anomaly, we’d have missed this oddity. Maybe we are staring right at the proof of intelligent aliens we long sought, and it would be great if that was the case. But if I were gambling on the outcome, I’d put my money on exocomets…

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math prodigy

According to overenthusiastic hacks at Wired, scientists have recently developed a way to scan your brain to predict just how intelligent someone is or how good you’ll be at certain tasks. This sounds like the beginning of a dystopian nightmare, rather than an actual field of research, that will end up with mandatory brain scans for everyone to “facilitate an appropriate job function” in some dark, gray lab in front of medical paper pushers, true. But it only sounds like this because the writer is more interested in page views than the actual study, which really has nothing to do with one’s intelligence but actually tested whether you could identify someone by scanning how this person’s brain is wired. Rather than trying to develop IQ tests in a box, the researchers put the theory that your brain wiring is so unique that getting a map of it could identify you every bit as well as a fingerprint, to the test. Not surprisingly, they found that a high quality fMRI scan of your brain at work performing some standard tests can definitely be used to identify you.

All right, that’s all fine and well, after all, the fMRI scan is basically giving you insight into unique personalities, and no two people’s brains will work the same way. But where exactly would this whole thing about measuring intelligence come into play? Well, the concept of fluid intelligence, mentioned only three times in the study, was brought up as an additional avenue of research in light of the findings and revolves around the idea that certain parts of the brain having a strong connection will make you notably better at making inferences to solve new problems. Unlike its counterpart, crystallized intelligence (called Gc in neuroscience), fluid intelligence (or Gf) is not what you know, but how well you see patterns and come up with ideas. Most IQ tests today are heavily focused on Gf because it’s seen as a better measure of intelligence and the elaboration on what exactly the fingerprinting study had to do with predicting Gf was an extended citation of a study from 2012 which found a link between the lateral prefrontal cortex’s wiring to the rest of the brain and performance standardized on tests designed to measure Gf in 94 people.

Here’s the catch though. Even though how well your lateral prefrontal cortex talks to the rest of your brain does account for some differences in intelligence, much like your brain size, it really only explains 5% of these differences. Current theory holds that because your prefrontal cortex functions as your command and control center, what Freud described as the ego, a strong link between it and several other important parts of the brain will keep you on task and allow you to problem-solve more efficiently. Like a general commanding his troops, it makes sure that every other relevant part of your mind is fully engaged with the mission. But even if that theory is right and your preforntal cortex is well wired in a larger than median brain, close to 90% of what you would score on an IQ test can come down to level of education and other factors that generally make household income and education a better predictor of IQ scores than biology. Although in many ways it’s not that accurate either because style of learning and culture also play a role. All we can conclude is that the interplay between Gf, Gc, and education is very complex.

We should also take note of one study of popular theories of biological contributors to Gf which spanned 44,600 people and found no evidence that a combination of fMRI maps has predictive power when it comes to IQ points. In other words, we have a lot of ideas that seem plausible as to the biological origins of intelligence, but because our brains are very plastic, we are not all on a level playing field when it comes to the amount and quality of education we receive, and even our longest-running efforts for accurate Gc assessments have shown that we’re really bad at it, studies that claim predictive powers when it comes to our IQs using brain scans of 100 college students or fewer are extremely likely overselling their results. Not only that, but even when the studies do actively oversell, they still claim to explain only a tiny fraction of the score differences because they recognize how small and homogeneous their data sets really are. Not only do we not have an fMRI based tests for intelligence, we’re not even sure it’s possible. But those facts bring in far, far fewer page views than invoking kafkaesque sci-fi lore in a pop sci post…

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eye of providence scroll

For as long as there have been conspiracy theories, there have been explanations for why the vast community of people who hang on conspiracy theorists’ every word exist. Some might just be paranoid in general. Others may be exercising their hatred or suspicion of a particular group of people, be they an ethnic group or a political affiliation. Others might just want to sound as if they’re smarter and more incisive than everyone else. Others still seek money and attention in their pursuit of a stable career of preaching to the tinfoil choir. But that doesn’t answer the really big question about the constant popularity of conspiracy theories throughout the ages. Is there something specific about how the believers are wired that makes the more prone to believe? Is ascribing to 9/11 Trutherism, or fearing Agenda 21, or looking for alien ancestry in one’s blood actually a case of a brain generally seeing patterns in randomness and conspiracy theories are just an outlet waiting to tap into this condition? Swiss and French researchers recently decided to try and answer that question by experimenting on college students and the public.

First, they evaluated whether their test subjects would detect patterns in truly random coin flips and doctored ones, with and without priming them. Then, they would ask political questions to measure the degree of conspiratorial thinking and level of belief in popular theories such as the notion that the Moon landing was faked or 9/11 was an inside job of some sort. Obviously, they found that they more conspiratorial view of politics the subjects took, they more likely they were to be Moon hoaxers and 9/11 Truthers, but paradoxically, that had absolutely no reflection on if they claimed to see human interference in random patterns of coin flips or identify sequences a researcher manipulated, priming or no priming. In other words, in everyday, low level tasks, the mind of a conspiracy theorist doesn’t see more patterns in randomness. As the researchers put it themselves, for a group of people who like to say that nothing happens by accident, they sure don’t think twice if something apolitical and mundane has been randomly arranged.

What does this finding mean in the grand scheme of things? Well, for one it means that there’s really no one type of person just wired for conspiratorial thinking or whose brain wiring plays an important role in ascribing to conspiracy theories. Instead, it’s more likely that all these theories are extreme manifestations of certain political beliefs or personal fears and dislikes, so the best predictor of being part of the tinfoil crowd is political affiliation. It’s not too terribly surprising if we consider that most climate change denialists who fear some sort of implementation of a sinister version of Agenda 21 they imagined exists are on the far right, while those terrified of anything involving global vaccination or commercial agreements are on the far left. And while there are a few popular conspiracy theories that overlap because people are complex and can hold many, many views even if they are contradictory, you can separate most of the common theories into ones favored by conservatives and ones favored by liberals. And as for what biology is involved in that, well, that’s been a minefield of controversy and statistical maelstroms for a long time…

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When we think of ancient biological killers, we typically think of a Black Plague or a smallpox, an often recurring disease that wipes out millions of people and has been recorded since humanity started recording things. The plague killed more than a third of all Europeans in outbreaks from the fall of Rome while smallpox killed well over a billion people over the last 10,000 years. What rarely gets brought up in this pantheon of ancient killers, however, is cancer. It’s been with us a very long time, found in Egyptian mummies over 4,000 years old and named by Greek doctors puzzled by patients who died of “crab-like growths” as they were described, from which we get the disease’s name. But cancer doesn’t just affect us. It kills all living things. Even dinosaurs got tumors because cancer isn’t one disease but abnormal cell growth that is often fatal. If you’re a complex multicellular organism, chances are that there’s a cancer you can develop in time.

One of the most common alt med tropes employed to convince you to buy some new snake oil preaches that frequent cancer diagnoses are a result of our world becoming too polluted and a toxic cocktail of Cthulhu-knows-what circulating through your tissues is to blame. In reality, the reason why so many people get cancers today is because humans are living longer than ever, and are armed with the technology and knowledge to catch more varieties of it earlier, allowing them to subdue it and extend their lifespans even further. In fact, someone I personally know is a survivor of three cancer diagnoses, each a different type, and each was cured with outpatient surgeries. Just a few decades ago, this person would’ve been diagnosed too late and die swiftly even after surgery and chemotherapy, and it’s very likely that with age, there will be yet another cancer diagnosis because cancer is degenerative. The longer you live and the more cells are in your body, the more chances there are for a tumor to spawn after a botched cell division.

But it seems that no one told that to our pachyderm friends, who, despite being large and with fairly long lifespans, have cancer mortality rates half to a fifth of ours. How? Is their blood full of chemo drugs? Not exactly. Their secret weapon against cancers is their genome. Instead of a single copy of the gene encoding the protein p53 like we do, they have 38 in 20 versions. Since this is a protein used to suppress tumor growth, it’s critically important for fighting cancer during its first and most vulnerable stage. More versions of it means better ability to recognize growths that could turn cancerous and a chance to destroy all affected cells earlier. Elephant cells prune such mutations so aggressively, it’s difficult for a new tumor to take hold and this results in their much lower susceptibility to the disease. Given that we’re currently experimenting with medical gene therapy, a hypothetical pop sci afficionado might wonder, could we engineer our very own versions of p53 encoding genes to create a similar resistance to cancers and deal our decisive blow to nature’s murderous defect that’s plagued us since the dawn of complex life?

Sadly, probably not. These p53 variants evolved in elephants against types of tumors that often affect them and which went through millions of years of trial and error in pachyderms, not in us, which means that whether our own gambit to follow this strategy would be successful is unclear at best. Instead, humans could more easily adopt the biochemical strategy employed by naked mole rats, which uses p53 alongside several other mechanisms, including a special sugar, that simply prevent cells from clumping together, breaking up cancerous tumors as a side-effect. It’s a more viable method of combating earliest stage cancers and wouldn’t require inserting some dozen new genes into our DNA, a cocktail of drugs could change how existing genes work. We should continue to study the elephants’ genome to see if we can actually figure out a way to be more proactive with our own evolution to help resist cancer, but for now, we need to take what certainly is a very neat little tidbit of information and keep in mind that anyone in the media who tells us that we could just edit our genes to be more like a pachyderm’s — which we all know will happen sooner rather than later nowadays — is using coming book science for attention…

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microtree in glass

How about we run through a few basic statistics about our effects on the world around us? Over the last hundred years or so, we paved nearly 11.2 million miles of roads, built 845,000 dams to divert over a third of all rivers on the planet, consumed over a billion gallons of water, generated and then used 142,000 Terrawatt hours of electricity, and belched 33 billion tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The only things that impact Earth more than human industrialization are supervolcanic eruptions and massive asteroid impacts, which is why environmentalists have been thinking about a bold plan to somehow mark half the planet as conservation areas. While you might think that there’s no place where humans can’t thrive, the fact of the matter is that an amazingly large percentage of Earth isn’t extremely welcoming to humans or practical to settle in the long run. We are still tropical creatures who like mild, warm climates and want access to the world’s oceans, which is why 44% of us live in coastal areas rather than deserts and tundras. As well adapted to this planet as we are, we’re really not as spread out as we often think we are.

Even more interestingly, we’re converging more and more into megacities like Shanghai, Tokyo, Mumbai, New York, and Los Angeles. More than half the global population now calls cities home and the trend is very likely to continue in a post-industrial economy where efficiency is king, and geographic hubs for many professions are still very important. What’s more is that the new trend towards automated vertical farming, which reduces costs, water use, and eliminates the need for pesticides, would also free up millions and millions of acres of land currently used for growing all of our crops. Sure, not all farming can be done indoors and livestock raised for consumption will either still need to be raised the old-fashioned way, or we’d need to create synthetic meat that’s palatable to most people. We may never live in cities contained within skyscrapers for maximum efficiency, but there are a lot of demographic projections saying that 80% of us will be living way closer together on average than we do today, in massive, sprawling cities, and we’re making the necessary preparations already. So while at first glance, it may seem odd to abandon half of all land to become a nature preserve, maybe, just maybe, it will be possible in some 35 years…

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pluto render

From the “space is amazing” files comes the new revelation that skies on Pluto aren’t dull gray, or almost transparent white, as drawn in so many hypothetical illustrations we’ve seen over the years, but an almost Earthly tint of blue. Although Pluto’s atmosphere is also nitrogen-rich, that bluish glow doesn’t come from the nitrogen particles scattering the sunlight like they do here on Earth, but from that nitrogen and methane being broken down by the Sun’s ultraviolet radiation and forming soot-like organic molecules called tholins. As they settle down to the surface below and create deposits, they not only give the atmosphere a blue hue, but give Pluto its brownish-red appearance, much like they color Titan’s atmosphere and Triton’s cryovolcanoes. Standing on one of the ice mountains looking out at Sputnik Planum, you might just see something not at all dissimilar from classic artists’ impressions of how Mars might look mid-terraformation.

And here’s another fascinating thing about Pluto’s skies and atmospheric chemistry. We know a few other dwarf planets in the Kupier Belt, like Sedna and Ixion, that are also very rich in tholins and would look reddish to the naked eye. If they get enough sunlight to scatter, they might also have blue skies, though probably significantly muted compared to what we see on Pluto due to the extreme distance between them and the Sun. Who would’ve ever thought that as we finally make our way to the outer reaches of our solar system, we’d find familiar skies created by alien chemistry which rains the building blocks of life onto the surfaces of worlds chilled to -440° F, or about as close to absolute zero as nature allows, orbiting in perpetual twilight? That’s by far the best thing about space exploration. You never know what amazing things you’ll find until you go and take a look for yourself because something is guaranteed to surprise you when you do.

update 10.09.2015: Whoops, it seems that when figuring out what Pluto’s sky would look like, I forgot just how little atmosphere it actually has. Because its pressure is so low and the nitrogen is so thin, you actually wouldn’t be able to see a blue sky, but a blue line on the horizon at dawn and dusk. The Bad Astronomer has the exact details of how long you could see Pluto’s blue sky in action, and sadly, it’s not for long. This also means that Sedna would have similar conditions and Ixion would lack the atmospheric gases to scatter light even if there is enough light that can be scattered into something visible to the naked eye. My apologies for the mistake. I try to keep this blog scientifically accurate to the best of my ability but I do make mistakes, especially when writing off the cuff, and this was one of those mistakes, hence the update to the post.

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College in America is the ultimate solution to any problem involving income. We’re told to go to one to get a four year degree, and suddenly, we’ll have lucrative jobs, fulfilling careers, and just as a bonus, make an extra million dollars over our lifetimes. Or at least that’s how it works in an oft-repeated fairy tale told to teenagers every day across the country. The reality is that college nowadays isn’t just an expensive guessing game, but leaves half of its graduates unable to get enough money together to start their independent lives while saddling them with debt. Not only that, but some 57% of people with jobs say that the work they do simply doesn’t need a degree at all in a trend that held steady for the last decade. And if you think working in a job that needs one will put that sheepskin to use, you’re in for a rude surprise. Just 27% of people actually use their degree in their daily job as it was intended. Things get even worse when you’re actually in your new office because many employers view college degrees with thinly veiled contempt.

Even if you got a job in the field to which your degree is relevant, be prepared for your future to include applying for new jobs with ridiculous, unrealistic requirements, and companies praising college graduates while complaining bitterly about them, refusing to train new workers and then expecting colleges to act as their apprenticeship programs. Even if we do make public colleges free of charge, as some are proposing, all we’d be doing is increasing access to something that has been oversold to the public as a cure for all that economically ails us, and fails to anticipate what happens as automation continues to crater job growth. Companies have already turned a four year degree into a prerequisite for higher paying jobs, but do not seem to care much about whether the degree their require is actually relevant to the job, as we can see by the practice of constantly employing people with irrelevant degrees. And that prompts the question of why we’d spend our own or taxpayer money on traditional four year programs unless we actually need to for the job at hand. Demanding a $30,000 check mark on an application is utterly asinine.

Consider that 70% of people either couldn’t care less about, or outright hate their jobs, then just factor in that between them is something like a trillion dollars in student debt, fewer than a third of them are actually doing what they studied, most taking all those courses and tests, going into all that debt just to get a piece of paper in the grand scheme of things, and pile on the stagnant wages, rampant automation, and managerial indifference of today’s workplace, and suddenly it all makes sense. People are miserable because they’re being asked to jump through expensive and painful hoops only to end up somewhere they didn’t want to be, bosses included. They too are every bit not happy with their jobs as their subordinates, filtering their noxious attitude down until the cloud of toxic ennui consumes the workplace. The drive to get everyone to go to some sort of college, any college, and study something, doesn’t matter what, just something because hey, a million dollars, created a lot of over-educated graduates whose skills can’t be relevant to what employers need, because colleges insist on existing in their own economic vacuum. They don’t cater to the marketplace, they say, because their job is to educate rather than train.

What we need isn’t even more education, or better education, whatever that means, we need a flexible, responsive, and relevant higher-education system with real world apprenticeships and internships as required parts of the degree program. Instead of rushing kids into college armed with a BLS report that was stale by the time it was published, we should encourage them to get some real world experience in a year off from school, and companies should help. It’s just plain irrational to expect the kind of workers they want to appear ex nihilo; they should be exposing a new generation to what they actually do day in, day out when they’re still living with family, able to take lower paying jobs and still deciding what they want, and not relegate them to busy work that no one wants to do. If a teenager wants a philosophy or history degree only to find out that no one is going to give him or her a job even when it costs pennies to do so, that would be one hell of a wake up call to reconsider. And if the job doesn’t require specialized skills you can only learn in college, why require a degree? Just let the new apprentice advance up the ladder. How would that not make sense? Why force him to her to waste time instead of learning the job?

College as we know it today was started to give a liberal arts education to the wealthy and their children, people not really concerned with how they’ll make a living after they graduate, though perpetually in the habit of asking for more spending money. Widespread public literacy and the requirement for all kids to be educated is barely a century old, as is the concept of a steady job with a regular schedule. Most of our ancestors never sat in offices for 250 days a year and got paychecks on a regular schedule. In many ways, the so-called gig economy was the norm until the industrial revolution created an insatiable demand for jobs as we understand them today. In the last 150 years, we’ve adapted colleges to teach skills relevant to many professions, such as medicine and applied sciences, aka the STEM majors, but we haven’t changed how many four year programs still exist simply for the sake of education and aren’t offering attractive incentives to keep these vocational programs up to date and relevant with the marketplace. Education for education’s sake is still the order of the day, which is really bad for current vocational majors.

It’s not that education for the sake of self-betterment is somehow wrong or should be seen as a waste of time and effort, quite the opposite. It’s just that we can’t have it both ways, demanding that colleges turn into vocational schools that also teach expansive theory and general classes for expanding one’s mind, while deriding vocational schools as a refuge for C and D students to perhaps make something useful of themselves, seeing as how they weren’t good enough to go to a four year institution. Millenials have a chip on their shoulders precisely because they had a childhood filled with warnings that flipping burgers and fixing cars was for losers, then after over a decade and a half of education, finishing with strong GPAs, they’re now derided for being “too proud” to flip burgers and fix cars. Which they were told was a punishment for incompetence. If they had been gently tracked, if vocational schools were presented to them as a viable and just as honorable of an option as four year colleges, and if we stopped demanding college degrees for things no college needs to teach, is it somehow unreasonable to think we would all be much happier and have more ways to find gainful employment while remaining fiscally solvent?

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statistical analysis

As on every other day that ends in “y,” every plausible, implausible, and grasping-at-straws-to-keep-it-alive association between vaccines and autism was ruled out by a mountain rage worth of studies. But for anti-vaxxers, like for any ideological movement, not finding proof of their core belief only means that no one is looking hard enough because if scientists and doctors who did those studies weren’t all on the take from Big Pharma or the alien lizards who secretly ruled our world for thousands of years, they would’ve found that vaccines are nothing but a soup of brain melting toxins. And so, with that general approach in mind, an anti-vaccine group funded a very thorough study of vaccine schedules on macaques which looked for any difference in the brains of vaccinated and non-vaccinated monkeys. Every hypothesis they had was thrown in, from the different vaccination schedules, to thimerosal-containing shots, and any the brain tissues of the test subjects was going to be examined for even the slightest sign of possible abnormalities.

After observing the behaviors of all the monkeys as they grew, learned new skills, and studying the brains of some 36 of those with the most extreme vaccination application differences, there was absolutely no trace of anything abnormal in their neurons. None. Zip. Zilch. Which, if you’re paying attention to the science, is exactly what you’d expect unless the blood-brain barrier in all complex organisms simply vanished overnight. The only difference between a vaccinated and a non-vaccinated child is the likelihood of catching some diseases because we’re now pretty sure that the key causes of autism are genetic and affect the development of inhibitory neurons, not trace amounts of chemicals that yuppies who refuse to understand the concept of dosage think are toxic because some greedy, scientifically illiterate internet cranks told them so. There have been cases where vaccines had medically significant adverse effects but those cases are quite literally fewer than one in a million, and they have nothing to do with mental development.

But if you think that SafeMinds, the anti-vaccine think tank that funded this study is going to just shrug and accept it, you would be wrong. Instead, it’s adamantly claiming that it was mislead by reports from the team and accusing the researchers of cherry-picking their data, demanding to do its own statistical analysis on the findings. In other words, they didn’t get the study they really wanted and are now trying to save face by accusing the scientists of doing what they wanted to do in the first place: fake it ’till they make it and cherry-pick the data until they got the result they paid for. Far too many autism biomed cranks and quacks are depending on them being right to keep bilking parents to turn their kids into guinea pigs, and far too many parents are convinced that whatever is wrong with their child was caused by vaccines, SafeMinds and groups like it go to any lengths to keep the manufactroversy going. It must be the vaccines, it cannot not be the vaccines, they’ve invested too much time, money, and emotion for it not to be the vaccines. To them, this study is already “discredited” because wouldn’t give them what they needed.

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When you’re doing studies on controversial and explosive subjects, or even discussing them, a significant uptick in criticism isn’t just expected, it’s practically guaranteed. And few topics have been as politically charged as the legal frameworks around consensual sex, particularly when it comes to colleges. Citing a study which claimed to have found that 1 in 5 women in college will be sexually assaulted, activists have raised a steady drumbeat about the need for heavy hands when it comes to dealing with sex in the courtroom and their proposed methods are not without worried critics. Not only are people worried that some of the proposed laws will be applied with little forethought, creating crimes out of whole cloth, as happened in North Carolina in a bizarre case that has legal experts baffled about the utter lack of prosecutorial discretion, but they are extremely uncomfortable seeing universities using Title IX to turn themselves into police, judge, jury, and executioner when it comes to matters that should be handled by law enforcement. A common joke in comment sections wonders if we’ll soon need to sign contracts before sex.

Against this highly charged background, the AAU released a study of 150,000 students to get a more clear picture of the problem, which was predictably both quickly praised and ridiculed. On the one side, activists pointed to its finding that as many as 1 in 4 women in colleges had some sort of unwanted sexual advances come their way and focused on a statistic that between 59% to 64% of women didn’t think what happened was serious enough to report, or felt that anyone would do something about it as a glaring admission that law enforcement and colleges are just not pulling their weight in cases of sexual misconduct on campus. On the flip side, critics tried to poke holes in the survey’s methodology and extremely low response rates, and their expansive definition of what constitutes sexual assault, which they say clouds the picture, and significantly exaggerates the number and severity of incidents. A more nuanced critique of these viewpoints to the survey by Emily Yoffe, one of the few writers who really know how social research works, even argued that it’s not feasible to paint a clear picture of a complex topic with surveys.

Oddly, one of the things that the critics of the study seem to have missed is that the authors not only acknowledge the limitations being pointed out, but proactively call them out as problems to be studied in more depth and don’t pretend that their report is the definitive last word on what’s going on when college students have sex. They’re rather alarmed that only 19% of the 780,000 students offered to take the survey responded, that the colleges surveyed aren’t a good cross-section of colleges across the nation, and point out that the higher rate of response at selected colleges correlates strongly with more reports of sexual misconduct. This means that less than two thirds of the students they expected to respond filled out the survey, and that those who did were more likely to be victims of sexual assault or harassment than in an ideally representative study. But they don’t seem to be concerned about their broad definitions of sexual misconduct, however, which include everything from forced intercourse, to groping, to kissing while deciding if the subject wanted to have sex or not, which seems like a rather wide net to cast here.

While unwanted intimate contact is always an issue, we do have to at least try and deal with the question of severity of the offense and something that doesn’t necessarily escalate to sex being done while you’re still deciding if you want to have sex with a person doesn’t seem like it should count on par with being drunkenly pawed. And it doesn’t look like the students think otherwise, as noted by the near two thirds majority across the sample size saying that they didn’t feel that what happened merited intervention from a third party. By the standard of the survey, the great majority of us who went to college parties will have at least a few stories of something the AAU survey will qualify as sexual assault, both men and women, and that’s a problem. Muddying the question with a very wide net of what constitutes sexual misconduct means that we simply can’t get a clear answer of how many people are being victimized and how so we can step in to help them, and fix whatever issues exist in college administrations and for law enforcement for them to get justice without over-policing and overly aggressive activism encouraging misleading and downright libelous narratives, as it did in the retracted Rolling Stone story about UVA.

So with all these limitations and issues, did the study find anything concrete? Actually, yes. The numbers basically show that if you’re a college student drinking at parties or bars nearby, your odds of being groped, taken advantage of, or worse, at least once, are between 13% and 23%, and the situation is most dire for freshmen and sophomores, especially women. While the AAU did survey men, it didn’t ask the question of whether they were, as it’s called in legalise, “made to penetrate” and focused only on whether they were penetrated themselves. It’s seems like a really nitpicky point to make, but there are people arguing that it omits numerous cases of rape because there is no statistic for it. And if there’s no statistic for the AAU to collect, we can’t state for a fact how bad the problem is for both genders. This is not a case of who has it worse, but a matter of getting the true sense of the problem. As evidenced by another AAU finding, those in greatest danger overall are actually transgendered students so the issue isn’t cut and dry when it comes to who needs the most help, and the most resources to prevent and cope with being a frequent target of unwanted sexual attention, especially when alcohol is somehow involved.

All this is very much in line with previous surveys on the subject, which found the unsurprisingly strong correlation between heavy drinking and sexual assault, and that students struggling with gender identity are disproportionately victimized. Sadly, many warnings about binge drinking on campus in the context of preventing sexual assault are far too often met with ireful accusations of victim blaming, and colleges seem unwilling to crack down on underage drinking so much so that police reports paint their campuses as dens of sin, debauchery, and crime. Meanwhile, as the parties continue, the definition of sexual assault keeps expanding, and activists keep steady media mentions of an escalating crisis. And so it seems that the AAU report’s main findings will be ignored as we’re not allowed to address binge drinking, or rethink how we define what really constitutes sexual misconduct and who should address it for fear of being smeared as careless and cruel apologists for rape. That’s what happens when activism overshadows the data. What numbers and facts are collected just become another political football to toss around.

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