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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.


Many writers are not exactly great at doing their jobs. Now, I don’t expect them to do an original investigation in every blog post and article composed only of quotes from primary sources, with self-gathered raw data available for download, because with today’s deadlines and lack of living wage retainers, that’s simply impossible. But what I would like to see is getting a media mention which doesn’t call me a journalist, because that’s not what I actually do, something apparent for anyone who clicks the link to my quick bio page. Even worse than being too lazy to follow just a single link to get an accurate idea of who is being quoted however, is when writers have a really obvious agenda that they buttress with a wall of anecdotal evidence hidden behind a journalistic facade of confidential sources with altered names and ages. And this is the case with a massive story that left Tinder apoplectic since it accused the company of outright destroying dating.

Contributing editor Nancy Jo Sales obviously wanted to tell a story of how young people use an amoral piece of technology to do away with anything resembling normal human relationships in order to satisfy their lustful urges, and dammit she was going to tell that story. In order to get a convenience sample to prove her hypothesis, she hit up popular bars in NYC, a college town in the Midwest, and an undisclosed location in Delaware about which we’re told nothing further. A properly unsympathetic cast of characters to present the anecdotes she needed is assembled throughout the story, young men and women she could not have painted any more unlikeable than she already had, and the entire tale of the soul-sucking technology is in effect narrated by their alternating boasting about how many people they’ve slept with and whining about all of the “meh” to lousy sex. All of it, we’re told, is powered by Tinder and wouldn’t happen otherwise.

Over thousands of words we’re educated on a strategy to hook up with as many as 100 sexual partners per year from lumbersexual dudebros, and complaints about brutally sexual IMs from women who say they’re tired of being wanted only for their bodies, yet hook up with men whose performance they disparage to each other at a moment’s notice. Oh how they try to find a true, devoted, monogamous soulmate and spend their nights bettering themselves instead of having mindless sex with strangers, but that wicked siren call of Tinder beckons them so. Much like the kids who don’t want to do their boring, overwhelming homework blame social media for all their procrastinating tendencies, these 20-somethings are trying to justify the fact that when you are old enough to drink, can hold down a job, and aren’t outright repulsive, you’re probably going to have lots of mindless sex when the opportunity presents itself. They’re doing nothing that’s out of the ordinary or wrong, yet a judgmental reporter with an agenda sitting across from them will push them until they’re justifying their own libidos, knowing they’ll be ridiculed in the media.

But aside from the technophobic, old-fogeyish condescension of the article, seemingly inspired by Evgeny Morozov’s typical tropes, and a cast of characters that couldn’t be more unpleasant, some of the worst problems lay with the utter disregard for science and statistics. Sales was at least vaguely aware that her anecdotes about 20-somethings barely having enough time to get showered and put in a day at work or in class before hopping back into someone’s bed were in direct conflict with studies showing that the “hookup culture” she decries is actually an extreme outlier rather than the norm, and she does try to confront the disconnect. But instead of using a different study or directly engaging with the findings, she merely handwaves them away with an evasive quip that all studies are open to interpretation. Well, how is this study open to different interpretations when the data speaks loud and clear? What exactly should we be interpreting in a different way and on what basis? Sales’ appeal is basically journalist-speak for “please ignore studies that undermine my agenda, trying to sell a story here people, move along, okay?” After more anecdotes, she does try to inject some scientific support for her assertions by quoting the problematic conclusions in the book Sex at Dawn and implicating Tinder in enabling them.

Again, this is very typical of agenda-driven journalism because in Christopher Ryan, one of the book’s authors, she found a willing ally who would tell her that humans are naturally wired to be sexually insatiable and have as many partners as possible, and that Tinder basically made the formerly inefficient process of acquiring a large roster of sexual partners more efficient. What it means for society is that Millenials are leveraging the technology to sexually gorge. Like all bite sized pseudoscience, it sounds logical and thoroughly researched at first blush, but with even a cursory glance beyond the word salad shows that it’s not true. Not only did we already see that far from gorging, Millenials are actually on a sexual diet, but Ryan’s book is really controversial because it’s really another agenda-driven work, rejected from scholarly publication for this very reason. Actual sex researchers find it filled with problematic assertions and say it only gets one thing right. Humans are not monogamous for life. From that data point, Ryan and his co-author go off on their own merry way while most academics say that we’re serial monogamists.

Of course this isn’t an ironclad conclusion, human sexuality is very malleable and there are lots of people who just like having lots of sex with different partners, dedicated polyamorists, and a periodic one-mate-for-life type of person. But in general, as we can see by the stats, people like to be in relationships with one other partner and most of their exploration is within the context of these relationships, even if it includes bringing in other people. When a said relationship ends, a new one is sought out. So what Sales did was find a sexual type that best matched her pre-sold narrative and reached out to an author with suspect credentials in the field in which he claims to be an expert for the purposes of selling his book, who quickly backed her up in spite of plenty of evidence to the contrary, evidence she has no choice but to evade to keep telling her story with whiny, annoying NYC hipsters whose adventures on Tinder get them lots of very lousy sex with equally unpleasant partners. No wonder Tinder’s PR reps were furious. At worst, they are being accused of destroying society, at best, all of their users are being painted in a terrible light.

Here’s the bottom line on this. You cannot judge what technology is doing to society when what you’re being told about it comes from a writer who decided what story she wants to tell before it gets written, backed up with trendy pseudoscience, and runs contrary to every large study that we have on the subject. In reality, Tinder is having absolutely no effect outside a small group of people who used MySpace, OkCupid, Plenty of Fish, and outright sex and swinger sites with the same exact results they now use Tinder. The only thing the mobile app did is made it easier for them to hook up on the go, when they’re sitting in a bar or at home, bored. They want sex, they now just care about finding a warm body, and then, justifying that to a reporter with excuses we expect from teenagers who want to play video games instead of doing homework and tell us all that video games are rarely fun and the only reason they play is because the games are there. But this otherwise terrible example of journalism did teach me something. If you’re single on the prowl and find yourself in NYC, Tinder is probably not your best bet for a fun hookup.

babel fish

When finding yourself in a debate with a partisan ideologue who claims that all higher education is simply anti-American socialist brainwashing, he will often bring up that Noam Chomsky is one of the most cited scholars in the world despite his penchant for left wing radical conspiracies he adamantly supports in his books. However, the reason why Chomsky is cited so often has zilch to do with his politics and everything to do with his study of language, particularly his theory of a universal grammar. According to his work, all human languages share common patterns which we can use to create universal translators and pinpoint the semantic details of each word with a proper context. This idea is particularly popular in the field of computer science, particularly in a number of AI experiments because it can give us algorithms for symbol grounding, a fancy term for deciding exactly what a word is supposed to represent in a given situation. This is one of the fundamental leaps needed to make for machines to truly understand what humans say.

Of course, as with any theory with the word universal in the title, there’s plenty of criticism about how universal it actually is, and some escalated into a full blown feud among linguists. Critics of the theory have went as far as to say that that universal grammar is whatever Chomsky wants it to be when it’s being debated, which in academia is actually a pretty vicious burn. But it’s rather expected since a theory that claims to apply to every language on the planet can be challenged with a single example that fails to conform to it, no matter how obscure. Considering that we not only have to consider modern languages, but the evolution of all known languages to make the theory airtight, there’s still a lot to flesh out in Chomsky’s defining work. Working with all modern languages is hard enough, but working with historical ones is even more challenging because a majority of modern human history was not recorded, and the majority of what has been is pretty sparse. I’d wager that 95% of all languages ever created are likely to be lost to time.

Even worse than that is knowing our languages change so much that their historical origins can be totally obscured with enough time. While the first physiologically modern humans evolved in North Africa some 100,000 years ago, a comparative analysis of today’s language patterns just doesn’t show any founder effect, meaning that if one of our first ancestors stumbled into a time machine and traveled to today, she would not be able to understand even a single sound out of our mouths without instruction from us. Research like this has led many linguists to believe that language is shaped by culture and history more than just the raw wiring of our brains as per the universal grammar theory. Others, disagree producing papers such as the recent MIT study of logical patterns in 37 languages showing that all of the languages prefer very similar rules when it comes to their grammatical style, meaning that the underlying logic had to be the same, even when comparing Ancient Greek to modern languages as different as English and Chinese.

By analyzing how closely related concepts cluster in sentences across all the languages chosen for the project, researchers found that all of them prefer to keep related concepts close to each other in what they considered a proper, grammatically correct sentence. To use the example in the study, in the sentence “John threw the trash out,” the domestic hero of our story was tied to his action and the villainous refuse was tied to where it was thrown. These concepts weren’t on the opposite sides of a sentence or at a random distance from each other. This is what’s known as dependency length minimization, or DLM, in linguist-speak. One of the few undisputed rules of universal grammar is that in every language, the core concepts’ DLM should be lower than a random baseline, and this study pretty solidly showed that they weren’t. In fact, every language seemed to have an extremely similar DLM measure to the others, seemingly proving one of the key rules of universal grammar. So where exactly does that leave the theory’s critics?

Well, as said before, calling any theory universal is fraught with problems and leaves it open to the most minor, nit-picking criticism, and we all know of exactly one society based around logic, and that’s the Vulcans from Star Trek. To dispute the theory, linguists had to go out of their way to tribes so vaguely aware of the modern world, we may as well be from another planet to them, and look for the smallest cultural inconsistencies that conflict with the current interpretation of a theory they say is somewhat vague. Certainly they could produce a language that eschews the rules of universal grammar in favor of tradition and religion, and maybe Chomsky can just tone his theory’s presumptuous name down a bit and accept that his work can’t apply to every single language humans have ever used or will invent in the future. But in the end, universal grammar does seem to appear extremely useful and shows that logic plays the most important part of all languages’ initial structures. We might not be able to use the theory to build perpetual universal translators, but we could come quite close since the required patterns exist as predicted.

[ illustration of a Babel Fish by John Matrz ]


Yesterday’s trip into world of bleeding edge physics and what makes up the fabric of space and time may have been a little out there, so why don’t we take a stroll right back into exploring our more base, human appetites? Just two days ago, we took a look into the world of sex-obsessed fundamentalists who are taught that premarital sex causes cancer, and it’s their job to bring all the fallen whores and heretics into God’s good grace with offensive, demeaning metaphors for their sexual pasts. Now, of course we’ve long known that more than 9 out of 10 adults who live in the real world had premarital sex, so obviously society is doomed according to them because all these lustful sinners do is exchange detailed notes about their previous partners, spending a hedonistic lifetime in a state of perpetual disappointment. Or something like that. But my snarky skewering of hot and bothered zealots aside, this does raise an interesting question. How many sexual partners do people actually have through their lives, and has this changed with the dawn of what the media trumpets as “the hookup culture” it blames for the death of relationships?

Now, it’s at this point that we would be expected to whip out some averages and should most of the media be correct, we’d find that from the Boomers, to Generation X, to the Millennials, more and more partners are being registered. But surprise surprise, that’s actually not at all what we see from the data. In fact, the number of average lifetime sexual partners has been declining in the last half century. With the unmistakable help of the 1960’s sexual revolution, baby boomers more than doubled their parents’ tallies to 11 partners, Generation X had one partner less than that, and the over-sexed youth of today tops out at 8 sexual partners on average. Contrary to a constant hysterical screech in the media, we’re not having more sex than ever. In fact, we have something like 27% less of it, having it later, and using protection more and more. Again, unlike we’re constantly told by the morality police, the real world results of comprehensive sex ed are very clear; those exposed to it delay sex, stay healthier, and have fewer partners.

But even that’s not the whole story. Should you actually look at some of the raw data from both formal sexual behavior surveys and casual opinion polls on the web, you’ll find that the average number of partners is actually a very misleading statistic. In reality, “kids” today are having even fewer sexual partners than they appear to from the macro picture. When raw data is plotted on your typical bell curve, putting the number of reported partners on the Y axis and the number of respondents who gave this number on the X axis, you’ll find that the curve peaks quickly and its right side has a long asymptotic tail. In fact researchers who looked into data for 33,000 people to measure our attitudes about certain sexual norms and acts, noted this rather prominently as evidence that most people actually have relatively few partners. If you’ll play around with Slate’s handy little sexual history calculator, you’ll find that the typical 25 year old has just 6 partners or so, just slightly more than his or her grandparents back in their sexual prime.

When you explore the available stats, for all their minor flaws, far from the world ending not with a bang, or well, too much banging, the only change has been that we have become much more open about sex. The media, religious zealots, and helicopter parents are mistaking the youth’s more liberal attitude to talking about sex for their interest in having more sexual partners, when in fact more of them are having sex in the context of relationships, and hooking up less. There’s no hookup culture, no college sex clubs with weekly orgies on every campus, and experiments with the likes of Tinder or hookup sites are over after just a few encounters for the vast majority of Millennials. The scandalous, shameless hooking up right and left is mostly in the minds of the media and the self-appointed, attention-starving morality police, which has a talent for creating salacious and ridiculous rumors about teenage sex that a media hungry for clicks and ratings at any cost is eager to splatter everywhere without even the simplest fact-checking.

Certainly, none of this means that there are no young swingers or millennials who had so much casual sex, they have to make full blown spreadsheets to calculate their final sexual tallies. But they’re a very small minority. In fact, the aforementioned 25 year old today with 50 partners will find him/herself in the 95th percentile, and no one in that age group reports triple digits. While I admit this is totally anecdotal, I have met several people who could credibly claim between 100 and 200 sexual partners, and all but one of them were Gen Xers. And even in an environment where such matters can be discussed freely, this is still rather uncommon and requires a rather long-term dedication to hooking up since the majority of their potential partners would not want to have sex outside the context of some kind of relationship. So with all this considered, can we please drag the myth of an anonymous hookup culture ensnaring young adults through its evil social media and smartphone tentacles behind a shed and put it out of its misery? Please?

roving on mars

By now, we’ve all heard that Mars One is a basically a scam. Well, maybe not a scam by intent, because it seems like the people behind it really did want to do something amazing and start a genuine Martian colony, but got caught up in their own hubris and are now desperately trying to salvage whatever’s left of their original mission. They don’t want to admit defeat after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to figure out how to get to Mars, but the more they try to salvage their organization, they deeper of a hole they dig. But just because those of us who did not think this was going to work in any real capacity turned out to be right, we shouldn’t gleefully succumb to the pleasures of schadenfreude, because this failed experiment does have several important lessons for us to consider. Mars One was not going to succeed as a real colonization effort, but it was successful in starting a conversation about moving it from the world of sci-fi to real world implementations, and it showed us that people are really interested in the idea.

Certainly, we’re not going to get the majority of people in developed nations on board with a big space program dedicated to sending humans to other worlds. There are far too many would-be decision makers and politically influential blocs who are penny wise and pound asinine. They’re squirming when asked to approve $25 billion in space exploration, asking exactly who benefits, how many jobs will be created, the optics of debts, deficits, and poverty not being paid down for the sake of sending a robot to an alien environment, but will swiftly give trillions to banks whose business model is hard to distinguish from that of a professional poker player in Vegas. This is nothing new, in fact it’s been this way even when it was politically important to actually travel to other worlds, and it echoes today, when the pathologically self-absorbed decry Curiosity as an unforgivable waste of time, money, and resources because it can’t cure cancer and pay off the looming balance on their student loans. But they don’t need to decide our fate.

Mars One attracted tens of thousands of supporters because it promised something that jaded bean counters suffering either from the WIIFM disorder or the GE syndrome never could: hope for adventure. People have been working on a factory schedule for over a century and we don’t like it at all. We’ve been trying to break free of the rigid industrial structure almost since its very inception, and many of us are searching for a reprieve from the proverbial 9 to 5 to explore and broaden our horizons, just like our ancestors. What can be a better break from that daily, TPS report filled drudgery than a trip to another world, even if it is one way? Space exploration is an amazing way to channel the energies of those who always have a wandering eye, looking for a place to belong but never quite finding it, their potential wasted by our inability to direct it into a worthy, focused venture. Unfortunately, we don’t reward these pursuits enough to make it really worth many people’s while, which is why it’s so difficult to get more people to see the benefits of building new spacecraft and trying to create business models for space travel.

A sad reality I learned almost a year ago is that if you love space and want to be a part of it, it’s an expensive proposition, so much that after you finally start to cool down after a call from JPL, you have to really start weighing the benefits of a functional pay cut and dealing with the mood swings of a Congress filled with scientifically illiterate lawyers pandering to an electorate which convinced itself that you’re bilking them out of trillions to live the good life, against getting a shot at participating in something you’ve always dreamed of doing. Space exploration funded with a massive influx of private cash from the likes of Tito, Musk, or Bigelow, or outright crowdfunding, would attract more people and relieve the pressures of antagonistic overseers who have pretty much every possible incentive to punch down with you in their sights. Opening up the idea of a space program funded by enthusiasts big and small, and summoning popular support that just doesn’t get enough time in the media is something we should be actively pursuing.

Maybe we don’t use it for an overly ambitious colonization project by people who seemed way too sure of themselves and way too eager to protect their public image when they realized how many challenges they didn’t even know they had to cope with, maybe we use it for something a lot more mundane instead. Maybe we harness it for building experimental lunar outposts where we can develop the technology we need for Mars close to home. Maybe we use it to build small robotic swarms that can coordinate their actions to cover more territory, scouting for a planned human mission. Maybe we invest in the kind of medical and biological research we need to stay healthy while traveling between worlds. Or maybe we can pick and choose from all of that as an entire slate of space startups compete to create the most viable plans for concrete projects and combine them into entire missions. Mars One had a good idea, but it was too grand, with a very unrealistic timeline, and not enough know-how behind it. Why not scale this down to something more realistic and get more people involved in making things happen?

meat plate

Allow me to declare something that will quickly make the blood of many modern, trendy vegans run cold. Meat is very, very delicious and humans have an innate hunger for it. There’s a good reason why meat prices and consumption are surging upwards across world. When people in developing nations make more money, they don’t rush out to buy more rice or vegetables, but instead, substitute them with meat and seafood. Yes, it’s possible to live and long and healthy life as a vegan if you know what you’re doing and find the right balance of proteins and various supplements to make up for the loss of iron and beneficial fats in meat, but most people will be craving a burger or a steak at some point because humans are omnivorous, and the only way that our bodies know to make up for some vitamin or nutrient deficiency is to hit us with a very strong desire to eat something full of those vitamins and nutrients.

However, there’s really no denying that meat is very environmentally and medically expensive over the long run. As much as I enjoy biting into seared flesh after a long day of work, and as much as I’d love for it not not be true, livestock and fish farming are turning into disasters. We use too many antibiotics which greatly contribute to a rise in antibiotic resistance, coupled with our constant overuse of them in medicine — which is actually a whole other problem — and the amount of water wasted and runoff generated by animal farms is troublesome at best and way out of control at worst. And this is why some entrepreneurs with serious funding behind them have been trying to create meat alternatives in a lab to significantly curtail the impact of cattle farming and help the environment by either making meat a thing of the past, or turning to high tech tools that redefine meat as we know it.

It’s a noble goal to be sure, but as a savvy food critic who was recently sent to investigate their efforts notes, all we have so far is paste that sort of looks and tastes like meat if you empty the contents of your spice rack into the pan when cooking it, and a piece of bio-engineering which wouldn’t look out of place in Star Trek, but with which would set you back $332,000 for just one burger, enough to buy the entire population of Greenland a light breakfast. In other words, we don’t have much to show for it and what we do actually have, will pale in comparison to a steak from a real animal cooked by a professional. And as he opined after dining in an LA eatery on slices of cow, a meal I’m positive was expensed as “research,” the best he can see happening over the next decade is synthetics replacing low grade, mass produced meat…

With work on flavor and moisture, Anderson and Geistlinger will be able to get beyond the cooked-dog-food appearance of the Beast. They might even perfect the Salisbury steak, that staple of school cafeterias, [something] Anderson says he can imagine achieving in his lifetime (he doesn’t mention the school-cafeteria part), or the skinless chicken breast that both men think might not be far down the road.

Now, as some of his critics note in the comments, he’s a food critic worried about the palette of those who’ll be eating these meat substitutes so we can take his prognostication with a grain of salt and safely assume that people would opt for a veggie burger that’s indistinguishable from a real burger and has a quarter of the calories and saturated fat. Fast food chains serving patty after patty of something nutritious and meat-like with significant success would have profound positive implication for the nation’s health and waistline. How much farmland could be returned to nature? How many antibiotics put back on the shelves? Farmers raising livestock would find themselves in need of new cash cows, but we’re not talking about this happening overnight so there are chance to adjust to growing the synthetics’ nutritious components.

But these visions of a less meaty utopia assumes that people will really want to put all this not- meat in their mouths, an assumption that should absolutely not be treated as a given. People loathe the idea of eating filler, or something that’s substituting for what they really wanted, and they sure as hell won’t be thrilled putting something called “engineered muscle tissue” on their dinner plates just based on knowing its origin. They may be curious, but their diet won’t change at the drop of a hat. And on top of this, can you imagine the reaction from the dedicated “anti-chemical” foodies out there? I would try and imagine the Food Babe’s take on this technology, but lacking the desire to smash my head into a brick wall enough times to forget middle school chemistry, basic logic, and human decency, I leave that as an exercise to the reader.

Still, despite all that being said, there is a way to make synthetic meat popular and there will be uses for it if we get a little creative. Considering that we still do want to explore space, it would be far more cost effective to grow meat tissue in space, rather than sending it dehydrated at a cost of over $10,000 per pound on a $80 million rocket. Streamlining the current technology to lower costs and increase amount of grown muscle tissue would the the first priority, after which extensive testing on the ISS could tinker with making the results reliable, nutritious, and healthy for humans. Getting the taste right might be tricky since in micro-gravity, everything would be a lot blander than it actually is due to the redistribution of fluids in your body, but since we’re very close to the required meaty taste from bio-engineered muscle tissue already, it shouldn’t be an insurmountable leap. From there, we can bring this manufactured meat back down to Earth for sale with a far more exciting origin story than a sterile private lab. So what do you say, wouldn’t you want to try an astronaut burger? You know, just out of curiosity…

lab mouse

While studying what effect cell division has on cancer risk, a team of scientists decided to make mice that that produced excess levels of a protein called BubR1 and got results that seem way too promising at first blush. Not only were the engineered mice a third less likely to develop lung and skin cancers after exposure to potent carcinogens than control animals, but they had twice the endurance, lived 15% longer, and were less than half as likely to develop a fatal cancer. So what’s the catch? Well, there is none. It’s as if an over-expression of BubR1 is a magical elixir of good health and longevity. This doesn’t mean that this protein couldn’t become our most potent weapon against cancer with enough study or that it must have some sort of side-effect, which is entirely possible since too little BubR1 in humans is associated with premature aging and some forms of cancer, but this is a signal to proceed with optimistic caution.

Mice may have a lot of similarities to humans from a genetic standpoint, but they are a different species so what works well in mice may not always work as well in humans. Likewise, if we really wanted to be sure of the results, we’d have to test them on thousands of humans over decades, which is a massive undertaking in logistics alone. And since testing the protein modifications in humans would be such a major effort, the researchers need to know exactly how BubR1 does all the wonderful things it does, breaking down its role by chemical reaction and testing each factor on its own. The work may take decades to complete but if it’s correct, we may have found a way to extend and improve our lives in a humble protein. Combined with other ongoing work, there’s some very real science behind extending human lifespans and modifying our genomes for the better. I just hope we don’t get a little too carried away and treat editorials treating BubR1, gene therapy on a massive scale, and cell reprogramming technology as just around the corner with the necessary healthy skepticism, since the research is by no means complete…

See: Baker, D., et. al. (2012). Increased expression of BubR1 protects against aneuploidy and cancer and extends healthy lifespan Nature Cell Biology DOI: 10.1038/ncb2643

intense blue eye

It’s a frequent societal stereotype that women in porn must have been sexually abused as kids, otherwise they would never go into this line of work. You can hear it from social conservatives in their dire warnings about porn addiction and from feminists who find all porn to be merely an exploitation of women for the enjoyment of men, alike. So one would think that to put the idea of the typical porn star as dealing with molestation or abuse through hypersexuality to rest, all one would have to do is have them take a survey, right? It seems fairly straightforward and it’s just what one study has done. After a survey administered to 177 women being tested between their videos, it found that 36% report being molested as children. If that sounds rather high, a control group of women who presumably had nothing to do with pornography reported a stunning 29% rate of sexual abuse. Basically, when taking the small sample sizes into account, it looks like the stereotype is wrong and women in porn are not predominantly survivors of molestation.

Oddly, note that according to the surveys, nearly a third of all women have been molested and often cited numbers say that anywhere between 20% to 40% of women have experienced some sort of sexual abuse as children. That’s disturbing to say the least, but the matter if also rather problematic because nearly all of these studies are relying on self-reporting on surveys given to convenience samples of women, which is science jargon for "asking whoever’s first available to fill out the questionnaire." This could easily produce a skew because the samples are not a truly random slice of the population but more homogenous demographic groups and the answers will reflect experiences typical for their group as well as their interpretation of what it means to have been sexually abused. Some groups of women may report a very low incidence of abuse during one study and a totally different group would report a very high one in a later one. And while a sample of women will consider a particular episode in a gray area during their childhood to be abuse, others would have forgotten and never reported it, or considered odd but not abusive.

So what does all this mean? It means that this study is certainly not definitive and could well be skewed, especially because women in porn know that people are eager to stereotype them into their image of what a female porn starlet should be: a hapless victim degrading herself because she was denied a proper childhood and now suffers from self-esteem issues that manifest as an over-active sex drive. When they’re doing self-selection and self-reporting, a bias simply could not be ruled out. And this, as well as the comments on the results of this study on news sites, is the other result from this study I find extremely disturbing. There really seem to be people who want female porn stars to be "damaged" so they can rationalize their choice to have sex on film as something only a person who "has issues" would do. And I’ll bet cash money that those exact same people commenting on how those poor abused dears whose father figures had boundary problems would go on to watch porn with those poor abused women. It’s not just a few weirdos watching it; only social media use exceeds online porn viewing. And not by much at that.

There’s something fundamentally unhealthy and downright bipolar in how we view porn and sex in general here in the U.S., and even this small study and the issues it raises gives us a peek at that. We cannot be a society that promotes unrealistic, self-indulgent piety and prudishness, just as we also can’t demand that everyone must embrace every sexual position, arrangement, kink, and relationship with nothing less than an orgasmic grin. This is absolutely a case in which the golden median is not a fallacy but a good approach. Humans are wired for sex. We enjoy it, we enjoy watching it, entire areas of our brain are dedicated to lust and encouraging us to find new mates, and all this enjoyment evolved to coax us into reproduction. To stigmatize natural urges and demean those who we end up watching doing the very things we said only "damaged" people do, fueling an industry that pays them for doing them in the process to the tune of billions per year, is hypocritical at best. And it’s especially bad when it’s done for irrational reasons like the wholehearted embrace of cold, haughty, snobby prudishness as the social norm…

See: Griffith, J., et al. (2012). Pornography actresses: an assessment of the damaged goods hypothesis Journal of Sex Research, 1-12 DOI: 10.1080/00224499.2012.719168

black model

If you don’t know who Satoshi Kanawaza is, here’s a brief bio. He’s an evolutionary psychologist whose claim to fame are racist and sexist op-eds thinly veiled as scientific research. Last time he wrote about his supposed ironclad evidence that black women and Asians are ugly based on childish simplifications and cherry picking so obvious that you could smell the acrid stink of pure bigot through your browser, he vanished for a year, trying to escape the pillorying he swiftly and very justly received. But now, Big Think, decided to play the controversy card and got him a gig to drive some traffic and give him a soapbox to spew more of his typical bullshit. PZ has a pretty accurate dissection of his claims and I don’t think I could really add much at the detail level. The problem comes down to this: Kanawaza looks at how many partners certain groups of people have and instead of examining cultural and socio-economic backgrounds and how they affect the subjects’ sex lives, he cherry-picks data to make them fit his stereotypes.

This is generally what racists who want to justify their bigotry tend to do. If they want to "prove" that black men are more violent and less intelligent than white men, they’ll cite how many end up in prison, do worse on the SATs, or occupy senior management posts at big companies. At the same time they’ll ignore the fact that black boys go to woefully underfunded schools where the top priority of the administrators is discipline rather than education, are racially profiled by many police departments, and discriminated against by racists who hire managers, and that decades and decades of this created a legacy of social problems that make these statistics reflect much more than just what happens to black men in the United States. Race relations are a very thorny issue across much of the world, but the racists are too busy feeling superior to others to care. In the case of Kanawaza’s "scholarship," we see a very similar cherry picking happening as he oh so conveniently forgets that there are a lot of very attractive women with few partners and a fair bit of… ahem… aesthetically challenged men whose sexual tally rivals that of porn stars.

Has he bothered to ask whether there was a reporting bias at play since women are well known to significantly underreport their number of sexual partners while men are known to do the exact opposite? What about the cultural attitudes of the subjects’ communities and their views on sex and dating? A liberal city is more openly promiscuous than a conservative town where to say that you had more than "two or three" sexual partners is taboo. Likewise, someone who doesn’t feel that casual sex is a bad thing is going to have a lot more partners than someone who thinks that having steady, long term relationships is the only proper approach to intimacy. How does he try to reconcile Ron Jeremy, a homely, beer-bellied porn star with more than a thousand sexual partners, and a Southern ultra-conservative beauty queen who had maybe three partners in her entire life? He doesn’t. Why? Because that would undermine his narrative that black women and all Asians are sexual untouchables and the only people who would object are politically correct liberal ninnies. I could go on and on and on with things he could consider for a genuine study. I once lived with an honest to goodness sex researcher so I got a really good look at what proper studies in this area ask their subjects and how they grade things like attractiveness.

The kind of pseudoscience that Kanawaza practices is best left in the 1930s where it belongs, and regardless of how much he whines about being persecuted by evil leftists and the PC police for his "research," the fact is that he’s a shitty scientist and a bigoted simpleton to boot. Just in case you needed more ammunition to despise him, note how calmly he advocated large scale nuclear bombardment of the Middle East in response to 9/11, seemingly unaware of all the U.S. assets in the region, the devastating health, environmental, political, and economic effects of a nuclear first strike against countries that just so happen to be in the Middle East, even if they’re not known for widely supporting terrorist groups. The fallout from such an attack — fallout, oh I slay me — would make World War 2 look like a minor skirmish by comparison. But when you got an enormous mouth and don’t bother to think before you speak this is the kind of stupid that will come pouring out. Kanawaza isn’t too bothered by the criticism though, he’s busy assuming the favorite position of most far, far right wing bigots: hapless victim of the liberal elites…

mars lander

If you allow me the indulgence, I’d like to once again take an article about something not exactly all that relevant to science and technology, and go off on an important tangent. In this case, the article is a rumination on American exceptionalism and the seeming insecurity of a wide swath of Americans who constantly need to be assured that their country is still number one at everything no matter what happens. Now, exercises in armchair anthropology are a political pundit’s bread and butter so it’s actually surprising that there aren’t even more pieces like this, but what does it have to do with science? Well, it features a very critical review of the previous president’s shot at reaching for the stars just like the nation did in its heyday…

When George W. Bush suggested in 2004 a manned mission to Mars, the proposal was mocked to death. Rightly so, perhaps, because it smacked of desperation and, what’s more, [was] designed to distract attention from troubling events and setbacks elsewhere.

Sounds about right and as far as the article is concerned, enough attention has been paid to it so we can move on. But for me there’s something even more important here. Certainly, many a space exploration enthusiast would object to mocking a manned mission to other worlds, taking it as a symptom of a society losing its ambition in favor of mundane, self-induced misery, but this is actually one of those cases where criticism is appropriate. What was being proposed was a flag planting mission, a chance for NASA to send astronauts to Mars to do some solid science, which is actually a very good idea, but more so, a chance for politicians to chant something patriotic as the lander touches down, check the red planet off the to do list, and gut the program as soon as the flights became too routine for the public. Keep in mind that even those who enjoyed tuning in as the unfortunately now late Neil Armstrong took his one small step, mostly thought the whole thing was a giant waste of time and money, and supported it only because it would prove that of the newly minted post-world war superpowers, the United States was the greatest.

When we let politicians plan our missions, this is what we get. Science is turned into a major PR project and as soon as the been-there-done-that effect sets in with the voters, they cancel the whole thing. Just think about the possibilities if NASA went forward with its plans for future lunar expeditions. There were drafts for lunar bases and the longer stays on the surface would allow a lot more research and science necessary to confirm a building site and lay down the foundation for a permanent outpost on another world. The advances in medicine and technology to treat all sorts of degenerative conditions and exposure to radiation would’ve been amazing, and when a colonized Moon was ready to become a launch pad to Mars and beyond, we would’ve seen even more of a research and development spike. This was a vision for the future that motivated many young men and women to go into the STEM fields, hoping to be part of this amazing journey at a very special moment in history. The politician’s response? Well, we beat the commies, yank the nerds’ funding, we need it for riders! The 2004 proposal would’ve been an encore of that.

Yes, I’ve written about the problems with listening to technocrats a little too much, and do realize that we can’t live in a world where budgets are dictated by research labs and billions are handed over without question for every blue sky idea. But we’re so far away from a world like that, we’d need to shift how almost $1 trillion in tax receipts is being spent before we start worrying. In truth, we’re living in another extreme, in which politicians who spend the vast majority of their tenure in campaign mode, and whose vision generally extends only to the next election, dictate the course of our technological and scientific advancements. And being completely ignorant in the subject matter doesn’t faze them one bit as they treat big projects and highly innovative concepts with thinly veiled disdain, looking at them from a purely political standpoint. Rather than wonder how many jobs the project can create, its practical applications, and its contribution to all of us in the grand scheme of things, they size it up for its potential to be cited as a waste of money and time in an attack ad by an equally self-absorbed, visionless politico. If it wasn’t for the sheer good will and prestige build up by NASA, they would gut space exploration completely, and if it wasn’t for DARPA and the military, robotics research would be nowhere near as well funded.

Consider living in a future in which politicians didn’t decry the price tag of exploration with such antagonism and embraced the idea that guided expansion into space came with huge benefits, hosting competitions for the most innovative and feasible ideas and designs to bring the space stations, robots, and cyborgs imagined in the 1970s and 1980s by this point in time, from retro speculation to science fact. We can grumble and say that these things aren’t very practical, but building the first houses and farms, then protecting them from marauders and weather, instead of carrying on with hunting and gathering and living in caves wasn’t all that practical either once upon a time. Computers and satellites were once luxuries for a small clutch of people and few believed that anyone outside of the military or various scientific research labs would ever have a use for the internet, hypertext, or large scale satellite imagery and communications. But we took a risk, we tried, and now look where we are. The exotic, bizarre projects of the 1950s and 1960s are today’s defining pillars of the First World. All it took was vision and patience, traits that are sorely missing from today’s political scene and stamped out when they are.

And at risk of repeating myself ad naseum, those who ask "why would we possibly spend any tax money on this when we need more jobs," need to consider that all these things aren’t just going to get built and tested by themselves. Contractors, universities, private companies hoping to win a contract through a competition, and government agencies, will need to, gasp, hire experts and support staff to engineer the complicated new machinery and perform highly involved tests that will require specialized equipment. You cannot outsource such high end research because just a small handful of nations in the world have the state of the art labs and facilities to do it, and of all those countries, the United States is the most innovative and technologically advanced thanks to its mix of first rate colleges and their wide collaborative networks stretching across the globe. We know the benefits of the research and development involved in these high brow projects, and we have plans for what to do with the technology if we had it. The real reason why we’re not making it happen is because the politicians refuse to do their job. They would much rather spend their time in the partisan muck, flinging insults at each other and fueling the party faithful.