Gravitational Waves. One of the most striking scientific discoveries of 2016 was the observation of gravitational waves. Predicted by Einstein’s theories 100 years ago, ripples in space-time were finally observed last year by physicists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), using instruments at Hanford, Washington and Livingston, Louisiana. They announced that they had indeed observed this waves as two black holes spiraled into each other 1.3 billion light years away. The Advanced LIGO systems were completed only a week or so before this black hole collision took place, but they represent a long term investment by the National Science Foundation, and design work done by nearly 1000 scientists. Funding was also provided by Germany (Max Planck Society), the U.K. (Science and Technology Facilities Council, STFC) and Australia (Australian Research Council).
Ebola outbreak over. The WHO declared that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa is at an end and that all known chains of transmissions have been stopped. Flare-ups may still occur and monitoring will continue. In addition, a promising Ebola vaccine has been reported in The Lancet.
Citrus greening. Citrus greening disease attacks orange trees, causing green, inedible fruit, and is spread by the Asian citrus psyllid. It is spreading widely in Florida as well as in Texas and even California and research into controlling it is in high gear. Essentially, you have to find or create trees immune to the disease, and that is what has been done at the University of Florida. Researchers report having bred a “mother tree” with greening resistance, and look forward to being able to provide replacement trees that are more or less immune. This is, of course, a long term and expensive solution, but at least some approach has been “fruitful.”
CRISPR. The gene editing technology CRISPR came into its own in 2016. This technique allows scientists to edit genes without inserting foreign material, using the Cas9 enzyme. Scientists Jennifer Doudna at UC Berkeley and Emmanuelle Charpentier of Umeå University in Sweden found that they could exploit the Cas9 protein by feeding it a pattern of RNA. The Cas9 would then seek out this pattern and snip out that pattern in any genome it was presented with. Related work showing that this could be done in mice was published about the same time by Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute. You can read a very good explanation of CRISPR/Cas9 by Brad Plumer and Javier Zarracina here. This simple, and relatively cheap technique can be used to create new foods, treat diseases. This follow-on article suggests some of the further advances that CRISPR might be used for, including cancer and Alzheimer’s treatments.
Of course, which of the two groups (Berkeley and Broad Institute) have the patent rights to CRISPR is now the subject of an interesting court case, explained here by C&E News.
Homeopathic medicines. Homeopathic “medicines” are usually substances diluted so far that no active components remain. The FTC issued a new Enforcement Policy on Marketing Claims for Homeopathic Drugs. Essentially, companies must have actual scientific evidence of their efficacy for any health-related claims they make.
How do we do science? Science is the result of a collection of measurable observation under careful control, and usually represents many observations by many research groups. Science is different from politics, where various philosophies can lead to different conclusions. Science is not a set of beliefs, it is a system of careful studies, reviewed by others and published in major technical journals. The results of scientific studies may result in corrections over time: science is inherently self-correcting, but it is not dependent on scientist’s personal political or moral outlooks.
Further, the idea that science can be suspect because of who funds it reveals considerable naivete about how research grants are obtained and how research is actually done. Professor Allison van Eeenenaam of UC Davis Animal Science explains this very well in this excellent article.
Vaccines: Andrew Wakefield was a gastroenterologist who published a fraudulent paper in 1998 claiming that the MMR vaccine could cause autism. This paper has been refuted many times (and retracted) by careful studies and Wakefield was barred from medical practice. Nonetheless the rumors caused by his crackpot paper, has done considerable damage, as too many people believed the rumors that vaccines were somehow dangerous. In fact, it was demonstrated that Wakefield’s paper was an elaborate fraud, designed to make money. The CDC firmly notes that all research has shown that vaccines do not cause autism, citing the supporting research.
Nonetheless, there are pockets of non-vaccinating families, often living near each other which represent a serious health hazard. Organizations of non-vaccinating parents have formed, and even have a Facebook group! Clusters on such parents are sure to spread disease and it is not unreasonable to ask your child’s friend’s parents if their child is vaccinated before allowing them to play with your child.
This is essentially science denial based parenting and it has been difficult to break through, although more and more pediatricians are refusing to treat children whose parents refuse to vaccinate them.
This non-vaccination of children is supported by pseudo-science based practitioners such as naturopaths, who should know better. And this has led to Wakefield making a propaganda film called VAXXED, which purports to give some support to this practice. The film has received scathing reviews, notably by Dr Paul Offit , co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine, and by the Washington Post. Nonetheless, some stars in the entertainment industry still claim to these disproven claims.
But to bring us up to date, we just learned of an article by an actual doctor at the Cleveland Clinic, Daniel Neides, who seems to have jumped onto the pseudo-science bandwagon and attempts to connect vaccines and autism, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Today, the Cleveland Clinic apologized for Neides column and promises discipline. However, the column is still there spreading misinformation. We would suggest termination of Neides at once,
But not to make you think the Neides is along in this crackpottery, the ever-reliable lunatic Mark Hyman (MD?) has said much the same things, and also claims staff privileges at the Cleveland Clinic.
Organic foods are spreading through supermarkets like tribbles. They are a high-profit class of foods, marked up by both the farmers, and the grocers, so they have every reason to expand their availability. Some stores tart up their organic aisles with special flooring to make you think of “luxury.” But “organic” is a marketing term, as was explained by Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman when the National Organic Program was announced. It does not say anything about food safety, nutrition or quality. It is a series of agricultural practices based primarily on prescientific ideas about farming. Organic trade groups continue to trumpet the lie that organic crops are “free of pesticides,” when the USDA allows dozens of pesticides to be used on organic crops.
And in a 2009 review by Dangour, et. el., they found no nutritional differences between organic and conventional crops. A similar study in 2012 by Smith-Spangler found much the same thing. And as far as pesticide residues go, Bruce Ames seminal paper shows that the pesticides manufactured by the plants themselves are 10,000 times higher in concentration than any agricultural pesticide residues, and thus these residues are more or less irrelevant.
Organic crops also have significantly lower yields, which is part of the reason they cost more. Typically organic crops yield 60-80% as much per acre as do conventional crops. They also are less environmentally friendly. Organic is not in any way “better.” In fact, writing in Forbes, Henry Miller calls it a “colossal hoax.”
Genetically modified crops have been in use in many countries for nearly 20 years now, and there has not been a single verified case of any sort of harm to humans or animals in that time. In particular the study of 1783 papers by Nicolia and the billion animal study of van Eenennaam have laid this canard to rest permaenently.
However, the organic industry has mounted a continuous scare campaign about the dangers of GM crops, leading to mendacious labeling such as “GMO free,” when in fact “GMOs” are not an ingredient but a breeding technique. The idea that there is any difference between animals fed GM crops and those fed conventional crops is simply absurd: there is no detectable difference of any kind.
In fact, just like “organic,” the “GMO free” label is a marketing label, attempting to extract more money from consumers by scaring them. The only result of this campaign is higher prices. But because of this relentless scare campaign, only 37% of the public believe GMO foods are safe to eat according to a Pew Research Center survey, while 88% of scientists do. And, in fact, there is a generation gap here as well with millennials more likely to seek out on GM foods. This has led to the ridiculous claims such as those by Hunt’s that you won’t find any GMO tomatoes in their products. That’s because there are no GMO tomatoes on the market!
Climate change. The year 2015 was the warmest on record. The year 2016 was likewise the warmest year on record. Virtually all climate scientists are convinced that climate change is occurring and caused by humans, and that if we do not make significant modifications in our use of carbon-based fuels, the Earth will end in disaster, and fairly soon. Already, the ocean regularly invades the sewers of Miami Beach. It won’t be long until coastal flooding begins to make cities less habitable.
The Republican Party in the United States is the only major political party in the world who pretends to deny these obvious scientific facts, both because of lack of interest in science and because of their funding by the energy industry. As Upton Sinclair has written,
“it is difficult to to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”