Opinion, Opinion But Where is the Science?

June 27, 2010

I was distressed reading Maureen Dowd’s opinion piece in the NY Times today entitled “Are Cells The New Cigarettes?”  As of 8:25 am PDT this morning 6/27,  the most e-mailed.  (It was 8th about 45 minutes earlier).  The gist of the article is that because industry resisted the enactment of the new San Francisco ordinance requiring that cell phone retailers post “specific absorption rates” then Gavin Newsom is onto scandal.  She writes:

“Since our bill is relatively benign,” Newsom said, “it begs the question, why did they work so hard and spend so much money to kill it? I’ve become more fearful, not less, because of their reaction. It’s like BP. Shouldn’t they be doing whatever it takes to protect their global shareholders?”
So now we have Exhibit No. 1,085 illustrating the brazenness of Big Business.
They should be sending Mayor Newsom a bottle of good California wine for caring about whether kids’ brains get fried, not leaving him worried about whether they’ll avenge themselves in his campaign for lieutenant governor.

I want to spit nails.  This is not about whether “kids’ brains get fried”.  Or Newsom’s or Dowd’s brains for that matter.  For if they were busier understanding the underlying science instead of spouting opinion based on perceptions of political motives, they might be doing some good for Newsom’s constituents and Dowd’s readers in understanding how nature works.  Turn to Bob Park who writes weekly on science in What’s New.  From his most recent Friday newsletter, on a recurring theme:

2. CONSERVATION OF ENERGY: YES, BIOLOGY MUST ALSO OBEY THE LAW.
Ten years ago a group in Denmark published a beautiful epidemiological study of cell phones and brain cancer in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute:  Johansen C, Boice JD Jr, McLaughlin JK, Olsen JH. Cellular telephones and cancer — a nationwide Cohort  study in Denmark. J Natl Cancer Inst 2001;93:203–7.   The study was based entirely on existing public records: the Danish Cancer Registry, mobile phone charges, death records, subscriptions, etc.  The conclusion was unequivocal: There was no correlation between cell phone use and the incidence of brain cancer.  It was nice to have that fact confirmed, but it was not a surprise.  I was invited to write an editorial on how scientists should respond to the cell phone/brain cancer question, for the same issue of JNCI JNCI, Vol. 93, No. 3, 166-167, February 7, 2001.  Cancer agents act by creating mutant strands of DNA.  In the case of electromagnetic radiation, there is a sharp threshold for this process at the extreme blue end of the visible spectrum.  Albert Einstein explained this with the photoelectric effect in 1905, for which he received the Nobel Prize in 1921.   Cell phones operate at a frequency about 1 million times lower than the ultraviolet threshold and hence cannot be a cause of cancer.  It’s important to recognize that it’s not the intensity of radiation that makes it a cancer agent, but the frequency.

In other words, SAR is irrelevant.

So worry about the real dangers of cell phones, for example texting while driving which does cause deaths.  These are preventable with application of the ubiquitous GPS:  cell phone in motion, texting disabled.

And worry more about spreading and promoting scientific illiteracy.


TSA and the Buddha

June 13, 2010

As we passed through airport security at Bob Hope Airport (aka Burbank, BUR) this morning, I was greeted just beyond the metal detector by a glove-clad, TSA supervisor who informed me (and I must say this wasn’t recorded and I think I captured its content faithfully, but so it only counts as my best recollection):

I’m going to need to apply an unusual random protocol.  May I rub your belly?

What the heck.  Sure.  I wanted to be on the plane.  All above the belt.  He rubbed my belly.  Took two seconds.  He thanked me nicely.

But now Tobae and I are having a debate.  (Debate might not be the right word, but it is best I not appear to be irritable).  Was I profiled for the paunch over my belt?

I never quite got up the nerve to ask my seat neighbor on the flight whether he received similar treatment.  If he didn’t, profiling is surely ruled out, for he could have blown up the plane and more.


Whose Ass to Kick?

June 8, 2010

A NYT article this morning reaffirms the continuing harm of not knowing how much oil is discharging from Deepwater Horizon, though with blame put oddly on BP:

Rate of Oil Leak Still Not Clear, Puts Doubt on BP:  “On Monday, BP said a cap was capturing 11,000 barrels of oil a day from the well. The official government estimate of the flow rate is 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day, which means the new device should be capturing the bulk of the oil.  But is it? With no consensus among experts on how much oil is pouring from the wellhead, it is difficult — if not impossible — to assess the containment cap’s effectiveness. BP has stopped trying to calculate a flow rate on its own, referring all questions on that subject to the government. The company’s liability will ultimately be determined in part by how many barrels of oil are spilled.”

Certainly BP is acting to serve its own interests and is not being at all helpful.  But what about the official government estimate?  I advocate for a different close to the headline: “Puts Doubt on BP and FRTG”.  For while it is wonderful that BP is managing to capture over twice as much oil per day as they claimed was being discharged, FRTG by publicly releasing what is a minimum to the flow while calling it the “best estimate” should share blame for this debacle.  And so finally the national press is bringing some of the nuance to the forefront:

“In fact, a subgroup that analyzed the plume emerging at the wellhead could offer no upper bound for its flow estimate, and could come up with only a rough idea of the lower bound, which it pegged at 12,000 to 25,000 barrels a day.”

Later in the story, the focus turns to the White House:

“I don’t sit around just talking to experts because this is a college seminar,” Mr. Obama told the show’s host, Matt Lauer, in an interview in Kalamazoo, Mich. “We talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answer so I know whose ass to kick.”

We are being misled, not just by BP, but by the way in which FRTG is reporting its results.  And so don’t forget to kick some ass of the government handlers of the FRTG.  For starters why is MMS represented?  How about some independence not just from BP but from the governmental entity that was asleep at the wheel?


Junior

June 3, 2010

Memories of Ken Griffey, Jr., The Kid.  Back-to-back home runs with his father in 1990.  The remarkable 1995 season.  Saving baseball in Seattle.  Breaking our hearts in 2000.  And his return, in 2007 still with the Reds and then with his signing in 2009 to end his career here.  These and others will quickly displace the sour taste of this odd, last season, seemingly with a clubhouse not infected with his visible joy for the game.

And so my memories of 1995.  Griffey played only 72 games, out with injuries.  His batting average that year was his lowest as a player in Seattle (of course, until his return in 2009).  Not surprisingly, the Mariners struggled mightily and were 13 games back on August 2.  8-1/2 out on my birthday August 29 (Thank you baseball-reference.com for reinforcing my precision recall!).   But for me, 1995 was a busy summer of research, the year of our research cruises for “Mixing Zephyrs“.  25 days in late May into mid-June and 14 more the latter half of September.  My attention as the Mariners steadily rallied was more on being ready to sail on September 15 fully prepared to capitalize on a very interesting result from the earlier leg: tidal triggering of flow perturbations.  But underneath, knowing that as we sailed we were just 5 games out.

At this point I’ll borrow a piece of writing I did in 1997, again while at sea in September in the midst of our second run at the playoffs.  This appeared in a web-based logbook on September 16, 1997 (they were not yet called blogs!)

Baseball Blues For a basefall fan, there is no worse time to be at sea than September. The pennant races are tight and after faithfully following games, scores and standings, we are now cut off from newspapers, television, and KJR Sports Radio 950. We get word from friends of most Mariners scores, less often the Angels score, and with increasing frequency, happily, a magic number. But all the substance and subtlety has been lost…who pitched? who’s injured? how many HR does Junior have? who will we be playing come playoff time? why did Lou bring in the right hander with 2 outs in the 7th and the tying run on 1st?

Likewise, once we sailed in 1995 we barely knew what was going on other than that we were winning and steadily: 4 back, 3 back, 3 back, 2 back, 1 back and then on September 20, tied for first.

My colleague Marv Lilley and I were going wild.  With the standings tied we had to have playoff tickets.  And we knew our wives were not going to be much help; in fact, mine would be no help!  But after a ~$100 phone call (calling from sea at that time was $10/minute) the administrator of our department stepped up for us and we secured rights to four strips of tickets, way out in left field at the Kingdome, a couple of rows from the top of the section.  All we needed was to actually keep winning.  By the time we stepped off the ship, up 3, then slipping to finish tied at the end of the regular season.  Monday, October 2, one game playoff, Randy Johnson phenomenal, AL West Champions.

No need for me to recount the baseball side of the Yankees series.  Marv’s family and my family alternated nights, with Marv substituting for Tobae on my nights.  (Tobae finally did go to one game in the ALCS and I believe I heard her cheer.)  My best memory was after Game 2 waiting at 3rd and Jackson for a bus back to UW.  Marv was astounded by the fascination of Daniel and Mark (then 7 and 6) with the parking meters.  We are such a rural family that they had never seen one!

Closing this post by returning to the cruise calendar.  ALVIN Dive 3000 occurred on September 20, the day the Mariners tied up the standings.  My “Apollo 13” experience, Dive 3004, was on September 24.  Lost to Oakland, up 2.  It must have been the baseball euphoria that got me back in ALVIN for Dive 3005, when we captured the chemical evidence that substantiated our temperature data…zephyrs were mixing, but not at all in the way we had imagined.  Once the ALCS was over, and baseball buzz subsided, I reflected on my Apollo 13 day…and not happy over the complacency around safety, I haven’t been in ALVIN since.

Thanks Junior!