How about some good news for a change?
Aung San Suu Kyi claimed victory Monday in Burma’s historic by-election, saying she hoped it would mark the beginning of a new era for the long-repressed country.
Suu Kyi spoke to thousands of cheering supporters who gathered outside her opposition party headquarters a day after her party declared she had won a parliamentary seat in the closely watched vote.
I think this is pretty clearly a step in the right direction.
Meanwhile, in the Anglosphere:
- FDA declines to ban BPA (Reason Hit & Run)
BPA has crossed this blog before (and also here), and while it’s known to be something you probably want to avoid — especially in the sorts of doses commonly given to lab rats — the actual level of risk of chronic BPA exposure in the Standard American Diet remains somewhat obscure. Here’s what the FDA discovered from their own work:
The NCTR researchers have been conducting in-depth studies of BPA since September 2008, when a report by the NIEHS and NTP called for more research into the potential toxic effects of BPA on fetuses, infants and children.
NCTR’s findings include:
- The level of BPA from food that could be passed from pregnant mothers to the fetus is so low that it could not be measured. Researchers fed pregnant rodents 100 to 1,000 times more BPA than people are exposed to through food, and could not detect the active form of BPA in the fetus eight hours after the mother’s exposure.
- Exposure to BPA in human infants is from 84 to 92 percent less than previously estimated.
NCTR researchers report that they were able to build mathematical models of what happens to BPA once it’s in the human body. These models showed that BPA is rapidly metabolized and eliminated through feces and urine. They found that BPA is “exactly the opposite” from some other toxins, like dioxin, that can stay in the body’s tissues for months or even years.
The center’s toxicology research has not found evidence of BPA toxicity at low doses in rodent studies, including doses that are still above human exposure levels.
Bearing in mind that mathematical models of complex phenomena are often dangerously skewed — see also Black-Scholes — and that the FDA is in a perfect position to be captured by corporate interests, we should take these data with a grain or three of salt. I certainly wouldn’t want to bet my endocrine system on a mathematical model of BPA metabolism, although the rodent studies increase confidence. What we need here is a solid hypothesis for the mechanism of BPA metabolism and some targeted studies to back it up.
On the other hand, the typical BPA tox study — or at least its reporting — has devolved into hysterical fearmongering, and the molecule’s obesogenic effects are adequately explained by other phenomena. And since (on the gripping hand) most research in the life sciences is utterly unreproducible, we should be somewhat skeptical of both results.
Given these levels of uncertainty, I’m cautiously happy about the FDA’s decision to do nothing for the moment.
Speaking of science, apparently some social scientist (yes, I typed that with a straight face) did a survey and found out that trust in scientists has been declining among Republicans over the past thirty-odd years. This has naturally led to a lot of electrons being twitted about to make text appear on the Big Truck, and Andrew Sullivan has collected some responses (and a graph!):
The neat thing about these data is that they don’t quite fit the narrative — Republicans started off trusting “science” just as much as Democrats, and have since declined to levels of (mis)trust shared by moderates since the study’s time series began. Furthermore, the decline in trust has been driven by the best-educated conservatives, not the easily-stereotyped toothless hicks. This leads Kevin Drum to write hilarious things (citing Hollywood in the same breath as academia as an “information-disseminating institution”, for example).
Having made this particular brand of sausage, I can see both sides of the story. Research institutions are fundamentally human institutions, and are just as vulnerable to the usual human foibles and weaknesses as any other. On the other hand, when stretched out over a sufficient number of mutually competitive participants, the scientific method makes it really hard to ignore your mistakes, which makes it a pretty great tool for explaining and predicting observable phenomena.
Seems to me that one of the root problems here is that people generally expect science to be the sort of thing that you’d find in a Saturday-morning cartoon or an episode of CSI — lab coats, whirring machinery with blinking lights, and fantastic inventions or certain results by the end of the episode. Only people who get a few years into a STEM major are ever forced to discard that mental model.
Speaking of mental models, Frances Woolley does an outstanding job of making
- The case for taxing basic groceries (Worthwhile Canadian Initiative)
More uniform consumption taxes are not only more efficient, but when properly implemented can be more progressive as well. Click through and RTWT; you’ll be smarter when you get out the other side.