Corny Science (It’s Good for You)

Modern science stands on the shoulders of giants, as well as average humans, dwarves and elves, ancient civilizations, and all the bones of the dead—forgotten and otherwise. But sometimes you have to start a new branch of science from scratch. On Uncertain Principles, Chad Orzel continues his count-up to Dec. 25, the birthday of Sir Isaac Newton. Orzel explores the origins of agriculture in the Americas, where nativized people made the best of their local flora, turning a humble, nearly inedible grass into one of the biggest food staples on Earth. Chad writes, “Our other staple crops are also improved over their wild ancestors, but the teosinte to corn transition is probably the most dramatic example.” So don’t forget to thank pre-Colombian scientists the next time you hydrate masa flour for tortillas. And while you’re at it, consider the potential of GM agriculture, which could help us and our planet stay healthy and pesticide-free. On Denialism Blog, Mark Hoofnagle cites one of the winning arguments of the Executive VP of Monsanto (yes, THAT Monsanto): “This is a promising technology, still early in its potential, which has the benefit of solving problems with food-security such as plant disease, pests, and need for fertilizers, and may have future productivity and environmental benefit.” Meanwhile, on Pharyngula, PZ Myers considers the elemental dreams of Homo Erectus, who “used shells for tool production and engraving.” In addition to learning how to collect clams and open them with advanced techniques, our proto-sapient forerunners etched “straight lines and a rough geometric pattern” into the shells. PZ writes, “I’m going to go out on a limb here, though, and suggest that our mighty clam hunter was doodling.” Finally, back on Uncertain Principles, Chad Orzel tells the story of the Chinese empress Léi Zǔ, who discovered the secret of silk nearly three millennia before the birth of Jesus. As Chad tells the legend, “she was drinking tea in her garden, and a silkworm cocoon fell into her tea. When she poked at it to get it out of the hot water, the thread unraveled, and she became fascinated with it.” The rest, of course, is fashion history.

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Discrediting Anti-GMO Propaganda

Not too long ago, when the media became excited about a study saying genetically modified corn causes tumor growth in rats, ScienceBloggers were quick to point out that the study featured some of the worst science ever.  Now the paper has been officially retracted by its publisher, but to what end?  On Pharyngula, PZ Myers speculates that the study authors avoided statistical analysis of their small, cancer-prone rat packs precisely because there was no statistically significant effect of being force-fed GMO corn.  PZ also says “journalists who got the paper in advance had to sign confidentiality agreements that prohibited them from consulting with experts,” leading to uncritical promulgation of a story well-suited to stoke fear and anti-GMO politics.  Even the rats in the study were treated unethically, forced to live out their tumor-ridden days for the sake of sensational photographs.  On Respectful Insolence, Orac wonders if the paper’s retraction will only fuel the convictions of activists pre-disposed to conspiratorial thinking.  And on ERV, Abbie Smith offers a book of actual science on GMOs compiled by actual scientists and farmers, for free.

Posted to the homepage on December 2, 2013.