Blue Marble

Your Coffee Pods' Dirty Secret

| Wed Mar. 19, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Coffee brewing is in the midst of a revolution, and I'm not talking about the AeroPress. It comes in the form of a small 2-by-2-inch single-serving pod that requires a special machine. Keurig, owned by Vermont-based Green Mountain Coffee, makes the most popular pods, called "K-Cups." At the press of a button, the Keurig brewer punctures a small hole into the aluminum lid of an individual plastic cup filled with grounds, flushes it with steaming water, and, voilà! Out comes one hot cup of joe.  

When Keurig launched its specialized brewing system in 1998, it might have come off as a bit niche. Not anymore. According to a survey by the National Coffee Association, nearly 1 in 5 adults drank single-cup-brewed coffee yesterday, making it the second most popular way to brew after the traditional drip methods—and far more popular than espresso machines.

Keurig would not tell me what types of plastic go into its #7 blend, saying the information was proprietary.

The single-serve method has experienced impressive growth: According to the Seattle Times, while US consumers bought $132 million worth of coffee pods in 2008, they forked over $3.1 billion for them last year, compared to $6 billion for roasted coffee and $2.5 billion in instant coffee. Keurig also has similar brewing systems and pods for tea and iced beverages, and will roll out a system for Campbell's soup later this year.

What Keurig customers love, proclaims Green Mountain's 2013 annual report, is the system's "Quality, Convenience, and Choice"—and let's be real, it's convenience that trumps for most busy Americans. Keurig systems take under a minute to brew coffee, and cleaning them is laughably easy: Just chuck the used coffee pod in the trash, then press a button, and a "cleansing brew" shoots hot water through the system to clear it of residue.

But critics warn that the packaging needed for these systems comes with environmental and health-related costs. By making each pod so individualized, and so easy to dispose of, you must also exponentially increase the packaging—packaging that ultimately ends up in landfills. (And that's to say nothing of the plastic and metal brewing systems, which if broken, aren't that easy to recycle either.)

Journalist Murray Carpenter estimates in his new book, Caffeinated, that a row of all the K-Cups produced in 2011 would circle the globe more than six times. To update that analogy: In 2013, Green Mountain produced 8.3 billion K-Cups, enough to wrap around the equator 10.5 times. If Green Mountain aims to have "a Keurig System on every counter," as the company states in its latest annual report, that's a hell of a lot of little cups.

Green Mountain only makes 5 percent of its current cups out of recyclable plastic. The rest of them are made up of a #7 composite plastic, which is nonrecyclable in most places. And for the small few that are recyclable, the aluminum lid must be separated from the cup, which also must be emptied of its wet grounds, for the materials to make it through the recycling process. Even then, chances are the pod won't be recycled because it's too small, says Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Keurig just released a sustainability report announcing that the company plans to make all coffee pods recyclable by 2020, among other ecofriendly efforts. The company says it's evaluating the type of plastic used in the cups, exploring potential biodegradable and compostable packaging, and coming up with an easier way for customers to easily prepare them for recycling.

Some competitors already have recyclable or biodegradable versions of this single-serve pod; Nespresso's lid and pod is made entirely from aluminum. A Canadian brand, Canterbury Coffee, makes a version that it says is 92 percent biodegradable (everything save for the nylon filter can break down). Finding a substitute is an interesting challenge, says Keurig spokeswoman Sandy Yusen, because coffee is perishable, and so the material used must prevent light, oxygen, and moisture from degrading the coffee.

Another reason to look beyond plastic is a concern with what could leach out of the material when heated. Yusen confirmed that the #7 plastic used in K-Cups is BPA-free, safe, and "meets or exceeds applicable FDA standards." But new evidence suggests that even non-BPA plastics can test positive for estrogenic activity. (Our "Frightening Field Guide to Common Plastics" contains more information about this.)

"No. 7 plastic means 'other,'" says the NRDC's Hoover. "You don't know what it is." One concern with this plastic mix is the presence of polystyrene, containing the chemical styrene, which Hoover warns is especially worrisome for workers. A possible carcinogen, styrene can wreak havoc on the nervous systems of those handling it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The chemical also shows up in tobacco smoke and home copy machines, and in the Styrofoam used in food containers.

The New York Times determined that single-brew coffee ends up costing more than $50 a pound, even for Folgers.

Keurig would not tell me what types of plastic go into its #7 blend, saying the information was proprietary, nor would it confirm or deny the presence of polystyrene in the mix.

Keurig does make a plastic and mesh reusable coffee filter. But why use a filter that necessitates cleaning—and also requires a fancy-schmancy brewing system—over the traditional method? As Hoover points out, "you're essentially giving up the convenience of the little teeny tiny cup."

It's not just convenience that's sacrificed. By my calculations, a K-Cup-worth of coffee will run up your tab way more than grounds and a filter (not including the cost of the brewer); a standard pod of Green Mountain coffee costs 68 cents, while one cup of the company's Vermont Blend brewed the traditional way costs about 44 cents, filter included. The New York Times did a more comprehensive analysis of the actual price of single-brew coffee, and determined that it ends up costing more than $50 a pound, even for standard brands like Folgers, compared to the less than $20 you can expect to pay for a bag of roasted beans. Call me a cheapskate, but I'll stick to freshly ground coffee that doesn't require a bulky brewer and billions of plastic pods to be delicious.

Earth designed by Ben King from The Noun Project.

Coffee capsule designed by Stefan Brechbühl from The Noun Project.

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Was the Los Angeles Earthquake Caused by Fracking Techniques?

| Mon Mar. 17, 2014 7:44 PM EDT
The epicenter of today's LA quake was eight miles from oil waste injection wells. Kyle Ferrar, FracTracker Alliance

Was the 4.4-magnitude earthquake that rattled Los Angeles on Monday morning caused by fracking methods? It's hard to say, but what's clear from the above map, made by Kyle Ferrar of the FracTracker Alliance, is that the quake's epicenter was just eight miles from a disposal well where oil and gas wastewater is being injected underground at high pressure.

Don Drysdale, spokesman for the state agency that oversees California Geological Survey, told me that state seismologists don't think that the injection well was close enough to make a difference (and the agency has also raised the possibility that Monday's quake could have been a foreshock for a larger one). But environmental groups aren't so sure.

In 2011, a 5.7-magnitude temblor in Oklahoma—where quakes are rare—destroyed 14 homes and baffled seismologists.

In other states, injection wells located 7.5 miles from a fault have been shown to induce seismic activity, points out Andrew Grinberg, the oil and gas project manager for Clean Water Action. "We are not saying that this quake is a result of an injection," he adds, "but with so many faults all over California, we need a better understanding of how, when, and where induced seismicity can occur with relation to injection."

"Shaky Ground," a new report from Clean Water Action, Earthworks, and the Center for Biological Diversity, argues that the close proximity of such wells to active faults could increase the state's risk of earthquakes. According to the report, more than half of the state's permitted oil wastewater injection wells are located less than 10 miles from an active fault, and 87 of them, or about 6 percent, are located within a mile of an active fault.

Scientists have long known that injecting large amounts of wastewater underground can cause earthquakes by increasing pressure and reducing friction along fault lines. One of the best known early examples took place in 1961, when the US Army disposed of millions of gallons of hazardous waste by injecting it 12,000 feet beneath the surface of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver. The influx caused more than 1,500 earthquakes over a five year period in an area not known for seismic activity; the worst among them registered at more than 5.0 on the Richter scale and caused $500,000 in damage. Geologists later discovered that the Army well had been drilled into an unknown fault.

As Michael Behar detailed in-depth last year in Mother Jones, fracking is now a leading suspect for a spate of serious earthquakes in places that hardly ever see them, such as Oklahoma, where in 2011, a 5.7-magnitude temblor destroyed 14 homes and baffled seismologists.

"In some locations of the US, the disposal of wastewater associated with oil/gas production, including hydraulic fracturing operations, appears to have triggered some low-magnitude seismic activity," concedes Drysdale, the Geological Survey spokesman. But in California, he adds, oil companies are required to evaluate surrounding geology before disposing of wastewater underground, and can't inject it at dangerously high pressures.

Yet Grinberg, a coauthor of the "Shaky Ground" report, says that the existing regulations don't go far enough now that quake-prone California is poised for a fracking boom. Though he'd like to see a moratorium on fracking while the risks are studied, he wants any eventual regulations to at least require seismic monitoring at or near injection wells and to look at the cumulative earthquake risk of entire oil fields.

Science Deniers Are Freaking Out About "Cosmos"

| Mon Mar. 17, 2014 5:53 PM EDT
The second episode of "Cosmos" examines evolution, and the interrelatedness of all life on Earth.

If you think the first episode of the new Fox Cosmos series was controversial (with its relatively minor mentions of climate change, evolution, and the Big Bang), Sunday night's show threw down the gauntlet. Pretty much the entire episode was devoted to the topic of evolution, and the vast profusion of evidence (especially genetic evidence) showing that it is indeed the explanation behind all life on Earth. At one point, host Neil deGrasse Tyson stated it as plainly as you possibly can: "The theory of evolution, like the theory of gravity, is a scientific fact." (You can watch the full episode here.)

Not surprisingly, those who deny the theory of evolution were not happy with this. Indeed, the science denial crowd hasn't been happy with Cosmos in general. Here are some principal lines of attack:

Denying the Big Bang: In the first episode of Cosmos, titled "Standing Up in the Milky Way," Tyson dons shades just before witnessing the Big Bang. You know, the start of everything. Some creationists, though, don't like the Big Bang; at Ken Ham's Answers in Genesis, a critique of Cosmos asserts that "the big bang model is unable to explain many scientific observations, but this is of course not mentioned."

Fox

Alas, this creationist critique seems very poorly timed: A major new scientific discovery, just described in detail in the New York Times, has now provided "smoking gun" evidence for "inflation," a crucial component of our understanding of the stunning happenings just after the Big Bang. Using a special telescope to examine the cosmic microwave background radiation (which has been dubbed the "afterglow" of the Big Bang), researchers at the South Pole detected "direct evidence" of the previously theoretical gravitational waves that are believed to have originated in the Big Bang and caused an incredibly sudden and dramatic inflation of the universe. (For an easy to digest discussion, Phil Plait has more.)

Denying evolution: Sunday's episode of Cosmos was all about evolution. It closely followed the rhetorical strategy of Charles Darwin's world-changing 1859 book, On the Origin of Species, beginning with an example of "artificial selection" by breeders (Darwin used pigeons, Cosmos used domestic dogs) to get us ready to appreciate the far vaster power of natural selection. It employed Darwin's favorite metaphor: the "tree of life," an analogy that helps us see how all organisms are living on different branches of the same hereditary tree. In the episode, Tyson also refuted one of the creationist's favorite canards: the idea that complex organs, like the eye, could not have been produced through evolution.

The "tree of life" on Cosmos Fox

Over at the pro-"intelligent design" Discovery Institute, they're not happy. Senior fellow David Klinghoffer writes that the latest Cosmos episode "[extrapolated] shamelessly, promiscuously from artificial selection (dogs from wolves) to minor stuff like the color of a polar bear's fur to the development of the human eye." In a much more elaborate attempted takedown, meanwhile, the institute's Casey Luskin accuses Tyson and Cosmos of engaging in "attempts to persuade people of both evolutionary scientific views and larger materialistic evolutionary beliefs, not just by the force of the evidence, but by rhetoric and emotion, and especially by leaving out important contrary arguments and evidence." Luskin goes on to contend that there is something wrong with the idea of the "tree of life." Tell that to the scientists involved in the Open Tree of Life project, which plans to produce "the first online, comprehensive first-draft tree of all 1.8 million named species, accessible to both the public and scientific communities." Precisely how to reconstruct every last evolutionary relationship may still be an open scientific question, but the idea of common ancestry, the core of evolution (represented conceptually by a tree of life), is not.

Denying climate change: Thus far, Cosmos has referred to climate change in each of its two opening episodes, but has not gone into any depth on the matter. Perhaps that's for a later episode. But in the meantime, it seems some conservatives are already bashing Tyson as a global warming proponent. Writing at the Media Research Center's Newsbusters blog, Jeffrey Meyer critiques a recent Tyson appearance on Late Night With Seth Myers. "Meyers and deGrasse Tyson chose to take a cheap shot at religious people and claim they don't believe in science i.e. liberal causes like global warming," writes Meyer.

Actually, as Tyson explained on our Inquiring Minds podcast, Cosmos is certainly not anti-religion. As for characterizing global warming as simply a "liberal cause": In a now famous study finding that 97 percent of scientific studies (that bother to take a position on the matter) agree with the idea of human-caused global warming, researchers reviewed 12,000 scientific abstracts published between the years 1991 and 2011. In other words, this is a field in which a very large volume of science is being published. That hardly sounds like an advocacy endeavor.

On our most recent episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast, Tyson explains why he doesn't debate science deniers; you can listen here (interview starts around minute 13):

These Pictures of Spring Flowers Will Melt Your Frozen Heart

| Mon Mar. 17, 2014 3:00 PM EDT

Climate change might have had a hand in the exceptionally cold winter much of the country just suffered through, but on the upside, there's new evidence that it's sending spring in early, and giving us more time with wildflowers.

That's the conclusion of one of the most exhaustive surveys ever conducted on flowering "phenology," the term scientists use for the timing of seasonal events (such as the day the first migratory birds arrive in a given place or, in this case, the first day flowers open). The study was published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. From 1974 to 2012, biologist David Inouye* of the University of Maryland took a team to Colorado just as the winter frost was beginning to thaw, and spent the spring and summer documenting when 60 common plant species had their first, last, and peak (i.e., the most individual plants) flowering.

In all but one of the species, the date of first flowering moved incrementally forward each year, by more than a month in at least one case. You can see a sampling of the flowers in these photos, along with how much earlier they are flowering these days compared to 39 years ago, when the study began. Overall, said study co-author Paul CaraDonna, the ecological onset of spring advanced by about 25 days, from mid-May to late April, mostly thanks to warming temperatures (about 0.7 degrees F per decade here) that melted snow early.

"With these changes in climate, the plants are coming out a lot sooner," CaraDonna said.

In addition, CaraDonna said, last flowerings are happening later in the fall, so that the overall flower season is now about 35 days longer than it was 39 years ago.

Scientists have known for years that climate change messes with nature's datebook, throwing off plants (including flowers and trees), animals (from birds to plankton), and even fungi that rely on clues like temperature and weather to know when to breed, migrate, come out of hibernation, and whatever else they need to do. In fact, one of the first great phenologists was Henry David Thoreau, whose notes on the first flowering of some 500 plant species around Walden Pond were recently tapped by a pair of Boston University biologists to inform modern-day research, which found flowering times for these plants to have advanced an average of 10 days.

What makes this new research unique is not only the sheer size of the dataset, but that it tracks the flowers through the spring and summer until the frost comes back in the fall. Knowing the date of first flowering is important, CaraDonna said, but limited.

"It's like if the cover of a book looks cool, but you don't know what the rest of the book is about," he said. "We're really curious about how these patterns contribute to other patterns in the community that you can't see if you just look at first flowering."

In other words, flower phenology has implications beyond making nice company for hikers. The early appearance of flowers increases competition amongst them for pollinators, like bees, which can in turn get thrown off by unusual dining options, and the effects cascade up the ecological pyramid from there. In the biological marketplace, "things that used to be on sale at different times are now on sale together," said co-author Amy Iler.

CaraDonna said the next step in the study is to look more closely at how the shifted timing of flowers can destabilize an ecosystem, but even now he's confident the impacts are underway: "If you change this much of an ecological community, there will be consequences."

 
 

* Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to biologist David Inouye as "Daniel Inouye." We regret the error.

Photo credits:

Lanceleaf springbeauty: Wikimedia Commons

Glacier lily: Wikimedia Commons

Heartleaf bittercress: Wikimedia Commons

Western monkshood: Eric Hunt/Flickr

Slenderleaf collomia: Wikimedia Commons

American vetch: Wikimedia Commons

Ballhead sandwort: Wikimedia Commons

Aspen fleabane: Wikimedia Commons

Creeping mahonia: Matt Lavin/Flickr

California Just Had Its Warmest Winter on Record

| Thu Mar. 13, 2014 2:26 PM EDT
temperature map
NOAA

This winter has been a tale of two Americas: The Midwest is just beginning to thaw out from a battery of epic cold snaps, while Californians might feel that they pretty much skipped winter altogether. In fact, new NOAA data reveal that California's winter (December through February) was the warmest in the 119-year record, 4.4 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average.

The map above ranks every state's winter temperature average relative to its own historical record low (in other words, relative to itself and not to other states). Low numbers indicate that the state was unusually cold; higher numbers mean it was exceptionally warm. As you can see, the Midwest was much colder than average, while the West was hotter than average (despite a season-long kerfluffle about polar vortexes, the East Coast wasn't exceptionally cold, after all).

As we've reported, there's currently a scientific debate over whether climate change in the Arcitc is making the jet stream "drunk," and thereby increasing the likelihood of extreme cold spells; the exact role of climate change in California's record heat is still unclear.

As anyone working in California's farming industry could confirm, the state also had an exceptionally dry winter, the third-lowest precipitation on record. Other interesting facts from the NOAA report:

  • At the beginning of March, 91 percent of the Great Lakes remained frozen, the second-largest ice cover since record keeping began in 1973.
  • With reservoirs in central and northern California at 36 to 74 percent of their historical average levels, these regions would need 18 inches of rain over the next three months to end the drought, much more than the state normally gets in that time period.
  • Alaska's winter was the eighth-warmest on record, 6.2 degrees F over the 1971-2000 average.

WATCH LIVE: Is a Carbon Tax a Good Idea? Just Ask British Columbia

| Mon Mar. 10, 2014 2:27 PM EDT
 
6:30 pm - 8:00 pm PT, Thursday, March 27, 2014
Queen Elizabeth Theatre Salons, Vancouver
Android? Click Here

In the US context, the idea of putting a tax on carbon is going nowhere fast. While the policy has been championed by liberal legislators and by a few conservative apostates, like former South Carolina Rep. Bob Inglis, mainstream Republican sentiment remains opposed to climate action. For the moment, many lawmakers remain too busy denying the reality of human-caused climate change.

Cross our northwestern border, though, and a carbon tax isn't just an idea, it's a reality. Five years ago, the Canadian province of British Columbia joined a small group of local and national governments (still fewer than 20 overall) that have created a carbon tax—setting a price on carbon in an effort to reduce emissions. Today, the tax brings in $1 billion a year in revenue that is returned to British Columbia taxpayers. Assessing the tax's impact on overall greenhouse gas emissions is a somewhat complicated endeavor, given a number of confounding factors (like the economic collapse of 2008-2009), but it's clear that when it comes to the use of carbon-intensive petroleum products like gasoline and diesel, there has been a marked decline since the year 2008 in British Columbia. In the first four years of the carbon tax, sales of refined petroleum products per capita in BC declined by 15 percent, according to the Sightline Institute, substantially more than the decline in Canada as a whole.*

At a time when carbon tax policies appear increasingly enticing (especially in light of the failure of cap-and-trade in the US), what can British Columbia's experience teach us about the prospects for solutions to climate change? How is the tax working? How do British Columbians feel about it? And has it prompted a desired growth in the clean energy industry?

To delve into these questions, Climate Desk, Climate Access, and Bloomberg BNA are partnering to present "The Carbon Tax Return: Lessons Learned From British Columbia's First Five Years of Taxing Emissions." This distinguished panel, preceded by a cocktail reception, will take place on Thursday, March 27, at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Salon C in downtown Vancouver, with doors opening at 5:30pm PDT. For tickets, click here. To join the event on Facebook, click here. The event will also be livestreamed at this page starting at 6:00pm PDT.

Featured speakers include: Spencer Chandra Herbert, a member of BC's legislative assembly and the New Democratic Party's designated voice on the environment; Merran Smith from Clean Energy Canada; and Ross Beaty the chairman of Alterra Power Corp. Best-selling science writer and Climate Desk Live host Chris Mooney will lead these policymakers and thought leaders in discussing the innovations, pitfalls, and promise of the first five years of the carbon tax in British Columbia. 

Speaker Biographies:

Spencer Chandra Herbert, Environment Critic and Member of the BC Legislative Assembly

Spencer Chandra Herbert was re-elected to represent Vancouver West-End in 2013. He is the official opposition environment critic and previously served as the opposition voice on Tourism, Arts, and Culture and the BC Lottery Corporation and Gaming Policy. Spencer served as an elected Vancouver park board commissioner from 2005-2008, where he worked to improve environmental sustainability in Vancouver's Parks and accessibility to programs for youth and low-income people. 

Merran Smith, Director, Clean Energy Canada

Merran Smith is the director of Clean Energy Canada at Tides Canada. She leads a team working to diversify Canada’s energy systems, cut carbon pollution, and reduce the nation's fossil-fuel dependence, and she writes and speaks extensively on the opportunities for Canada in the global low-carbon economy.

Ross Beaty, Chairman Alterra Power Corp.

Ross J. Beaty is a geologist and resource company entrepreneur with more than 40 years of experience in the international minerals and renewable energy industries. In early 2008, Mr. Beaty founded Magma Energy Corp. to focus on international geothermal energy development. In 2011, Magma and Plutonic Power merged to create Alterra Power Corp. Mr. Beaty also founded and currently serves as chairman of Pan American Silver Corp., one of the world's leading silver producers.

Jeremy Hainsworth

Jeremy Hainsworth is a contributor internationally to Bloomberg BNA (BBNA) and the Associated Press. Jeremy has worked with BBNA for over three years on legal, regulatory, and policy issues in western Canada for BBNA's wide-ranging stable of international publications.

* A previous version of this article stated that British Columbia's greenhouse gas emissions per capita had declined by 10 percent from 2008-2011 after the adoption of the carbon tax, compared with a decline of only 1 percent for the rest of Canada. Those figures did not include emissions from a variety of sectors, however, including electricity and heat generation. This article has been revised for clarification.

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Here Are 5 Infuriating Examples of Facts Making People Dumber

| Wed Mar. 5, 2014 7:00 AM EST

On Monday, I reported on the latest study to take a bite out of the idea of human rationality. In a paper just published in Pediatrics, Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth University and his colleagues showed that presenting people with information confirming the safety of vaccines triggered a "backfire effect," in which people who already distrusted vaccines actually became less likely to say they would vaccinate their kids.

Unfortunately, this is hardly the only example of such a frustrating response being documented by researchers. Nyhan and his coauthor, Jason Reifler of the University of Exeter, have captured several others, as have other researchers. Here are some examples:

1. Tax cuts increase revenue? In a 2010 study, Nyhan and Reifler asked people to read a fake newspaper article containing a real quotation of George W. Bush, in which the former president asserted that his tax cuts "helped increase revenues to the Treasury." In some versions of the article, this false claim was then debunked by economic evidence: A correction appended to the end of the article stated that in fact, the Bush tax cuts "were followed by an unprecedented three-year decline in nominal tax revenues, from $2 trillion in 2000 to $1.8 trillion in 2003." The study found that conservatives who read the correction were twice as likely to believe Bush's claim was true as were conservatives who did not read the correction.

2. Death panels! Another notorious political falsehood is Sarah Palin's claim that Obamacare would create "death panels." To test whether they could undo the damage caused by this highly influential morsel of misinformation, Nyhan and his colleagues had study subjects read an article about the "death panels" claim, which in some cases ended with a factual correction explaining that "nonpartisan health care experts have concluded that Palin is wrong." Among survey respondents who were very pro-Palin and who had a high level of political knowledge, the correction actually made them more likely to wrongly embrace the false "death panels" theory.

3. Obama is a Muslim! And if that's still not enough, yet another Nyhan and Reifler study examined the persistence of the "President Obama is a Muslim" myth. In this case, respondents watched a video of President Obama denying that he is a Muslim or even stating affirmatively, "I am a Christian." Once again, the correction—uttered in this case by the president himself—often backfired in the study, making belief in the falsehood that Obama is a Muslim worse among certain study participants. What's more, the backfire effect was particularly notable when the researchers administering the study were white. When they were nonwhite, subjects were more willing to change their minds, an effect the researchers explained by noting that "social desirability concerns may affect how respondents behave when asked about sensitive topics." In other words, in the company of someone from a different race than their own, people tend to shift their responses based upon what they think that person's worldview might be.

4. The alleged Iraq-Al Qaeda link. In a 2009 study, Monica Prasad of Northwestern University and her colleagues directly challenged Republican partisans about their false belief that Iraq and Al Qaeda collaborated in the 9/11 attacks, a common charge during the Bush years. The so-called challenge interviews included citing the findings of the 9/11 Commission and even a statement by George W. Bush, asserting that his administration had "never said that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated between Saddam and Al Qaeda." Despite these facts, only 1 out of 49 partisans changed his or her mind after the factual correction. Forty-one of the partisans "deflected" the information in a variety of ways, and seven actually denied holding the belief in the first place (although they clearly had).

5. Global warming. On the climate issue, there does not appear to be any study that clearly documents a backfire effect. However, in a 2011 study, researchers at American and Ohio State universities found a closely related "boomerang effect." In the experiment, research subjects from upstate New York read news articles about how climate change might increase the spread of West Nile Virus, which were accompanied by the pictures of the faces of farmers who might be affected. But in one case, the people were said to be farmers in upstate New York (in other words, victims who were quite socially similar to the research subjects); in the other, they were described as farmers from either Georgia or from France (much more distant victims). The intent of the article was to raise concern about the health consequences of climate change, but when Republicans read the article about the more distant farmers, their support for action on climate change decreased, a pattern that was stronger as their Republican partisanship increased. (When Republicans read about the proximate New York farmers, there was no boomerang effect, but they did not become more supportive of climate action either.)

Together, all of these studies support the theory of "motivated reasoning": The idea that our prior beliefs, commitments, and emotions drive our responses to new information, such that when we are faced with facts that deeply challenge these commitments, we fight back against them to defend our identities. So next time you feel the urge to argue back against some idiot on the internet…pause, take a deep breath, and realize not only that arguing might not do any good, but that in fact, it might very well backfire.

Survey: These Are the Most and Least Obese States in America

| Tue Mar. 4, 2014 6:23 PM EST

West Virginia's tenure as the most obese state in America—a three-year run that no one ever called a dynasty—is over.

According to Gallup, which just released its 2013 survey on obesity in America, 35.4 percent of Mississippians have a BMI above 30, giving the home of 3 Doors Down the highest obesity rate in the Union. West Virginia came in second at 34.4 percent.

Meanwhile, Montana toppled three-time defending least-obese champion and budding marijuana tourist destination Colorado, with a svelte 19.6 percent.

You can check out the full results here.

On average, residents of the 10 most obese states were—unsurprisingly—less likely to eat healthily, consume fruits and vegetables, or workout regularly than residents of the least obese states.

Overall the national obesity rate rose to 27.1 percent in 2013. It has risen every year since 2008.

Impeach.

Watch: Dancers Defy Beijing's "Nuclear Winter" Smog

| Fri Feb. 28, 2014 12:06 PM EST

Face masks are selling out online as China's cities this week choked on pollution so bad one local scientist called it "somewhat similar to a nuclear winter." A local cancer prevention official said this revolting blanket of air, largely caused by a "black triangle" of coal pollution, could pose a bigger public health risk than the 2003 SARS epidemic. At rates of over 20 times what the World Health Organization says are acceptable, the air has forced Beijing to shutter city factories, and residents have taken to social media to vent their anger using a now-well-known brand of dark humor. One of the funniest tweets reported by the South China Morning Post recalls a saying by current president Xi Jinping: "Make socialist core values as pervasive as the air." Chinese netizens: "Also as toxic?"

The official local scale of "PM2.5"—those tiny, toxic particles that can prove so dangerous to health—came in at 501 micrograms per cubic meter on Wednesday. The measurements taken from the US Embassy (and popularized via its Twitter feed) were higher, at 542: "beyond index." (The US EPA says anything above 300 is hazardous). Another measure of how bad it is: Radio Free Asia reported this week that a resident of the coal-burning city of Shijiazhuang, in a rare act of defiance, is suing the local government for failing to act over the deadly smog.

Comparing the frigid weather hampering the US to Beijing's endemic smog, Paul Flynn, tech director at PR firm Edelman in Beijing (and a friend), texted me: "After a week of Beijing pollution levels over 500, give me a clear arctic breeze any day." But if fleeing is not an option, why not dance? I loved watching this homage to Pharrell's infectious hit, "Happy," performed by brave locals and expats at some of Beijing's most recognizable tourist locations. The video, by filmmakers Stephy Chung, Em Jaay, and Sarah E Weber, hit the web this week, and has been already featured on a bunch of very cool China blogs that you should definitely keep tabs on. Enjoy!

H/t to Paul Flynn for pointing the video out.

Sorry, California. A Little Rain Isn't Going to Save You.

| Thu Feb. 27, 2014 6:51 PM EST
comparison of California drought maps

California, supplier of nearly half of the fruits, veggies, and nuts produced in the United States, is on track to experience its driest year in modern history. And though the state was lucky to have some rain this week, even a torrential storm would not be enough to fill its aquifers, replenish its soil, and save many of its crops.

We've been tracking the drought through the US Drought Monitor, which uses satellite imagery, water flow, and precipitation data to create weekly drought maps. (Data is collected on Tuesdays, and released the following Thursday.) As of this week, 21 of the state's 58 counties are experiencing "exceptional drought"—including those Central Valley areas where so many of the state's crops grow. Above, check out the maps we've compiled from the past few weeks, starting with the one that prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to announce a state of emergency on January 17.