Blue Marble

One Weird Trick to Curb Antibiotic Overuse

| Thu Feb. 20, 2014 7:00 AM EST

Antibiotic overprescription is a major problem. While there have been several campaigns to curb it, few have made a big impact—until now. In a new study, researchers Jason Doctor, an associate professor at the the University of Southern California's Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics and Daniella Meeker, an information scientist at the research think tank RAND Corporation, showed that they were able to reduce unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions among study participants by 20 percent simply by posting signs.

"We were interested in some of the psychological factors that may affect what physicians are doing, and one of the big ones is this idea of a public commitment," Doctor explained. "If [physicians] make a public commitment they want to follow through with it, so that is how we came up with this poster idea."

The signs looked like they were meant for patients: Each 18-by-24-inch poster showed two letters—one in English and another in Spanish—explaining how unnecessary use of antibiotics can be harmful, causing side effects like diarrhea and yeast infections, as well as contributing to drug resistance. The most important part of the posters, however, was the signature and photo of the physicians who practiced in the offices where they were displayed. The researchers did not tell the doctors that the signs' real purpose was to remind the doctors themselves of their commitment.

"There have been studies that have posted these kinds of reminders and education," Meeker explained, "but our results have been much larger, and we attribute that to this commitment device."

Half the patients in the study saw doctors who had posted the commitment letter and the rest served as a control group. In the 12-week study period, inappropriate prescriptions—those written for conditions such as laryngitis, bronchitis, and non-strep sore throat, which don't usually respond to antibiotics—fell from 43 percent to 33.7 percent. For providers who did not post the commitment letter, the rate of inappropriate prescriptions actually rose to 53 percent. Researchers found in both cases appropriate antibiotic prescriptions were unaffected.

The study was small—it included just 14 physicians who saw close to 1,000 adult patients. But the team hopes to expand the experiment to more doctors' offices soon. Doctor and Meeker calculate that if applied throughout the US, the poster method could potentially save more than $70 million in drug costs and stop over 2 million inappropriate antibiotic prescriptions.

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Watch Bill Nye Explain Climate Change to GOP Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn

| Sun Feb. 16, 2014 1:05 PM EST

Bill Nye is getting good at this.

Fresh off a mega-debate that embarrassed Young Earth creationists and led to none other than Pat Robertson denouncing their views, Nye appeared on Meet the Press today to debate Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), a global warming "skeptic."

On the air, Blackburn, who is vice-chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, denied that there is a scientific consensus on climate change and argued that "you don't make good laws, sustainable laws, when you're making them on hypotheses, or theories, or unproven sciences." (There is indeed such a scientific consensus; at one moment, host David Gregory had to correct Blackburn on this point.)

But Nye rebutted her with some simple science lessons that made a lot of sense—noting that going from 320 to 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, something Blackburn called "very slight," is actually a very big change in percentage terms (Nye said 30 percent; it is actually a 25 percent increase). At the same time, Nye also hammered home a compelling message centered on patriotism. "As a guy who grew up in the US," he said, "I want the US to lead the world in this....The more we mess around with this denial, the less we're going to get done."

The key gotcha moment in the debate came when Nye called out Blackburn for failing to lead on the climate issue. "You are our leader," he said to Blackburn. "We need you to change things, not deny what's happening."

"Neither he nor I are a climate scientist," Blackburn noted during the debate. But as Nye observed, only one of them is a politician, whose job is to use the best information that we have at our disposal to make the world work better.

Watch the Christian Right Argue Over Whether the Earth Is Really 6,000 Years Old

| Sat Feb. 15, 2014 7:00 AM EST

How do we know that Bill Nye won the creationism debate with Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis earlier this month? Simple: The Christian Right is now airing its grievances over the outcome publicly, with one of its top leaders saying the debate made Christians look completely out of touch.

Via Right Wing Watch, here's a video from last week of televangelist Pat Robertson blasting the idea that the Earth is only about 6,000 years old, as Young Earth creationists like Ham assert. "There 'aint no way that's possible," explains Robertson, noting that anyone working in the oil industry can see as much as they drill through layer after geological layer to extract ancient hydrocarbons. "You can't just totally deny the geological formations that are out there," Robertson continued. "Let's be real. Let's not make a joke of ourselves."

Watch Robertson's comments above.

But that's just the beginning: Ham then responded to Robertson and raised the stakes further on Facebook. "Pat Robertson is so misinformed and deceived," Ham lamented. "Sad that so many will believe him." Ham later continued:

Oh, that God would convict and open the eyes of Christian leaders and Christian college and seminary professors, so many of whom are as uninformed and deceived as Pat Robertson. God have mercy.

The truth is that Ham did make a joke of himself, actually arguing at one point that lions were vegetarians before Noah's Flood. Such are the intellectual contortions required of Young Earth creationists who seriously want to insist, against not just biological but also geological and physical evidence, on an Earth that is younger than its oldest living tree.

Robertson, meanwhile, is no paragon of rationality: This is the same guy who asserted, in response to Walt Disney World's "Gay Days," that "I don't think I'd be waving those flags in God's face if I were you ... It'll bring about terrorist bombs; it'll bring earthquakes, tornadoes, and possibly a meteor." And yet here, he comes off as the voice of moderation. Indeed, Robertson even seems to embrace a form of theistic or "progressive" evolution that is not necessarily incompatible with scientific understanding.

This suggests that, if nothing else, the creationism debate was highly disruptive of the evolution-creationism status quo. Just maybe, there will be enough upheaval on the Christian right to trigger a serious reconsideration of their attacks on science education across the country. (Wishful thinking, we know.)

Why It Makes Sense to Kill Baby Giraffes (Sorry, Internet)

| Fri Feb. 14, 2014 1:17 PM EST

Update,  March 25, 2014, 2:35 p.m. ET: The zoo has reportedly killed 4 lions now, too.

A second Danish zoo has announced that it might kill a male giraffe. The news comes just days after the internet exploded with outrage when Marius the 18-month old giraffe was dispatched with a bolt gun and dissected in front of an audience that included children, before being fed to the lions at the Copenhagen Zoo. In a dark twist, the next potential euthanasia candidate, at the Jyllands Park zoo, is also named Marius.

The media circus began with protestors outside the Copenhagen Zoo on Sunday and a petition signed by 27,000 people to rehouse Marius in one of several zoos that had already indicated that their doors were open.

Then came the death threats to Bengt Holst, the zoo's director of research and conservation. And the emotional opinion pieces.

As this debate rages, it's crucial to remember that Marius was not just an exotic attraction: he was part of a larger conservation program that breeds animals with the specific goal of maintaining the diversity of each species' gene pool.

New Study: Internet Trolls Are Often Machiavellian Sadists

| Fri Feb. 14, 2014 7:00 AM EST

In the past few years, the science of Internet trollology has made some strides. Last year, for instance, we learned that by hurling insults and inciting discord in online comment sections, so-called Internet "trolls" (who are frequently anonymous) have a polarizing effect on audiences, leading to politicization, rather than deeper understanding of scientific topics.

That's bad, but it's nothing compared with what a new psychology paper has to say about the personalities of so-called trolls themselves. The research, conducted by Erin Buckels of the University of Manitoba and two colleagues, sought to directly investigate whether people who engage in trolling are characterized by personality traits that fall in the so-called "Dark Tetrad": Machiavellianism (willingness to manipulate and deceive others), narcissism (egotism and self-obsession), psychopathy (the lack of remorse and empathy), and sadism (pleasure in the suffering of others).

It is hard to underplay the results: The study found correlations, sometimes quite significant, between these traits and trolling behavior. What's more, it also found a relationship between all Dark Tetrad traits (except for narcissism) and the overall time that an individual spent, per day, commenting on the Internet.

In the study, trolls were identified in a variety of ways. One was by simply asking survey participants what they "enjoyed doing most" when on online comment sites, offering five options: "debating issues that are important to you," "chatting with others," "making new friends," "trolling others," and "other." Here's how different responses about these Internet commenting preferences matched up with responses to questions designed to identify "Dark Tetrad" traits:

E.E. Buckels et al, "Trolls just want to have fun," Personality and Individual Differences, 2014.

To be sure, only 5.6 percent of survey respondents actually specified that they enjoy "trolling." By contrast, 41.3 percent of Internet users were "non-commenters," meaning they didn't like engaging online at all. So trolls are, as has often been suspected, a minority of online commenters, and an even smaller minority of overall Internet users.

The researchers conducted multiple studies, using samples from Amazon's Mechanical Turk but also of college students, to try to understand why the act of trolling seems to attract this type of personality. They even constructed their own survey instrument, which they dubbed the "Global Assessment of Internet Trolling" or GAIT, comprised of the following items:

I have sent people to shock websites for the lulz.

I like to troll people in forums or the comments section of websites.

I enjoy griefing other players in multiplayer games.

The more beautiful and pure a thing is, the more satisfying it is to corrupt.

Yes, some people actually say they agree with such statements. And again, doing so was correlated with sadism in its various forms, with psychopathy, and with Machiavellianism. Overall, the authors found that the relationship between sadism and trolling was the strongest, and that indeed, sadists appear to troll because they find it pleasurable. "Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others," they wrote. "Sadists just want to have fun...and the Internet is their playground!"

The study comes as websites, particularly at major media outlets, are increasingly weighing steps to rein in trollish behavior. Last year Popular Science did away with its comments sections completely, citing research on the deleterious effects of trolling, and YouTube also took measures to rein in trolling.

But Erin Buckles of the University of Manitoba, the study's first author, actually isn't sure that fix is a realistic one. "Because the behaviors are intrinsically motivating for sadists, comment moderators will likely have a difficult time curbing trolling with punishments (e.g., banning users)," she commented by email. "Ultimately, the allure of trolling may be too strong for sadists, who presumably have limited opportunities to express their sadistic interests in a socially-desirable manner."

Natural Gas Is Dirtier Than We Thought—But It's Still Better Than Coal

| Thu Feb. 13, 2014 3:00 PM EST

For decades, the Environmental Protection Agency has underestimated US emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. That's the argument of a new analysis appearing in the Feb. 14 issue of Science, which also finds that a big factor behind the lowball estimates is the EPA's poor grasp of methane leaks from the natural gas industry.

The analysis, which examines more than 200 existing studies, is the first to take a broad view of scientific knowledge of methane emissions, and it has critical implications for the use of natural gas. Gas has been touted by its proponents as a cleaner alternative to traditional fossil fuels such as coal—President Obama hails it as a "bridge fuel" that will allow the country to transition to cleaner energy sources—since burning natural gas for energy emits far less carbon dioxide. But because methane, a main component of natural gas, is such a powerful greenhouse gas, the new evidence of narrows the gap between the climate change contributions of gas and coal.

"Our best guess is that methane emissions in this country are about 50 percent more than the EPA [estimates]," says Adam Brandt, an assistant professor of energy resources engineering at Stanford University and the lead author of the analysis. Methane emissions could plausibly be anywhere between 25 to 75 percent more than what EPA measures have shown, Brandt adds. "That amounts to something like 7 to 21 million excess tons of methane every year." Brandt and his co-authors, he says, did not have enough evidence to determine what proportion of total excess methane is released by the natural gas industry, as opposed to by other energy sectors, agriculture, or landfills.

But the study concludes that natural gas as a fuel source still contributes less to climate change than coal. "We don't believe that the evidence suggests that burning coal is better," Brandt says. "There's just not support for that." The reason is that while methane is the more damaging greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, which coal emits in huge quantities when burned, stays in the atmosphere for a much longer period of time. Coal is a "cleaner" fuel only in the near-term—a period of 20 years or so. Brandt says that over a period of 100 years, natural gas—leaks and all—would still be a less greenhouse gas-intensive source of energy than coal.

Still, Brandt cautions, natural gas is not a long-term energy solution for keeping climate change in check. "Uncontrolled use of gas over a century or more isn't a good thing, from a climate change perspective," Brandt says. "Most climate change scenarios suggest that this can't be a solution for 100 years."

The analysis also concludes that even under the most conservative estimates of methane leaks from the gas sector, keeping diesel-powered powered vehicles, such as buses, on the road contributes smaller amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than switching to gas-powered buses.

The researchers believe that only a small percentage of methane leaked by the gas sector is coming from the controversial hydraulic fracturing—or fracking—process itself. Rather, accidental leaks that occur as the industry moves and processes natural gas likely account for the biggest proportion of these emissions. One study cited by the analysis found that less than 1 percent of individual pieces of equipment at a single natural gas plant were responsible for nearly 60 percent of its leakage. Brandt says new technology that quickly identifies these "superemitters" is the best hope for reigning in the industry's emissions.

As for why the EPA underestimates methane leaks in the gas industry, the analysis notes that the agency can only measure emission rates at wells and plants where the operators volunteered to allow the EPA on site. In one instance, the EPA asked 30 natural gas companies to allow them on site, but only six cooperated.

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PHOTOS: A "Catastrophic...Crippling...Paralyzing" Ice Storm

| Wed Feb. 12, 2014 1:15 PM EST
A pedestrian battles the snow and cold wind as he crosses Wicker Street in Sanford, N.C.

An ice storm the National Weather Service has called "catastrophic...crippling...paralyzing... choose your adjective" is sweeping across states from Texas to North Carolina, knocking out power in more than 100,000 homes and businesses as it makes its way toward the Northeast. Here are some photos showing the early effects of the storm.

Car in snowstorm
A vehicle drives through the rapidly falling snow on the US 421 Bypass in Sanford, N.C. Chris Seward/Raleigh News & Observer/ZUMA
Woman in snow
LORETTA CANTRELL, 75, says '' I feel like a child again playing in the snow,'' during a walk on Popular Stump Road in Helen, Ga. Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/ZUMA

More and More Americans Think Astrology Is Science

| Tue Feb. 11, 2014 7:00 AM EST

"I believe in a lot of astrology." So commented pop megastar Katy Perry in a recent GQ interview. She also said she sees everything through a "spiritual lens"…and that she believes in aliens.

According to data from the National Science Foundation's just-released 2014 Science and Engineering Indicators study, Americans are moving in Perry's direction. In particular, the NSF reports that the percentage of Americans who think astrology is "not at all scientific" declined from 62 percent in 2010 to just 55 percent in 2012 (the last year for which data is available). As a result, NSF reports that Americans are apparently less skeptical of astrology than they have been at any time since 1983.

The data on Americans' astrological beliefs are compiled by NSF but come from a variety of sources; since 2006 they have come from the General Social Survey. Over the years, the GSS and other surveys have asked Americans a recurring question: "Would you say that astrology is very scientific, sort of scientific, or not at all scientific?"

In response, a substantial minority of Americans, ranging from 31 to 45 percent depending on the year, say consider astrology either "very scientific" or "sort of scientific." That's bad enough—the NSF report compares it with China, where 92 percent of the public does not believe in horoscopes—but the new evidence suggests we are also moving in the wrong direction. Indeed, the percentage of Americans who say astrology is scientifically bunk has been declining ever since a high point for astrology skepticism in 2004, when it hit 66 percent.

The recent increase in astrological credulity was most dramatic among those with less science education and less "factual knowledge," NSF reported. In the latter group, there was a staggering 17 percentage point decline in how many people were willing to say astrology is unscientific, from 52 percent in 2010 to just 35 percent in 2012. Also apparently to blame are younger Americans, aged 18 to 24, where an actual majority considers astrology at least "sort of" scientific, and those aged 35 to 44. In 2010, 64 percent of this age group considered astrology totally bunk; in 2012, by contrast, only 51 percent did, a 13 percentage point change.

Here's a breakdown of the changes in Americans' astrology beliefs by age group:

So what's behind these data? The lead author of the report chapter in question, public opinion specialist John Besley of Michigan State University, cautions that we should probably wait for further data "to see if it's a real change" before speculating. But, he admits, the apparent increase in astrology belief "popped out to me when I saw it."

So if it turns out that Americans are indeed becoming even more devoted to astrology than they already are? As with many things in life, there's a Shakespeare quotation appropriate to the situation: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."

Is Shipping Oil by Rail As Dangerous As the Keystone Pipeline?

| Tue Feb. 11, 2014 7:00 AM EST

When the State Department issued its long-awaited environmental-impact statement on the Keystone XL project earlier this month, one of its key findings was that if the controversial pipeline weren't built, oil-laden rail cars would pick up the slack. "Rail will likely be able to accommodate new production if new pipelines are delayed or not constructed," it argued. As we noted recently, that rail transit is already underway. ​According to the Association of American Railroads (AAR), crude oil traveling by rail increased from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to an estimated 400,000 in 2013. Recently, an ExxonMobil official said the company had already begun to use trains to haul oil out of the Canadian tar sands, and the company plans to move up to 100,000 barrels of oil per day from a new terminal by 2015. In other words, tar sands will be developed one way or another, according to the State Department, with or without the $5.4 billion pipeline that would eventually link Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico.

The AAR argues carrying crude by tanker car is safe, citing a statistic that 99.9977 percent of dangerous chemical shipments by rail reached their destination without incident through 2010, making it safer than other forms of transport. But as crude by rail in the United States is increasing—the AAR says shipments have shot up 443 percent since 2005—so too are the spillsAn analysis of the data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration shows that in the US, 7 of the worst 10 railroad oil spills of the past decade happened in the last three years. This number doesn't include the catastrophic accident in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, last July, which decimated the town and killed 47 people.

In fact, at over 1.2 million gallons spilled in total, more crude oil was spilled from trains last year than every other year since 1971 combined. The 10 worst spills together cost nearly $2 million in damages. The worst was in Aliceville, Alabama, on November 8, when nearly 750,000 gallons spilled from a 90-car train after it derailed, setting off a series of explosions. In Casselton, North Dakota, nearly a half-million gallons spilled on December 30, after a grain train derailed in front of a BNSF train filled with crude oil, igniting an inferno that forced the town to evacuate.

​The severity of the Lac-Megantic incident forced the National Transportation Safety Board, in conjunction with the Canadians (where crude by rail is also booming), to issue a 15-page document recommending increased safely measures. The report finds that "railroad accidents involving crude oil have a potential for disastrous consequences and environmental contamination equal to that of the worst on-shore pipeline accidents." Despite the urgency, the report says not enough has been done to properly equip US railways to face the increasing demands: "Although railroad accidents involving large numbers of crude oil tank cars can have similar outcomes [to pipeline spills], oil spill response planning requirements for rail transportation of oil/petroleum products are practically nonexistent compared with other modes of transportation."

North Carolina Protected Duke Energy from Pollution Complaints Before the Company's Coal Ash Disaster

| Mon Feb. 10, 2014 11:23 AM EST
A coal ash dump site in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Last year, North Carolina's top environmental regulators thwarted three separate Clean Water Act lawsuits aimed at forcing Duke Energy, the largest electricity company in the country, to clean up its toxic coal ash pits in the state. That June, the state went even further, saying it would handle environmental enforcement at every one of Duke's 31 coal ash storage ponds in the state—an act that protected the company from further federal lawsuits. Last week, one of those coal ash storage ponds ruptured, belching more than 80,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River.

Now environmental groups and former regulators are charging that North Carolina Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who worked for Duke for 30 years, has created an atmosphere where the penalties for polluting the environment are low.

The Associated Press reports that McCrory's Department of Environment and Natural Resources blocked three federal Clean Water Act suits in 2013 by stepping in with its own enforcement authority "at the last minute." This protected Duke from the kinds of stiff fines and penalties that can result from federal lawsuits. Instead, state regulators arranged settlements that carried miniscule financial penalties and did not require Duke to change how it stores the toxic byproducts of its coal-fired power plants. After blocking the first three suits, which were brought by the Southern Environmental Law Center, the state filed notices saying that it would handle environmental enforcement at every one of Duke's remaining North Carolina coal ash storage sites—protecting the company from Clean Water Act lawsuits linked to its coal waste once and for all.

The Dan River disaster became public on February 3—one day after Duke officials had been alerted that a pipe beneath a coal ash storage pit of nearly 30 acres had ruptured. "The company reports that up to 82,000 tons of coal ash mixed with 27 million gallons of contaminated water drained out, turning the river gray and cloudy for miles," the AP reports. "The accident ranks as the third largest such coal ash spill in the nation's history."

The AP story suggests that McCrory's settlements with Duke are part of a pattern of regulatory slackness. A former North Carolina regulator who recently left to work for an environmental advocacy group after nine years working for the state told the AP that under McCrory, who took office in early 2013, she was often instructed not to fine or cite polluters, but instead to help them reach compliance standards. The article continues:

Since his unsuccessful first campaign for governor in 2008, campaign finance reports show Duke Energy, its political action committee, executives and their immediate families have donated at least $1.1 million to McCrory's campaign and affiliated groups that spent on TV ads, mailings and events to support him.

After winning in 2012, McCrory has appointed former Duke employees like himself to key posts, including state Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker.

His appointee to oversee the state environmental department, Raleigh businessman John Skvarla, describes his agency's role as being a "partner" to those it regulates, whom he refers to as "customers."

"That is why we have been able to turn DENR from North Carolina's No. 1 obstacle of resistance into a customer-friendly juggernaut in such a short time," Skvarla wrote in a letter to the editor of the News & Observer of Raleigh, published in December. "People in the private sector pour their hearts and souls into their work; instead of crushing their dreams, they now have a state government that treats them as partners."

McCrory hit back, telling the AP that his administration is "the first in North Carolina history to take legal action against the utility regarding coal ash ponds." Duke Energy has also made large donations to Democrats, giving $10 million for the Democratic National Convention in 2012.