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What House of Cards can teach us about climate change

*Spoiler Alert*

I’m in the process of watching the third season of House of Cards. Now, I’m not done yet, so even as I write my spoilers, I must ask that no one reveal any spoilers to me.

I just finished the episode where Underwood uses FEMA to fund his jobs bill. By declaring a State of Emergency in D.C. based on the unemployment rate, he uses the government’s emergency funds to create jobs. Or at least that’s his idea, like I said I don’t know yet if it actually works. But it did get me thinking.

In the show, all the other government officials and some members of the press believe Underwood is twisting the law and pretending to care about people to meet his own selfish ends. And in the show, they are right. But I don’t think that means his actions are completely wrong either. As a species, we rank immediate threats much higher than long-term threats, no matter how likely they are. Which makes sense evolutionarily, heart disease isn’t really an issue if you starve to death before you’re thirty.

But our society has become so advanced that those immediate issues aren’t as big of a threat to us as the long-term ones. There are countless statistics and comparisons on deaths on terrorism: you’re more likely to be killed by your furniture or a toddler, and yet we spend over $16 billions dollars annually fighting it. Heart disease on the other hand, the number one killer of Americans, got about $1.6 billion from the government in 2014. Now, even without the money that comes from donations and other funds for funding heart disease research, it doesn’t take a

Time to start calling this cardiac terrorism, led by the saturated fat extremists

Time to start calling this cardiac terrorism, led by the saturated fat extremists

math genius to see the huge gap. And like I said, people have been shouting this from the roof tops about this for ages. But it doesn’t seem to make a difference.

That’s because, in the short-term, the idea of terrorism is more scary. But more than that, it is easier to fight. The same is true for natural disasters. Hurricane hits? Set up tents, give people food, help them wash their clothes. See, money well spent.

And I’m not saying this is a bad thing, BUT the number of people we save from natural disasters is tiny compared to the people we lose from heart disease, and the people we have already started losing from climate change. We don’t see these things as emergencies because they aren’t big, dramatic events effecting lots of people all at once, which is basically how we define an emergency. But our definition of emergency needs to change. You can be damn sure people would be funding the research then. Just look at Ebola, it barely even effected a few Americans and yet everyone was clamoring for a vaccine because it is immediate and scary.

But those people with heart disease are probably going to die whether it’s tomorrow or this December, because we aren’t doing everything we could to stop it because it has become mundane. I think Frank Underwood has the right idea.We don’t see these things as emergencies because they aren’t big, dramatic events effecting lots of people all at once, which is basically how we define an emergency. But our definition of emergency needs to change.

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Let’s all be a little kinder to the anti-vaxxers

The anti-vaccine movement has been getting more attention than ever after the recent measles outbreak starting in Disneyland. Most of this attention (at least what I’ve read) has been negative. Actually, negative is putting it lightly. Anti-vaxxers are being burned at the stake for ignoring science and putting other children at risk due to their belief in unproven conspiracies.

And I admit, this was my first reaction too. When I first found out there were people in the world who chose not to vaccinate their children (which I didn’t even know was legal) I too found it idiotic. But now I feel that I, and the rest of the world, have treated these people unfairly.

First let me say that I in no way agree with or condone the anti-vaccination movement. Vaccinations have saved the lives of countless people and no one has ever proven any side-effects that are worse than the diseases they prevent. But I was raised in a home where vaccines were a given, and more importantly I was raised to trust science.

This should be no surprise to anyone, since I grew up to become a scientist. I have been trained to believe the results of experiments, and to trust the honestly of my fellow scientists. But, in the words of the great Dr. Gregory House (yes, I even trust fictional doctors), everybody lies.

Wakefield lied when he said vaccines cause autism. Then again, the FDA apparently covers up fraud in many drug trials. If you’re a concerned parent with no scientific background, what do you do?

You take the option with the smallest chance of risk. In science we call this risk aversion. Now, as a parent in today’s society, what seems like a bigger risk; a disease that was practically wiped out decades ago, or a developmental disorder that seems to be getting diagnosed more everyday? And it’s true that as long as a large enough percent of the population gets vaccinated, the odds of a few unvaccinated people getting sick are very low. We call this herd immunity. But as anti-vaccine beliefs grow in popularity, our herd immunity shrinks and the diseases crop back up again. And since they’ve been gone so long, many people have little or no experience with them and may think them to be more harmless than they are.

Now here I could throw a bunch of websites at you saying that immunity from vaccines is better for you immune system than getting the disease, or tell you how awful the measles are (or any other disease with a vaccine), or how there are no long-term side effects to getting vaccinated. But anyone pro-vaccine will already agree, and anyone anti-vaccine will point me to another website that says the opposite with a grand “well what about this?”

That “what about this” is where I have my biggest sympathy with the anti-vaxxers. Because those “what about this” websites are clever. They take bits of truth and weave them in with their lies. They play into the fears you already had and tell you what you want to hear to make those fears go away. And to the untrained eye they look so credible.

So no, I don’t think all anti-vaxxers are evil, and I don’t think they are all idiots. I think that, for one reason or another, they have lost their faith in big science. I can’t say I completely blame them. But I do want to change that. So if you ever talk to someone who is anti-vaccine (or anti-climate change, or anti-insertyoursciencehere), don’t call them an idiot. When was the last time you found someone calling you an idiot to be a persuasive argument? Don’t spit back the same generic proving it with science argument. Instead, ask them why they don’t believe in it. Find out what it is about science they distrust, and work forward from there. Because until we can inoculate them against whatever is driving their anti-science beliefs, we’ll always just be treating the symptoms.

(see what I did there?)

Ebola is exposing the flaws in science communication

As anyone who actually pays attention to my blog (hi mom!) might have noticed, I’ve found it really difficult to get excited enough about a topic to write a post recently. There have been some neat stories out there, I’ve bookmarked them to come back to later to write on, but when the time comes to actually sit down and do it I’ve felt rather apathetic. At first I blamed it on my research workload, but that’s not really it. The truth is, it all started around the time that people started freaking out about ebola.

At first I thought, I’m not going to write about ebola. I’m not jumping into the fray; it’s been done to death. But then I would read things that would make me angry, and I would think yes, I should write about it! Then I would become apathetic again. The reason for this is best illustrated

If you don't know who this is by now, you haven't been paying attention

If you don’t know who this is by now, you haven’t been paying attention

in an article I recently read on, of all places, forbes.com. The article is a mostly a back and forth between the author and a Facebook friend. The Facebook friend posts an article about natural cures for ebola that doctors are refusing to explore. The author, Larry Husten in his own words “didn’t respond well.”

But I couldn’t disagree more. I think Mr. Husten responded perfectly. When his friend started on about the “irresponsible” behavior of one the Americans infected with ebola, Husten gave a calm and scientific explanation of how ebola is transmitted and the risk to the American population (practically zero). His friends response? “I stand by my statement.”

It seems like this should be the catchphrase for the American public. It seems that no matter what evidence is presented, we all stand by our original statement. We don’t want to believe in climate change, so none of the evidence supporting its existence is conclusive enough. We want (for whatever reason) to believe we are all going to die from ebola, and so no evidence that we are at very little danger of it can convince us otherwise. The only good thing about this particular fear is it means that many different vaccines for ebola are being rushed through human trials, which means we might actually be able to stop the outbreak in West Africa, where people actually are dying from the disease, not just afraid of maybe contracting the disease.

I have been interested in science communication because I have felt like there is a disconnect between what is being done in science and what the public know about science, and I think that is wrong and must be fixed. I think the ebola outbreak shows this to be the case more than anything. We scientists can tell people that a person with ebola isn’t contagious until they show symptoms, but the whole “just trust us we’re scientists” thing isn’t working anymore. Because of the fact that scientists, just like any other people, can make mistakes, it has caused the public to lose faith in us. Which is understandable. As scientists we are trained to not believe something just because someone says it’s true, we are told to look at their methods, make sure the way they got to that conclusion is sound and only then do we believe them. How can we blame the public for holding us to the same standards?

The problem is that even if people don’t want to believe scientists, they are still going to make decisions and act on their beliefs. Slate recently wrote an article about how conservative politicians now respond with “I’m not a scientist” when asked about the effects of climate change. If only there was some way they could have a bunch of scientists to explain to them how climate change works…

Obviously that was sarcastic, because scientists have been screaming about climate change for ages and none of them seem to be listening. But maybe that’s not entirely their fault. Is there some way we can explain our methods to non-scientists that will help them understand why we believe the things we do, or are doomed to forever be in an us vs. them situation? How do we get scientists not just talk about what they found, but how they found it, and how do we get the non-scientists to listen, understand, and form a new, more well informed opinion?

When is a parrot like a seven year old?

One of the hardest things about doing a behavioral experiment on an animal is to not anthropomorphize. Meaning, when an animal is doing something, you can’t assume anything about its behavior is remotely human. Example: say you’re studying squirrels, and squirrel one chases squirrel two off a branch. You cannot then say squirrel one doesn’t like squirrel two, or squirrel one was mad at squirrel two, all you can say is squirrel one chased squirrel two off a branch. Unfortunately, anthropomorphizing is super easy to do, especially without even realizing you’re doing it. I do it all the time with my dog Lou, sometimes for fun (like the ongoing and conflicted relationship saga he has with my friend’s beautiful border collie/aussie mix), but also sometimes completely accidentally. It’s the way some people trick themselves into thinking their pet snake loves them (sorry reptile lovers, but your scaly friend just doesn’t have an “i love you” brain), and it can be a major issue for anyone doing behavioral research.

I know, because I love behavioral research. I think behavior, human and animal alike, is one of the most fascinating topics out there. And I know first hand how easy it can be to want to believe an animal is able to feel something so bad you make yourself believe it’s true. Need an example of how this can affect research? Oh how handy, I just happen to have one in front of me!

Yesterday I read an article on Slate titled “A Parrot Passes the Marshmallow Test.” For anyone who isn’t super into behavioral science, that probably sounds like the weirdest clickbait ever. And it kind of is. But it does actually make sense if you know the back story. The marshmallow test was created by Stanford professor (woo Stanford!) Walter Mischel in the 70s and it basically goes like this: put a kid in a room with a marshmallow, tell the kid to wait until you come back and if they haven’t eaten the marshmallow by the time you get back, they get two marshmallows. Pretty simple yeah? Well, it’s apparently pretty hard if you’re seven. I’ve seen video of people doing this experiment (with gummy bears instead of marshmallows) and it’s hilarious. Kids talking themselves down from eating the candy, squirming in the chair, one loophole finder even licked the candy then put it back. Besides enjoying watching kids squirm, it turns out this way of testing self-control is a pretty good indicator of a lot of things down the road, like higher SAT scores. So if you were wondering yes, I will definitely be administering this test to my future children.

Put that SAT prep book down kid, this is all you need

Put that SAT prep book down kid, this is all you need

Anyway, as you can probably now guess from the title, a research team at Harvard University claims to have given this test to a parrot and had it successfully pass the test (they used other treats instead of marshmallows). Now unfortunately these findings haven’t been published as far as I know, but were presented at the Animal Behavior Society Meeting last month. Since I was not at said meeting I cannot speak with as much expertise on the subject as I would like. But going off of what the Slate article says, the researchers gave the parrot a cup of food, told it to wait, and after 10-15 minutes came back with a cup of even better food for the parrot, which he got if he didn’t eat the first cup of food. Now I don’t know about the scientists in charge of the study, but to me this just sounds like they taught the parrot a command and didn’t actually test his impulse control.

Lou knows how to wait. I can put treats on both his paws and tell him to wait, and like a good little doggie he will not eat those treats until I tell him it’s OK. But hold on a second, I say to myself as I type this, me being in the room with him and having him wait a few seconds is so not the same as what that bird did! And I was right, so I decided to do the experiment with him. I put him in the kitchen, put a treat on the floor, told him to wait (admittedly I did not explain he would get two treats if he did wait, so maybe that was unfair) and locked him in there for ten minutes. And when I walked back in what did I find? Treat on floor, Lou in exact same place I left him, a look on his face saying “why do you torture me so!” (Hint: that was anthropomorphizing). Hooray! My dog will get a 1600 on his SATs!

OK, so other than bragging about how well trained my dog is (errr..sometimes) what am I really saying? That it can be incredibly easy to turn your wishful thinking into misinterpreted results. Now, I would be totally jazzed if this does get published and I find out that there was a whole chunk to this story I’m missing, but I really seriously doubt it. How do you explain to a bird that in ten minutes he will get another treat but only if he doesn’t eat the treat you’re giving him now? Unless we have suddenly come up with a universal bird/human language, you can’t. So as fun as it is to read stories about animals doing something amazingly human, take them with a grain of salt (or if you’re patient, two marshmallows).

Experience auditory hallucinations for yourself and get as creeped out as I did

Today, while hard at work and not procrastinating in the slightest, I found an incredible if somewhat disturbing way to get a glimpse into the world of a schizophrenic with auditory hallucinations. An article on buzzfeed recounted a segment on Anderson Cooper in which he donned a pair of ear buds recreating auditory hallucinations experienced by some schizophrenics and tried to accomplish different tasks. He is seriously impaired and disturbed by the voices coming from the headphones. When you watch the clip, it’s easy to feel like he’s playing it up for effect, and that perhaps the sounds aren’t quite as distracting as he lets on. Very kindly though, the people at buzzfeed gave an example of the auditory hallucinations for any readers who wanted to experience them for themselves. I couldn’t not click it. As soon as the voices started, I got an incredible sense of foreboding, like when you watch a scary movie and you know something bad is about to happen. As I sat there eating my lunch, listening to the voices, to me it really felt like I was going insane. Even after the voices stopped and I got up to do some work, I found myself still distracted, thinking about those voices. It almost felt like at any minute I might start hearing them again.

But don’t take my, or Anderson’s, word for it. Try it out for yourself.

Why does everyone on Game of Thrones die with their eyes open?

I am sure dear readers that you all, like me, are avid Game of Thrones fans. For those of you who aren’t in the know, Game of Thrones is an HBO show based on the books by George R.R. Martin. Both the books and the show are hopelessly addictive, and incredibly violent (the show a bit more so). I mean, it is some pretty absurd violence. I actually laugh out loud at the absurdity of it sometimes (not because I think violence is funny, but because they are super creative at finding ridiculous ways to make deaths as creative and gory as possible).

Anyway, back to the point of this post. For some reason, this season it really struck just how often characters on the show die with their eyes open. Seriously, I haven’t crunched the numbers (cause I have a life, sorry) but I’m willing to bet the large majority of characters we see die still have their eyes open. And it’s not just Game of Thrones, this seems to happen a disproportionate amount in TV and movies. Now I understand, this makes a death more shocking and disturbing because people who are dead are supposed to look like they’re sleeping and eyes open makes them look haunted or like they could still be alive. But it did get me wondering, exactly how common is it for someone to die with their eyes still open? So I did some digging.

Turns out, I’m not the only one who’s been curious about this topic. In fact, a study in 2009 sought to answer this exact question. They only looked at 100 people, but would you really want to sit there and watch more than 100 terminally ill people take their last breaths? They discovered that 63% of patients died with their eyes fully closed. Those who died with their eyes open were much more

I refuse to show a picture of the GOT death I alluded to because looking at it creeps the hell out of me, so here's my adorable puppy instead.

I refuse to show a picture of the GOT death I alluded to because looking at it creeps the hell out of me, so here’s my adorable puppy instead.

likely to have some sort of neurological problem, like a brain tumor. They found no relationship between dying with eyes open and any sort of recent emotional turmoil or religious affiliation, so just because someone dies with their eyes open don’t automatically assume they were a devil worshiper.

Now unfortunately they did not also do a study on the likelihood of dying with your eyes open if the cause of death was disembowelment. Insert joke about the difficulty of finding volunteers here. So I still do not know how realistic those deaths are. But in the case of say, poison, which could potentially do severe neurological damage, then it wouldn’t be too far-fetched. But from now on, if I see any character die with his/her eyes open, I’m just going to have to assume they had some sort of brain tumor and therefore wouldn’t have lasted much longer anyway.

Hey climate change deniers, I’m talking to you!

I recently read an article on my hippie dippie news site Grist imploring scientists to get real about climate change. Scientists are trained to speak about all things science in a very academic way. That means now embellishment, no emotion, just facts, plain and simple. The problem is, we get so into this mindset we forget the rest of the world doesn’t work this way. I can tell you all about extreme weather events, future flooding, drought, etc. But these are vague ideas somewhere off in the future, and humans are notoriously bad for getting excited about long term hazards. So right now, I’m just going to tell you how I really feel about climate change, and why it concerns me. I will do my best not to get political which will be tricky, because if ever an issue has become embroiled in politics, it’s this one. For any climate change deniers out there, I hope you will read this and think about it. Things that you disagree with and make you mad, challenge me on them. This needs to be a discussion, and so often it just seems to be people talking at each other instead of with each other. We need to change that.

Have you ever thought to yourself, in total sincerity, “Hey look it’s snowing, so much for climate change amiright!”

Here we have a common confusion with weather and climate. Weather is what is happening RIGHT NOW. Climate is a trend that occurs over many, many years. Good for you, you figured out it’s cold RIGHT NOW. Now tell me, how cold has it been lately compared to the past 100 years? My mom in particular recently told me how frustrated she gets when the weatherman says it will be “colder than normal.” What’s normal? Like this temperature drop is abnormal and should be locked in an insane asylum away from all the happy normal temperatures. Average is the word you were looking for here, temperatures will be below average. What’s the difference between normal and average? Normal implies good, average is the standard. Just because something is below average doesn’t mean it’s bad, especially if the average has crept upward for the past 20 years.

That said, I feel like most people these days can agree that the average global temperature is warming. The most common argument I hear against taking any action to fight climate change is something like “So the temperature of the planet is changing. Big deal! Ever hear of the ice age? The planet’s climate changes all the time, and it still seems to be doing OK. We should just let it happen.”

OK, I see your point. Yes, the earth has undergone many major climate changes through the history of its existence. The ice age for one, the meteor that hit the earth at the end of the Cretaceous period for another. You know what all these events have in common? A TON OF THINGS DIED. And you know what most of those things that died were like? They were the large animal living above ground. Does that

"Yeah, I hear this whole meteor thing is just part of the raptor agenda."

“Yeah, I hear this whole meteor thing is just part of the raptor agenda.”

sound familiar? Yeah, if things keep going the way they’re going you know what, the earth might recover. There could be plenty of life crawling around that can tolerate the new climate. But guess what, it probably won’t be you. The earth isn’t what’s in danger, we are.

Now you can sit there and say to yourself “Oh come on, it won’t happen that fast, it will never be my problem. Whatever.” But that comes down to one of the biggest problems with combating climate change: selfishness. You don’t care if your kids starve to death because no one can grow enough food? You think I’m being an alarmist right now? I live in California, things are a little dry here. My sister was living in Texas during their recent major drought. You’re not being affected right this moment? Oh well, then it must not be a problem. I hear that poverty and polio are all BS too. Come to think of it, I have never seen a single person with malaria, why are we spending so much money trying to eradicate this made up disease? OK, maybe you have some tragic wrist injury that makes it incredibly difficult to replace you iridescent light bulbs with energy efficient ones. Maybe you really need your microwave plugged in 24/7 because the gnomes in your basement like to make popcorn in the middle of the night. After all this is America right? If you want to leave every light in your house on you be damned if I try to take away that freedom! Who cares if turning the lights off will literally take a fraction of a second of your time. Ain’t nobody going to tell you how to live your life!

OK, I promised I wouldn’t get into politics, but I just need to say this. Do you know why most climate deniers in the media exist? Because they have something to gain from keeping things at the status quo. The last thing big oil wants is restrictions on burning fossil fuels, and neither do any of the politicians or companies they sponsor. You may say I’m one of those people just pushing the liberal agenda. Let me ask you, what exactly is my agenda? To impose stricter limitations on your life and making the government larger to take away more of your freedom? I’ll admit, I do wish we could all just get along and help the poor, spread the wealth, and just be nicer to each other. But if you want to sit in your mansion in your bathtub of $100 bills counting your gold coins fine. I will think you’re disgusting, but I respect your right to do that. What I don’t respect is if you refuse to make small changes in your lifestyle just because A. you don’t like the people who are advocating for it or B. it will stop you from buying a pool of $500 bills.

There is so much more I could say about this subject, but for now I think that’s probably all you want to deal with right now. Please, if you want to discuss these issues seriously I would love to talk about it (and promise to keep the snark to a minimum).