rare earth elements

The Problem with Rare Earth Elements

rare earth elementsRare earth elements represent a conundrum. You could say it approaches FUBAR. Because of them, technology has brought us smartphones, other electronics, and hybrid vehicles. But they are like roses with their nasty little thorns. Getting to them causes some of the worse environmental destruction possible, along with arsenic and other unappealing contaminants in  drinking water sources.

The Good Side of Rare Earth Elements

New research from the University of Copenhagen adds another spin on this complicated story. Chemists have discovered a means to use rare earth elements to detect a lack of oxygen in cells. This condition signals health issues like cancer, the second and fifth leading causes of death, respectively. It’s fair to say that this study represents a significant breakthrough that can speed diagnoses with a quicker detection method. It’s all good.

Then, there are rechargeable batteries. Thanks to rare earth elements, you have a rechargeable smartphone. We have working TVs. All hybrids and electric vehicles operate with them. Oh, and then there is national defense and security. Where would we be without precision-guided weapons or range finders or night vision devices?

The Bad Side of Rare Earth Elements

If only it were all good news! But it’s not. The waste products of mining rare earth elements include the worst of radioactive tailings and toxic acids. Unfortunately, the nasty bits don’t stay in one place. They become mobile in water sources. They can contaminate any organism that comes in contact with them, including crops, livestock, and people.

And if that weren’t enough, some of these materials can accumulate in living tissues. The toxicity only builds up over time. It can lead to a host of negative health outcomes, such as cancer and birth defects. Then, there are the geopolitical considerations. With China producing 95 percent of the global output, you can imagine the implications there—especially as technology finds more and more good uses for them.

This group of 17 elements represents the best and worst. We have the potential to improve the quality of life of the people of the Earth, with a means to reduce the impact of climate change. At the same time, it’s a toxic and volatile solution. The issues surrounding rare earth elements underscore the complexity of environmental issues on many levels. They represent another example of the foolishness of cookie-cutter solutions. As American journalist, H.L. Mencken, said,

“For every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.”

http://exploring.weborgloge.com/By Chris DR

photo credit: X-ray via photopin (license)


Learning from Others’ Mistakes

witchesGreat Britain is learning a painful lesson with GMOs. The government’s Science and Technology Committee is urging Great Britain to take back control over its agricultural practices and allow GMO crops. In a report released by the committee, MPs admonished contrary views as based on “values and politics” not science.

The Safety of GMOs

And they are absolutely correct. The overwhelming evidence supports the safety and efficacy of GMO products. When you have the WHO, AASA, Royal Academy, and the AMA on your side, you have a strong case. The situation in Great Britain deserves notice here in the United States.

They now realize that GMOs are necessary to increase crop yields. In the United States, we are in danger of putting millions of people at risk of starvation because of a growing loud but naive voice concerning the safety of GMO foods. The repercussions are greater for the United States because of our massive exports. Millions may suffer for the sake of a misguided ideology that is not based on fact nor science.

Science versus Public Opinion

GMOs stands as a testament to another issue where the general public thinks they know more than the scientists who study, research, and know the stuff. The disconnect is evident from the results of the Pew Research Center survey.

Of the scientists polled, 88 percent considered GMOs generally safe versus 37 percent of the general public. The ignorance is astounding given the stakes. It would one thing if there was a degree of uncertainty, but none exists. Rigorous testing and numerous studies have corroborated the inconvenient truth that most scientists know: GMOs are not the bogeyman.

If Not Science, Then What?

If we cannot base decisions on facts, then what do we base them on? Feelings? Hunches? Premonitions? That didn’t work well in Salem in 1692; it shouldn’t work now. We should know better.

Call it a defense mechanism, but it is a common occurrence. When faced with uncomfortable facts, some individuals flee. If they don’t flee, they reach for untestable constructs or worse yet, mysticism to defend their beliefs. As if we believe that birds fly!

Great Britain is in a tough spot. Closing the door on these misguided values won’t be easy. Hopefully, the United States will not slip down that slippery slope into the abyss called ignorance.

Like it or not, we need companies like Monsanto. We need companies who research and develop products like GMOs that can help solve the greatest challenges to humankind. Without them, food insecurity will threaten our very existence.

http://exploring.weborglodge.com/By Chris DR

photo credit: Pez Witches via photopin (license)


Plants and Climate Change

dinosaurI wrote last time about the need for more science and statistics background for journalists writing about science issues. I hold this stance firmly in light of the weight some people give to the news. Many think that all stories published by popular media are true. Would if it were so! But it’s not. The most insidious fall into the category of misleading.

Blurring the Lines

In the same way popular media blurs the line between causation and correlation, so too does the line between the facts of climate change and its consequences suffer. For example, there is no doubt that a changing climate will impact plant life.

After all, plants stand as remarkable examples of natural selection to fit an environment. Change the environment, and the plants will adapt. However, there is more to the story that science would help you understand.

As announced by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 2013, the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide topped a daily average of 400 parts per million (ppm). One of the talking points is that it was the highest recorded in human history, with mention of this timeline going back further to over three million years ago to the Pleistocene Epoch.

It’s in Our Genes

To put that in perspective, hominins, or modern humans, appeared in the fossil record about six million years ago. During human evolution, our ancestors lived in a different environment. Presumably, they also experienced high carbon dioxide levels. Now, let’s look at plants.

The first flowering plants were known to exist about 160 million years ago. They evolved, thrived, and diversified in a world that was warmer than today, along with a higher atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. That is part of their DNA, like it is with our own.

The point of this discussion is the dire consequences of climate change concern more the effects on economies and societies rather than direct harm to species. Flowering plants may not experience the same impact as other plants like corn or grasses. They’ll adapt because they have the genetic history. Likewise, humans have the genetic capability as well.

That’s not to say that the effects won’t hurt. Food crops like corn thrive better in lower carbon dioxide atmosphere. However, the physical effects won’t harm humans; humans will more likely effect humans. Climate change won’t hurt you, but how we react to it—or not—might.

When the popular media goes off about this or that change because of climate change, it is a prediction of how people will react, rather than high carbon dioxide levels suffocating all humans one day. They posit about how species may or may not adapt. It falls in the realm of correlation, rather than direct causation.

While it may seem like systematics, I think it’s important to realize that the control that humans have in their world and their responses to it. Likewise, there are things that we can’t control. After all, an asteroid wiped out the most successful group of animals in the history of the Earth.

http://exploring.weborglodge.com/By Chris DR
photo credit: IMG_1252′ via photopin (license)


We All Need More Science

scienceI wrote earlier about the irresponsible journalism of the Toronto Star. One quote from the columnist, Heather Mallick’s, statement about the original story rattled my cage. She said, “I’ve been trying to teach myself about statistics and science.” If this wasn’t a serious story, I’d think that quote was a punch line in a blonde joke. It proves my point: we all need more science.

More Science to Get at the Facts

Understanding science goes a long way toward helping you filter out the crap with popular media. Get your shovel because a lot of so-called science reporters don’t get it.

To the plea for more science, I believe all reporters should take a basic statistics class. And that doesn’t just apply to science stories. These days, stats infiltrate everything. Have you listened to the commentary during a football game? Or a baseball game? You’ll soon learn what weather, temperature, and humidity work best for the pitcher. And you’ll know how many rushing yards a running back averages per game by stadium, if it’s outdoor or indoor.

We need more science and statistics to understand the difference between causation and correlation. This is where journalists frequently stumble. Yes, the meaning is nuanced, but that doesn’t give license to misreporting. The verbiage walks a fine line between the two.

As a wacky example, you could say that having a beard is linked to prostate cancer. Or wearing dresses is associated with breast cancer. You get the point. They blur the definition of correlations to imply something causes another thing to happen.

The Value of Understanding

More science knowledge can help you navigate the media better, along with the stories they publish. You can make the logical connections—or not—between what is reported and what is in fact, true. You’ve probably heard the adage about not believing everything you read on the internet. The same advice applies to “news stories.”

Anyone can write a science news story. It’s another thing entirely to be able to understand what you’re writing and its implications. More science can help you. For the journalists, it begins with a responsible headline and not one that sensationalizes for the sake of selling newspapers or generating ad revenue. It’s called integrity.

http://exploring.weborglodge.com/By Chris DR

photo credit: 105070 via photopin (license)

non-browning apple dilema

The Great Apple Dilemma

non-browning apple dilemaThe USDA announced that the agency would deregulate two varieties of of GMO apples developed to resist browning. This news may shock some individuals in the anti-GMO crowd. It creates the great apple dilemma.

Defining the Apple Dilemma

Granted, one could argue that browning apples are a first-world problem. Browning, after all, is an aesthetic issue rather than one of safety. But, there is a strong case for pursuing this research.

Food waste is a major problem globally. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that one-third of food produced for human consumption or about 1.3 billion tons per year, never makes it to the table.

Unsafe food aside, a lot of food ends up in landfills because of aesthetic reasons. We don’t like how it looks. We perceive it as bad, spoiled, or unpalatable. That’s why a decision by the USDA to allow nonbrowning apples is important.

The Relevance of the Anti-GMO Movement

The apple dilemma calls into question the relevancy of the anti-GMO movement. We’re not talking about pesticides here. We’re talking about an apple that looks good to eat. It’s not a bad thing.

Apples are not the only produce to benefit from GMO research. The USDA has also approved genetically-engineered potatoes that resist browning and bruising. There’s sure to be other developing biotechnology in the future.

The fact is that with each of these baby steps toward reducing food waste the anti-GMO message becomes more irrelevant and foolish. The way some people talk, you’d think genetic engineering was witchcraft. It’s not. It’s technology making our lives better.

The Problem with Food Waste

Going back to food waste, let’s consider the costs in the discussion of the apple dilemma. That food waste means wasted energy, a cruel spin on its role in climate change. The energy includes fossil fuel emissions that produce greenhouse gases.

Food waste is a complicated issue because it occurs all along the supply chain. We can’t control things like the weather. But we can influence consumer behavior to reduce food waste.

The apple dilemma pokes some big holes in arguments against GMO products. The anti-GMO crowd uses a political cause as a weapon against an issue. However, isn’t the greater issue reducing greenhouse gas emissions in a way that can also help tackle food waste? The anti-GMO issue is another example of the ugly nature of hangers-on.

http://exploring.weborglodge.com/By Chris DR
photo credit: Apple via photopin (license)