The Planetary News Radio – Episode 15: Scientific Suppression Case Study: TOXMAP

Welcome to the Planetary News Radio, Episode number 15 with your host Bryan White and I’m here today outside in Corvallis and it is raining out. It’s very dark, and in order to avoid the rain, I’m actually under a bridge. So there’s some background noise from cars. That’s just the setting that I’m in. I had a [complaint, well I don’t want to call it a complaint], but a criticism recently that I’ll respond to about the show. What was mentioned is that the show is recorded outside. And yes, the show’s recorded outside in different settings. Sometimes it’s hiking, which might be a quiet setting, and sometimes it’s in the city, and I think that’s that’s part of the show, because it’s dynamic. And so I want to be true to the art of presenting science, and the setting is part of that. So occasionally there are times when there will be background noise. I won’t say too much more about that. And my goal is not to respond to all criticism, but just to give listeners, you know, some insight into why I’m doing [the show this way]. Yes, I could record in a quiet studio, but then it wouldn’t be the “planetary news”, it would be the “indoor quiet studio news”. 

Continuing on, the topic for today is about suppression in science, scientific suppression. And this has always been a problem. Historically, the United States has a major history of scientific suppression, going back into the sixties and the seventies with pollution and climate science. And now we’re finding out things like ExxonMobil knew for 40 years what oil use could do to the environment, and covered that up, similar to the way that tobacco companies initially tried to hide what could happen from tobacco use and nicotine use. And so we see, that same thing persisted in America and now we’re at this strange dichotomy where the science is overwhelming [in favor of anthropogenic climate change]. ExxonMobil can’t deny that they know that climate change is real. In other words, they can’t conduct and do all the science that they do in their industry, because oil extraction is an extremely scientific industry that makes use of geology and hydrogeology. And so they can’t claim to be scientifically extracting oil from the Earth and know all this geoscience, and also then deny that climate change is happening and that it’s caused by carbon emissions from humans.

So now we’re at this rare transition period where you might see British Petroleum (BP) or ExxonMobil actually accepting that climate change is real and doing things to mitigate carbon emissions [because the scientific evidence is overwhelming]. But how did we get to this point? How did we get to the point where, our greatest minds as scientists were able to create all these oil extraction technologies, while on the political side, the implications of [burning fossil fuels] were hidden? And that’s why understanding scientific suppression is important. Recently, the Trump administration [has been] overtly doing this for the first time [in a way that can be recorded]. So it’s always been a kind of a hidden thing that we knew was going on in America, but we couldn’t really put our finger on it. But now with the Trump administration silencing civilian science, social media accounts, and basically putting a gag order on [scientists] in 2017 when his administration started taking over the EPA, Department of the Interior, and all the [federal] government organizations related to science and national parks, we saw this huge, almost national gag order put out. 

In response to that, Columbia University began what they call a “Silencing Science Tracker” and the website for this is http://www.climate.law.columbia.com, [which is a part of] the Columbia Law School Center for Climate Change Law and the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund (https://www.csldf.org/). And so, the silencing science tracker is tracking overt (provable/documentable) instances where science has been suppressed in or by the United States government. And to this day, which is January 4th 2020, there have been 385 instances of over scientific silencing tracked and logged in the Columbia Science silence in silence structure.

A couple of examples here that they have the most recent one is, something called the TOXMAP database. TOXMAP (https://healthdata.gov/dataset/toxmap%C2%AE-environmental-health-maps) was a database run by the National Library of Medicine (NLM) that integrated 12 scientific data sets into one data set in order to view the tracking of known hazardous materials on U.S. soil. The function of the TOXMAP was to list [the location of sites contaminated by] chemical contaminants on the National Priorities list. And so the National Priorities list (https://www.epa.gov/superfund/superfund-national-priorities-list-npl) is a list of sites that have been investigated by the EPA and declared either potential sources of hazardous chemicals or places where there already are hazardous chemicals released in the environment, and which could have been [reported] as an environmental violation. Or it could have been something historically, maybe a site from the 80’s before there were environmental regulations. But now the contaminant exists, and it’s still there in the environment. And there’s 1335 of these sites that are tracked. 

The goal of this [integrated] tracking system was to obviously track the mitigation of these sites and to see how contamination is being removed and cleaned or expanded. Are there new sites popping up? Was there a new spill somewhere? And now that place is logged as a site. And so, having all this integrated data on an area [on one map], it could help scientists make decisions because pollution is a complex event. It’s not always as simple [as an oil spill over here] or we spilled Mercury here. What [is the plan to] clean it up? What [are the immediate environmental effects?]. We don’t know what the downstream ([longterm]) effects could be. One pollutant might not be as harmful in one area as another area. Spilling mercury in the ground in the middle of the Arizona desert might not be as bad as spilling mercury into a river in the middle of the Mississippi. So having integrated data sets [like TOXMAP] is really important for environmental scientists to make decisions. So I see this as a really powerful tool that I never even knew about now is gone. And so I wish I’d known about it before, because then I could have seen what was available. Environmental science and pollution tracking isn’t my specialty, so it’s something that I missed. But I regret having missed it. 

Now that I’m reading about it, so what are these NPL sites [that were in TOXMAP], The National Priorities list? So these are sites that have been reported to the EPA where a pollution contamination event has occurred, and then the EPA has conducted an investigation and given them a hazard ranking score. And so this is a hazard ranking called the Hazard Ranking System a system that ranks the relative risk of site’s adverse effects on human health. So it’s basically a relative risk in the spectrum of all of the sites where contamination has occurred. [The score answers the question,] “How bad is this one?” 

What are some of the factors that went into scoring these sites? This is from EPA.gov. Number one, the likelihood that a site has released or has the potential to release hazardous substances into the environment. Number two, the characteristics of the waste with toxicity and quantity. Number three, [the presence of] people or sensitive environmental targets affected by the release. So is this something that happened in the middle of a community, or happened in the middle of nowhere? [Did the spill occur in an environmentally sensitive area, e.g. nature preserve?] That’s all going to go into the hazard ranking score. Further into that part of the score, what are the pathways of the contamination? From EPA.gov: Number one, a groundwater migration, which would be drinking water or surface water migration. [This could be direct release] into human drinking water, food chain, or other sensitive environments like lakes, streams and rivers or the ocean. Is that soil exposure or sub-service intrusion? So again, that could affect resident or nearby populations, sensitive environments, or regularly occupied structures. Let’s say something in liquid form leaks into soil [and then] just sits there but doesn’t spread into the drinking water supplies ([e.g., a soil trap]). Well, now, if you have construction [in that area], and say your construction workers go out to dig a hole and they dig through that contamination, now you’ve exposed construction workers to this pollution – [and this could happen years after the initial contamination event]. 

[Another pathway is] air migration. [Was the pollutant] a gas? And again, that’s going to be dependent on proximity to human or other environments. The scoring system has a nice mathematical property, so if [the site] scores really high on one of one of these [areas (e.g., human proximity)], and really low on everything else, it could still be a high risk site. So let’s say you have a low low amount of mercury that was spilled directly into a stream that people fish from, so that could be an extremely sensitive event. And you need to immediately close down the stream because people are immediately going to be exposed to mercury. So this is [why shutting down TOXMAP] is an example of scientific suppression. But it’s tricky because what the Trump Administration has done is they disabled the TOXMAP database, which is the linking together of 12 data sources. But those other 12 data sources still exist independently. So, really, what they’ve done is they’ve slowed down the scientific community ability to track, rank, and understand pollution sites in America. 

So I have a statement here from a Newsweek article from the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative (EDGI). “The dismantling of such a usable public platform connecting health and environmental data certainly accords with the EPA’s own declared strategies, of seeking to exclude so many environmental health studies from policy-making and to neglect or defund on-going environmental health investigations.” 

And so that is what the EPA under the Donald Trump administration is seeking. They have openly declared that they will purposely exclude scientific studies in policy making decisions. [We can see] the end result of that in the TOXMAP, and that’s just one example I [looked at]. If I go through this, I might find other examples [worth talking about], but I just wanted to get this out really quick since it happened recently. I hope everybody had a good holiday season and, on communications and things like that website, there’s a website up for this. It’s iiress.com. That’s the Institute for Integrative Research in Earth and Space Science, which is going to be the overarching, structure for which the Planetary News is operating within, which is the media arm of the research organization, and so we’ll have more on that. That’s Bryan White with the Planetary News Radio signing off.

The Planetary News Radio – Episode 14: Impeachment and Science in America – Introducing the TruthScore

Welcome to the Planetary News Radio with your host, Bryan White. I’m here recording today outside in a little bit of rain in Corvallis, Oregon. It is December 24th 2019 so that would make it Christmas Eve, among other things. And I am recording today because I actually have time to record finally. It’s been several months since I’ve had time and a lot has happened since, not just in science news, but in the world, in politics and in life. And so I’ll start today with the big world news. 

We know that Donald Trump has now been impeached, which makes him the third president in the history of the United States to be impeached. But it’s different. It’s different than the other ones, which I suppose every [impeachment] is different. And it’s different for a couple of reasons, or at least a couple of major reasons. Probably the first biggest reason that is different is that the evidence that impeachable offenses were committed is not really disputed. We know that these things occurred in terms of the factual, physical trail of evidence and occurrence of events that happened. There’s no question that Trump had contact with Ukraine and that this series of events unfolded in the way that it did. There’s some questions as to actual transcripts of phone calls or not, which is not really a big deal. The overall intent and the procedural occurrence of what was done is very clear. This is quid pro quo, where a United States president asked a foreign country to investigate a political rival. 

I was trying to explain this [situation] while I was talking to this with some friends of mine, and I basically [used this analogy]. Imagine if Thomas Thomas Jefferson had hired mercenaries, say Prussian mercenaries to investigate Benjamin Franklin, or something like that. If there would have been a point in time where Thomas Jefferson had hired French or Prussians or Native Americans, you know, some foreign entity, to investigate Benjamin Franklin, that would have been a major historical event. I think people would have said, “Well, that was unacceptable and probably went against [the Constitution]”. I mean, I’m being extreme in the example of Thomas Jefferson, but certainly this would have gone against what we thought the founders were creating as presidential. And so I think you’ll see Trump being the least “presidential” president, at least in the modern history of the United States. 

It does [make clear] all of those areas where we kind of expect people to follow tradition, and then all of a sudden, they don’t. We’ve learned a lot about what is really law in America.The other reason why the impeachment is different or unique is that [we are] really going back and forth between a constitutional crisis. We thought there was going to be one and there wasn’t. And then there was, and then it wasn’t. And now it seems like we’re at that point again because you have the Senate basically refusing to give a real trial for Trump. And so again, the example there is, say, [the trial of] O.J. Simpson. Popular belief is that O.J. Simpson was guilty of the crimes he was investigated for, but he had a trial. There were witnesses, there was evidence presented, and he was acquitted. And so, as the defendant, obviously O.J. Simpson believed, or presented [to believe], that he was innocent. In the impeachment trial, Trump presents that he is innocent. But O.J. still had a [full] trial. [Granted] a murder investigation is very different [than an impeachment inquiry], murder trials happen all the time, [so their procedures are well established]. Impeachments don’t happen all the time, but we all agree that impeachments should have a fair trial. 

What we’re seeing now is Senate Majority Leader McConnell is basically saying up front that it doesn’t matter what happens in the trial. Trump will be acquitted. Imagine if O.J. Simpson had gone to trial and the judge announced the beginning, “It doesn’t matter what you say. All of the evidence that you present any witnesses that you call. I am going to acquit O.J. Simpson.” And so there’s no reason for a trial [if the end has already been decided]. So imagine if a judge had said that, that is the death of the justice system in America. So what we’re seeing is the Senate, as a leadership entity in the United States, is creating a precedent for a judicial entity to decide the outcome of a trial before it happens, and that is a violation of the Constitution. You’re innocent until proven guilty in America, and so we have a right to a trial. And so really denying Trump a trial is taking away his right to a trial. 

And of course, it works out in the favor of a person who knows they’re guilty to be declared innocent before the trial happens. But imagine if, in another case, say, a circumstantial evidence case. Say someone had had drugs found in their car or something like that where you really don’t know before the trial, you need the trial because you need to do the investigation. Imagine if judges began declaring someone guilty before the trial and said, “It doesn’t matter.” This is a major constitutional crisis, I believe, and this is relevant to science because we can’t do science, we can’t function as a society in the midst of a constitutional crisis. We need stability to do science, and so that’s part of my job. My job is to bring about stability and create the atmosphere that science can be done in. 

And so that’s what leads me to my next development. The major thing that I’ve been working on, which is my truth score algorithm, which when I initially thought about it, when I initially had this idea, I did think that it would be a truth score, but it’s more than that now it’s been released. It’s different, but I’ll still use the word truth score. In my reading of the primary literature I looked at the history of deception detection, a linguistic science of which the major applications are in law enforcement [and criminal justice]. In this review I found that there had been studies done where linguistic patterns associated with deception were found. And so I spent a lot of time thinking of a way to scan news articles so that I could score these articles using these metrics. 

And so I’ll talk a little bit about some of the metrics. It’s not super complicated. It seems complicated when you add it all up together, but individually, it’s not really difficult to understand. The first metric is a complexity measurement. That’s the Shannon Index, which comes from a strict information theory background. The Shannon Index is a measure of complexity. You can use the Shannon Index to understand the complexity of an ecosystem or the complexity of a sentence. Since it’s a general information theory [formula], [it can be used on] any type of information. One of the things I found is that deceptive language will tend to be less complex, and truthful language will tend to be more complex. A good example is probably this podcast, which is probably using a higher level of complexity language than might be used if someone were trying to be purposely deceptive. My goal is to inform and so I’m using robust language so that you can understand what I’m saying. If someone is being deceptive, they might be leaving out details, and that’s where you see a reduction in complexity.

That leads me to the next metric, which is another information theory metric. You could also use this on ecosystems or language: it is an Evenness index. An evenness index is going to tell you what’s the spread of the type of something in the measurement. So, for example, if you have an ecosystem that has 500 worms and one rabbit, that’s not very even because most of the population is worms. Everything’s concentrated in worms, [and so the local population isn’t evenly distributed amongst the possible species]. The language example would be, for example, a sentence that had 10 nouns and one verb. Well, that wouldn’t be a very evenly spread sentence [in terms of grammatical components], so that’s telling me something about the language that’s being used. Either it’s non-standard grammar or it’s not really a sentence or something’s going on [in terms of truthfulness]. And again, the idea is that it’s hiding the ability to fact check to understand what’s being said in the sentence [by using uneven grammar]. [What this suggests is] that sentences with higher evenness are again being less deceptive. 

The third metric is actually the closest thing to a truth score in the system, and this is actually matching the grammar of sentences to a database of known deceptive sentences. I have a database of Amazon reviews and hotel reviews where participants in a study were either told to write a fake story or told to write a true story, and so we know that we know which stories are lies in which stories were true, and these stories also have a positive or negative impact. You could have a deceptive positive review, which might be someone who’s trying to pay a writer to get his or her hotel ranked higher than others. You might have a deceptive negative review. Maybe it’s someone’s paying a competitor to down rank that competitor’s hotel. You have truthful, positive or negative reviews. Someone had a truthful negative experience or a truthful, positive experience. So again, we’re saying that in terms of science, a truthful, positive ([or neutral sentiment]) sentence is closer to the truth. In other words, scientific language tends to avoid negatives or emotional words. In critical thinking, you see a separation between logos, which is logic, and pathos, which is emotion. You want to say in scientific thinking that we minimize the pathos and maximize the logos, and ethos, which is credibility. 

Then there’s a final metric, which is a similar to the positive or negative sentiment analysis, which is the objectivity or subjectivity ranking. Another type of sentiment is objective or subjective. Using clear terms, clear language that is, again, not hiding, not using lots of extra adverbs and adjectives [that dilute] descriptive language and don’t give a clear meaning. Some words are much more concise and clear in their meanings and others. So a sentence with higher objectivity might be considered again, more truthful. The overall “TruthScore” is just the sum of these metrics. A higher complexity, higher evenness, higher truthfulness, higher positivity, and a higher objectivity sentence is going to score higher on the TruthScore, and a lower [sum of scores] will score lower overall. 

I’ve done this [analysis] now on a couple thousand news articles, and I’ve seen a very consistent pattern amongst them. I’m publishing a list of news organizations that publish feeds related to science, [and their rank via the TruthScore]. I’m seeing a [pretty clear] pattern. What you see is that, there’s a couple of organizations that are consistently highly ranked. Most notably, the BBC, NPR, WIRED, and the Guardian. Surprisingly The Daily Maily UK [was also highly ranked, which is strange because the Daily Mail] might be generally be considered a tabloid in its political news, but maybe in their science news they might have really good writing. I think that’s fascinating because that tells me people are looking at politics as entertainment. But when it comes to science, they want to know the real truth. And that is amazing to me, because the truth itself is fascinating. I want to learn more about the universe, and so it’s telling me this is good. There are people out there that want to learn more, and then you see some of the consistently lower ranked news organizations (e.g., Fox News), which we historically know has weaker science news. 

And so the question arose, “Why is Fox News consistently ranked the lowest out of 20 or so major broadcasting networks and science news?” And the [follow-up] question is, “Are they being purposely deceptive or what’s going on?” And so, so far, it looks like Fox News isn’t being purposely deceptive. They just don’t dedicate a lot of resources to science. And so the take home message there is that if you only watch Fox News, you’re not getting good exposure to science [writing]. You’re not getting good exposure to science and again, it tells me if people are okay with that, then people who are just watching Fox News are ok with having poor exposure to science. They don’t have that curiosity. They don’t have that drive to understand the world and learn new things that are true that we all agree or true.It tells me something about the[Fox News] readership, and as a [journalistic] source. So again, what does this boil down to? I would make the recommendation not to use Fox News as a source for science because I know off the bat they’re not dedicating resources to it. 

That would lead me to believe that, while they are publishing science articles, that I don’t know what the decisions are being made on which articles are being published. So there could be some bias there, and in science, you want to publish a diverse array of articles. So again, I’ll keep investigating this. And when I’ve learned more specific facts, I’ll share them. And then just one more interesting piece. It’s funny, because BuzzFeed news again is similar to Daily mail UK, you would think it is like a tabloid, but, BuzzFeed news consistently ranks higher than Fox News, in it’s science reporting. And so again, it tells you they’re people who are reading these tabloids for entertainment, they still have this desire to have science news, and maybe they see politics as more of entertainment. Whereas Fox News is presenting politics as facts and science as the entertainment, which to me, is flipped. And with that, I won’t say any more on this broadcast. So I hope you enjoyed this podcast and continue learning about science and searching for the truth. That’s Bryan White with the Planetary News signing off.

The Planetary News Radio – Episode 13: The Planetary Digest

Welcome to the Planetary News Radio Episode 13. It’s been a while since I recorded because I’ve been finishing up another project for The Planetary News, which is the print version of this news media project. It’s called the Planetary News Digest. The Digest is a [series of] short snippets of science in the news, and the interesting or unique thing about this is that it’s all been ranked by a truth score or a quality score algorithm that I’ve been developing over the last two years. And so I’ll just talk real quick about the algorithm, which does two things. One is it uses some information theory metrics to measure the quality of text and grammar. So, on one hand, it’s saying that this article is well written, or it uses a diverse amount of grammatical structures. So maybe that article has a higher reading level, which is something you want in science. And so this is really geared towards a science ranking algorithm, and then the other half of it is matching against a database of known deceptive statements, which includes positive and negative reviews like Amazon product reviews and hotel reviews. In some cases, the review the reviewer might have been purposely lying, and in other cases, the reviewer has been purposely truthful. So there’s some matching of grammar against known deceptive statements. 

So and the point of that is not to say that someone’s lying or anything like that. But in science, you want to have very clear grammar. And so you want to be able to tell if someone’s mis-stating a fact. And in order to do that, you need to have all of the information in the sentence, and so really grammatically in the English language and writing what deception worked out to be tends to be [the act of] hiding information, and this an be realated to a “truth score”]. But really, it’s  a willingness to write in a way that contains all the information, because then if you say something wrong, it could be fact-checked, and that’s good. And so this ranking isn’t necessarily saying whether an article or a statement is objectively true or false, because that’s almost impossible. That would take an advanced artificial intelligence. But what it’s saying is that this article contains the information and it’s written in a way that it could be fact-checked, and that’s all I could ask for. 

As a scientist, I can’t ask people to agree with my opinion or to always go the way I want to go. All right. All I can ask people to do is provide an objective assessment of what their viewpoint is [so that it can be criticized, critiqued, and fact-checked]. And so that’s what this score is. So I don’t want people to think that I am, you know, calling people liars or things like that. But the reality is there are different writing styles and different sources of news have different levels of this “Truth” score, and a lot of that has to do with the target audience. 

So if you have a very non-technical audience, maybe it’s okay to leave out a lot of facts. People are really just looking for just the gist of something. And maybe most of the articles are just quotes of someone interesting who is being interviewed, and that’s fine for their target audience. But again, for my target audience, I’m going to promote things that contain facts that could be checked and so we can build a better understanding in the community of science.

So [to demonstrate this algorithm], I’ll flip through some of the articles here that I included in this edition. So this is issue number one, July 2019 of the Planetary News Digest. Let’s look, one of the interesting things I didn’t know about was that sea turtles, loggerhead sea turtles, nest in Georgia and South Carolina. I didn’t I didn’t think about that. But in good news, they had record nesting levels. If you combine Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, it looks like there’s over 12,000 nests in that part of the country. That’s interesting. I didn’t know there was that density of sea turtle turtles on the east coast of United States. 

There’s been flooding in Nepal, India and Bangladesh, which is causing deaths. That’s not good. 

Here’s something from the environment section. Apparently the EPA is rolling back, a rule that would have allowed communities to appeal pollution permits. So if let’s say, a coal factory was granted a permit to produce coal in an area, then the community can no longer go in and appeal that decision with the EPA and try to overturn it. That’s a little scary, because you you think that the final check on something like a coal plant or any industrial plant that produces pollution into the community. You would think that the final decision, it would be the community, the people who live there. And so this is, I think this is a strike against the EPA, [or at least] the traditional role of the EPA. 

So another environmental article. And so the last one is from the Hill, and this article is from the Guardian. And so the interesting thing is you’ll see a lot of British news sources in this in the Digest because it turns out that the BBC and the Guardian use really good or really well-written articles, and they’re very thorough. And so the title of this article is US. “Rollback of protected areas risks emboldening others, scientists warn.” So what you see in the United States is an increase in the rollback of protected areas and us been escalated from Donald Trump’s presidency beginning in 2000. [The protected land reductions began escalating in 2000]. And then it’s continued escalating more recently under Trump. And so the big thing. There was the Bears Ears in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments being reduced, which is the largest reduction of [protected lands] in the history of the United States. And so the concern now is you have other developing countries who, maybe like China or India, who may be have been trying to track the United States in terms of claim it commitments and things like that. And now you say, Well, if the United States is just throwing conservation out the door, well, maybe China is more likely to do that as well, because now the international impact is not as severe because they could just say, “Well, look, the United States is reducing conservation areas. You can’t really criticize us anymore.” And so that’s what this kind of statement here of emboldening others is. Which is why I think you want to have an administration that will take a stance on protected areas, and I believe hopefully these areas are restored immediately as soon as the Trump administration is ended. 

Here’s an article on microplastics, which is probably going to be popping up continually. [Scientists] are finding now with microplastics is that they’ve permeated all the way to the deep ocean, which means that they’ve permeated probably the entire oceanic ecosystem. This is concerning for a couple of reasons. One, you have the bio accumulation problem. So the human exposure of fish becomes a problem there. It’s micro plastics have permeated the entire ecosystem. The higher level, higher traffic levels where we actually eat the fish. We’ll have higher concentrations of microplastics. Um, and then other concern are, if we actually stopped using plastic, how long would it take this to clear out of the ecosystem? So this is going to be a problem that’s going to affect us for probably decades. Even if we come up with a good system for reducing plastic, this is going to be our new reality for the future: dealing with microplastics as a pollutant. 

Here’s an interesting claim that I wouldn’t have thought about regarding used cooking oil. Some types of used cooking oil can be used to produce diesel fuel, specifically palm oil, which means now there’s an incentive to convert palm oil, previously used for cooking, into bio-diesel. So now you have an incentive to cut down palm trees [beyond the current rate needed for food-production only], and so this would contribute to deforestation. It’s interesting because on the one hand, you would think bio-diesel is better than maybe traditional fossil fuels. And so it’s a reduction of a of a greenhouse gas. But then the other hand, to make that bio-diesel, you would have to contribute to deforestation, which has a lot of chain reactions. Other than just the removal of the plant itself [which acts as a carbon sink], you’re also permanently changing the landscape in a way that reduces that area’s ability to act as a carbon reservoir.

Hong Kong protests. One of the things probably overlooked is the stress and trauma of the people living in Hong Kong. Mental health issues in Hong Kong are going to be a real problem. There’s already a stigma against mental health in Chinese culture and in Hong Kong as well. There’s already not a large capacity for dealing with mental health issues, nd now, with the ongoing protests, people having a fear of being arrested and possibly extradited to China is causing a huge amount of stress on all of these people. Most of them are young people, students, who already are under a lot of stress. And so now you have a breaking point [in terms of mental health]. For example, a 50 minute session with a psychologist costs between 800 and 3000 Hong Kong dollars, which is about 100-300 United States dollars, which is pretty much out of range for most of the population. So Hong Kong sounds like it’s setting itself up for some serious long term problems.

And I do want to make a statement here about my algorithm in the ranking system. And so, in terms of science, what you’ll find is, um, Fox News tends to rank lower and again. Like I said in the beginning, this isn’t necessarily because of, um, you know, the articles are bad and just be lacking information, and that’s just part of that target audience is there. It’s not necessarily looking for an in-depth article, and that’s fine. That’s their audience. On the plus side, in Fox News’ favor, again I’m not excluding Fox News, if I do find a high-rank article, I will report it. And so there’s an article here from Fox News about Venezuela, which is continually under turmoil. And so I looked at this article and it scored really high, so I’d actually go and look at it. And, you know, this is really sad, situation [in Venezuela] because of the childcare and healthcare problems. And that’s really sad. 

And so when I looked up this article I said, “Okay, maybe you know who wrote this article?” And so [I found out] the author is Holly McKay, and I went and I just read her bio briefly. And so this is a good example of where you know it doesn’t necessarily matter who the publisher is or who the editor is. If you have a good reporter, a good journalist, and a good article, I’ll promote it. And so this person (Holly McKay) has reported from war zones including Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Burma, Burma and Latin America. So Holly has been around and she’s been doing this type of reporting for a while, so I have no reason to question the ability of this article [just because it’s from Fox News]. To me, clearly she’s an expert. And so I also I’ve included this article, even though on average, Fox News ranks low, but this is a high-quality aticle from Fox News, and it passes my checks. So I’ve supported it, and so then on that note, I won’t say any more [on the news]. 

If you like to look at all of these articles that I’ve put out or really just the summaries in the score, I would ask that you go over to my patreon and subscribe. I’m going to put out a digital version and a print version, and the digital version is going to be DRM-free. In other words, you’ll be able to read it however you want. It’s not going to be locked into an e-reader or anything like that. You have the pdf forever. You can print it out. Obviously, I ask that you don’t resell it without permission. But, the more people that read this the better. So if someone wants to print a copy of this and give it away to people for free, I’m fine with that. Hopefully, I’ll always be fine with that. 

This is Bryan White with The Planetary News Radio signing out. Thanks for listening.

Join the discussion on Discord at: https://discord.gg/5HQj8eC.

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The Planetary News Radio – Episode 12: Mars Astrobiology, Gut Microbiome’s Influence on Athleticism, and Soft Robots

Welcome to the Planetary News Radio Episode 12 with your host Bryan White. Today I’m going to do two segments. The first is going to be a quick Science in the News, which is just me looking at recent headlines. I haven’t really looked into the articles or read them yet unless it’s something controversial. Then the 2nd [segment] is going to be a new segment, which is just an in depth review of a few articles. And these will be articles that I have ranked, according to an algorithm that I’m working on to rank science quality in the news. And so we’ll talk more about that later as well. So first up, let’s look at science in the news. 

Here’s a headline NASA’s curiosity. Mars Rover detects unusually high levels of methane and why would that be interesting? Well, methane is an organic gas and so any time you see or find methane, you might think that there are either animals or bacteria giving off methane. One of the most fundamental chemical pathways for chemosynthesis involves using methane as an energy source. So at the bottom of the ocean, if there are methane seeps, which are pockets of methane gas that was either frozen or solid and is now being released as a gas bacteria, then a few specialized types of animals can live along those seeps and process methane. Methane [is not just a] food source, it’s also a byproduct for animals releasing gas after processing food. So any time you find methane, we think that’s something closer to organic processes [might be occurring]. And so it’s It’s a point in the direction of finding life on Mars, whether that’s animal-like or bacteria-like we don’t know, most likely that we would suggest that it’s bacterial-like.

Here’s an interesting one. “Could a microbiome boost athletic performance” and another headline on that same topic, “Performance enhancing bacteria found in the microbiome of elite athletes”. So this is really important because find out more and more how important the human microbiome is. So the microbiome, it’s similar to the concept of a genome, so a genome is the listing or the container of all of our genetic information. The microbiome is the container of all of our microbial life, and so humans have all sorts of bacteria living all inside of our body, and some of that could be in the gut. And so the gut microbiome can have various effects. We’re finding out that gut microbiome can even be related to psychology. So perhaps some types of depression and anxiety are influenced by gut microbiome. And so now perhaps athleticism can be influenced by microbiome. And it looks here if I look into this article from NPR, says the elite runners gut microbiome makes mice more athletic. So maybe they transferred some specialized bacteria from a runner into a mouse, and it changed the metabolism of the mouse so that made them more athletic.

That’s really interesting, so this is gonna be really important. It’s important because the gut microbiome could be modified almost immediately in a person if we knew how to do it. So if if a disease or a disorder or or some trait is linked to the genome, it’s really difficult to modify that in a living organism, because you’d have to modify the genome of all of the cells in that adult organism. So, for example, if someone has multiple sclerosis or muscular dystrophy, if you wanted to cure muscular dystrophy, you’d have to affect all of the muscle cells that have that are producing the broken protein. So you have to develop a treatment that if you inject this treatment into someone, it travels through the cells and maybe through a virus, modifies the genome and replaces a specific spot on the genome to eradicate that broken protein, for example, in muscular dystrophy. Now, if you have a disorder that’s based on the gut microbiome all you have to do is change the content of microbes in that person’s stomach or gut. And so we think, and by we I mean the scientific community, this could be a really treatable source. So if we can learn more about how to modify the gut microbiome it might be way less invasive, way less risky than types of genetic modifications. So you see some of the early testing for muscular dystrophy via gene therapy has a lot of risks involved with it because any time you go in, you modify the genome. You have the risk of causing cancer in those cells because any time you have a virus or something that makes an insertion into DNA, it could make a mistake, and then you can have a cancer state occur so gene therapy could make things worse. 

Microbiome therapy could also make things worse. Recently, a couple of people died during a clinical trial of a fecal transplant so related to this gut Microbiome think that you could potentially alter the microbiome by transferring fecal matter from a sick person into a healthy person. But if you make a mistake and transfer bacteria antibiotic resistance bacteria through a fecal transplant, then you could inadvertently do more damage to the person receiving the transplant. And so that recently happened. So there’s risks with altering the microbiome as well. But again, it’s less risky than gene therapy. Gene therapy is a high probability of causing cancer, whereas altering the microbiome maybe might just involve taking some probiotics and changing your gut contents slowly over time in a safe way. Now we won’t be able to treat the same diseases, we don’t think that we’ll be able to treat muscular dystrophy by altering the gut microbiome, but for the set of disorders or traits like athleticism or maybe some metabolic traits for the set of traits that are linked to gut microbiome, they should be much more treatable than attempting to do a genetic therapy. And so the more we learn about the gut microbiome, it’s really exciting. 

Here’s a good astrobiology one, another Mars astrobiology topic. When did life have a chance on Mars after a giant meteorite stopped hitting it 4.5 billion years ago? That’s interesting, because and we think, and in this case by we I mean NASA, has published some documents [on astrobiology]. We think that life could have evolved from nothing from chemical synthesis to the first cellular life could have evolved on Earth in as little as 200,000 years. So if Mars had the potential to begin evolving the life 4.5 billion years ago, that would have been much earlier than Earth because Earth didn’t have the potential to start forming life until about over 3 billion years ago. So Mars could have had its entire life phase happened way earlier than Earth. And so it could have had bacteria like organisms growing and living there and then gone extinct because of a major climate change that occurred on Mars. The loss of the magnetosphere, which protects it from solar radiation. So Mars, or really the surface of Mars, at least today, is very inhabitable to even microbial life. But maybe 4.5 billion years ago is much for habitable, and it didn’t have the problem with Earth. Earth was highly geologically active. Nothing could have survived on the surface, whether or not it was getting pummeled with meteorites. The Earth’s surface was highly volcanic, so it wasn’t stable enough for bacteria to grow and form. Maybe, only in either the oceans or in pools of mud and clay and things like that. Maybe Mars had a more stable surface 4.5 billion years ago. So it’s life was ancient but certainly could have existed. So that’s two points for Mars astrobiology. 

All right, let’s shift to the other segment, which are some articles that I have actually read. The 1st up is a Slate article on it’s called Himalayan Ice Melt has doubled since 2000’s a new study finds. So ice melting from the Himalayas, the rate that ice is melting has doubled [from what was] previously thought so. We knew that ice was melting, but that rate has been revised with new data. So why is that important? Because now you have a situation where you have an upstream mountain system that traditionally has served as a repository for water in the form of ice, and so that ice stays frozen and slowly melts throughout the year. That’s a steady stream of fresh water for all of the downstream communities that live in that area. So people are dependent on these this mountain system for having ice. So if we lose that ice, that’s really bad. And so revised projections now with with climate actions taken 1/3 of the ice on the Himalayas will have melted by the year 2100 with no measures taken, 2/3 will melt, so the amount of ice on the Himalayas will be reduced by 2/3 if no extreme climate actions are taken. So that’s that certainly will be significant as that begins to happen, and it will have a direct human impact. And that’s one of the things that I want to focus on with climate change is things that cause human impacts. 

So let’s see, what’s another one? The time article, “More and more countries agree on this climate change goal”. But will it work? So what is that climate change goal? So this goal it’s called net zero emissions. And that would mean that a country is emitting emissions and sequestering emissions at the same rate. So either you could to reach net zero emissions by emitting nothing, and then your net would be zero. Or you could, [for example emit 100 units of carbon, then you could also sequester 100 units of carbon by either building planting a forest or something like that. Some countries that are talking about implementing this policy by the year 2050. Mostly Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom are planning on implementing it, and this is going to require a dramatic shift in the energy production systems. But of course, if you look at somewhere like Germany, they’ve already made significant efforts in solar energy putting them in a better position to achieve the net zero goal. In the United States, [there is some effort at the] state level, you’ll see this, but at the federal level, you’ll see a rejection of this policy, and the same thing with China and India who are the top three producers along with the US. So unfortunately for the top producers of carbon emissions, we don’t see these shifts towards that net zero policy, although in the United States, thankfully, we have some state level policies that are going this direction, which is really good. The nice thing in the United States is you see the state level policy leading the way the federal level and you see, a lot of the European Union member nations also looking at moving this way, but China and India still have unknown decisions on this policy.

And this is a divergence from climate change to robotics real quick. So the title of this article is “Engineers built a robotic lionfish with an energetic bloodstream”, and I thought this was interesting because I’ve seen a lot of work that’s being done right now on soft robots. So these are robots that are really cool because a lot of this research being done with how animals move and function in terms of mechanics, it’s gonna help society in a lot of ways. So one of those ways is rescue robots. So if you want to send in a robot into a building that collapsed or some chemical hazard has spilled and it’s too dangerous for humans or a bomb threat or something like that, where the environment is unknown, so we don’t know what we’re sending the robot into. We need some type of functional form for a robot that’s adaptable to the environment, and a bipedal robot isn’t necessarily the best thing. Something that can crawl and sneak around through really tight spaces. Maybe something more like a snake or lizard or something like that is more useful. And if you want to have maybe something patrolling the ocean, maybe a marine observation robot, some type of scientific robot swimming around gathering data we could have a fish, a really highly energy efficient fish robot. That would be cool. And so that’s what this article was about. 

It was about a fish robot that they’ve developed a battery that is both hydraulic fluid and energetic fluid, so it’s almost like a blood system for a robot. So as the robot is moving its fins and compressing the fluid, it’s moving the fluid around. And the nice thing about that is, since the hydraulic fluid is the battery fluid, you don’t need to have a battery pack. And in the significant part about that is the weight. So you don’t need the weight of the battery pack. And maybe it makes recharging the robot easier or more difficult. I’m not sure if they have to change out the fluid, but it’s a step in the right direction. It means also that the construction, the shape of the robot, is no longer confined by the structure of the battery system, which is probably one of the biggest and heaviest components of any type of robotic system. So this is a really cool advancement. And so then I mentioned the rescue robots and chemical spills and things like that, the other application of soft robotics, of course, being human interface. So if humans were interfacing with the robot, we don’t necessarily want a really cold metallic structure. Maybe we want, you know, soft robotics, say, in a clinical setting where a robot is involved somehow in patient care. You want to have a soft human like touch. And so we need these soft robotics to mimic a human [form] and human nature. A human mechanical system that isn’t going to hurt a human either by pressure or the components causing damage to a human. So that was a cool side track from climate change, the usual climate science. But that’s all I had today. 

And so this is Bryan White with the Planetary News Radio signing out.

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The Planetary News Radio – Episode 11: Is the Moon part of Mars?

Welcome to the Planetary News Radio Episode 11 with your host Bryan White. Today I’m going to do a Science in the News segment, and then I’ll talk briefly about some of the other projects going on with the Planetary News and a little bit about how to help support this podcast to keep it advertising free. Well, let’s get into the Science in the News segment. So again, just briefly, I’m looking at trending articles and science from various sources, and I haven’t really researched them a lot. I’m mostly just looking at the headlines and trying to understand what’s going on in the world and kind of get a sense for the pulse of science news.

And so let’s look here, Number one, “Trump prompts state of confusion over space policy with tweet”. So this is kind of funny, but it makes sense to me. I see where the confusion is. Trump actually tweeted, [paraphrasing], “That the moon is a priority. We shouldn’t be wasting time on Mars”, or something like that. But then he said, “the Moon is part of Mars” and as out of context as silly that sounds, I actually see where the confusion is from that tweet, and it’s actually not that wrong. What Trump should have said is that the development of technology and systems for travelling to Mars are also part of the development of the systems and technology for traveling to the Moon. So if we develop systems for traveling to the moon, we’re also developing systems to travelling to Mars. And that’s an important point because NASA had to make a decision on what to focus their resources on. As much as everyone would love to colonize Mars and the Moon, we have to choose one [first] because resources are limited. And so NASA’s made the decision that we will return humans to the moon first. That will be the priority.

But at the same time, this is going to help with future missions to Mars. And why So one of the things is is that NASA’s gonna be creating a new space station. So an orbital platform for sending astronauts to the moon. So now you have the Apollo missions. Historically, astronauts are restricted to launching on a rocket one way rocket, now breaching orbit, going straight to the moon. Now, with an orbital stop point, you could have a one rocket designed to exit the earth’s gravity, which is a very different process from actually just traveling across space to the moon. And so you can have the second stage of the Moon plan waiting in orbit or the second stage can be refueled. So if you can send fuel to orbit in multiple stages, you can accumulate more fuel in orbit. And then you don’t have to have everything packed on one trip on one rocket, because exiting your gravity is extremely challenging, extremely expensive, so every pound could cost thousands of dollars to get into orbit.

Having a stop point in low earth orbit on the way to the moon, it is a really good idea. And since the International space station is going to be decommissioned, it doesn’t make sense to continue adapting that. And so hopefully this new effort to build a Moon station will continue on to the building of another space station and that station will be used for future Mars missions. So, as silly as it is, what Trump said sounds silly, it’s actually fairly accurate. The mission to the Moon is part of the mission to Mars.

All right, so next up, speaking of the International Space Station (ISS), NASA and its international partners have been struggling to figure out what to do with it. What they’re saying is that NASA will open up the space station [to private tourism], and this has been talked about for a while. This is the first official announcement that NASA will open up the station to private visitors, and so they can pay cash to go visit the International Space Station. That’s great, because then if you could have enough visitors going to the International Space Station, it could support itself. NASA could afford to maintain it and then that station and another space station. The plan is to decommission the ISS by 2025 or something like that. But if it were to become profitable or break even in terms of funding and that funding came from private individuals or institutions, then I don’t see why the station would be decommissioned. And so then we’ll have NASA itself funding a Moon station in orbit, and then we’ll have the International Space Station still hanging around, so maybe we’ll have to space stations in the next 10 years, so that’s good.

A real quick astronomy note is that Jupiter will be the closest to earth it has been in some time, and so this week is a great week to see Jupiter and its Moons, or at least four of its Moons will be visible. Not necessarily to the naked eye but visible, using low magnification like binoculars or something like that. So I’m excited about that. Hopefully there is clear weather.

Here’s a headline from NBC News. Three islands disappeared in the past year. Is climate change to blame? Well, I don’t know because I didn’t read the article, but let’s think about Could that be the case? Could climate change cause an island to disappear? And the answer is yes. That is entirely possible. For a couple reasons, one would be raising water levels so the water gets hired. But there’s a lot of other forces, too, that cause islands to disappear. So erosion forces and things like that changing can suddenly transform an island that might have been growing, adding sand, actor and soil. So all of a sudden, fading away losing sand and all of these things can be influenced by climate. So again, I’m not looking into that. Too much more of us. Looking at the headline saying that sounds plausible. [In this case, it looks like sea-level rise is the most likely culprit].

There’s an exciting headline: “Incredible Pictures of NASA approved 3D homes to be built on Mars before humans arrived”. So again, back to the Moon/Mars controversy. One of the problems with getting to Mars is resource is resource transfer. Mars is a lot farther away so it’s a lot more expensive to carry materials with you. If colonists arriving on Mars could fabricate their own living structures from natural resource obtained on Mars, then that would free up a lot of space on the spaceship to bring them to Mars. In other words, if you can build your home when you get there, you don’t need to bring your home with you. And so that’s why a lot of colonization research is going into 3D printing. So if we could build homes or any type of structure, a greenhouse [for example], the ability to fabricate structures on Mars would be great, and I’m assuming that this will be tested on the Moon first. So as part of NASA’s “Moon first” plan hopefully we’ll see a 3D printer on the Moon.

Like I said, [in the Science in the News segment], I’m just looking at headlines. The reason why I do this is because here is a trending article that appears to be fake news. “Alien life search bombshell exo-moons may be home to extraterrestrial life”. So first of all, I wouldn’t call that a bombshell because the idea that any exo-planet or exo-moon could house life has been a major component of astrobiology for 30 or 40 years, since the first exo-planets were discovered. Scientists have always thought it possible that if there is alien life, either microbial or other, that it could possibly exist in a planet that is in the habitable zone.

In other words, if the planet is not too close to its star, has the right temperature for organic synthesis to occur, and has some solvents like water or ammonia, then it’s entirely plausible that life could exist. Now, that’s my criticism here: [the wording of the headline]. This headline is “Alien life search bombshell”. Not really a bombshell. The problem with exo-moons and exo-planets is that even if they did have life on it, how would we know? So we’d have to find a way to detect the signature of life on a planet only from its atmosphere, because that’s all we can really see from a telescope. So these planets are many light years away, typically so we can’t visit them and see if there are living organisms there. So we need a system to detect the signature of life from a telescope.

And there’s some work that’s been done on that because we know if we were to point a telescope at earth, what would we look for? Could we determine that Earth had life if we were pointing to telescope at Earth from a light year away? And so, yes, we do know there is some signatures we can look for, like really high oxygen content in the atmosphere would be a suggestion, but again, we won’t be able to confirm that [with physical data]. In our lifetimes, we’ll never be able to confirm that [because of the extreme distance of even the closest exoplanet, which is over 4 light years away]. So that’s why this title, I think, is a little disingenuous and so I’m calling out this article. I’m not naming it, just calling out the headline as [potential fake news].

And so that’s it today for the Science and the News segment. I’ll just talk real quick about one of the other projects I’m starting, which is the Planetary Information Engine (PIE), which is sort of like a three stage process. It’s beginning as a wiki, and so the wiki is going to be constructed to gather scientific knowledge, kind of like an encyclopedia, but a more directed encyclopedia – a little less free-form than Wikipedia. [It will have] more structure towards natural language processing (NLP). And so the idea is that an information engine is something that could be used by an artificial intelligence system to augment your own intelligence or a person’s own intelligence. And so that’s the [new] project I’m starting as well, the Planetary Information Engine, and I’ll have more about that as I get further along.

Hope you enjoyed this podcast. That’s Bryan White with the Planetary News signing out.

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