Saturday, November 16, 2013

Review of Drinking Water: A history by James Salzman

We all depend on water. Without water we die. Unclean water kills about 3.4 million people per year and is among the leading causes of death in humans today. This book accomplishes the rather impressive feat of giving the reader a broad introduction to various issues associated with drinking water. In one book he manages to cover the history and myths associated with water, justice and economic issues (who gets to drink and can you charge for water), safety and health issues, terrorist issues, and last but not least, how you can help bring water to those who do not have it today.

This tendency to associate powers with water is as strong as ever in our modern society, which is partly why it is extremely profitable for companies to sell bottled water. These companies rarely shy away from shouting out grandiose claims about the properties of their water. The fact is that, with some exceptions, tap water is as good or better than bottled water which may come from contaminated springs.

In chapter 2 and chapter 7 Salzman discusses the often forgotten but extremely important issue of whether water should be considered to be an essential human right or whether it should be considered a commodity, or perhaps rather a little bit of both. Humans who don’t get water die is one very good argument for why water should be a human right. However, should we say therefore that it is not ok to sell water. It is after all not free to transport water from those who have it in excess to those who have too little. If people are allowed to earn money on water they might even work hard to build systems that allow them to transfer their commodity to their potential customers. Salzman, even if he may not say so explicitly seem to argue that a combination of these two approaches is best. The romans developed a very efficient system for delivering water to all their people, but that would not have been possible was it not for the money they earned by selling privileges (e.g. water directly into your house), to the rich. There are few things that motivate people and businesses as much as money and often the best products are achieved if people are allowed to earn money when they do deliver.

Another thing that become evident when reading this book is that there is really no such thing as clean water, only water that is clean enough. Water taste different depending on where it originates from. Almost all water, including tap water in western nations, also contain certain small concentrations of poisons such as arsenic and lead. As if that was not enough there are many kinds of bacteria that also live in our water sources. To eradicate every kind of contaminant completely from the water we drink would be excruciatingly expensive, and it would really not be worthwhile given that the human body is generally quite good at handling small amounts of contaminants (this why I am rarely convinced by alarm report saying potential carcinogen found in x - it is often (not always) negligible amounts). I guess the lesson that should be learned is that our tap water is clean (again there are exceptions), but that does not mean that it is devoid of any microbes

Apart from being a good book, it also made me realize the importance of providing clean water to those who do not have it (in comparison with other types of charity). The benefits go very far, because not only does unclean water kill people and make them sick, it also uses up people’s time when they have to walk, sometimes several miles to get water (dirty water). Often girls in Africa have to quit school at an early age in order to spend their days fetching water. Indeed in Africa alone people spend 40 billion hours per year, fetching water. This book has inspired me to create a profile on where you donate money or even start your own fundraiser that helps build wells and bring water to those who need it. How about for your next birthday, wish for a donation in dollars equivalent to how many years you become.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

You cannot tell if someone is lying from their eye movements

Proponents of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) claim that you can tell if someone is lying based on how they move their eyes. This claim has also become popular in the public. For example, according to this web page, Bandler and Grinder, in their book on NLP say that right handed persons tend to look up to the left when they construct visual images such as when they are asked to imagine a purple buffalo. Since lying often involves construction of visual images (as opposed to things that have actually been witnessed), one should be able to tell if another person is lying by observing eye movements.

However, no experimental tests of this claim had been done until Richard Wiseman (who by the way have an excellent blog and youtube channel) and colleagues at the University of Edinburgh did a series of experiments on the topic. In the first part of the study (read the entire study here), they instructed participants to take a mobile phone, go into an office and then either put it in their pocket or put it in a specified drawer in the office. 

Participants were then interviewed about their behavior. Everyone were told to say that they put the mobile phone in the drawer (which of course means that 50% would be lying). The interviewer did not know who was lying and who was telling the truth. Participants were filmed during the interview and subsequently two persons who were also blind to the different conditions estimated eye movements of the participants. If lying involves a specific pattern of eye movements, it should have been detected here. As it happened, there were no significant effects to be found anywhere. That is, there was no difference between the eye movements of participants who were lying and those who were telling the truth. 

The study included two more experiments. In one subjects were told about the cues for detecting lies as taught by NLP proponents and were then asked to rate if the people from the first part of the study were lying or telling the truth. Their assessments were compared to those of subjects who had not learned about NLP rules. Again there was no difference in the accuracy of participants to determine whether someone was lying or telling the truth. 

All in all, this study (I think), shows quite convincingly, that there is no truth to the idea that you can tell if someone is lying by observing their eye-movements. 


Wiseman R, Watt C, ten Brinke L, Porter S, Couper SL, & Rankin C (2012). The eyes don't have it: lie detection and Neuro-Linguistic Programming. PloS one, 7 (7) PMID: 22808128

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Frontiers for young minds

I just stumbled upon a nice new initiative called frontiers for young minds. There is by now a relatively large collection of frontier journals that cover most fields of science. All their journals are open access which means that they are available to everyone for free when published and the authors maintain copyright. Their peer review system is also different in that the identity of the reviewers is revealed when a paper has been published. This probably reduces ad hominim attacks and instead encourages a respectful tone, which is unfortunately not something that can be taken for granted.

The frontiers for young minds is a new journal where children, together with scientists, review the articles. This has the benefit that it forces scientists to write in such a way that children can understand it. I think that having such a journal could really help children and also adults who find it hard to read traditional science journal, get into science in the first place. I am not arguing that traditional journals only contain unessecary jargon, but rather that this type of journal is probably needed. I will keep checking the page and probably read some of the articles as well.

As an example, see this article: Do you feel lonely? You are not alone: lessons from social neuroscience.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Review of The Universe Within by Neil Shubin

From my list of book reviews it will be blatantly obvious that I like non-fiction, especially non-fiction science books. I therefore naturally thought that The universe within by Neil Shubin would be a perfect match. A little bit of geology mixed with astronomy and evolution combined with reportedly good writing. It felt like a safe bet for me. I was wrong.

Shubin starts out by describing a geological expedition to Greenland. It was indeed interesting to learn about the hardships associated with finding stones that were formed during the time you are interested in. Shubin quickly moves on (it is a rather short book) to state that all living creatures on earth are related to one another and then he also takes it one step further, saying that we are also related to distant stars because had it not been for supernovas of massive stars the elements on which life depends, would not have formed. This, I suppose, is a profound fact, but I guess that a few paragraphs is not sufficient to convey a feeling of awe.

The book proceeds on a wild journey through space and evolution. Shubin writes about the origin of life and about the formation of stars as well as the entire universe. He frequently diverts from the main story (if there is one) and discusses other things such as the circadian rhythm. The part I personally found most interesting was the one about earth’s climate on a geological timescale. Did you know that before the Himalayas formed 40 million years ago (due to the collision of the Indian and Chinese landmasses), earth was considerably larger than it has been since then. At some points there were not even any ice caps over Antarctica. The Himalayas, Shubin explains, drained carbon dioxide from the atmosphere which was flushed into the oceans which in turn reduced the greenhouse effect of our atmosphere which cooled earth. We should expect more such drastic changes of the earth’s climate in the future and we better hope that we humans are able to adapt to such changes.

This is not a bad book but I feel that if suffers from trying to cover too broad an area in too few pages. It reminds me of when my supervisor was going to give a talk about “cognition and evolution”, which he felt was already stretching what you could cram into one talk. The arrangers however felt that this was too modest, can’t we change the title to cognition, evolution, and the cosmos to raise interest? I don’t know how that episode ended but I can imagine that, like this book, the result would lack focus.