Exploring junk news, Pruitt slammed on the Hill, CRISPR for coral: this week in science. | Miles O'Brien Productions

Exploring junk news, Pruitt slammed on the Hill, CRISPR for coral: this week in science.

Here’s a look back at this week in science, with stories you don’t want to miss:

Members of Congress yesterday offered up some must-see TV that appeals to a few big interests of mine: the conduct and policies of the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Scott Pruitt and the insidious, often corrosive role the gargantuan social media platform Facebook plays in our democracy. More on Scott Pruitt below, but let’s begin with the allegations that Facebook has cooked up an algorithm that favors liberal content over conservative.

Much to the chagrin of Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee who would prefer to hear testimony on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, the Republican majority decided it was more important to hear from “Diamond and Silk.” In case you are unaware, the pair offers up a steady stream of entertaining (for a minute or so) pro-Republican, pro-Trump fare.

They’ve accused Facebook of censoring their conservative content as the social network tries to clamp down on hyper-partisan misinformation–what we like to call “junk news.”

There’s plenty of reason to believe the allegation is unfounded and, after watching the testimony, there is reason to conclude the pair perjured themselves by denying they received money from the Trump campaign. But I digress….


Teasing out misinformation on the web

All of this leads me to our series on “junk news” that began this week on the PBS NewsHour. Next week we will hear from the prolific purveyor of hyper-partisan content who has recently stopped offering up stories that appeal to hard-core conservatives because he can’t seem to get them to rise to the top of News Feeds. His liberal site is doing okay. So what is up? Is Facebook censoring? It’s hard to know because the algorithm is a black box.

In the first installment of our series which released on Wednesday, we finally got to share more of producer Cameron Hickey’s junk news sleuthing tool, NewsTracker. We also got to peer inside the inner workings of the Facebook News Feed–not just on our computers but at the company’s Menlo Park headquarters. Watch the first installment here:

Next Wednesday, we meet that hyper-partisan content provider, Cyrus Massoumi. We gleaned some very surprising insights about the phenomenon spending time with him. After that, we will take you to Indianapolis to meet Cameron Hickey’s grandmother, Betty Manlove, who offered us an essential window into the world of junk news. And in our final installment ahead, we will show you the challenges Facebook encounters as it tries to turn the knobs on its algorithm. Fixing this problem won’t be easy. So stay tuned and just so you know, we spent a lot of time checking our facts.

We’ve also been diving even deeper on the topic of junk news on recent episodes of my podcast, Miles To Go, and in written pieces available only on my website. More to come on both those fronts as well.


Pruitt under fire, but future of EPA head still uncertain

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt came to Capitol Hill today, in back-to-back congressional hearings. Ostensibly, these were supposed to be about EPA’s budget, but Pruitt’s long list of recent scandals regarding unethical conduct obviously became a focus… for some.

Topics of questioning were split largely along party lines, with Republicans mostly praising Pruitt’s regulatory rollbacks while Democrats grilled Pruitt on perceived ethics violations as well as attacking his poor environmental regulation track record.

On the scientific and regulatory front, one of the main issues brought up was a recent regulatory rule that Pruitt introduced to allegedly bring more transparency to the science used to underpin policy. The new rule states that scientific studies cannot be used as basis for policy if all the underlying data and methodology is not available to public.

This sounds reasonable–the science should be transparent and available for inspection–but the reality is that this rule allows Pruitt’s EPA to throw out influential studies on the human health effects of pollution, where sensitive patient information is kept confidential.

Rep. Ruiz (D-CA) nailed this issue when he said that these foundational studies will be tossed out because “revealing that info is a clear violation of the ethical rules protecting patient confidentiality.” Pruitt suggested that that information “can be redacted,” but that just adds unnecessary steps and injects a politics into the decision of which scientific studies to include in the rulemaking process.

This kind of anti-science programming is emblematic of Pruitt’s reign at the EPA. Science that doesn’t suit the Administrator’s liking has been ignored since the beginning of his tenure, as we reported almost a year ago when the EPA started stacking its advisory boards with industry representatives:

On questions of abuse of public trust, Pruitt often filibustered, equivocated, or otherwise stalled instead of providing simple “yes” or “no” answers. Opinions on this were mixed: Rep. Harper (R-MS) denounced it as unwarranted “political bloodsport,” while Rep. Pallone (D-NJ) said to Pruitt that “your actions are an embarrassment to President Trump.”

In the end, it doesn’t quite matter what members of Congress say; Pruitt seems determined to hold on to continue advancing his anti-science agenda at the EPA for as long as he is allowed. We will watch President Trump’s HR department (a.k.a. his Twitter account) to see if the President has soured on Pruitt after these hearings.


Coral gets the CRISPR treatment

Last week, we told you about the sad state of affairs for one of the most vibrant ecosystems in the world; Great Barrier Reef. Scientists now say about 30% of the reef is dead due to heat stress from a warming ocean.

There might be a way out, if we choose to use it. This week, scientists reported the first successful use of the powerful CRISPR gene-editing technique to fiddle with coral genes.

CRISPR studies have to be conducted at the earliest stages of life, in a fertilized egg cell or zygote as it’s called, and that is difficult to achieve in coral, which spawns twice a year in the Great Barrier Reef. Scientists had to time their excursions perfectly, and managed to collect coral zygotes under the shining of a full Australian moon.

The CRISPR tests proved to be successful, especially in mutating a gene regulating growth in the coral.

“We hope that future experiments using CRISPR-Cas9 will help us develop a better understanding of basic coral biology that we then can apply to predict–and perhaps ameliorate–what’s going to happen in the future due to a changing climate,” lead author Phillip Cleves said in a press release.

But actually deploying this technology, even for a laudable goal like conservation, is uncharted waters. It’s like a lot of these so-called “geo-engineering” ideas floating around out there: they allow us to sidestep a discussion without tackling the root cause–our reckless production of greenhouse gases–and they open the door to all kinds of unintended, unanticipated consequences. I’m not sure it’s such a good idea quite yet–what do you think?


Experience outer space in your own home

Just about every astronaut I’ve ever spoken to is an environmentalist–and many of them say they wish the world’s leaders could see and appreciate the fragility of our planet from their privileged perch in low Earth orbit.

Well soon that may be possible, at least virtually.

Award-winning virtual reality (VR) design studio REWIND has partnered with space industry veterans In-Space Missions to deliver immersive experiences from space to the comfort of your own home. Their calling the collaboration SpaceTime Enterprises.

They are doing this by launching their own satellites–one by the end of 2019, eventually working up to three a year–into low Earth orbit. The cameras on these payloads will match or exceed a resolution of 200 meters, which is about what astronauts see from the International Space Station with their own eyes.

“Imagine being able to look down on the planet in VR and having all of the information about what you’re seeing right there in front of your eyes,” Doug Liddle, CEO at In-Space Missions, said in a press release.

Maybe if world leaders could see the Great Barrier Reef from that perspective they would do something about preserving it.

Ah! Look out! Florida! Credit: SpaceTime Enterprises. | Miles O'Brien Productions
Ah! Look out! Florida! Credit: SpaceTime Enterprises.


Gaia releases largest star map to date

Meanwhile a spacecraft that is looking in the other direction is finally hitting some paydirt.

The Gaia spacecraft was launched more than four years ago by the European Space Agency (ESA) used its suite of telescopes and photometers to capture the largest dataset of star position and motion across the sky ever recorded: a whopping 1.7 billion stars, mostly in our galaxy. This was a welcome addition to the test batch of 2 million stars released in 2016.

“The second Gaia data release represents a huge leap forward with respect to ESA’s Hipparcos satellite, Gaia’s predecessor and the first space mission for astrometry, which surveyed some 118 000 stars almost thirty years ago,” Gaia scientist Anthony Brown said in a press release.

This wealth of data marks a new age for astrometry, the study of position, motion, and magnitude of stars. It will surely help us better understand how our Milky Way came to be, how it evolved, and how it works now. I’m sure we’ll be covering the science that is gleaned from this data set soon.

Ad Astra my friends! I will check back in next week.

Gaia’s star chart in full color. Simply gorgeous! Credit: ESA/Gaia/DPAC. | Miles O'Brien Productions
Gaia’s star chart in full color. Simply gorgeous! Credit: ESA/Gaia/DPAC.

Banner image credit: GraphicsSC | Pixabay, edited.

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