Tuesday, 27 June 2017

The Politicization Of Science: How the study "Male Microchimerism in the Human Female Brain" became the news story "Women Absorb And Retain DNA From Every Man They Have Sex With"

In this post, I intend to look at the journey a scientific study has taken on it's way to being disseminated to general public, something we've covered before on this blog when we examined how a study regarding experiences during death was transformed via the news media and the blogosphere to being a study regarding deathbed visitations by the ghosts of dead loved ones. The difference with today's post and that previous post is that the lens the study will pass through today is not a paranormal one but a political one. The distortion of this particular study has led to a rather disturbing and distasteful series of stories and headlines to appear on social media bringing along with them toxic threads wich are pretty rampant with misogyny.

 Let's start by looking at the Newswire story which is, as far as I can see, where this interpretation of the story originated from, published on 23/06/17, and authored by "Baxter Dmitry" found in the health section of the site. The headline of the article states: "Women Absorb And Retain DNA From Every Man They Have Sex With." and author claims this is backed up by a scientific study, but is this even remotely true?

 The article begins:
"Women retain and carry living DNA from every man with whom they have sexual intercourse, according to a new study by the University of Seattle and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center."
A new study? Actually no, the research referenced in the story was published in Plos One in September 2012. I guess Baxter couldn't write that though as it would relegate his story to... erm... not news. This isn't a good sign. We haven't moved past the first paragraph and there's a blatant obscuring of the truth already! In fact, there's two. When Baxter refers to "a new study" it hides the fact that he is going to perform a blatant bait and switch and start talking about a different study midway through the article when it suits his agenda.
 "The study, which discovered the startling information by accident, was originally trying to determine if women who have been pregnant with a son might be more predisposed to certain neurological diseases that occur more frequently in males. 
But as the scientists picked apart the female brain, the study began to veer wildly off course. As it turns out, the female brain is even more mysterious than we previously thought.
The study found that female brains often harbor “male microchimerism“, or in other words, the presence of male DNA that originated from another individual, and are genetically distinct from the cells that make up the rest of the woman."
All of which is a half arsed interpretation of what the researchers actually did, They took samples from 57 deceased elderly women's brains and searched them for a Y-chromosome specific gene, DYS14, the presence of which should indicate Y-chromosomes in the female brain. Note something of importance here that none of the "news" stories that have cropped up around this study will tell you. The sample size was 57 cadavers. That is an extremely small sample size to make an induction such as this article makes, even if that was the conclusion the researchers came to. Which it isn't.

Microchimerism isn't a new concept by any stretch, and it's accepted that mothers who have carried a male child will exchange DNA with that child, the presence of male DNA in women who have carried male offspring helped determine that foetal DNA exchange occurs. A finding that would be invalidated if the article in question's conclusions is correct. According to this author, EVERY woman who has ever had intercourse with a man should show signs of male microchimerism. The researchers in question concluded that in most cases the presence of DYS14 in the 63% of samples studied were a result of the deceased mothers carrying a male child at some point. Where the article makes its main leap of logic is the assumption of the origin of DYS14 in the samples from women who have never carried a male child.
"Through the study the researchers assumed that the most likely answer was that all male DNA found living in the female brain came from a male pregnancy. That was the safe, politically correct assumption. But these researchers were living in denial. Because when they autopsied the brains of women who had never even been pregnant, let alone with a male child, they STILL found male DNA cells prevalent in the female brain."
GASP! This is remarkable! Or... it would be if it were even remotely fucking true! I quote from the study itself:
"Limited pregnancy history was available on the subjects; pregnancy history on most subjects was unknown." (Chan, Gurnot, et al, Male Microchimerism in the Human Female Brain, Sept 2012)
In fact, all the researchers were certain of was that only two of the subjects definitely had no male offspring. So they had no way of determining whether male microchimerism in the samples was due to pregnancy. Further to this, the researchers had no access to the subjects full medical history and therefore no way of knowing if abortions or miscarriage could account for the presence of male chromosomes in the samples. Couple this with the researcher's wariness regarding the high potential of cross contamination even if this information was known.

The researchers are clear about the conclusions of the study:
"The most likely source of male Mc in female brain is acquisition of fetal Mc from pregnancy with a male fetus. In women without sons, male DNA can also be acquired from an abortion or a miscarriage [22][23][38][40]. The pregnancy history was unknown for all but a few subjects in the current studies, thus male Mc in female brain could not be evaluated according to specific prior pregnancy history. In addition to prior pregnancies, male Mc could be acquired by a female from a recognized or vanished male twin [41][43], an older male sibling, or through non-irradiated blood transfusion [44]. (Chan, Gurnot, et al, Male Microchimerism in the Human Female Brain, Sept 2012)"
Unfortunately, this angers Baxter, he despite seemingly having no experience or qualifications in genetics or biology, knows better and sees deception in this conclusion:
"At this point the scientists didn’t know what the hell was going on. Confused, they did their best to hide the evidence until they could understand and explain it. They buried it in numerous sub studies and articles, but if you sift through them all you will find the damning statement, the one line that gives the game away and explains exactly where these male DNA cells come from."
Erm... this narrative seems to imply Baxter was there when the results of the study were examined and completely ignores the fact the researchers had extremely limited knowledge of any of the subject's history. The fact is they aren't studying what Baxter seems to imply they are. The study isn't designed, or capable of discovering what Baxter concludes from it! One has to wonder why Baxter bothered to cite the study at all? It doesn't support the conclusion he draws, so much so Baxter has to say the researchers hid his conclusion!

To demonstrate this Baxter quotes this from the study's conclusion:
CONCLUSIONS: Male microchimerism was not infrequent in women without sons. Besides known pregnancies, other possible sources of male microchimerism include unrecognized spontaneous abortion, vanished male twin, an older brother transferred by the maternal circulation, or SEXUAL INTERCOURSE. Male microchimerism was significantly more frequent and levels were higher in women with induced abortion than in women with other pregnancy histories. Further studies are needed to determine specific origins of male microchimerism in women.
The problem is this doesn't come from the 2012 study, it's the conclusion taken from an earlier 2005 study. Not that Baxter is going to inform his readers of that. He's relying on the fact they are too lazy or stupid to check his sources.

"So according to the scientists, the possible sources of the male DNA cells living in the women’s brains are: 
  1. an abortion the woman didn’t know about
  2. a male twin that vanished
  3. an older brother transferred by the maternal circulation
  4. sexual intercourse.."

 At no point in either study do the researchers even hint at point four. This is Baxter's conclusion pulled from literally nowhere, replacing the researcher's actual fourth conclusion miscarriage and they're fifth conclusion blood transfusion or organ donation. Point 1 also disingenuously implies that Baxter believes the researchers collected information from the women after the study, ridiculous as they were fucking cadavers at the time!

Further to this Baxter then goes back to the 2012 study, conflating it with the conclusions taken from the 2005 study to seriously misrepresent it. The 63% result was found in the 2012 study, not the 2005 study, which found the prevalence of microchimerism to be much lower in women without male children, Bearing that in mind should show just how deceptive the following statement is:
"The first three options apply to a very small percentage of women. They couldn’t possibly account for the 63% figure." 
Yes, Baxter, but considering the 2012 study, the one you're actually meant to be looking at, the one whose result you quote, you forgot to discount the major option the subjects who had male children! Hardly rare. In fact, if you collected a sample of 57 women in their old age (don't forget this was a study of Alzheimer's and other degenerative disorders and their connection to Microchimerism) you wouldn't be terribly surprised if you learned 63% of them had a male child!  Note also that approximately one in six pregnancy end in miscarriage, and as these are likely elderly women we can expect that figure was much higher during their childbearing years.

At this point Baxter abandons any attempt to hide his true agenda, he extrapolates the result of the study beyond all credibility, and enters into a pure morality lesson for women without even a smattering of fact or evidence:
"This has very important ramifications for women. Every male you absorb spermatazoa from becomes a living part of you for life. The women autopsied in this study were elderly. Some had been carrying the living male DNA inside them for well over 50 years." 
There simply isn't any evidence of this, spermatozoa haven't been found to "be absorbed"  by the female body at any point, as far is we know sperm that fails to fertilise is destroyed by white blood cells. But in Baxter's World sperm is a formidable opponent indeed.
"Sperm is alive. It is living cells. When it is injected into you it swims and swims until it crashes headlong into a wall, and then it attaches and burrows into your flesh. If it’s in your mouth it swims and climbs into your nasal passages, inner ear, and behind your eyes. Then it digs in. It enters your blood stream and collects in your brain and spine.
Like something out of a scifi movie, it becomes a part of you and you can’t get rid of it."
What? I think Baxter has sperm confused with the chest-buster from Alien.


A look through Baxter's history as an author on Newswire highlights his political bias, pro-Trump/anti-Clinton stories implying he's a staunch Republican. Frankly, I don't care about a person's personal politics but the attempt to view science through a political lens is extremely damaging and unfortunately, it's not a crime unique to the right. Likely, much of the push back against this blog post will involve my own personal politics, something that should be conspicuous by its absence in my analysis of the actual study involved here. The danger here is an ideologue like Baxter is giving the impression that there is some research that actually backs up this utter nonsense, There simply isn't. There are plenty of people out there to take this politically malformed science and use it to support outmoded misogynistic ideas regarding the right of women to have as many sexual partners as they chose. If you think this is hyperbole, find me an iteration of this story that warns men to be choosy of their sexual partners because some women may hang on to their DNA! You won't. Nor will you find a story in which these supposed findings are used to support the practice of safe sex.

Although, I presume Baxter believes his Wolverine like sperm make short work of a thin layer of latex!

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Microwave Massacre! Is The Humble Microwave A Kitchen Killer?

Let's look at a common misconception about an item you'll find in almost every kitchen in the Western world, the humble microwave. Much of the fear surrounding microwaves emanates from the general public's wariness surrounding various forms of radiation. Whilst it's clear that "radiation" can be dangerous, it's vital to bear in mind that "radiation" is an extremely broad term even when we restrict it to radiation found in the electromagnetic spectrum, ignoring alpha and beta particles. This encompasses everything from radio waves to gamma rays right through visible light.

Alternative health quack Joseph Mercola will tell you that microwaves cook your food by irradiating it, which is about as accurate as saying a light bulb allows you to see your couch by irradiating it. He'll also tell you that any food in a microwave "absorbs the radiation" which then passes into your body, again about as accurate as saying you should expect your couch to glow for a little while after you turn the light off! That said, Mercola also says that your microwave could be leaking up to "400 Milli gauss" of radiation, despite the fact Milli gauss are a measure of magnetic field strength. Couple that with the fact that magnetic fields obey an inverse square law meaning the field strength falls off pretty quickly at a distance.

The website "Truth About Cancer" offers this stern warning about microwave ovens:

Let's focus on the cancer claims and the claims concerning the electromagnetic fields involved in microwave cooking. These fears seem to originate from the fact that microwaves use "radiation" to cook and obviously some forms of radiation are carcinogenic. Idiots such as "Dr" Josh Axe talks a lot in this video about the dangers of radiation, without seeming to have any knowledge that radiation includes all forms of visible light. He helpfully informs us that our bodies are like "buckets which fill up with toxins". Utter bullshit, even if EMF could be considered a toxin, which it can't. (If "Dr" Josh is a legitimate doctor I'm a fucking leprechaun.)

The types of EMF radiation that cause cancer are ionising radiation. What this means is radiation that has the requisite energy to liberate outer electrons from a chemical element. Ionising radiation causes cellular damage by stripping elements in the DNA of valence (outer shell) electrons. If you've done some chemistry you'll remember that it's valence electrons that determine chemical reactions.

To understand why microwave energy isn't ionising first let's look at the electromagnetic spectrum.  

The energy of EMF radiation is related to wavelength and frequency by the following relationships.

c=the speed of light, h= Planck's constant, f= frequency, λ= wavelength, E= energy.

So you should see clearly that the longer the wavelength the shorter the frequency and the lower the energy. So you should also see that microwaves carry considerable less energy than X-rays or gamma rays as their wavelength is much lower. In fact, microwaves have less energy than even visible light.

Next, as we are specifically concerned with radiation's effect on DNA let's look at the ionisation energies of the most common elements in the human body namely carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen which are roughly 11.3 eV, 14.5eV, 13.6 eV and 13.6 eV respectively, and calculate whether a photon of microwave radiation has the requisite energy to ionise any of these elements. Before we do that there is something that is important to recall here. If an element has an ionisation energy of 10.0 eV then only a photon of 10.0 eV and above will ionise it. Two 5.0 eV photons incident upon the atom will not work, nor will five 2.0 eV photons. 

So let's do that calculation:

Clearly, microwaves don't have enough energy to ionise any of the elements commonly found in DNA by some magnitude.

So if they don't irradiate your food, how do microwaves work then? 

Inside your microwave is a magnetron which when activated generates microwaves which flood the food chamber. The result is a magnetic field. Water molecules are dielectric, because of the bond angle between the two hydrogen and one oxygen atoms that make up a water molecule, it has a positive end and a negative end. 

This means the water molecules in your food align along a magnetic field. If that field is rapidly oscillating then the water molecules rapidly oscillate too. This kinetic energy heats your food. This is why dried foods aren't affected in microwaves.

OK, so if microwaves are so safe, why are they so heavily regulated? 

Just because microwaves aren't dangerous in the way scare mongers like Mercola implies doesn't mean they can't cause some harm. The dielectric heating effect could also have some pretty nasty effects on certain watery or fatty parts of your body, especially your eyes. This is why the inside of a microwave is a Faraday cage which regulations insist is far stronger than it needs to be and why you can't open the door without triggering the stop mechanism on the magnetron. There's also the danger of steam being released from sealed packages. These dangers are minor, and pretty comparable to the risk of burning one's hand on a hot stove. In fact, I'd say oven injuries are FAR more common than the harm caused by microwaves.

But what about nutrients?

Many nutrients in food break down as a result of heating regardless of the techniques used, but the shorter cooking times of the microwave result in a reduce breakdown of nutrients. Couple that with the fact that many nutrients are water soluble meaning that the ability to cook without immersion in boiling water is extremely advantageous.  A  study at Cornell University showed that folic acid in spinach was reduced roughly 77% during stove cooking, whilst being virtually unaffected by microwave cookery.

Go and give your microwave a hug and say sorry. He won't bite you, or irradiate your genitals. Just stay away from the kettle... that bastard is evil. Seriously, look at it. 

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Confronting Quantum Woo: Understanding Entanglement.

Last time we confronted some quantum woo, we tackled perhaps the most fundamentally misunderstood facet of quantum physics, and it's most exploited. The double slit experiment. In this post, we'll take away the most important point of that post and apply it to another element of the discipline that is almost as misunderstood and as misused- entanglement. Another facet of quantum physics that displays the discipline's deeply non-intuitive nature. As such it is prime fodder for woo-merchants to distort in order to appropriate an air of credibility and legitimacy for nonsense ideas and hypothesises. Just as the misrepresentation of the double slit experiment is used to support ideas of like after death, entanglement is commonly used to support ideas of new-age healing techniques such as distance healing and energy healing and "psychic" abilities and ESP.

As a starting point, let's see what the new age opinion is of entanglement, then we will assess those ideas using the formalism of quantum physics, in the process, we will get an idea of how physicists represent a system of entangled particles and importantly, why entanglement doesn't support ideas of "energy healing" and the like.

Some "woo" definitions of entanglement.

Underground Health Reporter States:
"...all types of particles can become linked and instantaneously influence one another regardless of distance.  When two particles are entangled, they stay that way, and no matter how far apart those two particles get, information passes between them instantaneously.Quantum entanglement explains those times when you were just thinking of your dear sister and your phone rings.  Not only are you not surprised, but you even know what she is calling about.  This happens most often with those you are closest to, because the more QI that’s entangled, the deeper and wider the effect.  In other words, when you think of that person with any emotional charge, the “message” reaches him or her instantaneously."
Pinnacle Healing, who offer "quantum healing workshops" for £180-£229 a pop go further:
"What this means – is simply speaking, that All Are One and that Everything Is Connected because everything has originated from the same source – the Divine – and therefore is bound by commonality, by the truth that we have all been created by the Divine." 
The Paranormal Analyst states:
Is it possible quantum entanglement connect all humans or living beings through sub-atomic particles? Maybe certain people have become attuned to interpreting these signals and have psychic powers.

All those statements highlight the most common misconceptions about entanglement.

1. Entanglement is permanent.

2. All things are entangled. (Many quotes regarding quantum physics with regards to psychic family members such as twins seem to imply that the particles in close family members will be as closely related. Utter nonsense of course. Birth is not a quantum event, nor is sharing a womb!)

3. Entanglement allows for the passage of meaningful information between entangled particles. Information that pertains to more than simply the relevant attributes which are entangled.

The truth is entanglement is extremely delicate. Any measurement causes the collapse of the entangled state and by any measurement, we reapply one of our main takeaways from our examination of the double-slit experiment, measurement is defined in quantum physics as an interaction between two quantum systems or a quantum system and a macroscopic system that causes an irreversible change in those systems.  The example I gave last time was of atomic decay in an isolated region of space- daughter particles are entangled due to the conservation of angular momentum. A measurement occurs when either of these particles collides with a dust particle or other object. Whilst it's conceivable that particles at opposite ends of the universe remain entangled -their mutual journeys must remain uneventful. Any collision or interaction destroys the entanglement. As for the second statement, obviously most particles in your body are not isolated and in accordance with the principles I've laid out above, they aren't going to be entangled. If that isn't detrimental enough, consider that not all particles are entangled only particles which are created in the same process or have some form of entanglement forced upon them (pairs or groups of photons, for example, can have entanglement induced upon them). The third statement requires us to go deeper into the formalism of entanglement.

So we've seen two examples of what new agers mean when say entangled, what do physicists mean?

Entangled States 
A wavefunction or state vector representing the state of two particles is said to represent an entangled state if it cannot be expressed as a product of terms each specifying the state of a single particle. (Quantum Mechanics and its intereptation, Bolton, Macintosh, 2007.)

As I've mentioned before in quantum mechanics the states of particles are described using a wavefunction, often referred to as a DeBroglie wave, a mathematical representation of the various qualities of the system. The wavefunction represents all it is possible to "know" about the state that a particle is in. Entangled particles are simply particles for which it is impossible to describe in isolation. To explore this more fully let's use a quality of particles known as spin. The specifics of spin don't particularly matter here but it's useful to state that spin isn't as many new agers present it, actual movement or rotation of a particle. In fact, it's more useful to describe spin as a magnetic quality. Electrons are particles of 1/2 spin. This means their spin has two possible values, +1/2 which we call spin up, and -1/2 which we predictably call spin down.

We can represent the spin states of a particle using a funky feature of a system known as Dirac notation as a "ket". So, ignoring for simplicity's sake the spatial state of a particle, for a single spin-up electron (which we will denote particle A) sat in isolation in space the wavefunction looks like this:
Pretty simple right? So let's also say we have another electron somewhere in space which is spin down. We'll label it particle B and thus denote its wavefunction:
So far so good. But what if we want to describe a quantum system comprised of these two particles. The system's wavefunction would be: 

Using the rule that particle A always comes first we can simplify this as:
It's clear to see this system isn't entangled. It can be described as a product of the state of particle A multiplied by the state of particle B. Explicitly:

It might be apparent to you that the reason this system isn't entangled because we know the spin states of particle A and B. What if we didn't, but we do know that the particles were created in the same process. We also know that if particle A is spin up, particle B must be spin down. If particle A is spin down, particle B must be spin up. This is a consequence of the Pauli exclusion principle which forbids particles like electrons having the same quantum numbers. Clearly, our wavefunction for the system must represent the two possible states of the system.

What would that look like?
Clearly, this is somewhat more complicated, but using the rules established thus far it should become apparent that the term underlined in red represents the state if particle A is measured spin up. The term underlined in blue represents the state if particle A is measured spin down. This wavefunction can't be described as a product of particle A and particle B wavefunctions, it's not separable. Thus this is truly an entangled state. 

You have also no doubt noticed our entangled wavefunction has picked up an extra complication. Namely C1 and C2. These are the probability amplitudes of the two outcomes. We square these to find the probability of a particular outcome. Their addition ensures the wavefunction is normalised. They are also the key to understanding the collapse of the wavefunction and how the measurement of a particular state destroys entanglement.

The wavefunction above has only two possible outcomes. When the spin of either measurement is made the total wavefunction must collapse to either the red state (A: up, B: down) or the blue state (A: down, B: up), thus the probability of returning one of these states is certain.

We therefore require:

As there's no reason to suspect that either the red state or the blue state is more likely than the other. So we can see:

Giving our full wavefunction:

This wavefunction applies as long is there is uncertainty which state the measurement will yield.

So we can see that if a measurement is taken on particle A and it is found to be spin up:

And our wavefunction becomes:

Which we can see reduces to our original non-collapsed state! Entaglement is destroyed.

So it's clear to see from this mathematically why the measurement of a quantum system causes it wavefuntion to collapse "onto" a particular state. To hold the woo postulates of entanglement to be true we have to believe that all particles were created in the same event. Also, we have to accept that the particles have interacted with not just any other forms of matter but even magnetic fields. What are the chances of a loose electron in your body existing there for a prolonged period without interacting with anything else? And then it's partner existing in your energy healer or psychic twin free from interactions too?

What's important to note here is that you may be tempted here to suppose that the system was in a particular state before measurement and that said interaction simply revealed what state the system was in. This is fundamentally incorrect. Observables (measurable quantities) in quantum physics have no values before measurement, there are no "hidden variables". They have a number of possible values but that is the most we can possibly say. Entanglement has another important consequence, measurement of a particular observable on one particle causes its partner to adopt a value for said quality immediately, no matter how great the separation between the two. These two factors deeply troubled Einstein, arguably the greatest mind of his time, and the inadvertent father of quantum physics. Einstein felt that this non-locality was in direct violation of special relativity.

This leads to the two most famous quotes about quantum physics:

"God does not play dice with the universe."
And Einstein's dismissal of entanglement as "spukhafte Fernwirkung" or "spooky action at a distance." We can thank Einstein for introducing the word "spooky" to the lexicon of physics, we can also thank him for the quote which I guarantee will appear in almost every article you ever read that connects quantum physics and any aspect of the paranormal.  In fact, the second of these two quotes is so ubiquitous that it deserves special attention in a separate post.

And for good reason that's where we head next.