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“This Isn’t Science”: We Have No Idea How Much Pain Inmates Feel During Execution

Mother Jones

Just weeks after Arkansas attempted to execute eight men in 11 days, lethal injection in back in the news. On Tuesday, Georgia is scheduled to execute J.W. Ledford for a 1992 murder. Texas was slated to put Tilon Carter to death on Tuesday as well, but he received a stay last week after the state’s court of criminal appeals decided to hear his claims that the jury was misled.

Georgia will use a controversial one-drug protocol—a heavy dose of pentobarbital, an anesthetic that critics say can fail to render inmates fully unconscious. On Monday, Ledford requested that Georgia execute him by firing squad, instead. He argues that a pain medication he takes has altered his brain chemistry so much that the pentobarbital may not work properly, leading to excruciating pain. (Texas was planning to use pentobarbital to kill Carter, as well.)

Americans generally accept the claim that lethal injection is a humane and painless way to kill convicted murderers. A 2014 Gallup poll found that 65 percent of Americans believe that lethal injection is the “most humane” form of capital punishment. According to a 2015 YouGov poll, just 18 percent of respondents described lethal injection as “cruel and unusual punishment,” which is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. But, despite its widespread use, there is virtually no scientific data to suggest that lethal injection is humane. There’s been very little research done on the effects of lethal injections on humans at all—but the science that is available suggest that inmates may actually experience immense pain before dying.

On a recent episode of our Inquiring Minds podcast, Kishore Hari interviews Teresa Zimmers, an associate professor of surgery at Indiana University School of Medicine. Zimmers, who has spent years researching lethal injection, is sharply critical to the ways in which states kill the condemned.

“What we have here is masquerade,” says Zimmers. “Something that pretends to be science and pretends to be medicine but isn’t.”

Prior to 1972, when the Supreme Court halted executions nationwide, states used a variety methods to put inmates to death, including gas chambers and the electric chair. After the court ruled in 1976 that the death penalty did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment, an Oklahoma state legislator called the state’s medical examiner, Jay Chapman, and asked him if he could come up with a new and humane way to execute prisoners. Chapman has said that he initially thought he wasn’t qualified for the task, but he nonetheless proposed using fatal doses of pharmaceuticals that are typically used to put patients.

Chapman came up with a three-drug protocol: Sodium thiopental, an anesthetic to put the inmate to sleep; pancuronium bromide, which causes paralysis; and potassium chloride to stop the heart. Other states soon adopted this protocol, but there was never much scientific evidence showing it was truly humane.

“It’s not at all clear that the protocol works as advertised,” explains Zimmers.

In 2007, Zimmers was part of a team that analyzed execution records from California and North Carolina and found that lethal injection might actually lead to painful chemical asphyxiation. Zimmers’ team suggested that the thiopental dosages being uses might not be high enough to induce sleep and that potassium chloride might not reliably stop the heart. The potential result: a paralyzed inmate who remains aware while dying from the inability to breathe. Zimmers’ paper concluded:

Our findings suggest that current lethal injection protocols may not reliably effect death through the mechanisms intended, indicating a failure of design and implementation. If thiopental and potassium chloride fail to cause anesthesia and cardiac arrest, potentially aware inmates could die through pancuronium-induced asphyxiation. Thus the conventional view of lethal injection leading to an invariably peaceful and painless death is questionable.

Beginning around 2009, European pharmaceutical companies began refusing to sell their drugs to American states that intended to use them to put inmates to death. The shortages led to a rush to find different lethal injection methods, such as replacing the sodium thiopental with a drug called midazolam or using a single fatal dose of an anesthetic.

And just like with the original cocktail, these new lethal injection techniques have been developed with little scientific rigor. “There’s been a very active substitution of drugs into this protocol with, of course, no corresponding investigation,” says Zimmers.

When Oklahoma used the one-drug protocol of pentobarbital in the execution of Michael Wilson in January 2014, the inmate’s last words were, “I feel my whole body burning.” A few months later, the state tried to put Clayton Lockett to death using a three-drug protocol that included the anesthetic midazolam. Lockett mumbled and writhed on the gurney, before dying of a massive heart attack about 40 minutes after the procedure began. Oklahoma’s executions are now on hold.

Despite the controversy surrounding midazolam, last month Arkansas rushed to execute eight men in 11 days when its supply of the drug was set to expire. After a series of legal setbacks for the state, only four were put to death. The last man to die, Kenneth Williams, reportedly convulsed, jerked, lurched, and coughed for 10 to 20 seconds after prison officials administered midazolam.

Often, the debate over capital punishment centers around the morality of government-sponsored killing or the potential for an innocent person to be executed. But Zimmers suspects that for many people, support for the death penalty relies on the notion that states are using compassionate, scientifically validated method to kill inmates. That notion, Zimmers argues, is simply wrong.

“They should understand that this isn’t science,” she says. “This is a pretense of science.”

Inquiring Minds is a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and Kishore Hari, the director of the Bay Area Science Festival. To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook.


“This Isn’t Science”: We Have No Idea How Much Pain Inmates Feel During Execution

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Will Donald Trump Gut Science at NASA?

Mother Jones

The threat of climate change was thrust into the public consciousness in June 1988, when NASA scientist James Hansen told a congressional committee that researchers were now 99 percent certain that humans were warming the planet. “The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now,” he said.

In the three decades since Hansen’s dramatic testimony, NASA has played a leading role in researching climate change and educating the public about it. The space agency’s satellites track melting ice sheets and rising seas, and its scientists crunch the data showing how quickly the Earth is warming.

James Hansen, then a top NASA scientist, testifying about the links between global warming and drought at a 1989 Senate hearing Dennis Cook/AP

But if Donald Trump’s advisers get their way, NASA won’t be studying the Earth as much as it has in the past. Bob Walker, a former GOP congressman from Pennsylvania who counseled Trump on space policy during the campaign, has referred to the agency’s climate research as “politically correct environmental monitoring” that has been “heavily politicized.” Walker (inaccurately) told the Guardian in November that “half” the world’s climate scientists doubt that humans are warming the planet.

Walker wants to shift new climate research from NASA to other government agencies, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “My guess is that it would be difficult to stop all ongoing NASA programs,” he told the Guardian, “but future programs should definitely be placed with other agencies.” NASA, he says, should focus on deep space exploration. (As my colleague Pat Caldwell points out, “Since Trump isn’t promising any additional funds to NOAA for these new responsibilities, the result could be pressure to cut back on climate change research.”)

Trump hasn’t actually endorsed Walker’s proposal, and some experts doubt that such a transition could ever be implemented. But his comments have garnered plenty of backlash from the scientific community. “We’re not going to stand for that,” said astrobiologist David Grinspoon in a recent interview with Indre Viskontas on our Inquiring Minds podcast. “We’re going to keep doing Earth science and make the case for it. We’ll get scientists to march on Washington if we have to. There’s going to be a lot of resistance.”

Grinspoon, a researcher at the Planetary Sciences Institute, receives NASA funding for his work. But he’s quick to point out that he doesn’t do Earth science. During a follow-up interview, he told me that even though he and his space science colleagues could personally benefit if funding was shifted away from Earth research, he would still staunchly oppose such a move. “I will defend the NASA Earth science division with everything I’ve got,” he said, adding that Walker’s proposal “would be disastrous to our overall efforts to understand the Earth and the other planets, which is really the same effort.”

Grinspoon’s argument that Earth science and space science are inseparable might sound odd to someone who has been listening to Walker or some Republicans currently in Congress. “I would suggest that almost any American would agree that the core function of NASA is to explore space,” Ted Cruz, whose Senate subcommittee oversees NASA, said in 2015 while complaining that Earth science used too much of the agency’s budget. “I am concerned that NASA in the current environment has lost its full focus on that core mission.”

Grinspoon says the view espoused by Walker and Cruz is based on a “misconception” that Earth science is somehow “frivolous” or not really “key to NASA’s main mission.” That’s simply wrong. “You cannot study other planets without referring to Earth and without applying the techniques and the insights of Earth science,” he argues. “And you cannot really do a good job understanding the Earth without the insights from planetary exploration.”

Grinspoon points to the “great revelation that started the Scientific Revolution 400 years ago”: Galileo’s telescope research demonstrating that the Earth is a planet orbiting the sun and that other, similar, planets are doing the same thing.

In the modern era, Grinspoon is particularly interested in his colleagues’ research demonstrating the impact people are having on our planet—he’s the author of Earth in Human Hands, a recent book exploring the role man has played in altering our world. But he points out that NASA’s Earth science program goes far beyond climate change. “It’s a broad-based effort to understand the Earth system,” he says. “And out of that research has come a realization that climate is changing—a wide range of indicators: from changes in sea ice to droughts and changes to the hydrological cycle, and movement of species, and the documentation of urbanization and deforestation.”

“We’re going to stop looking at Earth from orbit because we don’t like what we are seeing and the conclusions that leads us to?” he adds, incredulously. “That’s nonsense.”

Galileo Galilei got in trouble for mixing Earth science and space science. Wellcome Images

But what about Walker’s proposal to shift NASA’s climate work to NOAA? That, too, is nonsense, Grinspoon says. “NOAA is tiny compared to NASA.” The move would require a massive expansion of NOAA’s capabilities that would set American research back 20 years. “If we gutted NASA Earth science, it wouldn’t be NOAA or some other agency that would take the lead,” he says. “It would be the Chinese and the Europeans and the Japanese.”­

Fortunately, Grinspoon is pretty convinced that the threats to Earth science are mostly “loose talk.” While he’s worried that NASA research programs could lose some funding, he doesn’t think Trump or Congress would really try to stop it altogether.

Other experts I talked to agree. “It’s not at all clear that they are even going to propose this,” says Josh Shiode, a senior government relations officer at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He points to a recent Science magazine interview with Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), who chairs the House subcommittee in charge of the budgets for NASA, NOAA, and the National Science Foundation. While Culberson wouldn’t promise that Earth science programs would continue to be housed in NASA, he didn’t endorse Walker’s proposals either. “Nobody in the Earth sciences community should be concerned in the least,” he said. “All of us in Congress are strong supporters of keeping a close eye on planet Earth.” Shiode says the idea would face even longer odds in the Senate, where a number of mainstream Republicans would likely oppose it.

Andrew Rosenberg, who heads the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, also doubts that Congress would attempt to eliminate NASA’s Earth science budget. A bigger concern, he says, is that Trump—an infamous global warming denier—could appoint officials who would interfere with the ability of climate scientists at the agency to publicize their research.

The key, says Rosenberg, will be for the public—scientists, politicians, and concerned citizens—to hold the Trump administration accountable. NASA’s researchers will continue doing groundbreaking climate change work, and Americans, he says, “need to let the government know that they demand this information.”

Inquiring Minds is a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and Kishore Hari, the director of the Bay Area Science Festival. To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook.


Will Donald Trump Gut Science at NASA?

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Why One Scientist Went Public With Her Sexual Harassment Story

Mother Jones

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In the past few years, sexual harassment in the sciences has become an increasingly visible problem. Disturbing allegations about the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Park Service, and the former head of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have all made headlines. So have a number of cases involving prominent university professors.

On the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast, Kishore Hari talks to Sarah Ballard, an accomplished exoplanet researcher who was also a complainant in one of the most high-profile recent harassment controversies. Last year, Buzzfeed reported that Geoff Marcy, a renowned astronomer at the University of California-Berkeley, had faced sexual harassment accusations. A report produced by the university found that Marcy had “violated the relevant UC sexual harassment policies”; it cited allegations that he had inappropriately touched students. Initially, Marcy was placed on probation; he was instructed by the university to comply with its sexual harassment policies and to avoid physical contact with students (except to shake their hands).

But the Buzzfeed story sparked a national outcry, and many began demanding a more severe punishment. Marcy posted an apology on his website, though he denies some of the allegations in the report and says that his actions didn’t harm his students’ professional lives. He ultimately retired under pressure from faculty at the university.

On Inquiring Minds, Ballard depicts Marcy as a professor who praised her talent yet abused her trust. She first met him when she was an undergraduate student in one of his classes, but her excitement to work with one of the world’s foremost experts on exoplanets soon took a dark turn. On one occasion, Marcy told Ballard a detailed story about his sexual history. On another occasion, she says, he attempted to massage her neck after driving her home.

After that, Ballard agonized over whether to confront Marcy about his behavior, ultimately deciding to do so. As described in the Berkeley report, this prospect caused “great anxiety” for Ballard, “in part because she believed such a confrontation would effectively forfeit any opportunity of receiving a letter of recommendation” from Marcy. But it never came to that. Ballard says Marcy’s behavior suddenly changed and the harassment stopped. She later found out that a graduate student had confronted Marcy about unwelcome behavior Marcy had allegedly exhibited toward a different student.

Marcy didn’t deny Ballard’s allegations—though he does deny some of the other allegations in Berkeley’s report. (According to the Berkeley report, he told the university investigator that he didn’t recall touching Ballard in the car but that it was possible he did.) In an interview with Mother Jones, Marcy’s attorney, Elizabeth Grossman, argued that Marcy’s actions weren’t serious enough to justify the backlash he’s experienced. “There is not a single allegation of sexual assault against Marcy,” said Grossman. “There is not a single allegation of soliciting sex, of requesting sex in exchange for academic favor. There is not a single suggestion of his interfering with anyone’s ability to thrive on campus.”

Ballard, however, says she was deeply affected by her interactions with Marcy. “To have Marcy say, ‘You are talented, you are full of promise’— that is so compelling,” she explains. “And then to have all of the sudden the knowledge that…that message might not have been delivered in good faith: You feel like the rug has been pulled out under you. So does that mean that I’m not promising? Does that mean that all of it was a lie?…It was profoundly rattling to my nascent sense of self as an astronomer, as a scientist.”

Years later, when Ballard heard that allegations against Marcy were going to become public, she made the decision to come forward and identify herself as one of the victims. She hopes that by doing so, she’ll make things easier for other women.

“There was one principle which helped me to unravel the tangled knot of my feelings that I could always return to…and that was you have to be the woman you needed then,” says Ballard. “You couldn’t protect yourself then, but you can protect younger you today, and you can protect women who are 20 today.”

Ballard went on to receive a Ph.D. in astronomy and astrophysics from Harvard (she notes that Marcy wrote a recommendation letter that helped her get into the prestigious university). She now researches exoplanets at MIT. But across the country, many other women have left the sciences. That’s partly because of widespread sexual harassment, argues Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.). Indeed, a 2014 study found that roughly two-thirds of female scientists surveyed said they had experienced harassment while doing field research.

In January, Speier gave a speech on the floor of the US House of Representatives recounting the allegations against Timothy Slater, who taught astronomy at the University of Arizona and is now a professor at the University of Wyoming. Speier had obtained the results of a confidential 2005 investigation conducted by the University of Arizona. “Dr. Slater himself admitted that he gave an employee a vegetable-shaped vibrator and that he frequently commented to his employees and students about the appearance of women,” said Speier on the House floor. “My staff spoke with one female grad student who was required to attend a strip club in order to discuss her academic work with Dr. Slater. The woman has since left the field of astronomy.” After reading the report, “I was physically sickened,” Speier says on Inquiring Minds.

Slater declined to answer specific questions from Mother Jones about the allegations, though he did provide a letter his lawyers had sent to the University of Arizona threatening to sue the university for defamation and breach of privacy over the release of the report. In the letter, Slater’s attorneys said the university’s report “contains numerous false and misleading allegations, which Rep. Speier and the media has reported as fact.” Specifically, the attorneys state that Slater “never gave a vibrator” to “any graduate student, ever” and that Slater “denies that he ever pressured anyone to go to the strip club or that anyone ever complained about going to strip club.”

Speier proposes one solution to the problem of sexual harassment in the sciences. The federal government has the power under Title IX to fight harassment, she notes. Because so many universities, even private ones, rely on federal dollars, they could lose federal funding in the form of grants or student loans if they violate the law. Last week, she introduced legislation requiring universities to inform federal grant-making institutions when they determine a professor has engaged in sexual harassment.

Speier isn’t optimistic that the bill will pass in the current Congress, but she wants harassment victims to know they have an advocate on Capitol Hill. Her message to them? “They’ve been heard.”

Inquiring Minds is a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and Kishore Hari, the director of the Bay Area Science Festival. To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook.

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Why One Scientist Went Public With Her Sexual Harassment Story

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Here Are All the Ways That Politicians Lie About Science

Mother Jones

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History is riddled with science denial. From Newton’s law of gravitation to Hanaoka Seinshu’s use of anesthesia, there’s no shortage of discoveries that have been scoffed at, ridiculed, and wholly rejected by prominent thinkers before eventually settling into the human narrative. But too often, significant damage is done—and sometimes lives are lost—while these debates play out. After centuries of dismissing scientific discoveries, only to be proven wrong time and again, you’d think we’d learn to have a little more faith in the experts.

In the era of social media, around-the-clock cable news, and Donald Trump, preventing the spread of misinformation has become one of the greatest challenges facing the scientific community. That’s especially true when it comes to politics. On this week’s episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast, science journalist and author Dave Levitan calls out some of Washington’s worst offenders.

As a former writer for Factcheck.org’s SciCheck project—part of the Annenberg Public Policy Center—Levitan has spent countless hours pouring over statements made by politicians about science. Sometimes our leaders get the facts right. But frequently, says Levitan, they distort, misrepresent, or flat-out fabricate the data in order to pander to their audience or push an agenda. That’s the subject of Levitan’s forthcoming book, Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science. To hear Levitan and co-host Kishore Hari dissect the many different techniques that our country’s leaders use to distort science, click below:

While misleading rhetoric is nothing new in politics, the danger it poses to environmental and public health may be at an all-time high. In a country where scientific literacy is already in decline, misinformation about topics as significant as climate change or infectious diseases can have devastating consequences. Yet many politicians, purposely or not, continue to get the science wrong. Levitan points to Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) as an example of the perfect “denier-in-chief.” Last year, Inhofe brought a snowball to the Senate floor to dispute the science of global warming. His implication: Because there was snow on the ground, the Earth couldn’t possibly be getting warmer. It was a classic display of a cherry-picking politician using a single data point to obscure an indisputable trend:

Two years ago, as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was gearing up to run for president, he slammed the National Institutes of Health for funding research on fruit flies. “Have you seen what the NIH spends money on?” Paul said, according to the Washington Post. “Nine hundred and thirty-nine thousand dollars spent to discover whether or not male fruit flies would like to consort with younger female fruit flies.” When you put it like that, the NIH sounds ridiculous. But Paul missed the mark completely. As Levitan wrote at the time:

The characterization of the project as simply testing “whether male fruit flies like younger female fruit flies” is misleading. The study was in fact part of ongoing work looking into olfaction and other sensory perception, the aging process and how it relates to sexual and social activity. A paper that came out of the same line of inquiry appeared in the prestigious journal Science in 2013, showing that exposure to female pheromones without the opportunity to mate actually decreased male flies’ life spans. In short, sexual reward “specifically promoted healthy aging,” according to Scott Pletcher the scientist whose research Paul was criticizing. His lab’s work could yield insights both into how humans age and into aging-related diseases…Paul is entitled to his opinions on where government funds are best spent, but the study of flies has yielded important benefits to human health.”

Misrepresenting research is “a way to get people to not want the government to spend money,” Levitan says. “The effect, though, is that people don’t understand the importance of basic science research.”

Of course, scientists share the burden of communicating their findings clearly, but most of them don’t have the public megaphones that elected officials do. “Politicians have a lot of responsibility,” Levitan says. “They’re the ones legislating and governing where money goes and what science actually can get done. Some random scientist can’t just decide he’s going to give a speech and everyone will watch.”

In the end, Levitan offers voters a simple way to sift through the BS: Have a healthy degree of skepticism when politicians talk about science. “If they’re making fun of basic research,” he says, “they’re probably wrong.” And his advice to the politicians: Let the scientific consensus be your talking point.

Inquiring Minds is a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and Kishore Hari, the director of the Bay Area Science Festival. To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook.

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Here Are All the Ways That Politicians Lie About Science

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Hot Chilis, Maggot Therapy, and Penis Transplants

Mother Jones

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We can thank the armed forces for a lot more than just national security: Many advances in modern medicine we take for granted came from scientists’ work trying to keep soldiers safe. Everything from inventing certain mosquito repellents to treatments for dysentery and diarrhea have come from the military’s medical breakthroughs.

That’s just one of the insights Mary Roach shares on this week’s episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast. The writer also tells host Indre Viskontas about advances in ear plugs, a method of cleaning battle wounds that involves maggots, and the latest innovations in penis transplants.

Most or Roach’s studies and anecdotes come from her latest book, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, which keeps with her style of single-syllable-science-titles (Gulp, Stiff, Bonk) but has a completely new theme: the military. Roach got the idea for the project while she was reporting in India and learned that the world’s hottest chili pepper, the bhut jolokia (also known as the “ghost chili”), has been weaponized by the Indian Defense Ministry.

“Military science suddenly presented itself to me as something that was more esoteric and broader…and less focused on bullets and bombs,” she explains.

Roach talks about inventions as old as military toilet paper, and newer advances such as penis reconstruction and replacements. The procedure wasn’t an option in the past, Roach says, because injuries that left soldiers without lower limbs or genitals were often fatal. Advances in medical treatment mean soldiers often survive below-the-belt wounds and may need genital reconstruction. The surgery is still uncommon: There are only about 300 genital injuries for every 18,000 limb amputations, she says. On her visit to a cadaver lab at Johns Hopkins, Roach was able to learn about the arteries necessary to connect in order to perform a successful surgery.

“It’s like transplanting a tree,” Roach says. “You don’t just lop it off, you take the roots and the soil around it.”

Roach is known for her squirm-inducing but always fascinating subject matter, such as cadavers, fecal transplants, and pig sex. In Grunt, Roach even details the healing power of maggots. As medieval as it sounds, the creature is incredibly efficient at cleaning wounds. Although the knowledge had been around for centuries, it was World War I surgeon William S. Baer who noticed a soldier who had been lying in the fields for days returned to camp with large open wounds that were free of infection. When he saw that maggots had been eating the dead flesh, allowing the wounds to heal, Baer started using the insects. Today “maggot therapy” is used on diabetic patients; the insects are even approved by the FDA as a medical device. While military surgeons are open to the idea, Roach says, getting hospital staff on board is a challenge.

“It’s been an uphill struggle…they’re maggots, they’re gross!” Roach said. “The nursing staff has to be trained in how to change the maggot-dressing and they might not want that added to their duty list.”

Roach sees her exploration of military science as illuminating some of the grizzly realities of war.

“Even when things are going okay in the military, even when no one is shooting at you, it really sucks,” Roach says. “It’s not a political book, but it’s kind of an antiwar book in its own way.”

Mother Jones senior editor Dave Gilson also talked with Mary Roach about Grunt. Here’s a highlight from their interview:

W.W. Norton

MJ: Did hanging out with soldiers and researchers change any misconceptions you had about the US military?

MR: I didn’t have any conception of this world at all. I didn’t realize that almost any of this existed—the Naval Submarine Medical Research Lab, or NAMRU Three or the Walter Reed Entomology Branch. That was all a surprise to me. I had maybe a misconception that everyone in the military was sort of hawkish. But in fact, the people who deal with the aftermath of war, trying to repair people’s bodies and minds, they are understandably quite anti-war. They’re not big boosters of war, particularly the people I talked to at the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System. Pathologists, people who have a real, day-after-day, graphic presentation of what war does to the body. I wasn’t really expecting that.

Inquiring Minds is a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and Kishore Hari, the director of the Bay Area Science Festival. To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook.

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Hot Chilis, Maggot Therapy, and Penis Transplants

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How to Run Faster

Mother Jones

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If you want to become a better runner, the obvious answer is to run more. Practice, practice, practice. Well, maybe not. It turns out that more time laced up, running longer distances, may not be the best way to improve. These days, many athletes are ditching long runs for interval training—and for good reason. Pushing the human body to maximum capacity, for shorter amounts of time, forces it to adapt quickly and could even change its physiology in the process.

Interval training helps the cardiovascular system by improving the body’s ability to use oxygen and insulin. It makes arteries more elastic than slower-paced exercise does, and some say it helps burn belly-fat. It isn’t just for athletes: Scientists in Denmark have found that patients with Type 2 Diabetes who did intervals of intense walking had enhanced fitness and better blood-glucose levels compared to a control group that walked at a moderate pace for an extended period of time.

If you’re not one for getting sweaty, running isn’t unlike the many other hobbies at which you might be desperate to improve. There’s tons of emerging science that can help show you how to get better—and that explains what separates the good from the best. On this week’s episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast, musician and neuroscientist Indre Viskontas talks with Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson about what it takes to become great. You can listen below:

If you’re familiar with the 10,000-hour theory from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, you may have heard of Ericsson’s work. Gladwell argued that we can become experts at a sport, musical instrument, or hobby in part by logging more than 10,000 hours doing it. Ericsson, who says Gladwell “misinterpreted” some of his work, argues that it’s not merely time that’s important. He points to what’s called “deliberate practice“—putting mindfulness into our chord progressions, tennis back swings, or Spanish vocabulary review—as one of the keys to becoming an expert. People often mistake the results of deliberate practice for raw talent, Ericsson says.

“It’s the belief that people are born with this thing, and it’s their job to find it,” he says. “We are arguing that you need to build it.”

In Ericsson’s new book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertiseco-authored with Robert Poolhe argues that becoming great at an activity is not about practicing hard enough to fulfill one’s potential, but practicing well enough to maintain motivation. And as for the willpower supposedly needed to become an expert? Ericsson balks at that idea and instead says that experts produce a continued enjoyment in their playing or performance, which leads them engage in yet more deliberate practice. So in short: If you don’t like what you are doing, you’ll probably have trouble becoming great at it.

There’s another habit that Ericsson says is helpful for improving performance: rest. In the early 1990’s, he and his team found that elite violinists slept an hour more each night than average ones—and they frequently took naps, as well. So as you strive for greatness, you might want to consider spending a little less time practicing and a bit more time sleeping. Are you listening, Donald Trump?

Inquiring Minds is a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and Kishore Hari, the director of the Bay Area Science Festival. To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow, like us on Facebook, and check out show notes and other cool stuff on Tumblr.


How to Run Faster

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We Could Stop Global Warming With This Fix—But It’s Probably a Terrible Idea

Mother Jones

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Mount Pinatubo erupting in 1991 Bullit Marquez/AP

Back in the late 1990s, Ken Caldeira set out to disprove the “ludicrous” idea that we could reverse global warming by filling the sky with chemicals that would partially block the sun. A few years earlier, Mount Pinatubo had erupted in the Philippines, sending tiny sulfate particles—known as aerosols—into the stratosphere, where they reflected sunlight back into space and temporarily cooled the planet. Some scientists believed that an artificial version of this process could be used to cancel out the warming effect of greenhouse gases.

“Our original goal was to show that it was a crazy idea and wouldn’t work,” says Caldeira, who at the time was a climate scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. But when Caldeira and a colleague ran a model to test out this geoengineering scenario, they were shocked by what they found. “Much to our surprise, it worked really well,” he recalls. “Our results indicate that geoengineering schemes could markedly diminish regional and seasonal climate change from increased atmospheric CO2,” they wrote in a 2000 paper.

You might think that the volume of aerosols needed to increase the Earth’s reflectivity (known as albedo) enough to halt global climate change would be enormous. But speaking to Kishore Hari on this week’s Inquiring Minds podcast, Caldeira explains that “if you had just one firehose-worth of material constantly spraying into the stratosphere, that would be enough to offset all of the global warming anticipated for the rest of this century.”

So does Caldeira think it’s time to start blasting aerosols into the air? Nope. “It’s a funny situation that I feel like I’m in,” he says. “Most of our published results show that it would actually work quite well, but personally I think it would be a crazy thing to do.” He thinks there’s just too much risk.

Caldeira, now a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, recently contributed to a massive National Academy of Sciences report examining various geoengineering proposals. The report concluded that technologies to block solar radiation “should not be deployed at this time” and warned that “there is significant potential for unanticipated, unmanageable, and regrettable consequences in multiple human dimensions…including political, social, legal, economic, and ethical dimensions.” As my colleague Tim McDonnell explained back when the NAS study was released:

Albedo modification would use airplanes or rockets to deliver loads of sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere, where they would bounce sunlight back into space. But if the technology is straightforward, the consequences are anything but.

The aerosols fall out of the air after a matter of years, so they would need to be continually replaced. And if we continued to burn fossil fuels, ever more aerosols would be needed to offset the warming from the additional CO2. University of California, San Diego, scientist Lynn Russell said that artificially blocking sunlight would have unknown consequences for photosynthesis by plants and phytoplankton, and that high concentrations of sulfate aerosols could produce acid rain. Moreover, if we one day suddenly ceased an albedo modification program, it could cause rapid global warming as the climate adjusts to all the built-up CO2. For these reasons, the report warns that it would be “irrational and irresponsible to implement sustained albedo modification without also pursuing emissions mitigation, carbon dioxide removal, or both.”

Still, the NAS report called for further research into albedo modification, just in case we one day reach a point where we seriously consider it.

Caldeira hopes it never comes to that. Like most other advocates of geoengineering research, he’d much rather stave off global warming by drastically cutting carbon emissions. In fact, he calls for a target of zero emissions. But he doesn’t have much faith in politicians or in legislative fixes like carbon taxes or cap and trade. “The only way it’s really going to happen,” he says, “is if there’s a change in the social norms.” Caldeira envisions a world in which it’s socially unacceptable for power companies to “use the sky as a waste dump.”

And if that doesn’t work out?

Caldeira points out that if we keep emitting huge amounts of CO2, temperatures are going to keep rising. That could lead to increased crop failures and possibly even “widespread famines with millions of people dying.” In that type of hypothetical crisis, he says, “there’s really only one way known to cool the planet on a politically relevant timescale”—aerosols. “So I think it’s worth understanding it now,” he adds. “At some point in the future it could make sense to do. I hope we don’t get to that state, but it’s possible.”

To hear the full interview with Ken Caldeira, stream below:

Inquiring Minds is a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and Kishore Hari, the director of the Bay Area Science Festival. To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook.

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We Could Stop Global Warming With This Fix—But It’s Probably a Terrible Idea

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Science Says You Can Split Infinitives and Use the Passive Voice

Mother Jones

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Leave it to a scientist to finally explain how to kill off bad writing.

In his new book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, Steven Pinker basically outdoes Strunk and White. The celebrated Harvard cognitive scientist and psycholinguist explains how to write in clear, “classic” prose that shares valuable information with clarity but never condescension. And he tells us why so many of the tut-tutting grammar “rules” that we all think we’re supposed to follow—don’t split infinitives, don’t use the passive voice, don’t end a sentence with a preposition—are just nonsense.

“There are so many bogus rules in circulation that kind of serve as a tactic for one-upmanship,” explains Pinker on the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast. “They’re a way in which one person can prove that they’re more sophisticated or literate than someone else, and so they brandish these pseudo-rules.”

Unlike past sages of style, Pinker approaches grammar from a scientific perspective, as a linguist. And that’s what leads him to the unavoidable conclusion that language is never set in stone; rather, it is a tool that is constantly evolving and changing, continually adding new words and undoing old rules and assumptions. “When it comes to correct English, there’s no one in charge; the lunatics are running the asylum,” writes Pinker in The Sense of Style.

Steven Pinker. Rebecca Goldstein.

Indeed, Pinker notes with amusement in the book that in every era, there is always somebody complaining about how all the uncouth speakers of the day are wrecking the Queen’s English. It’s basically the linguistic equivalent of telling the kids to get off your lawn. Why does this happen? “As a language changes from beneath our feet, we feel the sands shifting and always think that it’s a deterioration,” explains Pinker on the podcast. “Whereas, everything that’s in the language was an innovation at some point in the history of English. If you’re living through the transition, it feels like a deterioration even though it’s just a change.”

Thus, Pinker notes that in their classic book, The Elements of Style, published in the mid-20th century, Strunk and White instructed writers not to use the verb “to contact.” Look how that turned out for them.

The same framework allows Pinker to explain why so many grammatical “rules” that we all think we have to follow are, in fact, bogus. His outlook is refreshingly anti-authoritarian: You don’t have to follow supposed grammar rules, he says, unless there is actually a good reason for following them.

Here, then, is a brief but highly liberating list of glorious rule-breaking activities that Pinker says you should feel free to engage in:

Do split infinitives. For Pinker, the idea that you cannot split infinitives—for example, the classic complaint that Star Trek was wrong to describe the Starship Enterprise’s mission as “to boldly go where no man has gone before”; it should have been “to go boldly” or “boldly to go”—is “the quintessential bogus rule.”

“No good writer in English has ever followed it consistently, if you do follow it it makes your prose much worse,” Pinker explained on Inquiring Minds.

Indeed, according to Pinker, this is a rather striking case in which the alleged prohibition seems to be mostly perpetuated by urban legend or word of mouth. It doesn’t even seem to be seriously asserted as a rule by any supposed style experts. “This rule kind of levitates in mid-air, there’s actually no support even from the style manuals,” adds Pinker.

Do use the passive voice (at the right times). We are constantly told that we need to make our verbs active, rather than relying on passive constructions. The passive, Pinker emphasizes, is a voice and not a tense: “It’s the difference between ‘the man bit the dog’ and ‘the dog was bitten by the man,'” he explains. (The latter example is passive.) In this particular example, you really don’t want to use the passive voice; but according to Pinker, there are other contexts in which you very well might. “Linguistic research has shown that the passive construction has a number of indispensable functions because of the way it engages a reader’s attention and memory,” he writes.

One of the uses defended by Pinker involves employing the passive voice to “direct the reader’s gaze.” For instance, sometimes you don’t need to know the name of the person who committed an action, because what really matters—what you, the writer, want to emphasize—is the action. Do we really need to know that “the cook cooked a perfect steak,” or can we leave out the actor here since all we really hope to communicate is that “the steak was perfectly cooked”? Pinker has no problem with the latter construction, assuming that you’re trying to focus attention on the steak rather than who cooked it.

Do begin sentences with conjunctions. Pinker also says there’s absolutely nothing wrong with starting a sentence with “and,” “but,” “or,” “also,” “so,” or even “because.” The idea that this is an offense gets taught early on to kids, Pinker observes, as a way of preventing them from using sentence fragments.

But “whatever the pedagogical merits may be of feeding children misinformation, it is inappropriate for adults,” writes Pinker. These conjunctions (Pinker calls them “coordinators”) “are among the commonest coherence markers, and they may be used to begin a sentence whenever the clauses being connected are too long or complicated to fit comfortably into a single megasentence.” Fragments can be an art. Run-ons a headache. And once again, you don’t have to follow grammar “rules” when those rules have no actual justification.

Do end a sentence with a preposition. And there’s another activity that writers are often told not to engage in. And that is ending a sentence with a preposition (see last sentence). Pinker couldn’t be more scornful: “The prohibition against clause-final prepositions is considered a superstition even by the language mavens, and it persists only among know-it-alls who have never opened a dictionary or style manual to check.”

Seriously: If rigidly followed, Pinker notes, this rule would have you doing silly things like turning “What are you looking at?” into “At what are you looking?” Obviously, the former is highly preferable. There are certainly times when you don’t want a preposition at the end of a sentence—usually when you are discussing something serious, and ending with a preposition would make your tone seem too light—but you’ve got to figure this out on a case-by-case basis.

And yes, you can even use the singular “they/their/them.” Pinker even argues that you can use the following construction: “No American should be discriminated against because of the color of their skin.” Language Nazis would argue here that since “American” is singular, using the plural “their” is a big faux pas. But Pinker counters that Shakespeare used these “singular they” type constructions on multiple occasions, as did Jane Austen. (Merriam Webster cites the following example from Austen: “I would have everybody marry if they can do it properly.”) “It’s been in the language for a long time, and one can even argue that it isn’t really a clash of number agreement,” says Pinker. He continues:

The ‘they’ in those constructions—”everyone return to their seats”—is actually not really a pronoun. It’s more like what a logician would call a variable. What does “everyone return to their seats” mean? It means, “for all X, X return to X’s seat.” And the “they” is just basically “X.” And so it’s not surprising that that construction is so tempting.

And there are many, many other pseudo-rules exploded in Pinker’s new book. So many that we decided to ask our own Mother Jones copy editor, Ian Gordon, to comment on this article. Pinker remarks on the podcast that an overactive copy editor is what finally pushed him into writing this book, but we’re proud to say Gordon was more enlightened, commenting:

I think Pinker is totally right. Many rules are stupid, especially the ones he highlights. We should understand the language deeply, not follow dumb rules blindly. That said, there’s something to be said about linguistic continuity across a publication, which is part of the reason why crotchety copy editors (hi!) have jobs.

The basic outlook on language and writing from all this? You don’t have to follow grammar “rules” if they don’t make any sense. Some of them just don’t stand up at all; others, meanwhile, are better understood as general guidelines, admitting of many important exceptions.

“It’s very easy to overstate rules,” says Pinker. “And if you don’t explain what the basis is behind the rule, you’re going to botch the statement of the rule—and give bad advice.”

To listen to the full Inquiring Minds interview with Steven Pinker, you can stream below:


Science Says You Can Split Infinitives and Use the Passive Voice

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Live Event: Inquiring Minds Interviews Adam Savage in San Francisco

Mother Jones

In San Francisco? Join neuroscientist and opera singer Indre Viskontas on October 28 for a conversation with Mythbusters’ Adam Savage in a special live production of the Inquiring Minds podcast! We’ll discuss the joy of using science and critical thinking to explore and understand our world. With each show, we endeavor to find out what’s true, what’s left to discover, and why it all matters with weekly coverage of the latest headlines and probing discussions with leading scientists and thinkers.

The event also includes a live production of The Story Collider. Check out the details below, and get your tickets here.

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Live Event: Inquiring Minds Interviews Adam Savage in San Francisco

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Naomi Klein: Fossil Fuels Threaten Our Ability to Have Healthy Children

Mother Jones

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It’s self-evident that embryos, fetuses, and babies are vulnerable. We have strict laws protecting children because they cannot fend for themselves. And yet, too often, we ignore the impact that environmental disasters have on the very earliest stages of life. In her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Naomi Klein examines the effect that our reliance on fossil fuels has on the most helpless members of the animal kingdom—as well as on our own children.

“In species after species, climate change is creating pressures that are depriving life-forms of their most essential survival tool: the ability to create new life and carry on their genetic lines,” Klein writes. “Instead, the spark of life is being extinguished, snuffed out in its earliest, most fragile days: in the egg, in the embryo, in the nest, in the den.”

Take the case of the leatherback sea turtles. These ancient creatures have been around for 150 million years, making them the longest-surviving marine animals on earth. As Klein points out, they’ve survived the “asteroid attacks” that likely wiped out the dinosaurs. But now they are threatened by a combination of poaching, fishing and climate change. One recent study found that as temperatures rise over the next century, “egg and hatchling survival will rapidly decline” for sea turtle populations in the Eastern Pacific.

The leatherback turtles have “survived so much,” says Klein on this week’s episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast. “But it’s not clear that they’re going to be able to survive even incremental climate change, because what’s happening already is that when the eggs are buried in the sand, even if the sand is just marginally hotter than it used to be, that the eggs are not hatching; they’re cooking in the sand.” What’s more, turtles don’t have sex chromosomes—they turn into males or females based on the ambient temperature of the sand in which they are born. Hotter sand means more female turtles hatch. And the danger is that warming could eventually result in a significant imbalance between males and females, ultimately decimating the species.

While writing the book, Klein was going through her own fertility crisis, so she says she was particularly attuned to the fragility of new life and the impacts that stressors can have on reproduction. And she began to notice a common theme in the after-effects of environmental catastrophes. In the wake of the 2010 BP oil spill, for example, she toured the Louisiana marshes. With Jonathan Henderson, an organizer with the Gulf Restoration Network, guiding the way, Klein and a few others set out to investigate whether the oil from the Deepwater Horizon had permeated the bayous. It was the fish jumping in dirty water and the coating of reddish brown oil that impressed Klein and her companions.

But what most concerned Henderson, recalls Klein, was the nearly invisible cost of the disaster: the tiny zooplankton and juveniles that grow into the shrimp, oysters, crabs, and fish that are the bedrock of the Gulf fisheries. “What he was preoccupied with was the fact that this was spawning seasoning,” says Klein. “And that even though we couldn’t see it, there was just a huge amount of proto-life surrounding us, and this was spring in the Gulf and everything was spawning.”

Drifting in the marshlands, Klein writes that she “had the distinct feeling that we were suspended not in water but in amniotic fluid, immersed in a massive multi-species miscarriage.”

These effects, she argues, may be felt years later, when those juveniles should be reaching maturity. “Looking into it in the context of the Gulf, we’ve heard a lot of really concerning stories directly from fishermen saying that they’re not seeing baby fish out there,” says Klein. “Or they’re seeing female crabs without eggs.” In her book, she recounts a 2012 interview with a Florida fisherman named Donny Waters who had noticed the absence of small fish in his catches. This hadn’t yet cut into his income, since small fish are thrown back. But Waters was worried that the impact would be felt in the years to come—specifically, in 2016 or 2017 when those fish that were in the larval stage during the spill would have grown up.

This wouldn’t be the first time that an oil spill had a delayed effect on the fishing industry. “The greatest and most lasting impacts on the fish in Alaska had to do with this delayed disaster,” says Klein, referring to the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. “It wasn’t until three or four years after the spill that the herring fishery collapsed.” Twenty-five years later, it still hasn’t recovered.

What’s more, scientists say the spill might also help explain the deaths of an unusual number of young bottlenose dolphins in the northern Gulf of Mexico. In a paper published in PlosONE in 2012, Ruth Carmichael and her colleagues examined whether the spill contributed to a “perfect storm” of events that killed 186 dolphins—46 percent of whom were perinatal calves (that is, babies)—in the first four months of 2011.

An unusually high number of young bottlenose dolphins died in the Gulf of Mexico between January and April 2011. Graham Worthy/University of Central Florida

“When we put the pieces together,” explained Carmichael in a 2012 press release, “it appears that the dolphins were likely weakened by depleted food resources, bacteria, or other factors as a result of the 2010 cold winter or oil spill, which made them susceptible to assault by the high volumes of cold freshwater from heavy snowmelt coming from land in 2011 and resulted in distinct patterns in when and where they washed ashore.”

By April 2014, 235 stranded baby bottlenose dolphins had been found, “a staggering figure, since scientists estimate that the number of cetacean corpses found on or near shore represents only 2 percent of the ‘true death toll,'” Klein writes.

Of course, this research isn’t conclusive. A BP spokesperson notes that dolphins in the Gulf began dying off before the oil spill and that unusual mortality events “occur with some regularity.” For its part, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration states that the “direct or indirect effects” of the spill are being “investigated as potential causes or contributing factors for some of the strandings” but that “no definitive cause has yet been identified.”

Dolphin strandings by age group for Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and western Florida. Reprinted with permission from Carmichael et al., PlosONE, 2012.

Further up the food chain, Klein is also concerned about the potential impact of environmental pollution on human fertility. During the same trip that took her through the marshlands of Louisiana, she also visited Mossville, the historic African-American town notorious as a case study in environmental racism.

“This was a town formed by freed slaves, and after being established, it was surrounded by 14 massive petrochemical factories, and the land and water was just poisoned, and most of the people have already left,” says Klein.

While worries about cancers and other illnesses in Mossville have been covered fairly extensively in the media, the issue of fertility problems is less well known. “When I spoke to women who had lived in Mossville, what I heard about was just an epidemic of infertility and that just so many women had hysterectomies,” Klein says. These stories are anecdotal, but Klein hopes more research will be done. “This is often just an understudied part of science,” she says.

Klein also points to emerging research that links the fracking boom with various reproductive problems. In a Bloomberg View column earlier this year, Mark Whitehouse reported on data presented at the annual American Economic Association meeting from a yet-to-be published study of Pennsylvania birth records that apparently found a correlation between proximity to shale gas sites and low birth weight in babies. Babies born within a 2.5-kilometer radius of gas drilling sites were almost twice as likely to have a low birth weight (increasing from 5.6 percent to 9 percent of births) or a low APGAR score, the first evaluation of a baby’s health after birth. And a study published this year examining birth outcomes and proximity to natural gas development reported that mothers who lived within 10 miles of the highest number of fracking sites (125 wells within a 10-mile radius) were 30 percent more likely to have babies with congenital heart defects and twice as likely to have babies with neurological problems compared to mothers whose homes were at least 10 miles away from any fracking site.

Then there’s the threat that climate change itself poses to children. Last year, UNICEF warned that “more severe and more frequent natural disasters, food crises and changing rainfall patterns are all threatening children’s lives” and that by 2050, climate change could result in an additional 25 million children suffering from malnourishment.

“For all the talk about the right to life and the rights of the unborn,” writes Klein, “our culture pays precious little attention to the particular vulnerabilities of children, let alone developing life.”

Inquiring Minds is a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and best-selling author Chris Mooney. To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. We are also available on Stitcher. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook. Inquiring Minds was also recently singled out as one of the “Best of 2013” on iTunes—you can learn more here.

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Naomi Klein: Fossil Fuels Threaten Our Ability to Have Healthy Children

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