(Bloomberg Opinion) -- So much news, so little time! Science sometimes makes headlines and even more often gives us a different way of thinking about the stories of the week. I’d like to delve into a few timely topics in a sort of lightning round:
Don’t Mess With New England’s Favorite Sugar
Soon, in accordance with a new FDA regulation, pure honey and maple syrup will have to declare that they contain “added sugars.” This is linguistically and logically ridiculous, because nobody added any sugar to these sugary products. But it’s not crazy from a chemical or health perspective.
The Boston Globe reported this week that embittered maple syrup makers throughout New England are protesting. As they so sensibly point out, they aren’t adding any sugar to their product. But the process by which maple syrup makers and bees work their magic yields a mixture of sucrose, which is the compound that makes up table sugar, as well as glucose and fructose, which are the two chemical building blocks of sucrose. All are connected to a number of health problems.
Many people have an urgent need to limit sugar — especially if they have Type 2 diabetes, are obese, are struggling to maintain a healthy weight, or have high triglycerides. Without informative labels, people may fool themselves into thinking they are maintaining a healthy, sugar-free diet while drenching food in honey or maple syrup.
In the comments following the Globe story, many people insisted that maple syrup was chemically distinct from refined table sugar. That’s sort of true; chemistry gives it a distinctive scent, color and taste. But that comes mostly from trace compounds. The glucose and fructose are the same.
The FDA is requiring that products sweetened with sugar, maple syrup, corn syrup or honey tally these up under “added sugars.” So … why not label a box of sugar the same way? I checked the box of Domino sugar that’s in my cabinet. Technically, it is a cardboard box with 2 pounds of added sugar, but it seems unnecessary to label it as such.
It’s turning into a difficult puzzle, though, to figure out how to label these other sweeteners. The FDA needs something that doesn’t unfairly imply that honey and maple syrup makers are adding anything to their products. It also needs to avoid sugar-coating their true sugar content.
Keep Genetics and Racism Out of the World Cup
A new ad campaign by the personal genetic company 23andMe says “We’re all connected to a World Cup nation through our DNA.” With the U.S. out of the competition in 2018, the company’s “root for your roots” campaign offers a way for fans in the U.S. to find a new favorite. Still, the claim doesn’t mean much: We’re all connected to every World Cup team through DNA. The company may not necessarily find you a meaningful genetic link to a specific team.
In a piece for Leapsmag, Columbia University medical ethicist Art Caplan calls the ad campaign “foul” because it might exacerbate problems with racism among fans. The popular genetic service does give people some rough probabilities that their ancestors came from various regions of the world, but as some journalists have discovered, not everybody gets equally detailed or accurate results. As Caplan points out, countries are political entities, their borders drawn without regard for anyone’s genetics. Society’s division of people into races, too, is subjective.
If Americans really need a way to decide which team to root for, some entrepreneur could calculate which one has the most players with your astrological sign. It’s meaningless, but also harmless, and nobody has to send anyone a sample of spit.
The Science of Trump’s North Korea Deal
Americans may be systematically underestimating the sophistication of North Korean scientists and engineers. It was a suggestion that stuck with me long after it came up in an interview last year with nuclear analyst Jeffrey Lewis. At the time, Americans were reeling over a test that revealed that North Korean scientists had figured out how to build missiles that could lob a nuclear weapon up to 2,500 miles.
Now, experts say we may also underestimate their ability to keep nuclear weapons hidden. A story this week in Wired magazine quotes Joseph Bermudez, a strategic adviser of AllSource Analysis Inc., on the North’s secret nuclear facilities:
Identifying those facilities and determining what’s in them is extremely difficult, because North Korea since the mid-1960s has practiced what we call CCD—camouflage, concealment, and deception—where you seek to give your opponent a false impression or false understanding of what’s actually happening.
The New York Times reminds us that Trump is the first president since 1941 to not name a science adviser. Some experts say that it was foolhardy to go without one into nuclear negotiations with North Korea:
“You need to have an empowered senior science adviser at the table,” said R. Nicholas Burns, who led negotiations with India over a civilian nuclear deal during the George W. Bush administration. “You can be sure the other side will have that.”
On the other hand, Trump could have picked a science adviser who lacked wisdom or did not have broad understanding of different fields. And even a good science adviser might give Trump’s team a misleading façade of scientific competence, given the likelihood that Trump might never listen to his or her advice.
Antarctic Ice Is Massive But Surprisingly Delicate
If you live in a coastal area, it is a privilege granted to you by Antarctica’s ice sheet. Scientists say that if it were to melt, sea level would rise about 190 feet. That’s not expected to happen for eons, but two new papers published this week in the journal Nature warn that we could lose enough of that ice to cause trouble. The first paper makes a case that between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago, the West Antarctic ice sheet retreated by 135,000 square miles — an area the size of Montana. The shrinkage happened during a period of global warming. The Northern Hemisphere was coming out of an ice age, though global temperatures were much cooler than they are today.
National Geographic explains nicely how the researchers discovered this ancient ice sheet retreat. At a remote site not far from the South Pole, they drilled 2,600 feet down to reach a lake buried deep in the ice. By carbon dating the shells of tiny creatures called diatoms, they were able to tell how recently the lake had been exposed.
The ice rebounded after that, very slowly, but according to the other paper, it’s now in an accelerating retreat. The authors argue that the rate of ice loss since 1992 has tripled, and that about 3 trillion tons of ice have been lost in that period. A story in The Washington Post focused on this more recent ice retreat and resulting sea level rise.
The Post story referred to a 2016 paper by James Hansen of the Columbia University Earth Institute, which predicted that a mere doubling of the rate of Antarctic ice loss could contribute enough to our rising seas that we’ll see an increase of more than three feet within 50 years. Scientists don’t know if the acceleration that’s happened since 1992 will continue, but the Post declares that if it does, “We are in serious trouble.”
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