# Science

Book review: The Revolutionary Genius of Plants

How can plants move without muscles? How do their root systems explore the soil? How do they adapt to changes in the environment, and sometimes survive extreme challenges such as fire or drought?

Stefano Mancuso explores those and other questions in The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior. The book isn’t new (first published in 2018), but it was new to me after my brother gave a copy to one of my children.

Although the book doesn’t directly discuss prairie and woodland habitats that have inspired most of Bleeding Heartland’s wildflower content, Mancuso’s provocative theories are relevant to Iowa’s native plants as well.

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Where do Iowa's candidates stand on science policy? We asked them

Dan Chibnall, Annabelle Lolinco, and Riley Troyer co-authored this post.

Chuck Grassley, a Republican seeking an eighth term in the U.S. Senate, is concerned that science is becoming politicized, but fears any official responsible for stopping it could become politicized themselves.

Michael Franken, Grassley’s Democratic challenger, says the government should dismantle giant agricultural monopolies and promote regional food hubs to make Iowa farms more sustainable.

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Bill Northey, Sam Clovis lined up for senior USDA posts

Two weeks after Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey publicly expressed interest in a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he appears to have an offer on the table. Farm Journal Radio reported on May 12 that Northey will become undersecretary for farm production and conservation, a position that “includes overseeing the Farm Service Agency, Risk Management Agency and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.” The source was Jim Wiesemeyer, senior vice president of policy and trade issues for Informa Economics Inc. WHO-TV’s Dave Price said his sources confirm Northey is the pick for that job. UPDATE: Agri-Pulse was first to report this news Friday morning.

Depending on when Northey resigns, either Governor Terry Branstad or soon-to-be-Governor Kim Reynolds will appoint someone to serve as secretary of agriculture until after the 2018 election. State Representative Pat Grassley has long been rumored to be interested in Northey’s job. That statewide position would be a nice stepping stone to a campaign for his grandfather Chuck Grassley’s U.S. Senate seat in 2022.

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IA-01: Democrat Courtney Rowe may challenge Rod Blum

Cedar Rapids-based engineer Courtney Rowe may run for Congress against Representative Rod Blum in Iowa’s first district, she confirmed to Bleeding Heartland today. Rowe has been an active Democrat locally and was a Bernie Sanders delegate to last year’s Linn County, first district, and state conventions, as well as an alternate to the Democratic National Convention. She has volunteered her time on church missions, as a mentor for middle-school students, and as an officer for Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).

Rowe described her background and motivation for considering a Congressional bid in a document I enclose below. She has not yet created an exploratory committee but plans to launch a campaign website sometime next month, both to present some of her policy ideas and to create an interactive format for voters to weigh in on the issues.

The 20 counties in IA-01 contain 166,338 active registered Democrats, 146,164 Republicans, and 191,340 no-party voters, according to the latest figures from the Iowa Secretary of State’s office. The largest-population counties are Linn (the Cedar Rapids metro area), Black Hawk (Waterloo/Cedar Falls metro), and Dubuque, a traditional Democratic stronghold that is also Blum’s home base, where Democrats underperformed badly in 2016.

Blum was considered one of the most vulnerable U.S. House members in the country going into the 2016 election cycle, and many Iowa Democrats believed his narrow victory over Pat Murphy in 2014 had been a fluke. However, the Freedom Caucus member defeated Monica Vernon by a larger margin of 53.7 percent to 46.1 percent. Blum ran about five points ahead of Donald Trump, who carried the IA-01 counties by 48.7 percent to 45.2 percent. That was a massive swing from Barack Obama’s double-digit advantage in this part of Iowa in 2012.

Although I haven’t yet heard of any other Democrats thinking seriously about challenging Blum, I expect a competitive 2018 primary. Any comments about the race are welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee released its first target list on January 30. IA-01 and IA-03 are among those 33 Republican-held House seats.

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Weekend open thread: Frauds and hoaxes

What’s on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

Greenpeace and the Climate Investigations Center have uncovered damning evidence that fossil fuels companies paid a scholar to produce research casting doubt on whether human activity is causing climate change. Justin Gillis and John Schwartz report for the New York Times that Wei-Hock Soon, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics,

has accepted more than $1.2 million in money from the fossil-fuel industry over the last decade while failing to disclose that conflict of interest in most of his scientific papers. At least 11 papers he has published since 2008 omitted such a disclosure, and in at least eight of those cases, he appears to have violated ethical guidelines of the journals that published his work.

The documents show that Dr. Soon, in correspondence with his corporate funders, described many of his scientific papers as “deliverables” that he completed in exchange for their money. He used the same term to describe testimony he prepared for Congress.

Now that NBC News has suspended anchor Brian Williams for six months over untruthful accounts of his experience as an embedded reporter in Iraq, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly is under a new level of scrutiny. He has falsely claimed to have reported on the Falklands War from a “war zone” and now won’t answer questions about the matter. Journalist Eric Jon Engberg remembers things differently from O’Reilly. Excerpts from his account are after the jump. I will be shocked if Fox News disciplines one of its stars. UPDATE: Multiple former CBS correspondents have spoken out to “challenge O’Reilly’s depiction of Buenos Aires as a ‘war zone’ and a ‘combat situation.’ They also doubt his description of a CBS cameraman being injured in the chaos.”

The Des Moines Register’s chief politics correspondent Jennifer Jacobs published a story on Friday headlined, “Joni Ernst targeted by hoax ‘news’ reports.” Her primary example was this post on the National Report website, titled “Joni Ernst: Vaccines Should Be Outlawed As They ‘Manipulate Brains,’ Make People More Liberal.” Many people circulated the vaccine story on social media, unaware that it came from a satirical website. But satire is not the same thing as a hoax. A “hoax ‘news’ report” is more like when Jacobs used her position at the Des Moines Register to suggest that Bruce Braley had claimed to be a farmer–a charge that played into Republican campaign narratives but made no sense to anyone who had ever heard Braley’s stump speeches or read his official bio.  

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House continues assault on EPA: How the Iowans voted

Before adjourning for the Thanksgiving recess, the U.S. House approved three bills last week designed to limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to function. Iowa Republicans Tom Latham (IA-03) and Steve King (IA-04) voted for all three bills, while Democrats Bruce Braley (IA-01) and Dave Loebsack (IA-02) voted against them all. On November 18, representatives passed the “EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act” by 229 votes to 191 (roll call). Cristina Marcos reported for The Hill, “Among other provisions, the measure would require the Scientific Advisory Board, which consults the EPA on its regulations, to have at least ten percent of members from state, local or tribal governments. […] Democrats said the measure would hinder the board’s effectiveness and compromise its members’ scientific expertise.” Scientists are alarmed about the prospect of more industry experts on an EPA board.

On November 19, House Republicans and a handful of Democrats approved the “Secret Science Reform Act of 2014” by 237 votes to 190 (roll call). This bill would block the EPA from adopting new regulations based on scientific research unless all raw data were publicly available. Its backers claim they are only trying to improve transparency at the federal agency. But peer-reviewed studies, particularly in the field of public health, often rely on confidential patient information that cannot be made public.

Andrew Rosenberg, who heads the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, discussed both of these “attacks on independent science” by House Republicans. I’ve enclosed excerpts from his commentary after the jump.

Finally, on November 20 every House Republican and sixteen Democrats approved the “Promoting New Manufacturing Act” by 238 votes to 172 (roll call). Cristina Marcos reported that this bill would ” enhance the Environmental Protection Agency’s reporting requirements for the number of pre-construction permits it issues under the Clean Air Act.”

In addition, the bill would direct the EPA to report to Congress each year on how it can expedite the permitting process. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), the measure’s sponsor, argued it would promote manufacturing and increase transparency. […]

But Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the measure would weaken environmental protections by allowing permit applicants to avoid updated EPA air quality standards if the facilities are new or expanding, calling it “pollution amnesty.”

“This bill does not do anything to improve the permitting process for new and expanding facilities, but it does weaken air quality protection,” Waxman said.

Marcos’ reporting indicates that the White House has issued veto threats against all three of these bills. Once Republicans take control of the U.S. Senate in the new year, Obama may get several opportunities to reject bad bills affecting the EPA.  

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Weekend open thread: Computation errors

What’s on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? I’ve been thinking about math, or rather, the inability to do math. This fascinating article by Robert Charette exposes the “myth” of an alleged shortage of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) workers. The real problem in the U.S., Charette argues, is “a STEM knowledge shortage.”

To fill that shortage, you don’t necessarily need a college or university degree in a STEM discipline, but you do need to learn those subjects, and learn them well, from childhood until you head off to college or get a job. Improving everyone’s STEM skills would clearly be good for the workforce and for people’s employment prospects, for public policy debates, and for everyday tasks like balancing checkbooks and calculating risks.

Speaking of public policy debates, Congressional Republicans are poised for another showdown over the debt ceiling, armed with phony concern about a “growing” federal deficit. In fact, the deficit is falling at the fastest rate in decades, but very few Americans realize that, and self-appointed fact-checkers bend over backwards not to acknowledge it.

Speaking of the inability to count, Governor Terry Branstad’s administration has touted misleading “job creation” numbers for a long time, but the latest propaganda is “inflated” even if you accept the governor’s “bizarre” practice of counting only jobs created while not subtracting jobs lost.

Politicians aren’t the only ones who let ideology interfere with basic numeracy. This must-read piece by Chris Mooney summarizes findings from a new study: “people who are otherwise very good at math may totally flunk a problem that they would otherwise probably be able to solve, simply because giving the right answer goes against their political beliefs.”  Regardless of party affiliation, research subjects with higher math skills were better at solving a problem about the effectiveness of skin cream. When the same numbers were presented as evidence related to handgun bans, liberal Democrats and conservative Republicanss were more likely to arrive at the wrong answer if the correct answer went against their opinions about gun control and crime.

This is an open thread.

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Massive meteorite crater lies beneath Decorah

I don’t cover many science topics here, but this story fascinated me. Scientists have recently confirmed that an “asteroid as big as a city block” created a crater more than three miles wide under what is now Decorah, Iowa. This anomaly would be only the 184th confirmed impact crater on earth, according to an excellent piece by Brian Vastag for the Washington Post.  Bevan French, an adjunct scientist at the National Museum of Natural History, announced the discovery last month. His research built on the work of geologists from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources began several years ago. Aerial surveys conducted this year provided more evidence of the meteor crater, Science Daily reported today.

Scientists estimate that the meteor smashed into what is now northeast Iowa approximately 470 million years ago, during the Ordovician geologic period. That’s way before the age of dinosaurs–in fact, before any amphibians, bony fish, or reptiles appeared on earth. Quite a few meteors hit earth around this time, probably asteroid fragments created by a “massive collision in the asteroid belt beyond Mars.”

Rest in peace, Sally Ride

Sad news today: Sally Ride, who became the first American woman to go into space in 1983, has died of pancreatic cancer. Her official biography on her own website and on the NASA site describe her early training, two flights on the space shuttle, and later career. Since the 1980s, she worked as a physics professor, presidential science adviser, children’s author, and owner of a business promoting science education and projects. The New York Times posted a longer obituary.

A member of the National Women’s Hall of Fame, Ride inspired many women to pursue careers in science. Iowa native Peggy Whitson, who has logged more days in space and more hours in spacewalks than any other woman, was the keynote speaker at the 2008 Sally Ride Science Festival, established in 2006 to encourage middle school girls to study science, technology, engineering, or math.

Although I never dreamed of becoming an astronaut, I was excited to see a woman join a space shuttle crew, just like every girl I knew. Any memories about Sally Ride’s impact are welcome in this thread. UPDATE: A lot of people on Twitter have commented that due to the federal Defense of Marriage Act, Ride’s partner of 27 years will not get the same benefits as other astronauts’ widows.

Weekend open thread: The importance of the basics

What’s on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? My favorite story of the past week is the possible discovery of the Higgs particle, which would be a huge advance for physics.

Also on my radar: the embarrassing end of Representative Thad McCotter’s political career. The onetime presidential candidate (noticed by few Iowans besides former House Speaker Chris Rants) resigned from Congress. His days as a legislator were numbered anyway, because of his failure to accomplish one of the most basic campaign tasks: collecting enough signatures to qualify for the primary ballot.

Clips are after the jump. This is an open thread.

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Weekend open thread: Stephen Hawking birthday edition

What’s on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? Today is Stephen Hawking’s 70th birthday. The Mirror published 17 things “you need to know” about the renowned physicist. I haven’t read A Brief History of Time or any of Hawking’s other publications for adults, but my kids and I are big fans of the three children’s books he co-wrote with his daughter, Lucy Hawking: George’s Secret Key to the Universe, George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt, and George and the Big Bang. Highly recommended for children with any interest in science, especially if they are fascinated by space travel or the solar system.

Doctors do not know why Hawking has lived for so many years with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He has credited the excellent care he has received through Britain’s National Health Service. In a 2009 editorial against government-run health care, the American conservative publication Investor’s Business Daily claimed that a person with physical handicaps like Hawking’s “wouldn’t have a chance in the UK.”

This is an open thread; all topics welcome. After the jump I’ve posted excerpts from yet another reaction to Stephen Bloom’s harsh commentary on Iowa for The Atlantic monthly. This one is by Peter Feldstein, who co-authored The Oxford Project with Bloom. Bleeding Heartland readers discussed Bloom’s essay a few weeks ago in this thread.  

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New thread on Obama appointments: labor, trade and science

News about several more key appointments by President-elect Barack Obama emerged today. His choice for Secretary of Labor will be Representative Hilda Solis of California, a bit of a surprise since she didn’t seem to be on any of the short lists leaked so far.

Solis comes from a union family and is a passionate supporter of the Employee Free Choice Act (also known as “card check,” which would make it easier to organize workers in non-union workplaces). Her voting record on labor issues is very solid.

TomP has more background on Solis, including YouTubes.

Ideally, Obama would have introduced his Labor Secretary along with the rest of his economic team to underscore the importance of the job, but I’m not going to quibble about the timing. This is a very solid appointment. I assume that Solis would not give up a safe House seat unless Obama had given her some assurances that he would keep his campaign promise to pass the Employee Free Choice Act.

Speaking of which, Representative Xavier Becerra of California declined Obama’s offer to become U.S. Trade Representative a few days ago. It was a smart move, as Becerra has a chance to become Speaker of the House someday. Today Obama offered that job to former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, who had previously been mentioned as a possible candidate for Secretary of Transportation.

Obama made some campaign promises about replacing “free trade” with “fair trade,” but it’s not clear whether choosing Kirk signals a plan to retreat from those promises. The Wall Street Journal argued that

By naming Mr. Kirk, Mr. Obama nodded to the free-trade wing of the Democratic Party, which is small but has important ties to business.

Solis is firmly in the “fair trade” camp of the Democratic Party.

Obama’s chief science adviser will be the physicist John Holdren, an internationally-renowned expert on energy and climate issues. He is apparently a highly effective communicator as well as a brilliant scientist.

Obama also has chosen Oregon State University professor Jane Lubchenco to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a very large agency within the Commerce Department. The Deep Sea News blog ran with the headline, “Obama Appoints Totally Awesome Marine Biologist to Head NOAA!”

Holy Mola! I can’t contain my excitement about this appointment. Her work in marine ecology and conservation is seminal and her involvement in science outreach is phenomenal. This marks a new era for NOAA indeed. I am very excited to see where she takes the agency. Yet again, another amazing Obama appointment. It feels so strange to have a president who respects science and appoints highly qualified people to important posts.

It’s looking more and more like Obama is serious about tackling the global warming problem. But can any of the highly qualified scientists he’s appointed talk him out of promoting “clean coal”?

UPDATE: Reuters says Obama “has chosen retired Navy Adm. Dennis Blair as the top U.S. intelligence official” and will announce that decision soon.

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