Monday, July 28, 2014

Is the Yellowstone Volcano Overdue?

For a while people have been saying that the Yellowstone volcano is overdue for an eruption. The figures thrown around have been between 40,000 and 60,000 years overdue.

Wait, Yellowstone is a volcano? Yup.

In fact, Yellowstone National Park is primarily a part of the Yellowstone Caldera, a massive volcano which measures 34 by 45 miles (1,530 sq. mi.) in size. Because it is so large, it lacks the commonly recognizable features of a volcano and it took geologists a long time to really figure out the scope of what Yellowstone was. Yellowstone is of course famous for its geysers, hot springs, and mud pots. All of those incredible sights, which have amazed onlookers for centuries and attracts well over 3 million visitors a year, belies the fact that this natural wonder is a very special type of volcano (a super volcano) with the potential for a very special and destructive type of eruption: a super eruption.

The visible features of the caldera, like geysers, boiling springs, and the countless small earthquakes are all evidence to the reality that Yellowstone sits atop a magma chamber 6,600 cubic miles in volume! For some perspective, that's enough to stuff to build a wall 1 mile high and a mile wide that stretches from New York to Afghanistan.

As we all know, the Earth's crust moves over an ocean of liquid rock thousands of miles deep. Because the crust is relatively thin, it can break and fracture which creates the various tectonic plates and fault lines, and causes earthquakes, and volcanoes. There are certain places where magma (the molten rock making up the mantle) concentrates in the upper reaches of the mantle and remains for millions of years, like a giant boiling pillar of fiery death. As the crust moves over these "hotspots", long chains of volcanoes form. The best known hotspot lies under Hawai'i and it's why there are a series of volcanic islands. Yellowstone is another such hotspot, and over the past 16 million years there have been seven major calderas which formed as the crust moved (right to left) over the relatively stagnant hotspot. This has actually left the region with an arch of extinct volcanoes and the current active caldera which formed 2.1 million years ago.

(Location of the Yellowstone hotspot over time. Number indicates millions of years before present.)

As I said, the current active Yellowstone caldera formed 2.1 million years ago as the product of the last three super eruptions which were, 2.1 million, 1.3 million, and 640,000 years ago respectively. The last super eruption which occurred created the Lava Creek Tuff formation, a layer of volcanic debris and ash which covered an area some 1,500 miles wide at its greatest extent. Such super eruptions can cause total chaos, alter global climate, and if one were to happen today, millions could die in the US within a few months and many more across world as "the world's breadbasket" (America's plains) became inhospitable to plant life. 

Doing some quick figuring - 3 eruptions over 2.1 million years - one see that these eruptions happen about once every 700,000 years, and since the last one was 640,000 years ago, we find that Yellowstone is not "overdue". In fact, the differences between the first and second eruptions and the second and third eruptions are 800,000 and 660,000 years respectively. This makes the average interval more like 730,000 years. The "40,000 years overdue" myth comes from a common misconception that the eruptions occur every 600,000 years. 

Humans love stability and predictability, but the world in which we live is neither stable nor precisely predictable. While there have only been 3 super eruptions in the last 2.1 million years, Yellowstone has had smaller eruptions as early as 2,270 years ago and others as far back as 16.1 million years ago. Although hotspots may last for millions of years, they do dissipate, and just like volcanoes, none last forever. There is no guarantee that any volcano will erupt again, and certainly there is nothing saying it "must" erupt. Indeed there is no such thing as an overdue eruption, earthquake, or asteroid hit. We assign odds and averages just to help us contextualize things which are far out of our control and that rarely have any real predictability.

In Yellowstone, things like earthquake swarms and ground swells could signal an impending eruption, but more often than not, when these events happen they tend not to be connected to one another. 

Only time will tell if Yellowstone will blow its top and send us all to our doom. The reality is, it could happen tomorrow, or 90,000 years from now, or never. The odds of it happening in any given year are 1 in 730,000 and the odds that we could actually do something about it are something like 1 in 2,948,321,110,479.5

So no, it is not overdue. Sit back and relax, or better yet, take a vacation to Yellowstone and see the awesome natural beauty that 6,600 cubic miles of magma can produce. 

Further Reading

Future Activity at Yellowstone, U.S. Geological Survey

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Gardasil Kills 1 out of 912. True or False?

GARDASIL® is a vaccine manufactured by MERCK which is used to prevent certain strains of HPV (human paploma virus), a virus which has infected 79 million Americans, with 14 million new cases per year, and is a major cause of cervical cancer (70%), as well as several other cancers. Gardasil was approved in the U.S. in 2008 and has been approved for use in 120 other countries.

As with all vaccines, there seems to be an ever increasing fear of them and people love to spread dramatic and scary memes across the interworlds to "prove" the evils of the anti-vax flavor of the month. The fight against Gardasil began immediately, but I'd like to take the time to address a specific claim.

The "Common Sense Show" and "Liberty Beacon" websites have "fact" laden articles about the dangers of Gardasil and attack the evil pharmaceutical industry for making money off the corpses of your slaughtered daughters. Most of the outrage seems to stem from page 8 of the Gardasil product information pamphlet. And their conclusion is that the vaccine kills 1 out of every 912 patients.

So, let's look at page 8.

The results of clinical trials reported looked at 29,323 patients. Of those, 15,706 were actually given the vaccine, 13,023 were given a control, and 594 were given a saline (salt water) placebo. The control was amorphous aluminum hydroxyphosphate sulfate (AAHS), which is a commonly given drug to enhance immune activity.

Of the 258 "adverse effects" listed, 128 (0.8%) were from those given the vaccine and 130 (1%) came from those given the control. Now, the definition of "adverse effects" is anything from a simple rash or headache, all the way up to infection and death. During clinical trials the entire health of the patients are looked at and they do not make the distinction between specifically proven connection and non-proven, because these particular studies aren't for that determination. They only allow you to see if there is a statistical likelihood of connection.

The most common adverse effect for those given the vaccine was appendicitis, with 5 cases or 0.03% of the total trial population.

For the deaths, there were 40 reported. Out of 15,706 people given the actual vaccine, 21 died or 0.1%. However, 38% of those deaths were NOT caused by the vaccine. As I said, they must report all injuries & deaths during these studies including: 5 from car crashes, 2 from suicide, and 1 from somebody getting shot. So really, the death rate that conceivably could be related to Gardasil (but not proven to be) was 0.08% - or 1 out of every 1,208.  For context, the overall death rate for the United States is 8 per 1,000! Cancer death rates tend to be far higher.

Plus, of the remaining 13 non-accident/self-inflicted deaths, five were from other types of cancers, 1 occurred after a surgery, and 1 died from some kind of chemical poisoning.


I cannot stress this enough, based on this report alone you can't make a determination that the vaccine caused the deaths. Which, makes the 1 in 912 figure completely out of context and false for the purposes of the claim that Gardasil caused these deaths. I'm also not sure where the 1 in 912 figure comes from: as noted, the death rate for those given the vaccine (21 out of 15,706) is 1 out of 1,208, and the death rate for the whole trial (40 out of 29,323) equals 1 in 1,396.

As I discussed in my flu vaccine entry, there is no such thing as a perfectly safe drug, be it man-made or naturally growing herbs. By definition, a drug/medication is any substance which alters the internal chemistry of the body to elicit a healthy outcome. There is no way to ensure a healthy outcome. It all boils down to risk vs. benefit. Each year, 225,000 women die from cervical cancer and a further 470,000 will develop the disease. Even in the United States, the fiver-year survivability rate is 68%, meaning you still have a 32% chance of dying.

You tell me which is the greater risk?

Regardless, I'm not here to debate anything other than the specific claim that Gardasil kills 1 out of every 912 people. The judgement is a resounding FALSE.  

Jacob Bogle, 6/21/14

Friday, February 7, 2014

"Jesus is English!" - Bachmann

There are several memes going around, primarily on Facebook, which claim Rep. Michele Bachmann said during a Fox News show, "if English was good enough for Jesus when he wrote the Bible, it should be good enough for Coke." The alleged quote is in response to the controversy over Coca Cola's Superbowl commercial in which the song "America the Beautiful" is sung by various people in their native languages.

There is also a related meme purporting to quote Rep. Bachmann defending herself in making the original statement, also on Fox News - of course.

The source of this image is the Facebook group "Christians for Michele Bachmann". However, after looking through the posts made by the group it becomes very obvious, or perhaps not so obvious, that the group is about nothing more than satire - at worst they're deliberately trying to spread lies and misinformation. What I find more disturbing is that the image has been shared nearly 30,000 times directly (and who knows how many indirect shares, reposts etc.) and that people are using it as "evidence" of Rep. Bachmann's "stupidity" and the dangers of organized religion. 

No matter where you stand on Rep. Bachmann or religion, I find it disgusting that people are using something with no verification to support & promote a certain position. Spreading lies, rumors, misinformation, etc. all leads to the further degradation of available information, entrenching division, hatred, and causes undue to harm to the reputation of very real human beings. If you think someone or something is stupid or wrong, use real evidence to back it up. There is no need to create lies. Doing so is beyond childish.

As for the statement itself, the phrase "if English was good enough for Jesus...." has actually been floating around the Internet for years and has been attributed to dozens of other people, each time with a different ending. The phrase itself however goes back even further. Miriam Ferguson (1875-1964) is alleged to have said, sometime in the 1920s, "if English was good enough for Jesus, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas" speaking in reference to bilingual schools. Although variations of the phrase might actually go back to the 1880s and used derogatorily against Christians, and could make it very unlikely that Ferguson was actually the originator of the phrase. 

I know people can't help themselves but to spread funny or shocking memes, especially if it re-enforces their own prejudices. But as a rule of thumb, if it sounds too idiotic or shocking - fact check it! Try to find a real news article, or a video showing the person actually saying it. If a politician, or anyone in the public light, truly said something completely insane you can be sure that the news media will pick it up and their detractors would run with it. So do us all a favor, take 30 bloody seconds and make sure what you're about to post is true.

--Jacob Bogle, 2/7/14