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October 18, 2013

Private Food Inspectors Aren't The Solution, They're The Problem

Hiring your own inspectors--like hiring your own ratings agency--is a massive conflict of interest. It's also standard industry practice. Melon Farmers Sue Private Inspector For Giving Them 'Superior' Rating Months Before Deadly Outbreak | ThinkProgress
Months before spawning a listeria outbreak that killed 33 people, Jensen Farms passed an audit with flying colors. Now, the Jensen brothers are suing the private auditors, Primus Group, as the farmers face criminal charges in federal court next week. The Jensens plan to turn over any money received in the lawsuit to victims. Last year, a Congressional probe blamed the deadly outbreak both on Jensen Farms’ melons and on Primus Group’s auditors, who inspected the farm in July 2011, two months before the outbreak and gave it a 96 percent rating. The auditors had initially visited the farm in 2010 and told the Jensens to replace their cooling system. The brothers installed a new system that ended up violating U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines, but auditors never raised any concerns. Private audit firms are hired by food companies to supplement government inspections and ensure suppliers’ facilities are clean and safe. But as the Congressional report found, these audit firms are often riddled with conflicts of interest and “represent a significant gap in the food safety system.” Because private auditors are paid by the very companies they are supposed to scrutinize, cases like Jensen Farms are far from unusual. A Texas peanut plant received a “superior” rating shortly before its salmonella-tainted peanut paste sickened 600 people in 2009. An egg-packing plant got the same “superior” rating in 2010, two months before the company was included in the largest known egg recall in the U.S. FDA inspectors who later visited the egg plant found rampant vermin, dead chickens scattered all over the floor, and 8-foot high manure piles seeping through the floor.

October 17, 2013

2M year-old Homo Erectus skulls suggest we've been misclassifying our ancestors

Skull of Homo erectus throws story of human evolution into disarray | Science | theguardian.com
The latest skull discovered in Dmanisi belonged to an adult male and was the largest of the haul. It had a long face and big, chunky teeth. But at just under 550 cubic centimetres, it also had the smallest braincase of all the individuals found at the site. The dimensions were so strange that one scientist at the site joked that they should leave it in the ground. The odd dimensions of the fossil prompted the team to look at normal skull variation, both in modern humans and chimps, to see how they compared. They found that while the Dmanisi skulls looked different to one another, the variations were no greater than those seen among modern people and among chimps. The scientists went on to compare the Dmanisi remains with those of supposedly different species of human ancestor that lived in Africa at the time. They concluded that the variation among them was no greater than that seen at Dmanisi. Rather than being separate species, the human ancestors found in Africa from the same period may simply be normal variants of H erectus. "Everything that lived at the time of the Dmanisi was probably just Homo erectus," said Prof Zollikofer. "We are not saying that palaeoanthropologists did things wrong in Africa, but they didn't have the reference we have. Part of the community will like it, but for another part it will be shocking news."

October 16, 2013

“When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger”

The Backfire Effect : Columbia Journalism Review
As I detailed in a recent column, the backfire effect makes it difficult for the press to effectively debunk misinformation. We present facts and evidence, and it often does nothing to change people’s minds. In fact, it can make people dig in even more. Humans also engage in motivated reasoning, a tendency to let emotions “set us on a course of thinking that’s highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about”. These two important cognitive effects can have a significant impact on society and debates in the public sphere. They also end up negating some of the debunking and reporting work done by the press. My recent attempts to understand the backfire effect and motivated reasoning has transformed into a search for ways to combat these entrenched human phenomena. I sought out Reifler, an assistant professor of political science at Georgia State University, to learn more about his and his colleagues’ findings regarding affirmative statements and their effect of the Obama Muslim myth. I asked him if there are other other ways of presenting information that can debunk lies. “I’m sure that there are but I don’t know what they are,” he told me, ever the cautious researcher. Nevertheless, he did offer some encouragement. “I think we’re moving in that direction,” he says.