Sunday, January 05, 2014

Fear and uncertainty in politics

The New York Times has a long and interesting article about one politicians truth seeking process, when trying to decide what to vote on the issue of a ban on genetically modified crops in Hawaii.

A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops

It is not unreasonable to have some concerns when discussing genetically modified crops, especially related to cross-pollination, patents, and the business practices of the companies providing such crops. All of these things are touched upon in the article, as the politician, Greggor Ilagan, tries to understand the issue, and the science relating to it.

Unfortunately, as Mr. Ilagan, also finds out, there is a lot of FUD (Fear-Uncertainty-Doubt) going on when it comes to G.M.O.s. None of it fact-based, but it sounds just plausible enough that people will believe it (especially when used in connection to phrases like "Frankencrops").

There have been some studies that indicates higher risks of cancer when eating G.M.O.s, but the scientists behind these studies appear to have been ideologically against G.M.O.s, and the studies have been found to flawed and has largely been retracted (including the much spoken about 2012 rat study from France). Indeed, the general consensus among scientists doing research into the subject, is that there is no difference in risks between conventional crops and modified crops - something which is hardly surprising, considering the biology behind it.

In 2010, the European Commission (hardly a strong proponent of G.M.O.s) released their research into the harms from G.M.O. In the press release it was described thus:
In order to help inform debate on genetically modified organisms, the European Commission is publishing today a compendium entitled "A decade of EU-funded GMO research". The book summarizes the results of 50 research projects addressing primarily the safety of GMOs for the environment and for animal and human health. Launched between 2001 and 2010, these projects received funding of €200 million from the EU and form part of a 25-year long research effort on GMOs.
As I said before, the EU and the European Commission can hardly be considered strong proponents of G.M.O.s. Indeed they put off allowing G.M.O.s for a long time, while researching the potential side-effects. This is part of the general principle of caution, under which the EU usually handles these things - in the EU it generally has to be demonstrated that there are no harmful side-effects, before it is allowed, while in the US, the tendency is to demand that a harmful side-effect be proven, before not allowing it.

The summarization of 25 years of research into the potential side-effects of G.M.O.s was summed up thus in the press release:
According to the projects' results, there is, as of today, no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.
I highly recommend downloading and reading the book (pdf).

Back to the NY Times article. Mr. Ilagan spent the time necessary, and talked to the people with the proper expertize, in order to get to understand the subject well enough to make an informed vote. He appears to have been alone, or nearly alone, in this, and instead the anti-science ignorance spread by anti-GMO advocates were allowed to carry the day. The ban was approved 6 votes to 3.

Many issues related to science are complex, and it is even harder to get to understand them when there are people actively promoting misinformation, no matter whether they are grassroots organizations or think-tanks.

When politicians face decision making relating to such an issue, they could much worse than try to follow in the footsteps of Mr. Ilagan. As the EC compendium correctly states:
Sound policy, while needing to take account of a wide range of views, must be based on sound science.
All to often, anti-science is allowed to carry the day.

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Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Acceptance of evolution in the US

There is a new Pew survey on the US Public’s Views on Human Evolution.

As these surveys tend to be, it is depressing reading for science-minded people.

According to the survey, 60% of the US public believes that humans have evolved over time, while 33% thinks that humans have existed in the present form since the beginning.

This means that 1/3 of the US population doesn't accept the evidence for human evolution.

While this number is lower than in other polls, it is still a depressingly high number of people who simply disregards what science shows us, and instead goes for something which there is not just no evidence for, but something which there is actual evidence against!

It probably comes as no surprise to you that the acceptance of evolution very much depends on peoples' religious view, with unaffiliated and white mainline protestants having the highest acceptance rates (76% and 78% respectively) and white evangelical protestants having the lowest (just 27%).

White evangelical protestants are quite influential on the Republican party, and help define their policies - also on scientific issues. This might explain why the acceptance of evolution among GOP voters have dropped from 54% in 2009 to just 43% now, and the belief that humans haven't changed over time, have gone up from 39% in 2009 to 48% now.

The survey clearly indicates just how damaging it would be to sound science if the GOP got into power.

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Spreading awareness and minimizing stigma

This blogpost is one I have wanted to write for a while, but also one which I haven't quite know how to write, so I appologize in advance for it probably being a bit incoherent.

It is no secret that there is a history of alcoholism in my family. Specifically, my father was an alcoholic, and died as a direct result of his alcoholism (he fell and broke his neck while drunk). This happened a long time after I moved away from home, and during my childhood, my father mostly managed to stay away from alcohol, though with several yearly drinking binges. In other words, growing up, I only suffered mildly from the consequences of my father's alcoholism.

This might be part of the reason why I have never been ashamed of the fact that my father was an alcoholic. Obviously, I didn't like the fact, especially not after he started drinking heavily around the time I was 25 or so, but it was nothing I felt I had to be ashamed of.

When talking with other people, and mentioned the fact that my father was an alcoholic, I have found out that I am not typical in this. Many people who have had, or have, an alcoholic parent or grandparent, feels ashamed of it, and don't mention it. Except they did, when I had told that my father was one, but then only in privacy.

I found out that a lot of people have experienced alcoholism pretty closely, yet have been afraid to open up to other people because of the social stigma associated with it. This has left them to try to cope on their own, often at great personal costs.

This is a problem.

A problem which we should try to do something about.

Social stigmas like this are destructive, and blocks people from seeking help and support when needed.

One great thing about the Internet is now we can use it to share our stories and spread awareness of something, trying to help others overcome their fear of a stigma, in order to help them in the long run, or even in the short run.

One example of someone who has done so is the YouTube vlogger HappiLeeErin, who usually talks about Manga, but who in June 2013 posted a deeply personal video about her struggles with bi-polar disorder.

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Several people have posted in the comment section that the video has helped them seek the help that they needed.

Please don't use ad-block or scriptblocking when viewing the video, as it will ensure that HappiLeeErin doesn't get paid for the views, which in turn, makes it harder for her to do work helping other people.

Another YouTube vlogger who has posted about her disorders in order to help other people is Courtneypants, who in May 2013 posted about her eating disorders.

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Before then, she had posted about her problems with trichotillomania.



Internet personality and actor Wil Wheaton has also opened up about his problems. In this case with depression.

When YouTube vloggers like HappiLeeErin and Courtneypants and personalities like Wil Wheaton open up about these problems, they are helping other people that they are not alone, and that it is OK to seek help if they feel they need it.

Given the current social stigmas that are connected to these issues, I don't think everybody can be as brave and open about their problems as the people I've mentioned above, but I think it is important that the people who are able to do, do it, so we can help remove the stigma, and help people who need help.

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Happy New Year

It is currently morning on January 1st in Denmark, so I guess it is appropriate to wish you all a happy new year and the best of luck in 2014.

2013 was in many ways a horrible year in the geopolitical sense, but from a personal perspective, 2013 was a quite good year, and I see no reason why 2014 should prove any different.

My personal goals for 2014 are the following:
  • Finish a book project I am working on with an ex-colleague. Hopefully get it published as well, but let's see how it turns out in the end.
  • Participate in a couple of work-related conferences.
  • Go to Skepticon.
  • Travel as much as I can get away with (probably some weekend trips in Europe rather than prolonged trips).
  • Read at least 52 books.
  • Watch at least 52 movies.
  • Discover one new band per month.
  • Loose some weight and get in better shape.
    • Related to this, stop drinking Coke. 
  • Write on average 1 hour per day on either my blogs or on the book project.
  • Start a new work-related blog on a new blogging network which is planned to start in 2014.
  • Be awesome at work.
  • See my friends as much as it is possible.
  • Organize some great events for Copenhagen Skeptics in the Pub together with my co-hosts.
I am also considering going to QED, but I simply don't know if I will be able to fit it into my schedule.

All in all, a fairly moderate list, which should be do-able. Being do-able has always seemed to me to be a good quality when you evaluate potential goals.

Do any of you have some interesting goals you want to share?

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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Lazy linking - gotta catch up

Here are a few links which has caught my attention the last few days (all links open in new windows).

Annals of the Malaria War: Legions of Health Workers Launch an Attack - an interesting blogpost on the fight against malaria going on in Africa.

These Nuclear Physicists Think David Suzuki Is Exaggerating about Fukushima - I don't generally link to Vice, which I think is generally a horrible magazine, but this article is actually pretty interesting. They interview other nuclear physicists about the claims made by David Suzuki about Fukushima. Good skeptical journalism.

Groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers
I can't remember if I've linked this one before, since it is a pretty old article, but it is well worth reading - it explains why diversity is a good thing. I will probably write a blogpost about this at some stage.

The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killers - not science related, just history related.

Rachel Maddow Nails How Utterly Nutty Wis GOP Has Become (Now With Even More Voter Suppression). I think it is safe to say that certain parts of the GOP is not exactly trying to ensure that they represent the interest of all the citizens, or even the majority.

In the Ivory Tower, Men Only. "For men, having children is a career advantage. For women, it’s a career killer."

Why insurance is the wrong model for health care. It cannot be repeated often enough.

Reducing the World's Most Powerful Woman to a Dress. As I wrote on facebook when posting this link:
  1. It is extremely US-centric. A candidate for heading the Federal Reserve is hardly the most powerful woman in a world where Angela Merkel is the chancellor of Germany.
  2. That being said, the greater point of the article still stand - why are there different standards for men and women?
Occupy Wall Street activists buy $15m of Americans' personal debt


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Twisted justice in Texas

This is an interesting story - a group of people are breaking the law in order to kill other people. Only, they are not the usual sort of people doing this, but rather they are officials from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and the people they are trying to kill, is the people on Death Row.

Death penalty states scramble for lethal injection drugs

Texas, which declined to comment on the pending case, is among 32 death-penalty states scrambling to find new drug protocols after European-based manufacturers banned U.S. prisons from using their drugs in executions -- among them, Danish-based Lundbeck, which manufactures pentobarbital. 
"The states are scrambling to find the drugs," says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center. "They want to carry out these executions that they have scheduled, but they don't have the drugs and they're changing and trying new procedures never used before in the history of executions." 
States have been forced to try new drug combinations or go to loosely regulated compounding pharmacies that manufacturer variations of the drugs banned by the larger companies. The suit against Texas alleges the state corrections department falsified a prescription for pentobarbital, including the patient name as "James Jones," the warden of the Huntsville Unit "where executions take place," according to court documents. Additionally, the drugs were to be sent to "Huntsville Unit Hospital," which, the documents say, "has not existed since 1983."
In short, a number of US states don't have the drugs they use to execute people any longer, after European companies have banned the use of those drugs for that purpose - the companies in question are threatening to stop exporting the drugs to the US if they are used to kill people.

In response, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has, allegedly, tried to get the drugs in illegal ways.

Yes, you read that right: The Texas Department of Criminal Justice allegedly breaks the law in order to execute people.

I cannot even begin to understand the twisted priorities of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice - it is more important to them that people get executed than obeying the law they are supposed to help uphold!

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Saturday, November 16, 2013

Speaking out and listening

I came across an article on Everyday Feminism called Your Silence Will Not Protect You, where the author talks about how she lost a few friends because she started to speak out against the everyday racism she encountered from her friends.

It is a good article, explaining the perspective of someone who speaks out against the privileged and thus makes herself marginalized

You, as a person of privilege, must understand that it’s hard, especially if the person in question is a friend, to raise issues regarding what makes marginalized people uncomfortable about oppressive behavior. 
One of the reasons for that is that when we raise our discomfort about being othered, we other ourselves. 
We automatically become the one person of the group who can’t take a joke, the one who is too sensitive, the bitchy or the angry one.
As I've said before, I speak from a position of privilege, nearly extremely so - I am a white heterosexual man, who doesn't have to worry economically, since I am living in a welfare state. Even so, I feel how I get marginalized when I speak out against other peoples' behavior - I am the one who cannot take a joke, who is too sensitive etc.

I am lucky enough that I generally don't have to worry about what other people think of me, but even so, I find it hard to keep on fighting against racism, homobigotry and sexism all the time, and not just letting it slide once in a while. The reason I don't, is because I want to help other people to not feel marginalized, and because I want to do mine to change society. And I can only do this by keeping speaking out, every time I come across such things.

That, and listening when other people speak out. Speak out against something I do or say. Against my blunders, which I'll never notice from my privileged position. This is how I can become better at helping, at changing the world for the better.

All too often, people will fight for something only as long as they feel good about themselves. They will proudly declare themselves allies of whatever group they claim to be helping, but instead of speaking for or with that group, they will speak over and instead of that group. This is not helping them - it is taking their cause and using it to feed your ego. If someone points this out to an "ally" that they are doing this, they will refuse to listen, and put their ego on full display.

This is not how one helps other people.

Instead, stop up and listen - listen and learn. We all make mistakes, and everybody knows this, but if we want to help, we apologize and try to correct those mistakes.

So, going back to the original article - if you ever find yourself in a position where someone from a marginalized group tells your that your behavior makes them uncomfortable, remember to listen, and try to keep the advice from the writer in mind.
Also, remember that an apologize can make a big difference (and learn the difference between an apology and a non-pology).

Monday, August 12, 2013

Water.org

Like most(?) other people who can afford it, I donate money to charities when I come across something which I support. Since I haven't really focused on one charity or other, it means my spending has been a bit shatter shot, and probably hasn't been put to the best use.

This year I decided to do something different - instead of donating money to several charities, I decided to donate to just one - water.org. Not only that, I've created an campaign, where I can keep track of what I've donated (and where others can donate as well).

Water.org does an incredible job of helping people getting clean water, often enabling children to go to school instead of spending all their time carrying water back to their home.

If you have some spare money, and want to support a good cause, I can certainly recommend this particular charity (which is secular).

Part of my concept is that what I donate should at least match what I spend on t-shirts and books, since I have too many of these things, and instead should try to help others. In all honesty, I am a bit behind on this, so expect my donations to go up a bit before the campaign finish.

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Lazy linking - catching up edition

A few things I've come across recently, which I thought might be of interest for others.

Paul Krugman explains how the legacy of Milton Friedman is getting eroded in today's GOP: Milton Friedman, Unperson

If you're on facebook, you've probably come across posts which claims that court rulings have shown that there is a link between autism and MMR vaccinations. As anyone with a minimum of science literacy knows, that's not the right venue for such things to be decided. Even so, Emily Willingham explains at greather length, why the claim is nonsense in Court Rulings Don't Confirm Autism-Vaccine Link

A chart telling the difference between extroverts and introverts, but with input from an extrovert.

I've always been a bit in awe over Randall Munroe's work ethics when it comes to his fantastic online comic xkcd, and my awe certainly didn't become lesser when I read this Wired article about his epic 3,099 panel comic.

Researcher David Kriesel has found problems with numbers being substituted when scanning on certain Xerox scanners. Xerox has looked into it, and have confirmed that there seems to be a problem - they are working on a software patch.

I expect that everybody, and their dog, have already seen this, but anyway: An Open Letter to David Cameron and the IOC

Via Jill - The Ghost Rapes of Bolivia (trigger warning: rape)

And finally: the most important map of Europe you'll see today!


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It has been awfully quiet around here

I know, it has been awfully quiet around here, and I am a bit unhappy about that, but I hit outrage fatigue at some point, and I seem to have gotten into the habbit of being an ex-blogger.

Will this change? I hope so. I have a few subjects I want to write about, but right now, it would feel wrong to write about anything else than about the horrible stories we have heard about high profile skeptics.

If I did that, I would quickly be heading towards outrage fatigue again, burned out by my rage against the scum who sexual harass and assault people, covering behind their status in the community. This is not the way I think I should go, so I think I will wait a bit before starting writing again - at least about that subject.

Until then, I hope I can get back to some light blogging, hopefully about science and international politics.

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