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studies appear to have been ideologically against G.M.O.s, and the studies have been found to flawed and has largely been retracted (including the much spoken about 2012 rat study from France).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.


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.


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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