A humble little blog about books, information, and other things that are good to know.

Posts tagged ‘science’

Vaccine Hysteria!

The vaccination panic

Image via Pat Dollard.

There’s a massive community out there in Internet-land that wants to spread the news: vaccination is unhealthy. Vaccines are full of poisons that will hurt your children. Vaccines cause autism. And so on, and so forth.

Recently, the link between autism and vaccination showed up in the news when the medical journal The Lancet rescinded the well-known Wakefield study, the foundational study linking autism to vaccination. Essentially, the scientists who publish that journal have said they never should have published the study in the first place. But there are people out there who hold the truth of Wakefield’s conclusions as firmly as a religious tenet, and it will take more than a respected medical journal’s authoritative say-so to convince them that vaccines aren’t causing autism in children.


The Demon-Haunted World

"The Demon-Haunted World" by Carl Sagan

Image via Nullius in Verba.

Title: The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle in the Dark

Author: Carl Sagan (my hero!)

Year of Publication: 1996

Genre Keywords: alien abduction, aliens, astrology, belief, credulity, critical thinking, culture, debunking, false memory, ghosts, hallucinations, history, human error, logic, reason, religion, science, skepticism, thought.

Summary: Brilliant popular scientist Carl Sagan takes on a culture of logical laziness in this readable and eloquent volume all about the errors we as human beings make in knowing and interpreting the world around us. He describes typical thinking errors like confirmation bias (our tendency to give more weight to information that supports what we want to believe), inconsistent logic, or confusion between correlation and causation. Along the way, he takes the American government and educational system to task for failing to create a citizen base with the knowledge required to think critically about information presented to them. He acknowledges, though, that it’s hard for governments to promote critical thought, lest they find themselves held accountable by a tough-to-manipulate electorate. For this reason and many others, Sagan argues convincingly, the world needs more skeptics, ready and willing to ask questions and ruthlessly demand the facts.

Who’ll Love It: If you’ve ever made the decision to doubt the received wisdom of any of the authorities in your world, at least some of Sagan’s words will resonate with you. Certainly he’s got a way with words and some highly amusing anecdotes. And fans of the Cosmos television series will practically hear his voice coming through the pages! But be warned – Sagan, like a proper skeptic, holds nothing sacred, and he does discuss ideas that will challenge any reader who takes anything on faith.

Carl Sagan is the reason Richard Dawkins and I agree on anything. Dawkins said in his review of the book, “My candidate for planetary ambassador can be none other than Carl Sagan himself”. Amen! (Can you say ‘amen’ to Richard Dawkins?)

Want More? If Sagan’s words resonate deeply with you, or if they whet your curiosity and you’d like to learn more, I recommend the Center for Inquiry as a great resource. I’ve been following their “Point of Inquiry” podcast, and I find it fascinating, intelligent, and appealing. And I’ve just learned they have another pocast, “Center Stage” – I’m headed straight to iTunes to sign on. Check out their website for more on the very ideas Carl Sagan talks about in this book.



Image via Fantastic Fiction.

Title: Creature

Author: John Saul

Year of Publication: 1989

Genre Keywords: conspiracy, corporate, experiments, Frankenstein, high school, horror, medicine, popularity, science, sports, suspense, techno-thriller, teen, thriller.

Summary: A corporate promotion lands the Tanner family in a gorgeous company town nestled in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. Everything there seems perfect . . . but is it a little too perfect? The family’s eldest son, Mark Tanner, doesn’t have a chance to think about it; he’s too busy not fitting in. Short and scrawny in a high school full of athletic superstars, he’d rather be exploring nature or caring for his pet rabbits than roughhousing on the football field. Still, when the local sports clinic offers to help him boost his growth, he decides he’s tired of being the runt of the litter and signs on for a treatment program. Maybe that’s not the best idea, though, because it seems like one of the other boys getting treated is growing out of control, in every sense of the word.

Who’ll Love It: It’s not technical or scientific enough that people with no background will be lost, nor is it saturated in sports jargon so that you have to understand football to follow the action. Rather, it’s a story with fairly universal themes and a fairly wide appeal amongst horror fans (which, granted, is a fairly specialized genre to begin). Be prepared to marvel at the callousness of the sports clinic’s employees and the corporation running the town.

Themes for Thought: The Frankenstein medical-science theme is obvious – a classic cautionary tale about delving into science without enough respect for human life. But are there other cautionary tales here? Sports can be a deep obsession in North America, leading to physical and psychological injury for players and those who aren’t able to compete. (Consider the ever-expanding archetypal tale of popular athletes picking on the nerds and misfits.) And on a more literal level, think about all the stories in the news lately about athletes caught doctoring their bodies with performance-enhancing drugs. Perhaps the fictional medicine described in the novel is representative of ethical boundaries being breached in the sports world every day. Think about it . . .

Science Rules!

Bill Nye the Science Guy

Image via the American Association of Amateur Astronomers.

It’s something we tend to forget over the course of a long educational process, when science becomes serious business. But watching old episodes of Bill Nye the Science Guy has reminded me that, as he notes in his opening montage, “Science rules!”

There’s no reason why librarians – or anybody who wants to get kids engaged with learning about the world around them – couldn’t use that to advantage. Why not build a science demo around a cool science video? With Bill Nye, Mythbusters, Monster Quest, Mystery Quest, and hordes of other “this-ain’t-your-parents’-science-class-video” shows available, there’s plenty of choice.


Eggheads Have A Long Shelf Life

Eggs with faces sprouting cress for hair - a rather cool craft idea!

Eggheads sprout good ideas - and a healthier Canada. Image and concept courtesy of Youthwork Practice's craft page.

The latest issue of MacLean’s magazine (August 16, 2010) has a can’t-be-missed article about the direction Stephen Harper’s leadership is taking, and Canadians who believe in the value of critical thinking should pay attention. “Cracking Eggheads”, with a byline by Paul Wells, calls itself an article about “why Stephen Harper thinks he’s smarter than the experts on everything”.

The scary thing, though, is how the current system of government lends itself pretty handily to situations where it’s in a politician’s best interests to do what looks good on TV instead of what experts have shown will actually bring about the desired result. This could turn into a long-term trend in no time flat.

Harper is a politician who wants to continue to have power, so he’s focused on the optics of his decision-making. It’s particularly strategic, now that Ignatieff is the Liberal leader, for him to contrast himself against the “ivory-tower egghead” image by presenting himself as a salt-of-the-earth, keep-it-simple sort of leader. Anybody who’s distrustful of academia will gravitate towards Harper almost instinctively.

Here’s an example of Harper’s modus operandi taken directly from Paul Wells’ article: economic experts designed a comprehensive multi-year system of tax cuts for investment and income, tailor-made for Canada  to gain an economic boost. The Conservatives touted it in 2004 and lost the election. In 2006, they decided to simplify and switched to a simple GST cut. Sure, the experts pretty much unanimously agreed it was a dumb idea. But voters resented GST and liked the idea of paying less of it, so Stephen Harper’s popularity spiked. Says Wells: “The GST promise helped them win, and Harper’s team learned to treat conventional wisdom among specialists with a certain disdain.”

Double Chocolate Cherry Cheesecake

Let them eat cake. Image courtesy of Raw Food Nation. (Click for recipe!)

Did we create this by our electoral choices? Are we, the Canadian people, at fault here? I’m not sure we should let ourselves off lightly and focus on criticizing Harper. This is politics at the level of electing a student body president, where popularity trumps good ideas and solid research. If we’re voting based on who’s telling us what we want to hear, rather than based on smart decision-making and leadership, we probably deserve what we get. And we give politicians no reason to approach us with solid, expert-backed ideas if we’re willing to vote for whatever guy is going to promote an easy-way-out option. It might not be a good solution, but does it ever look like fun to us. It’s the reason why the grapefruit diet will always be less popular than the chocolate-cherry-cheesecake weight loss plan.

Do I really need to point out that its popularity doesn’t make it a good decision?

To be fair, and to complicate the mix somewhat, we also have to think critically about why Maclean’s is criticizing Harper’s thinking. It’s certainly possible (maybe even probable) for a journalist or media outlet to exhibit bias. But if the facts reported are correct, Harper’s government is making political decisions that conflict with expert consensus across a broad range of issues – crime, drug control, taxation, climate change, even data collection itself. He’s taking the lazy road. But the job of any head of state is (ideally) to set up our society and government in such a way that our country can achieve its goals and succeed. That’s different from a politician’s job. A head of state has to set aside political ambition and run the country in the smartest way possible. But a politician’s only job is to win.

Stephen Harper is a politician, not a head of state. He tells us what we want to hear, and we lap it up.

But I for one am quite concerned about the implications of a government lacking the humility to accept the advice of experts on policies that touch on their own areas of expertise. What’s more, experts are impaired in their ability to monitor policy success without a comprehensive census, so we may not even be able to find out if the policies our so-called leaders select for us have done any good for Canadians. Without any hard data, we’re arguing in the realm of opinions instead of making smart choices about what to do. Taking the teeth out of the census has crippled Canadian experts. Which doesn’t matter, I suppose, if nobody’s listening to them anyway.

Except it should matter, and I’m even more concerned that our government values their short-term goal – staying in political power as long as possible – more than the nation’s long-term goal – moving towards a better future for all Canadians. We elected these people. We voted for politicians who have long stopped caring how the history books will describe them once they’re gone. They don’t care about their legacy, and neither do we.  Their main interest is in what web polls and the blogosphere are saying – their level of popularity. And by swallowing their sweet-sounding rhetoric instead of looking closely at expert critiques of their policies, we’re telling them that they’re right to do it. Making Canada a better country doesn’t matter. Image is everything.

If we’re such a short-sighted society, being led by short-sighted leaders, how can we possibly survive the challenges that face us in the near future?

This has become a society where information mows you down every time you step out the front door – and if you don’t, it’ll come through your window and find you. It’s past time for us to learn how to sift through that information and decide what constitutes real knowledge and what’s just talk. Gathering knowledge is smart political action. We have to think critically, inform ourselves about the issues, and refuse to make decisions based on sound bytes and shortcuts. Maybe if we make long-term consideration a priority, we can turn the tides and elect a government willing to do the same for Canada.

I’m not much of a drinker, but believe me, I’d drink to that.

Stephen Harper raises his glass for a toast.

Cheers, Canada! Image courtesy of Maclean's online.

Sex and the Soybean

Image created by Jacqueline Chai. Click to check out her work!

Just to make sure everyone knows where my biases stand on the question as a consumer of foodstuffs, I’m allergic to soybeans. I actually cannot eat them because of the protein content. (See phenylketonuria.)

But the librarian in me, which is committed to the value of critical thinking in eliminating misinformation, was fascinated by this article from Macleans.ca about whether soy can cause negative effects in those – especially men – who consume it. These negative effects? Homosexuality, shrinking penises, low sperm-count, and general feminization.

Really? Those are negative effects? Well, that’s the first critical-thinking problem I’d like to nip in the bud.

If you think becoming more feminine is the scary bugaboo it’s being considered in this and other health scares, I’m going to have to burst your bubble right now. The world takes all kinds of people, and it’s dealing in stereotypes that produces heath-myths like this one. Men can be feminine without being gay, gay without being feminine, both or neither or something else entirely. Truth be told, what’s feminine is basically what the society around us says is feminine. If women are allowed to embrace behaviours our society calls masculine – hooray for feminism! – maybe it’s high time men were accepted even when they don’t shy away from our feminine stereotypes.

Web authors like Jim Rutz (from uber-conservative website World News Daily) talk about fears of soy-induced sexual confusion as if it isn’t a normal part of being alive and discovering oneself. Who hasn’t experienced that to some degree? But it’s exacerbated by the rigid expectations of our society, strict rules about what makes us male or female, masculine or feminine – rules that really don’t have any place in a society where it’s okay to be the best and most honest version of yourself.

Penis size? Nobody cares, and most women I know agree that bigger isn’t always better. If soybeans actually shrank penises, well, I know ladies who would be calling on their men to get a prescription! Low sperm count is a legitimate health concern for men who still hope to have kids one day, but we should leave behind the idea that reproductive problems make you less of a man (or woman, for that matter.) And I can understand not wanting to be gay because of the stigma in our society against it, but honestly, the problem there is STIGMA, not soybeans.

Bottom line? If there are health concerns around soy, we should approach them as health concerns. Let’s filter out all these myths about what makes someone masculine or feminine, the ones that make any soybean scare seem threatening, not just to your body, but to who you are at the core. Nothing you ever eat will change who you are. So let’s all relax.

Now, on to the health bit. The scientific consensus indicates that soy can be beneficial. It’s a health food, for heaven’s sake! (Check out the Soy Fears page on Bryanna’s Vegan Feast for a comprehensive collection of soy facts and myths.) The problem is that, in our Internet society, bad news about soy travels way faster than the efforts people make to correct the myths created by bad scientific studies that play into our least scientific social fears.

How come? Well, bad news always travels more quickly; if you’ve got a soy-loving brother, you’re more likely to be galvanized to send him an article about how soy causes infertility than to send him an article that says how soy prevents cancer. Even more, though, soy is a health food and the pressure to live healthy is enormous. If you’re no great fan of soy products, any news that gives you a “get-out-of-soy-free” card is going to really appeal to you. It’s a lot easier to say, “Of course I’m concerned about my health – who isn’t? – but soy has such negative health effects.” It doesn’t look quite so good to say, “I’m concerned about my health, but to be honest, I just really wanted that Big Mac with fries, and supersize it!”

Just think about the irony; Richard Béliveau did. “We eat junk food,” he observes; “we’re facing the biggest obesity problem in the history of mankind, and we question that soy could lead to a health problem.” Weighing soy against some of the fast-food junk we eat, how can we possibly think that the junk food comes out on top?

Well, if junk food just makes us fat, but soy makes us gay, that’s how. We live in a culture that’s so uptight about sexuality. Fortunately, most of the scary stories about soy aren’t scientifically supported. But unfortunately, they pack an emotional punch that makes critical thinking tricky.

And until we get a grip on our fears about sexuality, that’s going to be a problem.

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