Archive for January, 2010

An Incredibly Sexist Misrepresentation of Some Interesting Science

I was in Subway the other day and the local top 40 radio (HOT 103) station was playing. When the DJ came on he said something really awful. He said he had just read an article about how men differ from chimpanzees by 30%, but women are only 2% different than chimps genetically.

This statement is obviously wrong, because if men and women were sodifferent genetically then we wouldn’t be able to reproduce…we would be different species. But the DJ used this article to justify his next statement, which was essentially that the next time your girlfriend is pestering you, remind her that she’s pretty much a chimp.

I don’t mind being compared to chimps (in fact he was wrong, humans – men and women – differ from chimps in only 1% of our DNA), but the implication that women are somehow less evolved than men was incredibly sexist.

I was curious to see what the article he was talking about actually said, though, so I looked it up when I got back home and it’s really quite interesting. The title of the article is “Male Chromosome May Evolve Fastest”, and wasn’t talking about male evolution, but about the evolution of the Y chromosome:

A new look at the human Y chromosome has overturned longstanding ideas about its evolutionary history. Far from being in a state of decay, the Y chromosome is the fastest-changing part of the human genome and is constantly renewing itself.

The Y chromosome’s rapid rate of evolutionary change does not mean that men are evolving faster than women. But its furious innovation is likely to be having reverberations elsewhere in the human genome.

The chimpanzee and human lineages shared a common ancestor just six million years ago, a short slice of evolutionary time. Over all, the genomes of the two species are very similar and differ in less than 1 percent of their DNA. But the Y chromosomes differ in 30 percent of their DNA, meaning that these chromosomes are changing far faster in both species than the rest of the genome.

It’s unfortunate that such an interesting article would be misrepresented like that. I guess I can’t expect much from a pop radio DJ, he’s not a journalist, after all, but I don’t think it’s unfair to expect him to actually read the article that he was using to justify his sexism. I wasn’t in Subway for long after he said that, but I hope someone called in and put him in his place.

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Enlightning Bolts – 01.28.2010

Dr. Rachael Dunlop of the Skeptic Zone podcast is up for a Shorty Award (a Twitter contest), in the category of health. She’s up against some alternative medicine pushers, so if you have a Twitter account vote!

If you’re in favour of English Libel Law reform (keeping libel laws out of science), check out this website and sign the petition if you agree:

Freedom to criticise and question, in strong terms and without malice, is the cornerstone of argument and debate, whether in scholarly journals, on websites, in newspapers or elsewhere. Our current libel laws inhibit debate and stifle free expression. They discourage writers from tackling important subjects and thereby deny us the right to read about them.

Here‘s an account of PZ’s recent visit to Winnipeg by another local blogger who took notes. Smart!

Canada AM once again provides a platform to a kook: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. spouts nonsense, including the ridiculous idea that “even a molecule of mercury could destroy brain cells and cause deformities in children.” What the what? Fail! It’s a morning show, so I don’t expect any hard-hitting journalism, but he was saying some horrible and blatantly wrong things, and there was almost no voice of skepticism. This piece even seemed to be propping him up as some kind of hero. Awful.

Steve over at Skeptic North has kindly responded to this, check it out here. Thanks Steve!

And last, but definitely not least, Andrew Wakefield, the researcher who started the whole vaccines cause autism myth, was investigated by the General Medical Council. They found that he “acted ‘dishonestly and irresponsibly’ in his research and with ‘callous disregard’ for the children that were the subject of his research.”

I predicted on Twitter that the anti-vax response to this would be something like: “Wakefield being found guilty will prove that the courts are IN TEH POCKET of Big Pharma!!!111″ It turns out I wasn’t even that far off.

Applying Skeptcism to Airport Security

Skepticism is commonly applied to things like ghosts, UFOs, psychics, alternative medicine, and other pseudoscientific claims. But a recent episode of the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe reminded me how the tools of science and skepticism can be used to figure out what works for just about anything.

Airport security has been on everyone’s mind lately with the failed underwear bomber and the new scanners that see through your clothes, so I appreciated the SGU’s interview with so-called “security guru” Bruce Schneier.

They spoke about what the evidence shows with regards to what works in airport security. I’m going to pull some highlights, but if you want to give it a listen you can download it here, or it’s episode 235 on iTunes.

Since 9/11 our trip through airport security has become plagued with rules such as limits to the size of shampoo we can carry, to having to discard your fingernail clippers, to putting your shoes through scanners. But according to Schneier these have basically been a waste of money, and the things that have proven to be effective are reinforced cockpit doors and convincing passengers to fight back. This is what stopped the underwear bomber.

Security measures that are put into effect in airports are not decided on by what evidence shows will work, but rather politics drive what’s put into place, which is driven by the stories that are told of previous terrorist attacks.

Schneier points out that we’re always fighting the last battle: “Take away guns and bombs, terrorists use box-cutters; take away box-cutters and knitting needles, they put explosives in their shoes; we screen shoes, they use liquids; we limit liquids, they put explosives in their underwear…”

He says there is a psychological need to focus on what terrorists used in the last attack, similar to the power testimonials have to drive other pseudoscientific claims. But terrorists already know what they can’t use, so the money that’s going towards things like plastic baggies for storing bottles of liquids would be better spent on intelligence, so plots can be foiled before they reach the security checkpoint.

In the interview they also spoke about the ideas being floated around that profiling people by certain criteria could help weed out terrorists, but Schneier describes how this can actually make airport security worse. If terrorists know what type of person airports are screening for (which can be deduced by flying often), they can avoid being screened by not fitting the profile.

Many people said that the underwear bomber fit the profile of a terrorist, so he would have been caught if security was screening for these characteristics, but in reality there wasn’t much about him that should have roused suspicion. For example, the fact that he paid for his ticket in cash wasn’t odd because Nigeria has a cash economy; the fact that he didn’t check his bags wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, my husband almost never checks bags when he travels; and the rumour about him buying a one-way ticket, well that was just a rumour.

Instead of profiling, Schneier says that random checking is what works best, because terrorists have no way to know whether or not they’ll get checked.

Schneier and the SGUers call current airport security “security theatre”, because really it’s only putting on the guise of good security. To optimize airport security, governments should be putting money towards intelligence.

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Test the Nation Results

I just finished watching and taking the CBC’s Test the Nation IQ Test, which compared the IQs of 6 groups of Canadians, 2 of those groups being Atheists and Believers (I talked about this test in more detail in a previous post).

The results are in, and here are the standings by group:

1. Nerds
2. Politicians
3. Atheists
4. Tie: Believers & Contact Sport Athletes
5. Twins

The person in the in-studio groups that had the highest IQ was an atheist, who scored 140. Woo!

I scored 110, I squeezed into the above average category…that was a hard test! If you want to take it you still can for now if you click on the image below. I’m not sure how long they’ll leave it up there though so take it soon! If you’re not Canadian you can still take it, just select “Outside Canada” for Province.

iq test

I was hoping the Atheists would win, but lots of nerds are also atheists so I’ll call it a win haha…

There were some comments made by the believers that struck me as really nasty, to paraphrase: “the atheists need to remember there is a hell”, and “we sleep better at night [than the atheists]“…but there was a lot of friendly rivalry between all of the groups so it’s all good. The nerds seemed to take the brunt of the insults though, so I’m glad they won!

I think the part I enjoyed most was George Stroumboulopoulos really sticking it to the politicians, it was pretty hilarious.

Did you watch? How did you do? What did you think of the rankings? Did you think the test was well done?

They haven’t posted detailed results yet on the CBC website, but I’ll try to remember to link to it when they do. They didn’t just compare the results by the groups listed above, they also compared by province, gender, shoe size, and they even hypnotized a group of the in-studio participants to see if they did better. It should be interesting to see how everyone does.

Note: If you missed the chart at the end to find out your IQ, click on the image below to make it bigger:

The results are now up on CBC’s website, comparing the IQs of everyone who took the test (not just the in-studio groups). Almost all of them fall in Above Average, so I’m guessing that says something about they types of people who would spend 2 hours of their weekend taking an IQ test while they could also be watching the Saints/Vikings game!

Here are the national results by religion:

choice Total Respondents Lowest Score Highest Score Average Score Average IQ
Religious 6182 0.0 50.0 31.21 111.48
Agnostic 3955 0.0 50.0 33.4 115.37
Atheist 3584 0.0 50.0 33.41 114.26
Other 4544 0.0 50.0 30.62 109.87

There are also a lot of fun stats like if you seem to have the best IQ if you’ve had 3 concussions, NDP party members have the highest IQ, and Sci/Fi fans did better than fans of other forms of literature. You can see the full results here.

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Enlightning Bolts – 01.21.2010

Dang, I thought we had until 2012:

Apocalypse Pen

I haven’t listened yet, but this debate should be good: between Stephen Meyer and Peter Atkins.

“We are just a basic off the rack mammal…we’ve got the same basic building blocks and plumbing…but we use it in ways that are unprecedented.” – Robert Sapolsky talks about what’s unique about humans. It’s almost 40 minutes, but really interesting, entertaining, inspiring, and worth taking the time to watch.

The devil responds to Pat Robertson via letter to the editor.

This one’s for my husband:

Canadian scientists studying ancient rocks in Quebec and New Brunswick appear to have solved a central mystery about the Earth’s history: why rivers began curving back and forth on their way to the sea about 400 million years ago. [Read on here]

And here’s a picture of the meandering river he and I took a walk on the other day:

assiniboine river

You can watch Christopher Hitchens’ critical documentary about Mother Teresa online: Hell’s Angel.

Things Haitians Don’t Need

1. To be blamed for the earthquake.

2. Solar-Powered Bibles.

3. Scientologists.

Idiots.

Things Haiti Does Need:

1. Food

2. Water

3. Medical Supplies

Give what you can, and as often as you can – they’ll need your help for a lot of years still.

Enlightning Bolts – January 17, 2010

Church sign logic fail.

NASA solves the mystery of the giant ribbon at the edge of the solar system: “We believe the ribbon is a reflection,” says Jacob Heerikhuisen, a NASA Heliophysics Guest Investigator from the University of Alabama in Huntsville. “It is where solar wind particles heading out into interstellar space are reflected back into the solar system by a galactic magnetic field.” Wicked!

College Humour is brilliant: The Tetris God (YouTube).

Meryl Dorey, Australian anti-vaxxer, doesn’t want any part of her donation going to immunizing Haitians, in spite of this:

Diarrhoeal diseases would flourish as survivors struggled to find clean water and safe food, Dr Kirsch said. Measles outbreaks, which sometimes follow natural disasters, may spread in neighbourhoods of tightly packed courtyards where thousands of homeless residents are gathering.

Half of the children in Haiti are unvaccinated and just 40 per cent of the population had access to basic health care before the crisis, according to the WHO.

They need vaccines.

I gave a list of options for your Haiti donation the other day, now here’s one more (set up by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science): Non-believers Giving Aid is an attempt to quell the myth that atheists aren’t charitable as believers, but it also makes sure that 100% of your donation is given to the secular charities they are supporting (Int’l Red Cross & Doctors Without Borders). Richard Dawkins will personally cover any fees associated with making a donation, so you know that your full contribution will go straight to the people who need it.

Test the Nation – Comparing IQs of Atheists & Believers

[NOTE: The results are in, not yet up on the CBC website but they're here for now.]

I always enjoy clobbering my husband in CBC’s Test the Nation quiz shows. It’s a TV series where you get to test your knowledge alongside different groups of people in the studio, as well as other participants at home. Previous show themes have been sports, trivia, or knowledge of Canada, and previous examples of in-studio groups have been bloggers, advertisers, tour guides, etc. It’s a fun time!

The upcoming show (next Sunday, January 24th) is an IQ test:

Our IQ test gives people across the country the chance to measure their intelligence against the rest of the population. Created by our team of intelligence-testing experts led by psychologists Dr. James Parker of Trent University and Dr. Don Saklofske of the University of Calgary, our test questions are closely modeled after those found in standardized IQ tests. The test aims to evaluate performance in what are considered key areas of intelligence, such as language comprehension, visual perception, memory, math and logical reasoning.

I can’t wait for this show to confirm my immense genius……. I’m also very interested this time in how the different groups will do. There are Politicians, Nerds, Twins, Contact Sport Athletes, but more interestingly (to me) Atheists and Believers.

I’m biased, I think the atheists will win…in my experience with atheists, they’re very good at figuring out the truth, and very thoughtful and intelligent people.

Here’s what representatives from the two in-studio teams have to say:

Believers: Reverend Katherine Brittain

4. Why will your team do well on the IQ test?
A large part of our job as clergy is listening, reading, analyzing and synthesizing information, reflecting on it critically and then presenting it in understandable ways for our congregations – challenging our folks to learn and grow, question and analyze – so we should have a group of folks who know how to use our brains! In addition, many faith traditions have educational requirements for the clergy that includes several years of post-secondary education, so we should do well in traditional IQ testing. If all that fails, well, we have a lot of prayers being offered by the contestants and our congregations who will (hopefully) be watching!
6. If you could have any specific person on your team, who would it be?
The Dalai Lama. Besides the fact I’ve always wanted to meet him, he’s brilliant, so it would bring our team’s score up and he’s got an aura of calm and serenity, so he could lull the opposition into relaxing.
Atheists: Justin Trottier, Executive Director, Center for Inquiry, Toronto
3. Why will your team do well on the test?
I think we will do well because Atheists tend to be questioned on their beliefs so much that they tend to be very well read and well-researched, and as a result are quite knowledgeable on a wide variety of subjects. I think that will make our team a dynamic and successful one.
4. If you could have any specific person on your team, who would it be?
Maybe Leonardo Da Vinci – he knew so much and was involved in so many disciplines. There are obviously people who have made more contributions in a given field but he had such a broad range of insights. Also it would be very cool to meet him.
I’m excited that Justin Trottier is representing the atheists, I love CFI and I’m pretty sure I’ve heard him interviewed on Point of Inquiry.
If you’re in Canada and you want to participate in Test the Nation, make sure to sign up on the CBC website. You can sign up as a virtual member of one of the groups, and they’ll have stats afterwards of how each group did. So far the atheists are the largest group by far!
Who do you think will win? I’ll be sure to post the results after the test. Good luck!

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10:23 – Bringing Awareness to Homeopathy

Homeopathy is: “a form of alternative medicine, first proposed by German physician Samuel Hahnemann in 1796, that treats patients with heavily diluted preparations which are thought to cause effects similar to the symptoms presented.” In other words, if I’m sick, a homeopath would dilute something that caused the symptoms I presented, with the belief that water has a memory.

In reality, homeopathic preparations are just water. Substances are diluted to the point where it’s unlikely that even a single molecule of the original amount remains. Yet homeopathy is a multi-million dollar industry in spite f its utter lack of plausibility or supporting evidence.

The 10:23 campaign is an effort to bring awareness to these facts about homeopathy, with the hopes that informing the public about what homeopathy actually is will help people realize that it’s silly quackery.

There is nothing in homeopathic remidies, and it will do nothing for you (no risks, side effects, or effects. So what’s the harm? Simon Singh explains here, and this is why it’s important to bring awareness to the problem that is homeopathy.

The 10:23 campaign was started by the Merseyside Skeptics (they have an excellent pocast), a UK-based skeptics society, in response to the Boots pharmacies there continuing to sell homeopathic “remidies” to a public that trusts them to sell medicine that works

On January 30th at 10:23 am, they’re having a demonstration that will effectively show how homeopathy really does nothing at all: “more than three hundred homeopathy sceptics nationwide will be taking part in a mass homeopathic ‘overdose’ in protest at Boots’ continued endorsement and sale of homeopathic remedies, and to raise public awareness about the fact that homeopathic remedies have nothing in them.” I think it’s a great idea!

If you want to get involved with the 10:23 campaign, you can fill out this form.

Haiti – How You Can Help

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Haiti has suffered an extremely devastating earthquake, and they desperately need your help.

If you want to do something to help, here are some charities that need your donations:

Doctors Without Borders

Oxfam

Yele Haiti

The Red Cross: USA, Canada

The Charity Navigator has tips for deciding who to give your money too, and efficiency ratings for charities. Make sure you read this!!

And lastly, the Foundation Beyond Belief tells you which charities to avoid (ones that focus more on proselytizing than on helping), and which ones are more secular.

There are also several ways to donate via text message. Check your local news to find out what the options are for your area.


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