World of Wonders

When we see things that aren’t, we miss the wonderful things that are.

Canadian government muzzling federal scientists

The Ad Astra Science Fiction convention in Toronto might seem an odd setting for the panel discussion, “The Muzzling of Canadian Federal Scientists: Is 1984 Here?”. But, as moderator Pippa Wysong pointed out in her opening remarks, the muzzling of scientists would make a good plot line for a science fiction thriller.

Government control of federally-funded scientists is a growing concern among Canadian science journalists. In years past, the media typically would have unrestricted and immediate access to researchers. The panel, which included science journalists Wysong, Saul Chernos and Janet Pelley, and physicist David Stephenson, offered ample proof that the situation has changed in a disturbing way.

For example, Pelley described an incident at a water quality conference in 2009. Following a presentation on Bisphenol A, she asked the researchers for an interview. The scientists “laughed nervously”, told Pelley they couldn’t answer her questions, and pointed toward a “press-minder” standing nearby. Pelley asked the media officer for permission to interview the scientists but her request was denied. Instead, she was instructed to submit her request to the media office. Needless to say, Pelley didn’t get her interview that day.

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Filed under: media, politics

Climate Change: Take a chill pill?

According to columnist Neil Reynolds of the Globe and Mail, when it comes to global warming, we can all relax. As he advises in the title of his July 19th column, “Please Remain Calm: The Earth will heal itself.”

The title is the message Reynolds takes from an article by Nobel laureate and physicist Robert Laughlin in the summer issue of The American Scholar. In “What the Earth Knows”, Laughlin writes that we shouldn’t be overly concerned about climate change, nor our consumption of fossil fuels, because our planet has endured global devastations in the past and has always recovered. “The Earth,” he writes, “has suffered mass volcanic explosions, floods, meteor impacts, mountain formation, and all manner of other abuses greater than anything people could inflict, and it’s still here. It’s a survivor.”

To be clear, Laughlin doesn’t appear to be a global warming denier. In his article he clearly states: “Carbon dioxide from the human burning of fossil fuel is building up in the atmosphere at a frightening pace, enough to double the present concentration in a century. This build-up has the potential to raise average temperatures on the earth several degrees centigrade, enough to modify the weather and accelerate melting of the polar ice sheets.”

But the conclusion he comes to is the same as that of deniers: there is no need to act. There is no need to alter our profligate fossil fuel consumption. Carbon caps, carbon sequestration research, alternate energy technologies, turning off your air conditioner, refrigerator and television set, turning down your thermostat, driving a hybrid car—none of these measures are necessary. In his words, “the Earth doesn’t care.”

What’s more, “Climate ought not to concern us too much when we’re gazing into the energy future, not because it’s unimportant, but because it’s beyond our power to control.” At best, any changes we make in our use of fossil fuels will merely change the amount of time it takes to turn them into carbon, after which the planet will subsequently and naturally reabsorb them.

The problem is that Laughlin confuses global upheavals like volcanism, meteor impacts and mountain formation with a phenomenon like human-caused global warming. Thousands of air travellers grounded in Europe this year became only too familiar with our inability to control volcanoes. But while we may not be able to control such forces of nature, we can control anthropogenic climate change. We created it—we can un-create it. After all, we faced a similar global threat when we burned a hole in the ozone layer but, thanks to the Montreal Protocol in limiting CFCs, we are well on our way to defusing that danger.

Laughlin also confuses the enduring planet with the life on it. Yes, the Earth is a “survivor.” It has recovered from global upheavals much greater in magnitude than global warming. But there’s a difference between the planet and the fragile life-forms on it. We could consume all our fossil fuel reserves as recklessly and rapidly as possible, and the Earth would heal itself. It could put up with a rise in global temperatures and ocean levels, and drastic extremes in weather. The planet would survive—but that doesn’t mean we would. And that’s a chilling prospect.

Filed under: climate change, media, ,

Climate Change and Journalism: Truth in the balance

Leonardo DiCaprio describes Climate Cover-up as “an imperative read”, Wade Davis calls it “an essential book”, and Frank D. Gilliam Jr. says it is “a must-read.” How is it then that the author of such an important book on global warming isn’t a climate scientist, but instead is a public relations professional?

Because, as the book’s author James Hoggan writes in the introduction, the scientific debate concerning global warming is over. “Every science academy in every major developed country in the world [has] stated clearly that the world’s climate is changing dangerously and humans are to blame.” As he and co-author Richard Littlemore portray in depth in Climate Cover-up, the greatest climate change challenge today isn’t the science; it is the organized campaign to manipulate public opinion and maintain the illusion that human-caused global warming is still unproven and the science controversial.

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Filed under: climate change, media, ,

Propane and Prayer

On Sunday, August 10 ’08, a series of explosions at the Sunrise Propane depot rocked the quiet Murray Road neighbourhood in North Toronto. The depot was in the vicinity of residential homes and the explosions were enormous. Yet, the blast resulted in only two fatalities. Many described the low death toll as a “miracle.”

On Sunday, August 9 ’09, the first anniversary of the blast, CBC Radio broadcast a story about the accident on their early morning program, Fresh Air. The CBC’s website describes the story, by producer Mary Wiens, as one that examines “the role of faith in protecting a community from harm.” Wiens interviews an elderly resident of the neighbourhood who is certain that her prayers and faith were the reason the death toll was so low. Wiens then ponders the link between the communal spirituality of the neighbourhood and the “miracle.

She then interviews Deepak Chopra, whose views support the idea that there is a causal connection between the inner-world of prayer, and the macro-world we live in. There are references to Chopra’s “quantum consciousness” (although I don’t remember Wiens actually using the term), as well as clinical studies of the efficacy of prayer in healing. Overall, Wiens paints a picture in which the collective faith of the community protected them from greater harm.

(Note that I’ve only been able to listen to the show once, during its original broadcast; it hasn’t been posted online as of yet. So, I’m writing this based on that single listening. If I get some of the details of the story wrong, I think my overall view of the piece is accurate. I’m also aware that Fresh Air is not a journalistic program; regardless, I think my views are no less valid.)

In fact, the low death toll wasn’t a “miracle” in any sense, religious or otherwise

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Filed under: media, pseudoscience, religion, skepticism, , , , ,

Twitter and the Convergence of Evidence in Iran

A friend recently wrote on his blog about his concern for the many tweeters he was following in Iran in the wake of that country’s contested election. A reply was posted in response that included this statement: “Who is to say that half the people you are following are even real people–and not a 30-year-old jackass getting kicks out of how many people are following him?” Here’s my reply to that post:

It’s true you can’t be sure that any individual tweet is authentic. And we should be sceptical; we should always exercise media literacy, whether we’re reading tweets, the Huffington Post, a hard-copy of the New York Times, or we’re listening to CBC radio, or watching BBC World News. In fact, it is entirely reasonable to believe that some percentage of tweets are fake.

But, if your conjecture is that a significant number are fake and that they are painting a misleading picture, then at a certain point, the onus is on you to offer both an explanation of why this is happening and proof that it is. Not only that, but we also have to consider this.

If our knowledge of what’s going on in Iran were limited to Twitter alone, we would be right to be very sceptical of every and all tweets and the overall picture they are painting. But Twitter isn’t our sole source of information. There are reports coming to us from other sources, such as traditional news agencies (albeit restricted), individuals in contact with their friends and families in Iran, etc. There is also our general knowledge of the political situation in that country.

The consistency of these news reports, personal accounts, historical knowledge, and tweets is what is referred to in science as a “convergence of evidence.” And when independent lines of evidence converge on a single conclusion, that is strong evidence for the conclusion.

For e.g. we know Darwin was right–not because of any single piece of data–but because of the overwhelming convergence of evidence from many different sources: geology, paleontology, genetics, zoology, etc.

And, despite attempts to deny the fact of the Holocaust by disproving discrete or isolated claims about it, we know it happened because of the overwhelming convergence of evidence from written documents, eyewitness accounts, photographs, the camps themselves and inferential evidence. (For more on this, read Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman’s excellent Denying History.)

Not only that, but the internal consistency of large numbers of tweets makes them all the more convincing.

So, while we may not be able to say that any single tweet is authentic, as a whole they contribute to our understanding of what is going on halfway around the world. It is a compelling, disturbing situation that we should all be following, with every means possible.

Filed under: media, politics, science literacy, , ,

January 2003: Thinking About Clones

Have the Raelians and Clonaid created the first human clone? Is baby “Eve” for real?

Who cares? The question of the truth of this claim is an uninteresting one that we shouldn’t waste time on. Clonaid is a “company” created by a cult called the Raelians, a group believing that humans were created by extraterrestrials 25,000 years ago. Clonaid has no scientific credibility and, thus, it is extremely unlikely that there is a clone. The claim is an extraordinary one which requires extraordinary proof, which they have not provided. End of story.

But, for most of the world media, the announcement by Raelian “bishop” Brigitte Boisselier was just the beginning of the story. Coverage was intense and expansive. The story commanded front page attention. After acknowledging that the Raelians didn’t exactly have impressive scientific credentials, much of the coverage went on to treat the claim at face value, as if Clonaid were a legitimate scientific organization. The question of the existence of the clone continues to stir debate.

However, there is another question that is much more fascinating and much more important to consider. It is this: Why do we think the way we do about weird things like cults and their clones, and aliens who supposedly created humanity in a genetic experiment 25,000 years ago? For that matter, why do we think the way we do about UFOs, alien abductions, crop circles, psychokinesis, channeling, ESP, astrology, miracle cures, and all sorts of unproven paranormal and pseudo-scientific phenomena?

Why are we so mesmerized by these ideas and so quick to believe, often accepting these notions as true and real without any credible evidence? Why do we believe?

The television show that did as much as any other to cement popular beliefs about one of these weird ideas—extraterrestrial visitation—was “The X-Files”. The show featured a pair of FBI agents named Fox Mulder and Dana Scully who investigated cases with a paranormal bent to them. The answer to the question, “Why do we believe?” was printed on a poster that hung in agent Mulder’s office in the basement of FBI headquarters. The poster showed a blurry picture of a UFO and read: “I Want To Believe.”

For many different reasons, we all want to believe. For one thing, we all love a good story and aliens make for some of the best storytelling ever. In fact, some consider these tales to be the modern, technological equivalents of ancient myths, legends and superstitions. Also, it’s in our nature to speculate about the unknown and the things that we think lay just beyond the horizon of the known. And, some of us love the idea that aliens or spirits of the dead or something beyond the natural world will reveal itself and solve our earthly problems—or at least make sense of them—thus bringing some sort of salvation.

So, at times we want to believe so badly we let our guard down in order to believe. And sometimes, we just think in weird ways about weird things and end up believing that those weird things are real.

A few years ago, I visited junior and senior high school classes to present what was ostensibly a talk about UFOs and the alien abduction phenomenon. In truth, the talk was about media literacy, scientific literacy, critical thinking and logic.

When the students and I talked about the media, and the information and influences we are bombarded with every day, we talked about the importance of considering the source. Did we read something about time travel in Scientific American magazine or the newspaper or a supermarket tabloid? Was the cloning claim made by a respected research organization with legitimate credentials or by a Raelian priestess?

True, the Raelians did say they would offer proof of their claim, even going so far as to recruit someone to oversee DNA testing. But here, the cultists didn’t score high points in their scientific literacy.

As the Royal Society and Sir Alec Jeffreys—the inventor of DNA fingerprinting and professor of genetics at Leicester University—have stated, in order for the DNA testing of “Eve” to be valid it must be independent and conducted by more than one lab. Every single step along the way must be scrutinized, from the extraction of the mother and baby’s DNA to the final result.

Clonaid recruited Michael Guillen to act as overseer of the testing. Described in various reports as a “scientist”, Guillen does hold a doctorate in theoretical physics, mathematics and astronomy from Cornell University. But as far as I can find, he has never actually conducted any research. The only feature of his resume that appears to have qualified him in Clonaid’s eyes is his stint as a science editor for ABC News.

And not a very good science editor, at that. It has been reported that, over the years, Guillen gave credence to such fringe claims as psychokinesis, cold fusion (years after the claim was found to be flawed), and even astrology. Leon Jaroff of Time Magazine recently reported that long after the scientific community had established that HIV caused AIDS, Guillen did an uncritical piece about two scientists who believed that HIV wasn’t the culprit. In it, he stated, “Many AIDS patients have never been infected with HIV.”

In other words, Guillen could not be counted on to oversee a critical, independent, rigorous testing process, much less report the story accurately.

In the end, does it really matter that Clonaid’s claim is highly dubious and undeserving of such attention? Does it really matter that we are sometimes compelled to believe in weird things by our desire or tendency to believe? Or that we’re sometimes less critical than we should be? What harm is there?

The harm is this: The emotional and intellectual path that leads to accepting that “Eve” exists, without credible evidence, is a path paved not with logic, critical thinking, or scientific understanding. Rather, it is paved with a desire to believe, as well as speculation mistaken for reason and generally accepted facts. Follow this path and we end up believing that aliens are visiting the earth and abducting humans, that people such as television’s John Edward can communicate with our deceased loved ones, that astrology and ESP work.

Follow the path a little further and we come upon the belief that buying a certain product or adopting a certain lifestyle will bring us happiness and fulfillment in life. It leads you to accept—rather than making up your own mind based on credible, independently corroborated evidence—that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. The same thinking leads us to believe Holocaust deniers who say that the Nazis did not commit mass genocide during World War ll.

It is a long, treacherous path that leads us further and further away from knowledge, understanding, and the beauty of the natural world.

Filed under: media, pseudoscience, science literacy, skepticism, , , ,

About me

CHRIS SASAKI
I am a Toronto-based writer, author and photographer who is inspired and fascinated by science. Science is our best way of understanding the natural world, but it is much more than that. Science is culture, and its pursuit ultimately leads to meaning, values and wonder.  My interests include evolution, Darwin, the Galapagos Islands, secular humanism, religion, skepticism, climate change, and science culture.  For many years, I wrote and produced astronomy programs for the McLaughlin Planetarium of the Royal Ontario Museum. I am author of many books for young readers (Sterling Publishing and Penguin Young Readers, N.Y.) and articles for children's magazines. I also write non-fiction related to the themes reflected in this blog. You can read some of my longer non-fiction and view my photographs at www.chrissasaki.com, and follow me at www.twitter.com/chrissasaki.

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