More Politics at Science Online

The session that John Timmer and I ran at Science Online 2012, “You Got Your Politics in My Science,” was not the only discussion of politics at the conference. Not even close. The crowd of people from which Science Online participants are drawn are highly aware of politics, particularly as they pertain to science, but this was one of the years when politics surfaced as one of the main sub-themes of the sessions. And of course, this being the kind of conference it is, there are plenty of people writing about this online.

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Now Everyone Can Eat Babies!

But only if you think fetuses count as babies. I guess that makes atheists exempt this time around.

An Oklahoma Republican is pushing a bill to outlaw the use of human fetuses in food, because, as he says, “there is a potential that there are companies that are using aborted human babies in their research and development of basically enhancing flavor for artificial flavors.”

State Sen. Ralph Shortey introduced a bill on Tuesday “prohibiting the sale or manufacture of food or products which contain aborted human fetuses.”

Though he has allowed that he is not aware of this occurring in Oklahoma, or anywhere for that matter, Shortey cited research he did on the internet that claimed that some companies use embryonic stem cells to help develop artificial flavoring.

Somebody’s been reading too much wingnut news, I think. Still, the idea has potential: Now! More baby flavor than ever!

ETA: Gawker is on the case, ready to tell you which companies will provide your fetus flavoring!

Harper’s Code of Silence

Gagged Urania

Gagged Urania

The Canadian government under Harper hasn’t–yet–abandoned science in its entirety. After all, science is still the best means we have of discovering reality, and reality is useful when setting policy, even if you choose to ignore it. What they’re doing instead is making sure that the Canadian people don’t have access to the same science they do.

Last year, Kathryn O’Hara, then president of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association, wrote an extraordinary letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the leaders of the other national parties.

In that document – remarkable because it was written in a leading democracy not a paranoid dictatorship – she pleaded with government to unshackle its scientists by allowing them to speak freely with the media.

The CSWA represents more than 500 science journalists, publicists and authors in Canada. Ms. O’Hara recounted a series of incidents that occurred during the year leading up to her letter in which requests for interviews with researchers had been bluntly refused by public affairs handlers, or thwarted by them through endless bureaucratic delays.

Kristina Miller, a Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientist who has done groundbreaking work on emerging salmon diseases on the West Coast, was one of those who was denied permission to talk to the media, even though her research had just been published in the prestigious international journal, Science.

The government’s stifling of Dr. Miller was so extreme that she was even told by DFO officials not to attend workshops at which experts were discussing salmon issues, out of fear media might attend and hear what she had to say.

So, what can you do about it? Well, that’s a pretty good question. If you’re Canadian, you could try complaining to the Harper administration directly. However, they have their majority, and they’re pretty comfortable with it. A better strategy might be to go to your (particularly conservative) MPs and let them know that you’re not going to be as complacent in the next election as you were in the last (however complacent or not you were then). Being kept in ignorance by your government hinders democracy, and they should know you expect them not to support any policy that is so blatantly undemocratic. A majority can be divided.

If you’re press, by whatever definition, find other ways to report these findings when they’re published. Canadian scientists have colleagues outside the country who will also be able to provide insights on published papers. And when you report, don’t leave out the fact that you’re not talking to the author(s) of the paper only because the government insists that they control access to these people.

If you’re a Canadian government scientist and you don’t already work with people both outside of government agencies and outside of Canada, it’s time to start. Make sure others can competently and publicly spread the word about your work when you can’t. Scientific collaboration isn’t something the Harper administration can control, not without an even bigger fight than this will bring.

None of these will be a magic bullet to keep information flowing freely, but all of them will help, and all of them will be strikes at Harper’s anti-democratic policy.

The Benefits of Monogamy…or Something

Wedding Rings

"Wedding Rings" by firemedic58

Joseph Henrich, the evolutionary psychologist who testified against polygamy at the Canadian polygamy trial has a new paper out on the topic. I’ve engaged with his statements on the topic before, so I was curious what he had to say in peer review. It isn’t so much different from what he had to say on as a witness in court, and I have some of the same sorts of problems with it.

See whether you can spot them. [Read more...]

Jiggering the Economics of Crime

The New Yorker has a new article up discussing incarceration in the U.S. As expected, it includes sobering facts like these:

For a great many poor people in America, particularly poor black men, prison is a destination that braids through an ordinary life, much as high school and college do for rich white ones. More than half of all black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives. Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States.

The accelerating rate of incarceration over the past few decades is just as startling as the number of people jailed: in 1980, there were about two hundred and twenty people incarcerated for every hundred thousand Americans; by 2010, the number had more than tripled, to seven hundred and thirty-one. No other country even approaches that. In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education.

The statistic, however, aren’t the really fascinating part of the article. [Read more...]

Another Sea-Monkey Theorist

Almost two weeks ago now, I promoted a couple of things on this blog. One of those things was an atheist conference, specifically the Women in Secularism conference coming up this May. The second was my radio interview with Melody Hensley of CFI DC about the conference.

I’ve been doing and promoting Atheists Talk for quite some time now. I’ve had people tell me a guest’s book wasn’t his best. I’ve had people say they weren’t impressed with a particular guest. This is the first time I’ve had someone say the topic of my show shouldn’t even exist.

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Someone Is Vague on the Internet

Or, Why Naming Names Is a Virtue

So, you’ve got what you think is a problem in your community. You know you’ve got a bunch of arguing happening, and you observe what you believe to be fallacies mixed in, probably due to the strong feelings the topic brings u. You have some strong feelings yourself, whether about the community or the subject or about the behavior you witness. Your SIWOTI meter is pegged. What do you do?

What you don’t do is write something like Steve Cuno did at the Swift blog:

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You Got Your Politics in My Science

On Thursday, John Timmer and I ran a session at Science Online 2012 on balancing advocacy and credibility on science. Here is the video for this session. As video, it’s pretty silly, since neither John nor I spent much time at the front of the room where the camera was pointed. However, the audio is much better than in previous years. Most of what we discussed comes through pretty clearly. After the video, a few highlights.

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Stage Kiss

While I’m at ScienceOnline, my brain is usually buzzing too hard to concentrate on writing anything. To keep you entertained, a repost. This was originally posted here.

Bowling, to me, is something you do if you’re given a choice between bowling and death. And even then, it’s a toss-up.

Kissing someone onstage is perhaps the least romantic thing you can do. Well, it was for me. It wasn’t my fault, though. I swear.

I was in college when I had my one and only stage kiss. They don’t tend to be assigned in K-12 productions, for all the reasons you’d think. Parents may flip. Casting is more of a hassle when you have to worry about who will kiss whom without freaking out. Even if you cast kids who have paired up, will it last until the production is over? Then there’s all the giggling during rehearsals–or performance.

So I was quite good at leaning in close and looking adoring, but I was a college sophomore before I got my first stage direction to pucker up.

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Saturday Storytime: In the Cold

Kelly Jennings lives and writes in the mountains, which I think shows through in this story. She published her first book, Broken Slate, last year.

I consider, as I climb up pasture, why, given how Sergi would love to use my insomnia, I don’t go to the nursery and offer. Earn a bit of good will. Probably it’s because I excel at soothing cranky babies, which I would just as soon no one come to count on. Rather shovel dung than get slotted into nursery.

Which Hugo would say is my main issue. A tiny colony barely hanging on does not have range to indulge adolescent moods. Put your hand to what needs doing and no whining. I tip my head back to watch snow whirl against the dome field. I do know Hugo is right. I’ve worked with Sid on budget, balancing heat against food against power for the tanks; I know how tight our numbers are. I know another bad mold or one more wicked flu could break us. Plus, without anyone ever exactly saying so, I know I’m top of the stack for Chair of Executive when the time comes for Second to take charge: the obvious choice, the only one of us with the math and the mouth and the will to step up.

Which does not mean I like the idea. Oh, I like the parts where I noodle around asking Sid and Ati and Hugo questions, the parts where I get to find out what I otherwise wouldn’t. I like seeing how decisions get made. I especially like the moments—there haven’t been many, but it’s happened—where I make a suggestion that nudges the colony in some direction it might not have gone had I not been there, a better direction.

What I don’t like is how Hugo and I keep banging heads.

Hugo’s Chair of Executive now.

Above the pasture, I cross the orchard, rich with the scent of pears and figs. Most fruit has been harvested, but I find a missed pear among the grass and eat it as I walk. The blizzard rages outside. When I get close enough to the field wall, I see snow piled high against the dome. Inside, as always, late summer. The peaches and other crops over in the aux-dome need winter, so we hold one there, a hundred and fifty watch out of every fifteen hundred; here in the main dome, it’s summer except at Harvest Fest, when the Firsts like a chill.

The main aim of dome placement was flat fertile land, but at the north point of the dome some steep interesting rocks slipped in. I climb up through them, taking the most difficult route on purpose, enjoying the hard use the climb gives my muscles, and at the top stretch out under the blasting snow, at this point only meters overhead, watching the fractal swirl of white flakes. After a time, I link up.

I could, like Bek, game; I could study; I could catch up on an animate or research why cold might be necessary for holidays in the worldview of my elders. Any of those. Instead, I send a nudge, the standard halloo—I’m here, anyone else?

I am expecting Bek to answer, if anyone does, given I’m on our section of the band. Of course, theoretically, some First might tap our bit, but living packed in how we do, we hold our boundaries tight. In any case, the reply I get is strong, and strange, in a language I don’t know. French, says the Pop-in. It adds that this is a Republic language, and asks if I want the translator. Automatically, I hit Yes.

That clears the message: I’m here, I’m here, where are you?

Keep reading.