I’m flabbergasted

It’s not every day something shocks me in a good way, but I was floored when I read this:

It’s typical bullshit. So I’m responding in my own way. Because, you see, I am a racist. I’m not proud of that fact – but growing up in a deeply racist and sexist culture, you can’t avoid absorbing racist and sexist messages and attitudes into your worldview. And the blogger who inspired this is, like me, a member of the privileged elite. The difference between us is that I at least try to notice the effects of my privilege.

Mark Chu-Caroll is a blogger and computer scientist for Google. I am subscribing to my own set of prejudicial stereotypes here, but I have known very few computer programmers who are so socially aware as to recognize what are fairly black-belt-level concepts like systemic racism and privilege. He lists 10 reasons why he calls himself a racist:

  1. I am a racist – because I never noticed all of the unearned privileges that are given to me until someone pointed them out.
  2. I am a racist – because even after learning about the unearned privileges that I recieve (sic), I still don’t notice them.
  3. I am a racist, because I have grown up in a culture that, at every turn, teaches me that to be white is to be better, and smarter, and I have absorbed that lesson.
  4. I am a racist, because I instinctively react to members of minorities with fear.
  5. I am a racist, because I live in a sunset town.
  6. I am a racist, because I believe that I deserve the success I have, even though I know people who are more smart, capable, and talented than I am never had the chances that I did to be successful, because of the color of their skin.
  7. I am a racist – because I am a white man who has directly benefited from the unfair preferences that have been directed towards me all of my life.
  8. I am a racist – because every day, I benefit from the denial of basic privileges to other people.
  9. I am a racist, because I do not notice the things that are denied to people who are different from me.
  10. I am a racist, because I do not notice the advantages that I have over others.
  11. I am a racist, because even when I do manage to notice what is denied to people of different races and backgrounds, I don’t speak up.

I’ve said this from essentially day 1, but we are all racists. We were born into a system (with global reach) that has racial prejudice built into it. Some of us benefit from this system; others are on the losing end. The “secret” to changing this pattern is to recognize it exists, and to stay constantly vigilant in attempting to reduce its influence.

Mark hits the nail on the head when he says:

“People like me think of ourselves as the default – as “normal” people. We consider the incredible advantages that we receive to be normal, unremarkable. We don’t notice just how much we benefit from that assumption of our own normality – the benefits we receive fade into invisibility. We don’t even notice that they exist. And then when someone who doesn’t get those benefits has trouble, we naturally blame them for not being as successful as we are.”

I encourage you to read the article in its entirety – it’s a raw, honest and heartfelt exploration of one white man’s experience of race and racial prejudice. I think more people should be willing to speak up and throw their own stories into the mix.

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Another proud moment for Christians

Imagine that human civilization is the Little Engine That Could, chugging along up the hill chanting “I think I can, I think I can” as it struggles to reach the zenith of a fair and just society that minimizes human suffering and maximizes human happiness.

Now imagine someone drops a giant boulder in the middle of the track and says “No you fucking can’t!”

Boulder, thy name be religion:

U.S. regulations expanding stem cell research have temporarily been blocked by a U.S. judge. A non-profit group, Nightlight Christian Adoptions, contends that new guidelines on stem cells drafted by U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration will reduce how many human embryos are available for adoption.

I’ll wait for you to extricate your face from your palms before I start in on this. Do it slowly, you might have fractured something.

Okay, ready? Good.

First off, nobody adopts an embryo. It is possible to bring an embryo to term and act as a surrogate birth mother, then claim the child as your own. Unless something dramatic has happened to the number of women who are willing to pursue this option, or unless in-vitro fertilization has stopped, there will always be far more unwanted embryos than willing wombs.

Second, there are lots of live babies and children waiting for adoption. Stem cell research will do absolutely nothing to diminish this supply, and stopping stem cell research in the name of ensuring a sufficient number of adoptees doesn’t diminish it either; on the contrary, it may actually increase the size of this population by reducing the number of potential adoptive parents.

Finally, embryonic stem cell research requires the consent of the genetic parents. There are lots of people who pursue IVF who aren’t comfortable destroying their genetic material, ensuring that there will always be a renewable supply of embryos for those women hell-bent on getting pregnant with someone else’s child.

There is literally zero merit to their argument, but a federal judge decided to grant it anyway because it’s not as though delaying the progress of science is going to cause any suffering. Well, except those people with Parkinson’s, Cystic Fibrosis, Muscular Dystrophy, ALS… the list goes on.

This is why secular humanism is a better model for stable and progressive government than theocracy – it is less sympathetic to the capricious whims of a shrieking horde that enters a battle with no evidence and spurious argument. I anticipate that this ban will be overturned by a higher court, but it’s a solid reminder that in the battle between happiness and suffering, American Christianity is on the side of suffering.

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Indonesian Hugh Hefner in hot water

I have a love-hate relationship with pornography (well… more like a “love-love-love-love-cleanup-self loathing-hate” relationship, but that’s probably more information than you really wanted about me). On the one hand, it demeans women by treating them as essentially walking masturbatory aids. On the other hand, it’s a fairly handy barometer of a society’s relationship with free speech.

Indonesia isn’t doing so hot:

The former editor of Indonesian Playboy could face two years in jail after Indonesian prosecutors said they would enforce a 2009 Supreme Court ruling.

Regular readers will remember that our globe-trotting tour of finger-wagging at other countries has stopped in Indonesia before. Indonesia has a pretty crappy human rights record in general, and continues to struggle to protect free speech. This latest development, of course at the behest of conservative religious groups (so common as to be eye-rollingly cliché), is yet another illustration that religion stands in direct opposition to free speech. In order to believe in free speech and freedom of religion, you have to violate your religious precepts (particularly for Abrahamic religions) and consider the possibility that your god or gods is/are not immune from criticism.

Far easier, it seems, to trample on human rights and lock up those who violate your religious sensitivities than it is to examine your beliefs critically.

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Fraud, perjury, child molestation, and now terrorism

There’s a particularly disturbing story developing in Northern Ireland:

The police, the Catholic Church and the state conspired to cover up a priest’s suspected role in one of the worst atrocities of the Northern Ireland Troubles, an investigation has found.

Forgetting for a moment the face-palmingly euphemistic name “North Ireland Troubles”, this is a poignant illustration of what happens when religious leaders collude with secular authority. Police found evidence implicating one Father James Chesney, and instead of acting on it, collaborated with politicians and the Church to cover up the evidence and move the suspected terrorist to another parish.

Now I’m sure some of you will think it’s unfair of me to pick on this organization based on acts that were committed 30 years ago, but you’d be missing my point. If the accused had been a member of a secular organization, there would have been no such cover-up or collusion. The Catholic Church wielded (and continues to wield) power that was sufficient to shield its members from any kind of justice. This is another example of the willingness of the RCC to subvert secular authority to preserve their veneer of respectability and shield their power from scrutiny.

Besides, this is not something that happened once 30 years ago and has been dealt with. The Church still refuses to co-operate with secular authority, demanding special exemption from justice at every turn like a petulant child protesting the punishment of a fair parent. When caught and forced to face up to their systemic corruption, they offer non-apologies in the hope of mollifying critics, simultaneously demonstrating that they don’t understand the nature of the problem, and virtually guaranteeing that it will continue in the future.

As disgusted as I am with the RCC for this latest atrocious betrayal of human decency and justice, they cannot accept the entirety of the blame:

[Ombudsman Al Hutchinson] said he told his superiors he was going to raid Fr Chesney’s parochial house within 30 minutes unless he was told to do otherwise. He said he had soldiers standing by in Magherafelt police station as back-up for the search and arrest operation. “They (senior officers) gave me an answer back within 15 minutes that things were under control, not to go. I was told, leave it alone, we’re looking after it. Then the next thing I heard was that he was transferred to Malin Head (in Donegal).”

The corruption was widespread enough to touch the police force, and the political establishment. The entire country was in turmoil, and authorities feared that arresting a priest would result in widespread violence and rioting, touching off a civil war. Perhaps it would have.

The problem is in allowing a group – any group, religious or otherwise – to hold that kind of unchecked power. There was no check on the Catholic Church either from within or externally. The religious authority held such control over both the people and the secular powers that it could thwart the judicial system at its whim. Secular authorities are subject to the approval of the populace (for good or ill), and in many cases are also limited by other branches of government. Religious authorities, however, are accountable only to themselves, and have demonstrated their ability to confuse “the good of the Church” with what is good for the people time after time. There is no mechanism of voting out the Pope, and the threats of excommunication and social ostracism (not to mention hellfire and other fun supernatural punishments) ensured that no citizen group could or would form to check the power of the Church.

Perhaps Ivan Stevenson of Northern Ireland says it best:

The Church is right in saying that they didn’t cover up an evil act. It would seem that the British government offered to do it for them. However, this doesn’t negate their moral responsibility to respond more appropriately. All in all it stinks of hypocrisy, considering recent disclosures relating to child abuse and whatever else lies festering in the closet. The Catholic Church’s self declared divine mandate to be the moral conscience of the world is nothing but the pompous, self-righteous posturing of a large group of very sad and desperate men.

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Update: Harper government actually stands up for science… wha?

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of our current Federal government. They are decidedly opposed to any use of science in decision-making, preferring instead to appeal to ideologies rather than reality. The study of science and logical positivism make you, on average, more liberal than conservative – preferring to side with what works rather than stapling yourself to what you agree with. As Stephen Colbert so succinctly put it, “Reality, as you know, has a strong liberal bias.”

That’s why I was shocked to read this news story:

The Canadian government will not fund a clinical trial of the so-called liberation therapy for multiple sclerosis at this time, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq says. Aglukkaq spoke to reporters in Ottawa on Wednesday, a day after a panel of North American experts announced they unanimously recommended against supporting a clinical trial of the treatment in Canada as yet. Aglukkaq commissioned the expert panel’s report from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, which funds medical research, and the MS Society of Canada. “I feel the most prudent course of action at this time is to accept the recommendation of the country’s leading researchers,” Aglukkaq told a news conference (emphasis mine).

Did I say shocked? I should have said ‘floored and rended into a state of utter disbelief’. The Harper government (so called because he calls the shots, and everyone else runs his plays) actually relying on the expertise of people who know what they’re talking about? Surely I must be hallucinating. Particularly from a party that talks a big game about letting people make their own decisions, regardless of how unwise those decisions may be (a view apparently shared by my “nemesis”).

I’ve been skeptical of this ‘liberation therapy’ since it was first announced. My skepticism isn’t merely because it’s a stark departure from accepted practice, but because as a person who works in and is trained in health research, I recognize that many times these ‘radical’ approaches fail to stand up to rigorous scrutiny. A panel of experts recommended against CIHR fast-tracking large-scale clinical trials until smaller, well-controlled trials showed a benefit to the treatment. This is simple pragmatism to anyone in the health research community – it’s not a good idea to experiment on a large group of people unless you are reasonably sure they will actually benefit from it. Ethics boards actually demand this exact type of rigour before allowing research to go through. I am hopeful and optimistic that this treatment could potentially make a positive impact in the lives of people suffering from a horrible disease, but I temper my optimism with skepticism to say that I won’t advocate its use until we know for sure if it works or not.

So the Harper government thinks we should listen to the experts, and make our decisions based on that. Could this be a sign that they’re not as anti-science and ideological as I thought?

No, it’s not:

An RCMP report that evaluates the long-gun registry as cost-effective, efficient and an important tool for public safety hasn’t changed the mind of the Conservative MP behind a bill to scrap the registry. In an interview Tuesday on CBC TV’s Power and Politics with Evan Solomon, Candice Hoeppner says the report told her nothing new. “My position remains steadfast as does our party’s position,” she said. “We believe the long-gun registry needs to end. As legislators, that’s our job, to look at policy, to decide what’s in the best interests of Canadians and make those decisions. So, nothing has changed.”

So instead of experts using their training and experience to help decide what’s the best use of public funds to protect the lives and property of Canadians, Ms. Hoeppner thinks that political appointees are better suited to do it. Political appointees, I’ll add, that have no experience or training in anything other than politics. Even conservatives will have to agree that if someone’s going to be making our decisions for us, it would be better if they actually knew what they were talking about.

Then again, maybe they don’t have to agree at all:

An article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal slams the federal government for its efforts to shut down Insite in downtown Vancouver, Canada’s only safe injection site for drug addicts… The paper points out that soon after it was elected, the Conservative government removed harm reduction as one of the four pillars of its National Anti-Drug Strategy. The four-pillar strategy, endorsed by the World Health Organization also includes treatment, enforcement and prevention.

I mean, just because a bunch of eggheads who have spent years of their lives studying the problem and potential solutions doesn’t mean that they know what they’re talking about, or that you should listen to them. It definitely doesn’t mean you should accept the evidence that’s right in front of your face.

No wait, that’s exactly what it means.

What it means to ‘replace’ science

Not too long ago, I had a conversation with a friend of mine about the dichotomy between science and religion. His position was that we can’t rely on certainty in anything, since our understanding of the universe is constantly changing. Because of this, he reasoned, faith in the supernatural is just as valid as the use of scientific evidence. I had a similar conversation with another friend a few months later, who was trying to convince me that medical woo-woo might be validated someday because the nature of science was “constantly changing”.

This position is, at best, only trivially true if you consider all forms of change to be exactly the same. Even though I walk 5 km towards work every morning, I will never end up 10 km away from work. Even though my position is “constantly changing”, I’m not jumping all over the place at random, hoping eventually to land at my office. Our understanding of the universe and the processes that hold it together similarly does not fluctuate at random – it is modified by progressively better evidence. So while the statement “science is constantly changing” is true, it is true only in one specific way.

My first friend brought up our understanding of physics as an example of how things might be completely different in 25 years (this was after many drinks, so I’m going to go easy on him). His position was that while we “know” that F=ma today, we might have an entirely different understanding of the relationship between force, mass, and acceleration. He cited the re-orientation of the world once quantum physics was better understood as an example of how science can be replaced with newer understandings.

“Bullshit,” I replied. “Einstein didn’t ‘replace’ Newton; he showed where the limitation of Newton’s mathematics were, and provided a guide for how to overcome them.” In order for Einstein to ‘replace’ Newton, he would have to provide sufficient evidence of events or occurrences where F did not equal ma – in other words, there would have to be overwhelming evidence to show that F only coincidentally equals ma. What Einstein did was show that Newton is true within a specific range of phenomena. The fact is that Einstein’s equations had to continue to describe the phenomena that Newton’s did; the fact that they agree perfectly is a testament to Einstein’s genius.

Perhaps a better illustration of this is the competing theories of evolution in vogue 160 years ago – those of Darwin and Lamarck. Darwin’s theory is familiar to us all – environmental changes favour the survival of certain individuals in a population to survive and breed. Lamarck’s theory was that environments imprinted changes on individuals, who passed traits on to their offspring – for instance, giraffes have long necks due to stretching to reach tall leaves. While it sounds ridiculous now, it certainly fit the available evidence (DNA or modern genetics were not understood, and heritability of traits was well-documented). Presented with two competing theories, biologists of the day looked to see which one matched the evidence best (Darwin, of course, had the advantage of basing his theory on years of carefully-collected evidence).

Since then, many developments have been made in biology. The discovery of the structure of DNA, for example, led to a greater understanding of where variation in species came from, and how mutations occur. Advances in technology have enabled us to measure climate changes and global events that happened millions of years in the past. The tree of life has been re-drawn (one of the few examples of a time when science has been completely re-understood, but the old tree of life wasn’t based on rigorous science, simply some guy looking at things and giving them names) to reflect new understandings in the common ancestry of all life. Changes have been made to Darwin’s original theory in light of evidence that wasn’t available to him at the time. None of this means that evolution has been replaced, any more than the 26 year-old version of me is going to “replace” the 25 year-old version of me on my birthday (which is coming up soon – please give me many presents). It is a development that refines and build upon the understandings of the past.

Hence my objection to the idea that science is “constantly changing”, and therefore is only selectively valid. This attitude comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of what “science” is – one that I have talked about before. Science is not merely a list of facts in a dusty book on a shelf – it is a process that involves taking a bird’s eye view at a group of facts and organizing them into a central concept that can be tested for validity. Any change in scientific understanding must, at the very least, continue to explain those things which have already been observed to be true. It has to be able to explain all of those things that have observed to be true, not simply cherry-picking those facts that agree and neglecting all of the contradictory evidence.

This is why I am confident making statements like “God isn’t real” or “homeopathy doesn’t work” or “vaccines don’t cause autism.” Woo-woo supporters are quick to pipe up “you can’t know that for sure”, demanding the impossible proof of the negative. Claims about an intervening supernatural being, or the (selective) memory of water, or the supposed link between vaccination and developmental disability would require a completely new understanding of physics, physiology, biology, and a handful of other ‘-ologies’ that are based on a wealth of evidence. “Science is changing all the time,” they whine “so we just may not know how it works yet.” Once again, I say unto them “bullshit.” Not only is there insufficient evidence that reiki, or intercessory prayer, or cell phones causing brain cancer, are in any way factual, in order for them to be even plausible, we’d have to invalidate everything we have learned about reality so far.

So while developments can, have been, and will continue to be made in scientific fields, they work in a linear fashion as long as we continue to follow the evidence. It is because of this that I am satisfied to put my trust in this method, rather than one based on faith or magic.

TL/DR: New discoveries don’t “replace” older ones, they add to an always-growing body of evidence that help us to understand the world. Woo-woo theories require us to throw out the evidence, or at least pretend it isn’t there.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-11100528

New blog buddy

I found out that a friend of mine has a blaugh as well. I’m a sucker for technology, as I’ve said previously. I like innovation, it’s one of the things that makes me optimistic in what seems like unprecedented world crisis. Every time humanity has come up against a crisis, we’ve prevailed.

This guy is hitting me right in the optimism centre of my brain.

This might seem like a good thing. It’s not. Because energy is invisible, we have no idea how much we are using at any given moment. At least not in terms that are meaningful to us. Sure, there are beautiful, visual calculators like this one. But — crucially — these are missing the “at-any-given-moment” part. And actually…they might even be missing the meaningful part.

Southern California Edison had it right when they installed something called an Ambient Orb in their customers’ homes. When the ball glows red, it means you’re using too much electricity; green reassures you that you’re consuming responsibly. The result: a 40% reduction in energy use during peak periods!

Go check the site out, and jump up and down on his head to post more frequently.

Rrrrread it!

Movie Friday: James Randi at TED

There’s maybe 5 of you who read this blog who don’t know who James Randi is. This explanation is for those of you who think he’s just a guy with really high pants (really high pants… WTF James?) James “The Amazing” Randi is a former magician who has devoted his life to promoting rationality and exposing claims of supernatural ability. He has an educational foundation that, among many other things, offers a $1,000,000 prize to anyone who can demonstrate their supernatural abilities under controlled conditions. So far, no takers.

But since I talked about what we did with John Edward, pseudo-psychic vampire ghoul fraud, when he visited Vancouver last week, I thought I’d show you some of James:

[youtube = http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c0Z7KeNCi7g]

For fun, he also takes on homeopathy. CFI Vancouver is starting to talk about how we can address the issue of homeopathy being sold as real medicine in the coming weeks.

So there you go, you 5 people. The Amazing Randi.

Okay, okay, okay, let’s see Randi bust some asshole in front of a live studio audience:

[youtube = http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QlfMsZwr8rc]

Stop “Fox News North”

I have a bullhorn, and I’m going to use it.

Those of you who come here from Facebook have seen this already, but maybe didn’t sign it. Stephen Harper, I suppose growing weary of pretending not to be a right-wing ideologue, has decided to shed his sheep’s clothing and put political pressure on our CRTC commissioner to bring a Fox News-style channel here to Canada.

This is a petition to stop it. Please sign it.

A few people, some of whom are people whose opinions I greatly respect (although they differ sharply from my own), have pointed out to me that the media is already biased, and/or that my objection to a Fox-style channel is that I just don’t like conservatives. I feel the need at this point to clarify a few things:

1 – I don’t like conservativism (although I greatly enjoy the company of my few conservative friends – there are few in university science programs, which is my cohort). That’s emphatically not the source of my opposition. I’d be just as against this if it was a bunch of lying arch-Liberal finks (who I also detest).

2 – Even if I did buy that our current media outlets are biased, I fail to see how adding one that is explicitly and purposefully biased makes that situation better. An informed electorate is crucial to a healthy country. Adding another voice to the supposed pantheon of radical viewpoints doesn’t improve the situation at all – it makes people less informed. Fox News isn’t watched by those on the left to “get the other side of the argument”, it’s watched by those on the right to confirm their in-grained biases; the same can be said vice versa. The answer is to reduce the amount of bias in media outlets through careful surveillance, not to burn the whole house down because you spilled some wine on the carpet.

3 – Even if I did buy that adding another biased point of view (as all points of view will be) will somehow improve the lives of Canadians, Fox News is not simply another network. They lie, distort facts, invent facts when they can’t twist the ones that already exist, and are unrelentingly hypocritical in their stance on issues. They are unprincipled, they lack integrity, and they are poisoning the political and social discourse of the United States. Any station patterned after them will do the same thing, sending Canada down the road to destruction down which the United States is currently drunkenly weaving.

4 – Even if I did buy that a Fox News equivalent would be a good thing for the country, the Prime Minister has no business spearheading it, or shilling for it in any way. He certainly has no business forcing out the qualified head of the CRTC simply for standing up for media standards. All of this is to say nothing of the meetings that Mr. Harper has taken with Rupert Murdoch in order to make this a reality. It is a blatant political ploy designed to ensure that he has a channel that is completely uncritical of his policies that he can lavish his special attention and political influence upon, much the way that Bush/Cheney/Rove and the Republican Party has done with Fox News.

Personally, I like my country. I don’t want it to turn into the pathetic circus farce that is the current political reality of the United States, where a Harvard-educated constitutional scholar has to fight with a clueless, ignorant and feckless “hackey maam” from Wasilla to win the trust of the populace. Apparently Steven Harper will be much happier ruling over that country – I think we should be aiming to get better, not worse.

Sign the petition.

Just when you thought religion couldn’t get weirder…

This article was sent to me courtesy of @Mensetmaple:

Well, believe it or not, a group of Russian fans of [Cartoon character] Gadget Hackwrench have created a new religion, with the above mentioned cartoon character as the idol. They pray to posters of her, gather to talk about how incredibly great she is, compose songs about her, and spread stickers of Miss Hackwrench, wherever they go. It’s pretty unbelievable, but if Maradona has his own cult, why couldn’t Gadget Hackwrench?

This is my ideal kind of religion (if there has to be one at all). It’s obviously silly, and it’s more focused on how great something is than it is on forcing others to prescribe to its rules and regulations. Plus, Gadget is at least an observable entity – we know she ‘exists’ insofar as she’s entirely contained within a television show. She doesn’t exist as anything other than a fictional character, which is what separates this cult from the cults of YahwAlladdha – they at least know she’s fake…

I hope…