MS procedure claims its first(?) victim

I like lots of things. I like dogs, I like children, I like rainstorms, I like canoeing (although I haven’t gotten my act together to go in a long time). Another thing I like is being right. I am unashamed to say that I get a giddy little thrill when I can clarify a position and bring someone around to my way of thinking. It’s not particularly humble or diplomatic of me, but I figure as long as I don’t throw it in anyone’s face I am okay.

There are some times I wish I wasn’t right:

An Ontario man with multiple sclerosis died of complications after a controversial treatment in Costa Rica to open up his neck veins, CBC News has learned. Mahir Mostic, 35, of St. Catharines died on Oct. 19, one day after doctors in the Central American country tried to dissolve a blood-clot complication.

Let’s back up for a second. Back in April, I wrote a post about a new proposed therapy for the treatment of Multiple Sclerosis. This therapy involves inserting an angioplastic balloon into a neck vein and inflating it. The proposed mechanism violates the current scientific understanding of MS, but patients have reported dramatic symptom improvement after receiving the procedure, so it was worth investigating. However, the rules of skepticism must be particularly adhered to when a new “miracle” procedure appears that completely changes the current understanding of any phenomenon. If someone, for instance, claimed that they had invented a ‘gravity beam’ that could attract objects by firing gravity at them, we’d probably be more skeptical than if someone had said they’d invented a ‘sound beam’ that could fire sound over long distances – the latter requires a slight tweaking of current understanding, whereas the former requires a complete re-imagining of how gravity works.

So, by the same token, I was concerned at the flood of patients demanding access to this procedure without adequate testing beforehand. Even the doctor who invented the procedure cautioned people to wait until it had been evaluated. However, out of their (totally understandable) desperation to alleviate their symptoms, patients demanded that the approval for the surgery be fast-tracked. When the various health authorities said that they needed to have actual testing before they would approve it, the predictable happened: a private company began shipping people to countries that don’t care about health regulations.

The problem with failing to regulate health care is that it allows quackery to go on unmonitored. These patients who circumvent the system do not receive adequate follow-up:

Suddenly, after nine weeks, [patient Brandon] Layh began to deteriorate. His neurologist said he had two blood clots near the stent, and he was prescribed more blood thinners. The couple fears what could happen if the clot moves. “If it lets go, we were informed that he could have the clot move into his brain, which would cause a stroke,” said his wife, Sindy Layh. “I know they can fix it. He shouldn’t have to wait to get into a dire situation where he is on death’s door to be treated.”

The couple is now exploring whether to seek treatment in the U.S. to dissolve the clot at a cost of $20,000.

Stents increase blood turbulence, which promotes the formation of clots. The problem with clots is that there is a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario: a clot can become dislodged and cause a stroke, but prescribing clot-busting drugs when the clot itself is that far advanced makes such an event more likely. Blood thinners are prescribed to prevent the clot from growing and reducing turbulence, but at any point the clot could break off. Proper follow-up and monitoring may have been able to prevent this from happening, but so would not having the procedure in the first place.

And now, thanks to patient zeal and the happy willingness of the private sector to exploit that zeal, a man has died. Apparently his isn’t an isolated case either:

[Vascular surgeon Barry] Rubin said Mostic isn’t the first case of a serious complication in an MS patient who has sought treatment outside Canada. Last week, he treated a woman who had the vein procedure in Mexico.

“We found extensive clotting in the left arm reaching into the chest veins, and some of the clots had broken off and travelled to her lungs, which is called a pulmonary embolus, which is life threatening, potentially life-threatening complication.”

This is what happens when you skip steps and jump right into a risky procedure. This is why science works in small, incremental steps. This is why it’s a good thing that such studies take time. None of this means that the procedure doesn’t work, it just means that there are significant risks to the patients, and we don’t know if the benefits are worth it.

I have friends whose careers tip-toe into the realm of woo-woo, who often chastise me for my skeptic approach. “If it gives people hope and makes them feel better, what’s the harm?”

This is the harm.

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“How do you know that?” – the ultimate nullifier

In Marvel comics, there is a device known as “The Ultimate Nullifier” –  a weapon that is apparently capable of utterly destroying any target the user chooses, as well as the user her/himself if her/his mind is not sufficiently focussed (those of you who don’t read comics will probably find this idea a bit ridiculous; those of you who do read comics will think it’s not ridiculous enough).

Back in July, Vancouver was visited by PZ Myers, author of one of my favourite science and atheism blogs, Pharyngula. During his talk, PZ brought up the role of skepticism in evaluating any claims about the world, particularly religious ones, and invited us to ask an important question when facing a claim that you’re not sure about: “how do you know that?” This question is, within the realm of science, the ultimate nullifier… of sorts.

Let’s pretend I have a friend who is really into reiki - a form of Japanese faith healing. She tells me that she can heal my diseases by passing her hands over me and directing positive energy into my body. I, of course, am skeptical – probably more so than I would be if she had told me that she was going to massage away my stress or something that at least has a biologically plausible mechanism. And so I ask her “how do you know that?”

She tells me about chakras and meridian lines and The Goddess Breath Method (those of you who aren’t familiar with “alternative therapies” will probably find this idea a bit ridiculous; those of you who are familiar with this kind of woo will think it’s not ridiculous enough). She tells me that by directing energy into my chakras that I will rebalance my energy flows and expel the foreign energy that causes my dis-ease (yes, they actually do spell it like this). I’ve studied human anatomy, and there ain’t nothing like a “chakra” or a “meridian line” anywhere to be found. And so I ask her “how do you know that?”

She shows me a bunch of websites and testimonials from the millions of patients who have been treated with reiki. As an epidemiologist, I point out that showing the numerator without the denominator is useless – how many people were treated and didn’t get better? Is it an equivalent number? Is it less? Is it more? Surely there are “dis-eases” that resolve themselves on their own – how does she know that people aren’t just responding to a sham treatment because they believe in it?

As we go father down, I learn that every time someone takes a controlled look at reiki (or acupuncture, homeopathy, intercessory prayer, rolfing, crystals, psychic surgery, or distance healing), they find no reason to support my friend’s claim that it will heal anything. The few studies that do suggest that it works either have a small sample size, lack proper blinding, or have no control group – common ways of finding effects that aren’t actually real. Basically, her claim of magic healing powers is based on nothing but personal belief and junk science – not exactly what I want when I’m in serious medical trouble.

There is a limitation to this question, however. Many people like Deepak Chopra and Ray Comfort abuse the word “know”, taking it to mean “believe very strongly”. They insist that science isn’t the only “way of knowing”, and that human intuition or divine revelation (sometimes through scripture) are just as good as science at determining reality. There’s certainly an appeal to this kind of statement – after all it is pretty arrogant of scientists to claim that theirs is the only version of the truth.

The problem with this kind of reasoning is that, if it were true, we’d see far more overlap between intuition, revelation and science. Revealed wisdom (for example), when tested through observation, would consistently give similar results to those determined according to non-revealed scientific “wisdom”. It would certainly be at least internally consistent – many different groups of people would achieve similar insights, and have overlapping revelations. However what we see instead are diverse groups claiming to have “truth”, but having very different versions of it.

A better question, perhaps, is “why should I believe you?” Ray Comfort is free to assert (without evidence) that he knows that Jesus is the supreme being who watches and judges mankind (but not other animals). Why should I believe that just on his say-so? To avoid everlasting torment? Maybe, but that threat is really only credible if I believe him already – if I reject his imaginary friend then I most certainly reject the punishment that imaginary friend has in store for me. Why should I believe Ray more than my Hindu neighbour down the street – both can point to ancient holy books, miracles, millions of followers; what makes Ray’s “truth” more true than Raj’s?

All claims should be held to an external standard – some kind of way of measuring them against observed reality. It doesn’t matter if they’re claims about magic energy healing or invisible sky genies or political theories – if they aren’t borne out by some kind of controlled, observable evidence, then they’re just statements of belief. It’s fine to have beliefs (I think it’s preferable to have ideas, but whatever), but a statement of a belief is nothing more useful than a personal preference. I think that Radiohead peaked with OK, Computer; my buddy Stu thinks that they’ve gotten steadily better after that – they’re just statements of belief.

Saying that I believe in chakras doesn’t make it any more true than if I say I believe in phrenology or caloric theory or the four elements of matter. Saying that I believe it so much that I know it certainly doesn’t change that. My believing in it doesn’t grant it some kind of legitimacy – it just makes it harder to give me actual medicine.

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Movie Friday: Act of God

One of the single dumbest things ever birthed by the insurance industry is the phrase “Act of God”. It basically describes any natural disaster, but does so in the most face-palming language ever. Ricky Gervais takes it on:

I watched a Billy Connolly movie not too long ago called “The Man Who Sued God”, in which a lawyer-turned-fisherman sues the Catholic, Anglican, Episcopalian and Jewish churches in Australia, as representatives of God on earth. It was a pretty funny jibe at how much those churches really believe in God – either they deny that He exists (and commit fraud) or they admit He does (making them legally liable as representatives of a pseduo-corporate entity). While the ending of the movie was complete garbage, the first 4/5 is pretty good.

It seems to me (and to Billy Connolly’s character) that since the whole point that we buy insurance is to protect ourselves against unforseeable circumstances, the “Act of God” clause is just a filthy cheat. Then again, if you were expecting fairness and justice from insurance companies, maybe someone needs to sit you down and explain a few things.

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An atypical side-note

I don’t talk about my job on this blog, and today will be no exception. However, I am (as reported on the sidebar) a scientist who works in the medical field (kinda). As such, I feel it appropriate to comment on this story I saw in the news:

Doctors have sharply cut some financial ties to drug companies, thanks to increased scrutiny about relationships that critics allege improperly influence medical treatment, a survey suggests. The biggest change occurred in the number of doctors who accept drug company money for attending medical meetings, including covering travel to sometimes exotic locations. That fell from 35 per cent in 2004 to 18 per cent in last year, the survey found.

There is a near-constant din that comes from advocates of alt-med that medical doctors are “in the pocket of Big Pharma”, and that anyone who advocates science and opposes superstitious nonsense must be getting paid for their position. Anyone who has been to my apartment or seen the way I dress will be able to attest that if I get money from Big Pharma, it’s not enough (full disclosure: my employer does receive research money from pharmaceutical companies, under contracts that strictly bar those companies from interfering with our research in any way. I have not personally received a cent from any corporate interest).

I will give the alt-med crowd one accolade to hang their hat on – they changed the conversation. It used to be the case that doctors were very much in bed with the pharmaceutical companies, and it was repeated and consistent criticism of this practice that led to findings like the one above. It was a legitimate criticism of a shady practice, and it forced regulators to police the kinds of remuneration that physicians were allowed to (or felt entitled to) accept. This didn’t happen spontaneously; many doctors initially denied that the gifts exerted any influence over them whatsoever. Of course the evidence suggested otherwise.

It’s good to see when a small group of people can raise public consciousness about a serious ethical issue and see meaningful results. I applaud the alt-med crowd for a job well done, and look forward to the day when my merry band of skeptics can return the favour and stop the egregious abuses of trust that alt-med practitioners are allowed to get away with every day.

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Oh and by the way, religion is still crazy

If you were a new visitor to the blog this week, and didn’t bother to poke through the archives, you probably walked away with the impression that I am an even-handed and introspective commenter on race, history and education. I’m sorry for misleading you. I am actually a militant Gnu Atheist who gets his jollies lampooning the poor beleaguered faithful. As everyone knows, religious people just want to be left alone to practice their beliefs quietly outside the public eye, and we baby-eating fundamentalist  atheists keep trying to trample your rights to religious freedom. Well throw on a baby-eating bib folks, because I’m going for the jugular today.

Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapper used religion as excuse

Mitchell’s defence attorneys contend [Brian David Mitchell, kidnapper of Elizabeth Smart] suffers from an escalating mental illness and holds extreme religious beliefs that lead him to think he is directed by God. “He was his No. 1 priority, followed by sex, drugs and alcohol, but he used religion in all of those aspects to justify everything,” Smart said in a clear voice on her third and final day of testimony Wednesday.

Is this the face of the average believer? No. Absolutely not. This guy is a psychopath who has done unspeakable acts of evil to an innocent woman. The majority of believers (probably all of them) would repudiate this kind of action immediately as having absolutely nothing to do with their faith. However, his propensity for religious belief – his willingness to believe in a supernatural author for his perversion – was used as license to commit these acts. If religion was not available as an excuse for these kinds of things – if people didn’t have the idea in their minds that the voices they’re hearing are from a supernatural (rather than pathological) source, anyone reporting auditory hallucinations of the kind plaguing Mr. Mitchell would likely receive treatment rather than merely the wide berth you give the really religious among us.

His lawyers certainly wouldn’t be using it as a plea.

Capuchin Monks need young, tender males

Roman Catholic friars in Switzerland have placed a job advert in a newspaper as part of a recruitment drive. The Capuchin order says it is looking for professional single men like bankers or lawyers aged 22 to 35 to join its dwindling ranks. The community, which has 200 members with an average age of 70, hopes the ad will help recruit 10 to 20 men.

Yes, it is absolutely a cheap shot. Forgive me, I’ve been good all week. I have to scrub the stench of “reasoned dialogue” off of me.

Yep, the Capuchin monks (not to be confused with Capuchin monkeys which are much cuter, or with cappuccino, which is a delicious hot beverage) are looking for young professionals to bolster its aging and thereby dwindling population. Luckily they’re using tried and true recruitment offers that appeal to the average 22-30 year old:

“We offer you no pay, but spirituality and prayer, contemplation, an egalitarian lifestyle, free of personal material riches and the common model of a couple relationship,” it says.

Where do I sign up?

Gay bookstore gets letter from Jesus

David Rimmer of After Stonewall says that running a gay bookshop allows him to meet interesting people. But Rimmer recently received a letter from someone a little out of the ordinary: Jesus.

Do not deceive yourself. I, Jesus The Christ, the Eternal God, with My Father and with My Spirit, will not be mocked by those who believe the lies of homosexuality. I will not be mocked by those who think My Last Supper is a joke. I don’t care who you are or what your so-called laws and policies are, I AM the final word and the Eternal Judge of all that lives and dies.

Rimmer put the letter in his window.

Sorry Mr. Jesus, but you absolutely will be mocked by those of us living in the reality-based world. I’m not sure what kind of Christian would forge a letter from Jesus (that’s got to be against one of the commandments, surely), or why Jesus would resort to using the mail, or why he would focus on one bookstore in Ottawa, but surely an aspect of the Creator of the Universe has lots of spare time on his hands, what with the whole ‘omnipotence’ thing.

I can write a million satirical articles, I can post essay after carefully-crafted essay, I can work my entire life and I will never do as much to discredit the religious establishment as the believers can with a single “from Jesus” letter. Sigh, it’s almost enough to make me think I should just give up…

Just kidding, this shit’s hilarious.

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Racial lines drawn elsewhere too

Oftentimes people (and this tends to happen more often on the liberal side) will simply wave race away as a phenomenon, saying that it is merely a proxy for wealth. I was of this mindset until not too long ago, when I really started digging deep into the issue. While there is no doubt that race and wealth are strongly linked, money is only one tile in the mosaic of effect that fall under the banner of race. Another friend of mine sent me an article that illustrates this phenomenon fairly well:

The professor [UC Berkeley Anthropology Professor John Ogbu] and his research assistant moved to Shaker Heights [an affluent community in Cleveland] for nine months in mid-1997. They reviewed data and test scores. The team observed 110 different classes, from kindergarten all the way through high school. They conducted exhaustive interviews with school personnel, black parents, and students. Their project yielded an unexpected conclusion: It wasn’t socioeconomics, school funding, or racism, that accounted for the students’ poor academic performance; it was their own attitudes, and those of their parents.

The parents of the children in the study are all upper middle-class; doctors, lawyers, well-to-do people. These aren’t kids whose parents are struggling to make ends meet, and whose educated suffers as a result; from an economic standpoint these kids shouldn’t have any barriers to access that would explain the dramatic differences in achievement between white and black students. So, like any scientist would, Dr. Ogbu went looking for other explanations.

I don’t know much about sociology methods, so I’m not going to comment on the way in which these findings were derived. I’d imagine, as a researcher in another field, that the lack of rigorous observation of a control group (white Shaker Heights students) is a major limitation. The conclusions will be fraught with personal biases, and will lack objectivity for that reason. However, nobody else has approached this community to ask these questions, and the vociferous denial of Dr. Ogbu’s conclusions seems a bit hollow:

The National Urban League condemned him and his work in a press release that scoffed, “The League holds that it is useless to waste time and energy with those who blame the victims of racism.”

“Education is a very high value in the African-American community and in the African community. The fundamental problem is Dr. Ogbu is unfamiliar with the fact that there are thousands of African-American students who succeed. It doesn’t matter whether the students are in Shaker Heights or an inner city. The achievement depends on what expectations the teacher has of the students.” Hilliard, who is black, believes Shaker Heights teachers must not expect enough from their black students.

“We know what the major problems in this school system are: racism, lack of funding, and unqualified teachers.” Although Shaker Heights is in fact an integrated, well-funded, and well-staffed school district, Ross is nonetheless convinced that it suffers from other problems that contribute to the achievement disparities between the races.

Far be it from me to suggest that the identified problems of teacher expectations, differential funding, and systemic racism don’t play a role. Indeed, I personally believe that they represent the majority of the problem; however, when those things were controlled for in a natural experiment, they did not explain the differential outcome. As a scientist, I have to go where the evidence points. In Shaker Heights, at least, there is little evidence to support the conclusion that funding, teacher qualifications, or parental income level explains the difference.

The danger in stories like this, however, is when the conclusions are extrapolated beyond the strength of the evidence. As I noted above, without a control group and with only one person interpreting the findings, the evidence found here is not very strong. It would be a mistake, for example, to suggest that it is the attitude of the students and parents that explains the differences we see at a national level. There’s nothing in these findings to suggest that attitude is a bigger predictor of success than the other factors that multiple other studies have found. However, the responses from those on the right tend to be “see? Even the eggheads say that black people are the authors of their own destruction!” Which is not at all what the paper says – it says that there may be some other forces at play that are larger than simple economics can address:

People who voluntarily immigrate to the United States always do better than the involuntary immigrants, he believes. “I call Chicanos and Native Americans and blacks ‘involuntary minorities,'” he says. “They joined American society against their will. They were enslaved or conquered.” Ogbu sees this distinction as critical for long-term success in and out of school.

“Blacks say Standard English is being imposed on them,” he says. “That’s not what the Chinese say, or the Ibo from Nigeria. You come from the outside and you know you have to learn Standard English, or you won’t do well in school. And you don’t say whites are imposing on you. The Indians and blacks say, ‘Whites took away our language and forced us to learn their language. They caused the problem.'”

This seems to me to be an entirely reasonable conclusion, and a worthwhile avenue of study.

He concluded that there was a culture among black students to reject behaviors perceived to be “white,” which included making good grades, speaking Standard English, being overly involved in class, and enrolling in honors or advanced-placement courses. The students told Ogbu that engaging in these behaviors suggested one was renouncing his or her black identity. Ogbu concluded that the African-American peer culture, by and large, put pressure on students not to do well in school, as if it were an affront to blackness.

As someone who’s experienced this first-hand, I have no problem understanding how this might play a role.

Ogbu did, in fact, note that teachers treated black and white students differently in the 110 classes he observed. However, he doesn’t believe it was racism that accounted for the differences. “Yes, there was a problem of low teacher expectations of black students,” he explains. “But you have to ask why. Week after week the kids don’t turn in their homework. What do you expect teachers to do?”

And again, a reasonable finding and potential avenue for investigation.

There is a scintilla of truth to the accusation that liberals will refuse to accept any data that conflicts with their (our) narrative of victimhood when it comes to race. I say scintilla, because it (in true conservative fashion) rewrites the past and can’t see past its own nose. The reason why there is that narrative is because it has replaced the flawed doctrine of “personal responsibility” which is simply code for victim blaming. However, reality is absolutely more complicated than entirely victimhood or personal choice; nobody disputes that. Those of us on the left merely point out that one contributes more than the other.

At any rate, as I have been saying all along, race is a complicated machine with a lot of moving pieces. Race is not entirely economic, nor is it entirely personal. It is the intersection of history, psychology, sociology, economics, neurology, education, social policy, and any number of other factors. The more we can discuss it openly, the more we can observe it rigorously, and the less ready we are to shut down arguments we don’t like (or take mindless credit for things that we think support our narrative but don’t), the faster we can make progress.

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Racial lines drawn in post-secondary schools

Many of you know that I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Waterloo. A good friend who I met in my program there sent me this article from Macleans magazine:

To quell the influx of Jewish students, Ivy League schools abandoned their meritocratic admissions processes in favour of one that focused on the details of an applicant’s private life—questions about race, religion, even about the maiden name of an applicant’s mother. Schools also began looking at such intangibles as character, personality and leadership potential. Canadian universities, apart from highly competitive professional programs and faculties, don’t quiz applicants the same way, and rely entirely on transcripts. Likely that is a good thing. And yet, that meritocratic process results, especially in Canada’s elite university programs, in a concentration of Asian students.

Waterloo, for those of you who don’t know, is a school with large engineering and mathematics faculties. It is, non-coincidentally, a school with a very large east-Asian and south-Asian students, many of whom are born in China, India or Pakistan. The culture in which these students were raised puts education at a premium, particularly in fields like engineering. Waterloo was sometimes referred to, by white and Asian students alike, as “Water-Woo”, referring to the Chinese population (as opposed to a particular propensity for homeopathy). My high school in Brampton had a large population of Indian and Pakistani students who were expected to study business or accounting or a related field in university. It really didn’t matter what the kids wanted – the parents called the shots.

Once at Waterloo, it was common (though not exclusively true by any stretch) to see Chinese students associating in groups, rather than as part of multicultural groups. Part of that, I’m sure, has to do with familiarity, particularly of language. Whenever someone complained, I pointed out that nobody thought it was odd to see a group of all-white students congregating together. However, the Macleans article suggests another, perhaps more familiar to readers here, reason why this is happening:

“I do have traditional Asian parents. I feel the pressure of finding a good job and raising a good family.” That pressure helps shape more than just the way [UBC student Susie] Su handles study and school assignments; it shapes the way she interacts with her colleagues. “If I feel like it’s going to be an event where it’s all white people, I probably wouldn’t want to go,” she says. “There’s a lot of just drinking. It’s not that I don’t like white people. But you tend to hang out with people of the same race.”

Catherine Costigan, a psychology assistant prof at the University of Victoria, says it’s unsurprising that Asian students are segregated from “mainstream” campus life. She cites studies that show Chinese youth are bullied more than their non-Asian peers. As a so-called “model minority,” they are more frequently targeted because of being “too smart” and “teachers’ pets.” To counter peer ostracism and resentment, Costigan says Chinese students reaffirm their ethnicity.

Imagine you went to a school where your peers were predominantly conservative Muslims – no pub nights, regular interruptions for prayer, constant discussion of religion, and a feeling of disquiet every time you wear shorts or leave your head uncovered. Of course you’d cling to a group of people who share your more liberal, non-religious values. You’d be less likely to get involved in the community at large, and your friends would tend to come from the group that is most like you – not out of any particular aversion to Muslim students, but because you don’t feel comfortable surrounded by a culture that you don’t share.

Such is the case for the population of Chinese students who come to universities in Canada. To be sure, there are many who eschew the traditional background – or whose parents aren’t particularly traditional – and feel comfortable in mixed-race groups. This is particularly true of Canadian-born people of Chinese descent who feel a greater allegiance to other Canadian-born students than they do to the country of their parents’ birth. But because of the difference in attitudes towards school, white students are starting to feel the effects of this voluntary segregation as well:

“Too Asian” is not about racism, say students like Alexandra: many white students simply believe that competing with Asians—both Asian Canadians and international students—requires a sacrifice of time and freedom they’re not willing to make. They complain that they can’t compete for spots in the best schools and can’t party as much as they’d like (too bad for them, most will say).

I am not so quick to dismiss the disincentivization of social interaction as Macleans is though. Many of the social skills I picked up while “partying” during undergrad have been instrumental in getting me where I am today, far more than my marks have. When the degree is the only goal, we risk losing many of the other experiences that make the undergraduate degree useful, including network development and teamwork skills. Funneling students into disciplines like engineering and math (or pre-med and business) means that Asian students are less likely to study language, history, philosophy, psychology, any of the fields that are helpful in developing into a well-rounded human being. It also disincentivizes critical thinking, which will ultimately come back to bite us in the ass as a society. This has nothing, however, to do with being “too Asian” or any such nonsense – it has more to do with what we consider an ‘education’, and how we measure merit.

The sad thing is that white students are choosing to migrate further afield to schools that are more monochromatic, like Queen’s and Western. This segregation will, over time, become more deeply entrenched as people’s networks become more insular and less multicultural. This represents a challenge for Canada – do we abandon merit-based education based on marks, or do we only admit students who adhere to our nebulous definition of “Canadian culture”? Is this perhaps just a facet of privilege, as we move away from a “traditional” view of what a student is, or does this represent the actual loss of something valuable? For once, I can’t even offer an idea of an answer. Maybe one of you can.

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Invisible minorities

A friend of mine came to town a few months ago, and we decided to visit the Vancouver Art Gallery. The featured exhibit was comprised of drawings by Renoir, Tolouse-Lautrec and Dégas, regarding the changing view of the modern woman through artistic expression in the early 20th century. I was delighted to see the drawings, because I love seeing how art intersects and fuels changes in the overall cultural understanding (there’s that zeitgeist word again). However, the thing that captivated my attention most was up on the third floor – a collection of works by American painter Kerry James Marshall:

Marshall’s paintings depict primarily African-American figures, using formally diverse art historical methods that speak to the visibility and invisibility of “blackness” in the history of western art.

My favourite painting in the collection was this one:

From far away, it looks like an all-black canvas, perhaps an abstract expressionist piece. However, closer inspection reveals this (click to enlarge):

It depicts a bedroom scene in which a couple lies together in bed. The walls and rest of the apartment are decorated with black nationalist trappings – there is a flag of the Black Panther Party on the wall, books by Angela Davis, a great number of other things that are completely invisible from the first cursory glance. The fascinating thing about this painting (the reason why it’s my favourite) is that it’s all done in shades of black. The people and the details of their lives are completely invisible unless you take care to look closely.

Such is the reality of race in North America – a casual glance completely neglects the richness and diversity of the populace and our history. We lose many things by failing to look closely, and in some cases it’s a bit more dire than a simple lack of understanding:

Exit 67, director Jepthé Bastien’s compassionate story of a young Haitian gangster, is a first for Quebec cinema: it features a predominantly black cast and is set in St. Michel, a poor, multi-ethnic neighbourhood in northeastern Montreal that is largely ignored by the mainstream media… “These kids are a product of their environment. Many are poor. They have been failed by family and the system,” says the director. “In Quebec, we don’t really like to acknowledge that [the Haitian offspring] were born here. They are the ‘other.’ But they are our children. We need to take care of them and we don’t. They are simply clientele for the penal system.”

I’m sorry that this movie is only screening in Quebec, since it does have application to many other communities we tend to overlook. The consequence of ignorance about something like race is that we fail to address it until it’s too obvious to ignore, at which point we treat it as a crime problem or a poverty problem or any number of other things that neglect the underlying issues. Once again, education can be used to raise our consciousness about a number of issues that we have no idea even exist. This time art is being used for its intended purpose – to hold a mirror up to society.

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Understanding of Canadian history shifts

This week is going to be extremely education-heavy. I am not sure why, but there have been a cluster of stories that caught my interest this week and the thread that ties most of them together is education.

There is a fantastic German word – zeitgeist – which refers to the general cultural understanding of a subject. For example, the current North American zeitgeist is moving towards an understanding of ecology and conservation that did not exist 50 years ago. It is not too long ago that recycling or having a compost pile or using energy-efficient appliances was the exclusive domain of hippies and academics. Now, the zeitgest toward environmentalism has shifted to normalize those behaviours, pushing the fringe out to veganism and brewing sun tea – who knows how mainstream those things may become in the next 10 years.

Shifting the zeitgeist is not done by changing individual minds. Those on the accommodationist side of the Gnu Atheist camp seem to think that the goal should be dialogue with people in order to change their minds; those of us who adhere more closely to the “firebrand” label recognize that a cultural shift is needed. There are many ways to shift the zeitgeist, including public campaigns and demonstrations, influential books and articles, and legislation. However, one of the most effective ways to start a shift of an entire culture (at least in time) is to educate the young:

Ask Canadians whether it was the French, British or aboriginal nations who played the leading role in founding the country, and the answer will depend largely on the respondents’ own ethnic roots — and age — a new national survey suggests. A poll of 1,500 Canadians commissioned by the Montreal-based Association for Canadian Studies shows French- and English-speaking citizens — centuries after the rise of New France and the formation of British North America — still have starkly different views about who is chiefly responsible for creating the country.

But [ACS executive director Jack Jedwab] adds that “sharp” differences of opinion “rise to the surface” when Canadians are asked to identify the most important founding group in Canadian history.

Mr. Jedwab talks about the “collective psyche” of Canadians, which is certainly a good analogue to zeitgeist. The way we understand history differs depending on our background. Not too long ago I was accused of favouring affirmative action policies that discriminate against the “founders of Canada”. My retort was to ask which founders my interlocutor was talking about – the French? The First Nations? The Ukranian and Polish immigrants who built the prairies? The Chinese who built the railroad and much of Western Canada? The African immigrants who were instrumental in building the maritime provinces?

The point is that our understanding of history affects the way we see the world. A simplistic understanding of history says that British Christians built this country. A more informed understanding shows that there are several groups who played instrumental roles in the country we live in today – it would be a very different nation without them (if it could exist at all). Failure to recognize this fact makes us more likely to ignore or dismiss the important contributions of those people not in the majority.

One way to combat this propensity to funnel history along a majority narrative is to change the way we teach history. This seems to be working:

And Jedwab highlights another intriguing result that shows the youngest Canadians surveyed — those 18 to 24 — giving significantly more credit than other age groups do to aboriginal people in the founding of the country. Twenty-five per cent of respondents from the survey’s youngest cohort said aboriginal groups played the most important role in Canada’s formation, while 28 per cent chose the British and 19 per cent said it was the French. That result, said Jedwab, “raises the question of whether the latest cohort of students is being offered a version of history that directs more attention at the ‘founding role’ of Canada’s First Nations.”

This, incidentally, is the reason I support public apologies for past injustices – not because I think guilt is a useful emotion (I don’t – things done out of guilt are seldom noble), but because it raises public awareness of history. The more aware we are of our history, the less likely we are to repeat the mistakes of the past. Hopefully as we begin to educate ourselves (and our children) with a broader understanding of historical events, we will shift the zeitgeist away from outmoded ideas and learn to use the study of history the way it is intended – to provide a pathway to a brighter future.

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What is my goal?

I’ve just finished a frustrating week banging my head against the wall dealing with a conservative Christian commenter (please remember that I write these posts about a week before they appear on the site – if grassrute has disappeared in this past week, this last sentence won’t make much sense). Despite taking careful pains to predict, explain away, and thereby defuse the predictable “rebuttals” to the discussion of privilege, this person decided to make the arguments anyway. So I responded to those, in spite of my irritation at having to repeat myself (in text… you could have just scrolled up to see why you were wrong!). And then through a combination of goalpost-shifting and selective interpretation of history (almost all of it demonstrably wrong), the fallacies stacked up apace.

It’s frustrating and emotionally draining to have to spend my free time (what little there is) refuting poor arguments. This is, however, my personal blog, and I feel that anyone who bothers to come here and comment deserves recognition for their efforts. My tone may become grumpy sometimes, but I get a giddy thrill every time someone new shows up here. After all, I’m just some asshole with a keyboard and a basic grasp of the English language – why should anyone read what I write? At the same time, the few conservative commenters who have shown up here at various points do irritate me – not because they disagree with me, but because (with few exceptions) their arguments are horrible. They only work if you are prepared to suspend history, psychology, sociology, and the basic rules of logic. I am not.

My colleagues over at Canadian Atheist (two of them in particular) would likely admonish me severely for being so unfriendly to someone with whom dialogue is possible. The problem with me, they’d say, is that I’m too willing to use mean language, which drives away those who disagree with me. This, they say, cements my position as an “angry atheist”, and deepens the stereotype. I’ve already explained why this line of reasoning is crap, so I won’t bother to do away with this argument here. However, it does raise an interesting question: do they think I write this stuff to convince people who disagree with me?

I’ve tried to make it clear from the outset that this blog exists for the sole purpose of throwing my ideas out there, ideas that are open for debate. This is not an attempt to find middle ground with people who disagree with me, or to coax opponents out by cooing sweetly to them in the hopes of using sugar and light to bring them over to my side. I wield a variety of rhetorical tools, but my go-to weapon of choice is (what I hope is) high-minded polemic. In addition to saying what I think, I do my best to show why I think it. This is done as much for me as it is for anyone who happens to stumble across the site – writing my thoughts down in a systematic manner helps me to clarify and shore up any inconsistencies in my beliefs.

My attempt is to persuade, undoubtedly; but I have no illusions that a deliberate, reasoned approach will bring over those who strongly disagree with my position. There are important differences in cognitive frameworks between someone like me and someone like grassrute – I start from a position of doubt and then apportion my belief in any idea to the level of evidence supporting it. If someone could demonstrate to me that a position I hold is either illogical or unsupported by evidence, I will abandon that position; it might take me a bit of time, but I can be convinced. The other cognitive framework is to start from a position of certainty and then look for things that confirm your a priori conclusions. A person operating within this mindset cannot be convinced or persuaded; she/he is convinced of her/his rectitude, and will always find a crevice to hide in when challenged. Attempting to use logic, persuasion, or even sugar and light to move a person like this out of her/his position is, in my opinion, rather a waste of time. No one-on-one discourse will do anything to change that person’s mind.

These two cognitive frameworks are philosophically opposed, but by no means does that mean that an individual is incapable of using both. There are any number of things that I believe in the absence of rigorous evidence, just as I’m sure there are some things that grassrute comes to believe based on facts and evidence. The difference is what happens when our backs are against the wall, so to speak. When my position is challenged, I will be persuaded by evidence (if not by asserted opinion and anecdote). The evidence has to be high quality, obviously – “something a guy told me once” is insufficient to put even a dent in my skepticism, but I can be – and have been – turned around in my stance on feminism, religion, race, pretty much everything I talk about on this blog. I recognize that, on the other hand, people who are not amenable to revising their views will not tolerate being turned around and will find any scrap of pseudo-logic to prop up a failed position. C’est la guerre.

I am not writing for grassrute. I am happy to discuss and clarify my position, using grassrute (or Scary Fundamentalist, or Natassia, or whoever shows up) as a whetstone, but I hold no hope of prevailing over people who fix their opinions first and then justify them later. Some of these stones are rather more dull than others. I am writing for myself primarily, and for those who haven’t given the issue a lot of concerted thought secondarily. I have heard from people – in person, by e-mail, in comments, on Facebook – that I am articulating arguments that they hadn’t really considered before, and their thinking has been subtly shifted. I am intensely gratified by these stories, as it means that I am at least partially successful. However, I am not aggrieved much by my dissenters (especially since they have, almost without exception, failed to articulate a clear and coherent position that isn’t trivially easy to disembowel). My frustration with them has more to do with the poverty of their argument, coupled with the magnitude of their certainty. I am not trying to “reach out” to people who don’t use logic – I am trying to stimulate thought among those of you who do.

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