Sunday, January 17, 2010

Haiti Hoax'ers

Given the scale of the destruction and misery in Haiti caused by the earthquake this week, it is not surprising that many people have been moved and motivated to give money or goods to help the people affected. It is also not surprising that with money flying about as freely and unselfishly as it is that someone is going to find a way to get in the way of that money and the people who need it; or at the very least set up some malicious and thoughtless roadblocks.

The easiest way to spread these malicious memes is through social media. Facebook, Myspace, Twitter etc., move very quickly and when people find an idea that motivates peoples emotions it is really easy to spread misinformation and myths. One of the bigger ones this year was the election of a "facebook president" that the French press bought hook line and sinker. Social Media is perfect for the dissemination of gossip and lies, so we must all remain skeptical when someone asks us for money.

I have seen several dubious claims of money donation of facebook this week. They all are a vaiation of "pass this message on and I will donate X to haiti". One FB group claimed that they would donate $1 for every fan that joined another 25 cents- I suspect no donation will be passed on. has a great page that is accumulating hoaxes surrounding the Haiti disaster and fund raising. When making a choice to donate, I would suggest finding the company with the greatest throughput of your money to the people they say they are representing. This is a list of those who have been deemed the most efficient in expenses and fundraising as per Forbes magazine. And this is another article in Forbes on how to spot dubious charities.

I think you cant go wrong with Doctors without Borders and the Canadian Red Cross. Stay away from anyone, especially an anonymous private citizen or facebooker who is claiming to give money if you do so-and-so : it is usually a hoax.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Toward a Scientific Education

I have had the rare joy to interact with my friend's young daughter as an avuncular "science guy". Whenever I come over, the first question is "are we going to do science today?" Her vision of science, so far, is a modest one, limited to chemical tricks - she could spend hours with a package of pH test strips - but she is engaged, and that is what counts. I am left wondering, however, about at what point this fascination with the world of science will be challenged by other things, and how school and society will equip her with the tools to properly evaluate claims and come to rational decisions.


The public has been challenged a great deal lately to decide among competing claims of fact and fiction. The H1N1 crisis, Ray Comfort and his creationist banana, even the end of the world myth of 2012 have stirred a great many people to question science and established facts. Few of us non-scientists have the tools necessary to weigh the arguments, we just want to protect ourselves and our family and live a healthy and prosperous life. Most of the time, we "go with our gut" and let fear of the unknown be our guide. How far will that get us in the future? How far is that getting us now?

Facts vs. Process

We know more now than we ever have about how the world works and these facts have to be imparted upon and absorbed by students before they are to enter any type of specialisation in post-secondary school. The current high school curriculum in Ontario, shortened several years ago to 4 years, has much more information packed into it and is very fact-dense. Quantum mechanical models of chemistry are introduced in grade 11, genetics and gene regulation are discussed in depth in grade 12 biology (nowhere is evolution itself mandated; the biology curriculum seems to dance around it over 3 years.) With all of this raw information to impart, where does the actual job of "doing" science fit in?

It must take a great effort to distill the current consensus knowledge into appropriate chunks that can be understood by the average high-schooler. Anderson and Sharma point out that "scientists 'do' science and students 'learn' science" and this distinction is an important one (2007). The laboratory work mandated in high school and even in first year university biology, chemistry and physics is geared toward understanding the concepts and applying the knowledge, not discovering new things. There is an expected output from an experiment. What if you get it wrong? In high school I was frustrated when it did not work out the way it was supposed to. Sorting through the data was not clean and if you had any confounding factors like measurement errors, or broken equipment, the concept got lost among the data and science became just a bit more incomprehensible.

The science of discovery does not work like it does in the text books. The path to new ideas is not a well-ordered and sequential one: it is messy. It meanders from bad idea to bad idea until some anomaly pops up and takes you in a new and productive direction. When tasked to apply the scientific method to a study of worms, one grade 9 class studied by Xiaowei et al (2008) found a conflict between the ordered list given them, and the task at hand. Only when they were allowed to brainstorm and take an "anything goes" approach to the process, did new ideas come up and the exercise made a bit more sense.

I propose that science class, the place where you would think that critical thinking and rational logical thought would be taught, is the last place it is being taught, and indeed, the last place it can or should be taught.

We need a new paradigm.

Critical Thinking and Scientific Reasoning: Required To Graduate

I recently was going over Greg Craven's The Most Terrifying Video You'll Ever See and his approach to decision making and it struck me that since high school is meant to prepare students for life after high school, perhaps there something missing from the current curriculum. In Ontario we have three streams: university prep, college prep, and workforce prep. All three areas require you to think critically; heck, choosing the right doctor, choosing the right food and even choosing whether to try that stupid stunt all require critical thinking. A good citizen needs to be able to evaluate the claims of their leaders, from the local health authority to the prime minister. De La Beche, the English geologist who started the first school of mines decided to bring scholarly learning to the people with the intent that they "should have the power to discriminate between sound and unsound views" using the existing knowledge (Clary, Wandersee, 2008.) Is this such a lofty goal that it is unattainable by our youth?

The high school curriculum is packed to the gills these days, but we do have to prioritise. I propose a senior level course in critical thinking and rational thought that is a requirement to graduate. It would have several strands including logical reasoning, basic statistics, and research and source evaluation. I would also suggest that it also include a research component in which the student had to design and implement their own mini-study. The messiness of scientific inquiry should be the focus here, with an emphasis on identifying all of the variables if not trying to control for most of them.

Something, anything, would be good.


I had the comical pleasure of seeing 2012 yesterday evening and I was struck by the similarity of the main story line to the story told by Young-Earth Creationists when addressing the biblical flood. The reasoning is strikingly similar: an expansion of the mantle bursts through the crust expanding the sea floor, causing sea levels to rise and flood the continents (Heaton, 2008). The difference, of course, is the movie is a work of obvious fiction, but the YEC's tart up their confabulations and conjecture in a language that is unique to scientific publishing. Not a post-modern approach per se, but a scientific parlance that has developed as a short hand to communicate with other scientists (Sharma, Anderson, 2007). Take out the references to the bible and the discourse by the YEC's would be nearly indistinguishable from mainstream science, if you had nothing but grade 10 science education to judge it by. To guard against this we need to teach facts, yes, but one person cannot know all of the facts. We need a way of evaluating ideas without relying on our own knowledge of facts, lest we fall prey to more insidious ruminations and conjecture.

I am not sure where to go with this; I am not a science teacher, nor do I know any trustees. I had the displeasure of noticing in the Toronto School Board's Learn4Life booklet this fall that I have many options if I want to learn alt health practises like "manifesting" or reiki. Perhaps I will start to lobby for some courses on critical thinking. We have to start somewhere: before the mantle of pseudo-science rises and threatens to overwhelm us all with a flood of bad ideas.


Bolte, C. 2008. A Conceptual Framework for the Enhancement of Popularity and Relevance of Science Education for Scientific Literacy, based on Stakeholders' Views by Means of a Curricular Delph Study in Chemistry. Science Education International. Vol 19, No. 3, September 2009, pp331-350.

Clary, R. M., Wandersee, J. H. 2008. All are Worthy to Know the Earth: Henry De la Beche and the Origin of geological Literacy. Springer Science+Business Media B.V.
[Internet]. [cited 2009 Nov 18]. Sci & Educ (2009) 18:1359-1375.

Heaton, T. 2008. Recent Developments in Young-Earth Creationist Geology. Springer Science+Business Media B.V. [Internet]. [cited 2009 Nov 18]. Sci & Educ (2009) 18:1341-1348.

Sharma, A., Anderson, C. 2007. Recontextualization of Science from Lab to School: Implications for Science Literacy.
Springer Science+Business Media B.V. [Internet]. [cited 2009 Nov 18]. Sci & Educ (2009) 18:1359-1375.

Xiaowei, T et al. 2008. The Scientific Method and Scientific Inquiry: Tensions in Teaching and Learning. Wiley Periodicals, Inc [Internet]. [cited 2009 Nov 18]. Learning 10.1002/sce.20366.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Cognitive Dissonance in Laramie, Wyoming

On the evening of Oct 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard was approached by two men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, at the Fireside Bar in Laramie, Wyoming. These men enticed Matthew into McKinney's pick-up truck, drove him to the outskirts of town, tied Matthew to a fence, pistol-whipped him and left him to die, which he graciously did on Oct 12, 1998 in a Poudre Valley Hospital bed in Fort Collins, Colorado.

I was the Lighting Designer for the Canadian premier of The Laramie Project, in Toronto in 2003. A play written by the Tectonic Theatre Company from New York City, The Laramie Project describes the events surrounding the death of Matthew Shepard, and is based on transcribed interviews of the townspeople of Laramie and the surrounding county.

It was an honour to revisit the play through the epilogue to the story: Laramie: Ten Years Later, where the members of Tectonic Theatre Company returned to Wyoming and spoke to those they had interviewed earlier to find out what changes, if any, had occurred in the ten years since the death of Matthew and the conviction of his murderers. An unsettling trend started to emerge.

It seemed that the original facts of the case, which had led investigators to conclude that what had started as a robbery later turned into a homophobic beating of a gay man, had been twisted, or outright forgotten, by many members of the community. The story by many not connected personally to the case was that the attack was nothing more than a drug trip gone bad, and was only a robbery. They said that the hate-crime label that had been attached to the case was a work of fiction and had been blown out of proportion by the media, and that the victim's homosexuality was a peripheral matter and not important to the case.

Needless to say, the members of Tectonic were a bit stunned by this assertion, and dug deeper to find the roots of it.

It turns out that in 2004, the ABC series 20/20 had aired a report that offered "new evidence" that what was largely reported by police as a hate-crime was a robbery gone wrong, and fueled by crystal meth. They insisted that the gay bashing had been hype by the defendants to try to pin the murder on a backlash against gay advances, and that the original and only motive on the night of the murder had been robbery and drugs. In fact, they insisted, McKinney was flying high on meth and had been on a drug-rage when he beat Shepard.

Unfortunately for ABC, these assertions are patently false and based on hearsay, revised testimony, conjecture, and rumor, and fly in the face of original statements made by McKinney and other witnesses. More importantly, they directly conflict with the confessions offered during the trial. A very good refutation of the 20/20 report was written by AaronParsely for the NYU School of Journalism's Recount Magazine. The 20/20 account can be easily refuted by reading the original court transcripts and police reports, which found no drugs in the system of McKinney or Henderson that night. So why did this story start to supplant the facts of the case?

Laramie, Wyoming was deluged with reporters after the death of Matthew Shepard and throughout the trial of McKinney and Henderson. The "gay-panic" defence that was offered by the defendants fed the fire of fear for homophobia in this "red-neck" town. The townspeople were in no way united in this feeling, and though Tectonic and others found those who blamed Shepard for the crime and showed open homophobia, this was not the mainstream. Those interviewed felt the need instead to promote their agreement with the "live-and-let-live" doctrine.

In Tectonic's revisitation to Laramie, 10 years later, it was evident that many residents, especially those not involved in the original case, had begun to re-write history. They were aided by the misinformation spread by ABC, who did interview many of the same people Tectonic did, but whose voices were stunted and distorted by editors and the 30-second sound bite. The shame that the state and the city of 27000 feel seems to be at the root of this revision. The cognitive dissonance supplied by the label the "hate-state" , has made people actively forget or discount sworn testimony in court, and supplant the facts with their own sanitised myth. No-one wants to be known for a hateful and brutal crime, and Laramie had become a mecca for many who were touched by Shepard's killing. The fence was taken down and there were complaints to the local paper, The Laramie Boomerang, about its coverage of the anniversary. Many people told Tectonic that they "...just wanted to put this behind them." This meant, in many cases, sanitising the death of Matthew Shepard and blaming it solely on the easy mark of drugs and robbery.

After the reading of Laramie: Ten Years Later, last night, there was a live webcast of a Q and A from the Lincoln Centre where Tectonic Theatre Company performed their version of the play. A large point made at the gathering was that hate-motivated crimes against the gay community were, by no means, the exclusive property of Laramie, or Wyoming, the mid-western U.S, red-necks or young men on drug benders. No: the crimes occur everywhere. On the eve of last night's event a gay man was targeted and beaten in Queens, New York, and currently clings to life in hospital. During the second run of The Laramie Project in Toronto back in 2004, a gay man was attacked by a 20 year old straight man in a gay bar in Hamilton and his face was cut up terribly by a broken beer bottle. Laramie, by no means, owns this problem exclusively.

It was an ugly crime, the killing of Matthew Shepard. One that many would like to forget and certainly not one that a town like Laramie would like to gain notoriety from. Like those who try to deny the Holocaust, the revision of Laramie's history is an attempt to protect themselves from the horror and their complicity in the hate that contributed to the crime. The facts still stand, however, and those who spread rumor and conjecture must be challenged.

When asked about the international relevance that The Laramie Project had, Moises Kaufman, the director of Tectonic Theatre recounted a meeting he had with one of the participants in the play's production in Berlin, Germany. When asked how the play was received there the man said:

"Laramie: It is just like my town."

Friday, October 9, 2009

Citizen Science

Including the public in scientific endeavours is a great way to get the public excited by science and education them. I took several moments to identify craters on the mars several years ago through the Clickerworkers site on Nasa. The SETI At Home program, and other BOINC distributed computing projects are great ways of harnessing unused computer capacity and engage the public in these efforts. This week, I learned of two more projects that are very exciting and are a great way to pass the time while on break at work.

The first is Galaxy Zoo. It is a project to categorize galaxies photographed by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey by using human beings instead of computers. Humans are much better at shape classification than computers and the Zookeepers have published several papers already and are expanding galactic science with the help of the general public. And it is pretty fun too.

The second project is more of a free scientific service being offered by Aspex as they are trying to market their new desktop scanning electron microscope. You can fill out a form and send them a sample of anything you would like to be scan, and they will scan it and post your pictures.

Nothing works better, I think, at engaging the public than including the public in scientific projects. These two ideas are great examples of this

Now, I am going to scrape something off my floor and post it to Aspex right away; that may give me the motivation to clean my apartment.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Digesting Science

Food causes a lot of anxiety in most of us. Many people struggle with their weight and there has been a doubling of the rate of obesity in Canada since 1978, and the rates in the US are even worse. It is no wonder that there are diets for every season and taste, and desperate people are easy to sell to; especially if they have tried and failed several times before.
The US government is undertaking a review of their food pyramid. This process is due to be finished in 2010 and the Centre for Nutrition Policy and Promotion is welcoming comments from any and all people - including the conspiratorially minded, of course! I waded into a bit of a bun fight at a science blog aggregation site, this week with one David Brown, who was suggesting a supposed conspiracy by "big agra" to co-opt the research and promote the ingestion of grains, including corn, soybeans and the deadly "wheat" plant instead of healthier saturated fat, meat and dairy.

I had a discussion with another friend who feels sympathy with the skeptics movement but who felt like her knowledge of science was not large enough to debate someone who was making scientific assertions. In many, more technical, discussions this may indeed be the case. When I began to swim in the very deep and murky waters of nutrition science, I soon discovered that David Brown, the man I was arguing with, did have some points and it was easy to find many studies, like this one, that seemed to suggest that high-fat, low carb diets improved cardiovascular risk factors (although his incessant quoting of one nutritional text was a bit tedious, to say the least). However, the consensus in many more papers was that low-fat diets were the recommended course for most people in avoiding atherosclerosis and eventual heart attack.

Was was very clear was that nutrition science is a very complicated and constantly evolving science that I have neither the training nor the time in google university to even attempt to state a strong position on, beyond the consensus. This did not stop David Brown, however, and he made some very dubious claims. Ones that were mimicked by many people at such aloof centres of education as . Like this guy, for instance, who decided his doctor, with several years of medical training, "knew nothing" about nutrition, so he had to do his own "research" and tell us all about it. He has answered over 3000 questions spreading the bad word about vaccines and evil pharma, and I bet, like our pal Jenny, he has his own small body count.

When answering my friend on her concerns over picking a skeptical fight, I told her that it has taken me a year to get my skeptical radar in order and be able to spot the fallacies at first glance that identify those with dubious reasoning skills and ideas instead of facts (and I am by no means at the peak of my performance). I continued to argue with David Brown and pick apart his faulty reasoning without having to know the complete ins and outs of LDL and HDL cholesterol and the effects of saturated fat intake on triglycerides.

Of course, anyone searching for answers on about, well anything other than knitting advice and stain removal, gets what they deserve, as the person answering the question gets to decide what the best answer is. Though the democratic fallacy behind this reasoning should be obvious to the wizards at yahoo, I guess it is just another attempt to sell advertising, instead of educate. I have noticed that we don't go and "yahoo" anything when we need to know a fact.

The skeptical toolbox is a powerful one, and can give support to your argument while you search for facts to back up scientific claims. Unfortunately, there is a lot of woo to wade through in the search for truth, and 3000 wrong answers is a bit daunting.

I am going to need some bigger hip waders, and perhaps a pontoon boat.


In my search, I found more compelling arguments about the high fat, low carb diet, like this debate sponsored by the US Dept. of Agraculture. It was a debate between several of the fade diet doctors in 2000 and was quite compelling. Of course, it is not compelling enough to change the consensus, apparently, but it is an interesting debate, and highlights the grey area that nutrition inhabits and the ideologues it harbours.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Canadian Skeptic Blog

The momentum gained from The Amazing Meeting 7, not to mention the new friends and connections made, has resulted in the first nation-wide Canadian skeptical blog, with contributors from across canada and from many different walks of life. I will be one of the regular contributors as well, which will be a great challenge, and I can hardly wait to get started.

In the mean time, check out the blog for up-to-date postings concerning all matter of woo, pseudo-science, fear-mongering and chicanery; and not a wee bit of critical thinking on public health!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Straight Dope about Homoeopathy

This week, the Georgia Straight published an article by the daughter of the publisher of the paper espousing the benefits of homoeopathic remedies for the H1N1 influenza virus due to hit North America in full force this fall. After a round of pillory by the Canadian skeptics calling the author out on her assertions, the publishers included an article detailing a new study about the rate of medical errors in Canada in hospitals. While the 23000 deaths in 2000 attributed to medical errors is very disturbing, this defence of homoeopathy is one big red herring. Here is the comment I left on the article - which may or may not be published..we will see

"The chance of making a medical error looms over every health professional's head. Especially when you are applying treatments that have large inherent risks, like surgery or anaesthesia. What this article does not address is the much larger number of Canadians who are helped by or cured by modern medicine - which surely numbers in the millions every year; let alone those whose lives are extended by drugs treating their chronic conditions.

The way the medical and skeptical community raises its voice is by doing SCIENCE. To uncover problems in our therapies and interventions, publishing them so the public and our peers can see the problem, and then trying to abate it. When was the last study done by homoeopaths of this kind? I see you did not cite any study like this.

The reason homoeopathy has no side effects is because it has no effects, outside the placebo effect. The danger in using homoeopathy to prevent the flu is that you are avoiding real treatment - and this will surely do some harm. We have already seen outbreaks of measles (a serious disease that can kill your child) in the US and the UK because of the lessoning of vaccination. The regular flu kills 36000 people in the US every year - and this is less virulent than the H1N1 strain.

We have to lower the death-from-error rate, no doubt, but it surely sits below 1 percent now. Digging up this red herring of medical errors does not lesson the argument against homoeopathic flu medicine - it just muddies the waters some more and confuses the issue. The flu vaccine is safe and effective at preventing flu. Homoeopathic medicine is safe but not effective at preventing the flu. I know which one I will choose.

The debate over the flu vaccine seems to be one of competing fears. The two major arguments are as follows:

Medical Community:

The H1N1 influenza virus is a novel virus for which we have no immunity. It is more virulent than the normal seasonal flu, if not more deadly. To prevent serious complications in target populations (young people, pregnant people, health care workers) you should get vaccinated.

Vaccine-denial Community:

The H1N1 influenza virus is not nearly as bad as the medical community says it is. It is just a ploy by big pharma to sell more vaccines. These vaccines have not been proven safe and will cause more harm than good.

We have evidence for the former position:

Evidence for the Latter Position: (please check out the home page - it is one big ad for conspiracy and health products - dubious ones)

The latter is just s sample of the conspiracies out on the web. Most use news articles as their source, or other like-minded blog posts. The former uses science.

Here is an article by Dr. Harriet Hall talking about all of the myths surrounding the Swine Flu. If you read nothing else, this will be a great guide through the jungle of swine flu fears.