Category Archives: Science

How goes the battle for truth?

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In the language of triumphalism that always graces a newly elected leader’s   speech to an international audience, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared, last week, that “Canada is back”. On the subject of climate change, he insisted, there can be no “laggards”.

The lightly veiled insinuation, of course, was that this once great nation has been brought to its knees, over the past 10 years, by a cynical and zealous crop of intellectual poseurs masquerading as legislators, and, through them, by an especially virulent form of “sciencitis”.

This particular malady is not new. It periodically sweeps across various bodies politic, persuading anyone who will listen that evidence is simply a matter of opinion; that research is a poor substitute for good, old common sense; and that standing in the middle of the tracks as a locomotive bears down on you is a perfectly reasonable posture given that the engineer behind the stick will surely hit the brakes before he turns you into an unrecognizable smudge.

This was the former Conservative Government of Canada’s approach to “public outreach”. Under Stephen Harper, climate science was, at best, a theoretical construct that handy, populist rhetoric could deconstruct in an instant; Environment Canada was a nest of liberal bugs, better swatted than tolerated; and Statistics Canada was a den of uncooperative eggheads who needed to be curtailed, abused and, in the end, fired.

Still, on a trip to Europe in advance of the Paris climate change conference, Mr. Trudeau was unequivocal about the intent of his government: It will look nothing like that of his predecessor’s.

Specifically, he instructed, “Indigenous peoples have known for thousands of years how to care for our planet. . .The rest of us have a lot to learn. . .Canadians) want to know that what they’re doing fits into a bigger picture, because there is no point in bending over backwards if your neighbour or your government is not also doing its part to ensure that we all have the maximum impact together.”

He added: “Every single one of us can and should be much more conscious of the ways we can act to reduce our carbon footprint. . .By working together, we will deliver real benefits for our environment while also strengthening our economy, including the creation of more middle class jobs.”

The words are nice, even credible. And yet, the devil is in the details and the details remain demonic.

In New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador, federally funded science initiatives have been eliminated over the past decade with systematic efficiency.

Virtually nothing remains of Fisheries and Oceans, the National Research Council or the Department of Environment in this craggy corner of the Steppe. Where once this region’s scientists and researchers contributed to the national policy agenda, they now perform perfunctory duties teaching their fellow bureaucrats the difference between a green and a blue bag on garbage day. That is the truth of the battle among those who have decided to stick around.

Recent reports from university scholars of my acquaintance suggest that, over the past 15 years, no fewer than 10,000 top-flight thinkers on everything from fluid dynamics to environmental engineering in this region have fled to friendlier and more remunerative locales around the world. They aren’t coming back and their ilk won’t be replaced anytime soon.

So is, as Mr. Trudeau says, “Canada back” as he attempts to sign on to a new climate deal with the rest of world?

Let us attend to the laggards in our own public policy.

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Battle lines in the war on science

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The scientific community and the rest of us enjoy, let’s just say, a complicated relationship.

The rest us of understand, at some basic level, that outside of nature virtually nothing we see, smell, hear, taste or touch has been unaffected by the ingenuity of the human mind. Still, according to a National Science Foundation survey last year, nearly 25 per cent of Americans believe that Copernicus was a dunderhead, or worse.

“To the question ‘Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth,’ 26 per cent of those surveyed answered incorrectly,” a report for National Public Radio in the United States revealed.

Incidentally, “in the same survey, just 39 per cent answered correctly (true) that ‘The universe began with a huge explosion’ and only 48 per cent said ‘Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.’ Just over half understood that antibiotics are not effective against viruses”. (They kill bacteria).

It’s one thing to admit that fantasy is more alluring than fact; it’s quite another to insist that the fantastical is, indeed, factual.

The Flat Earth Society describes itself as “a place for free thinkers and the intellectual exchange of ideas.” Meanwhile, millions apparently still believe that the world, have missed its date with the Apocalypse back in 2012, still has it coming in the not too-distant future.

Yet, talk to many of them about the devastating effects of empirically proven climate change on this orb, and they’re likely to call you barking mad, a gullible fool, or a willing conspirator of the international-scientific-complex, determined to separate poor citizens from their tax dollars to fatten already swollen research banks.

It is, perhaps, not a moment too soon, then, that some scientists in Canada are hitting back with the only weapon they can reliably trust: the truth about what they do for a living.

According to a Globe and Mail piece early last week, Molly Shoichet, a biomedical engineer at the University of Toronto, “is set to officially launch Research2Reality, a $400,000 social-media campaign she is spearheading that is designed to shine a spotlight on the work of academic researchers across the country. It is one of the most ambitious outreach efforts of its kind in Canada to date and it comes at a time when research advocates worldwide are trying to persuade governments of the importance of basic, curiosity-driven research.”

As she says, “We’re not a lobby group. Our focus is on capturing the imagination and the curiosity of the public.”

In fact, government dogma – especially in Canada over the past decade of Conservative rule – has been an even peskier problem than the sure-footed intransigence of the blissfully ignorant John Q. Public.

It is not science that some bureaucrats and their elected masters mistrust, but scientists – particularly those that can’t seem to get it through their eggheads that the work they do must evince some practical applications before their fellow citizens are willing to fund it.

This, of course, misses the point as most false dichotomies do. As Lauren Reinerman-Jones and Stephanie Lackey of Institute for Simulation and Training at the University of Central Florida noted in 2011, “If no distinct difference or opposition of basic and applied research exists, then it should be assumed that all research conducted has practical application with a theoretical foundation.”

Unfortunately, that proposition makes too much sense to find much purchase outside the halls of academe.

We may hope, however, that Dr. Shoichet will have better luck for the sake of both the scientific community and, of course, the rest of us

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Oh, a-fracking we will not go. . .

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You have to hand it to him. If nothing else, New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant is a man of his word.

He galloped into office with a promise that, he believed, resonated with most voters: No more fracking, of any kind, until proof emerges that the process can be rendered safe and harmless to the environment (by which standard, we might all be wise to follow our children west to Alberta, where fantasies do, indeed, come true).

Then, a week before Christmas, he brought down the hammer.

“We have been clear from Day One that we will impose a moratorium until risks to the environment, health and water are understood,” Mr. Gallant told reporters in Fredericton, after he announced new amendments to the province’s oil and natural gas act that prohibit both water and propane-based fracking in the search for commercially exploitable shale gas.

The premier also made it clear that companies may continue to explore for resources. It’s just that they can no longer frack in their efforts to assess the potential of some 77-trillion cubic feet of onshore shale gas that is estimated to lie beneath the surface – which is a little like telling someone that he may own a car, just not the engine.

Still, Mr. Gallant allowed, “We’ll certainly always listen to businesses that may have concerns and try to mitigate some of the impacts if they (believe) them to be negative on their operations.”

Not surprisingly, the CEO of Corridor Resources had a few choice words to share. “We have always maintained that a moratorium is not necessary for an industry that has operated responsibly and safely in this province,” Steve Moran told the Saint John Telegraph-Journal on December 18. “Here is an industry that wants to create more jobs and they just basically shut it down. . .We expect that the government of New Brunswick should want to fully understand the potential rewards of allowing the industry to proceed, while ensuring the risks are manageable and acceptable.”

What’s more, he said, “The only certainty is that nobody will ever know the economic potential, should hydraulic fracturing no longer be permitted. To not allow the work to continue, would amount to a refusal by the government of New Brunswick to ask the question  of what the reward of pushing this resource might be. We would consider that a wasted opportunity for the people of New Brunswick.”

And, not incidentally, for Corridor, itself, which has over the past several years invested upwards of $500 million on the industry in this province.

Still, it’s not as if Mr. Gallant had left many options for himself. Breaking so fundamental a campaign promise in these early days of his term might have been politically suicidal (though, a strategist might argue that this is precisely when one wants throw one’s pledges under the bus; the public’s memory grows mighty short when economic development flowers from a broken word or two).

Mr. Gallant’s predecessor, Tory Premier David Alward faced a similar Faustian decision: raise the provincial portion of the HST, as every mainstream economist advised, or keep his campaign promise to maintain the status quo (note, of course, how well that worked out for him in the end).

Politics aside, it’s not clear, in any of this, what will constitute “safe” and environmentally benign fracking procedures. According to the premier, “Any decision on hydraulic fracturing will be based on peer-reviewed scientific evidence and follow recommendation of the Chief Medical Officer of Health.”

If the approach now involves reviewing the evidence of natural degradation from fracking in jurisdictions other than New Brunswick, how relevant is one state’s or province’s experiences to our own?

According to a New York Times investigation, published last month, in North Dakota “as the boom (in shale gas) really exploded, the number of reported spills, leaks, fires and blowouts has soared with an increase in spillage that outpaces the increase in oil production,” partly because “forgiveness remains embedded in the (state’s) Industrial Commission’s approach to an industry that has given North Dakota the fastest-growing economy and lowest jobless rate in the country.”

Four our part, the tolerances of New Brunswick’s own regulatory regime are not something we’re likely to test any time soon.

On that, we have Mr. Gallant’s word; and, so far, his word is good.

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Out of the labs and onto the campaign trail

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Federal scientists are mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. That’s why they recently formed a committee to, you know, “take a decision” as to whether they should become, um, more “politically active” in the run up to the next general election.

Yes sir, that’ll show Stephan Harper and his crude bunch of beach bums who like to kick sand into the faces scrawny of nerds clutching slide rules.

Under the circumstances, then, it is perhaps appropriate that the acronym for the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, the union representing 15,000 government researchers who now find that their activist bones are aching is PIPSC, which one might waggishly contort into “pipsqueak”.

Still, as the Hill Times reports this week, the “move” to become formally agitated is “an unprecedented step from the union, breaking from its non-partisan position, to run and ‘evidence-based campaigned aimed at informing voters of the current government’s record. ‘Our members who are scientists and certainly feeling the brunt of the policies and cuts that have led us to take this exceptional position,’ said Peter Bleyer, a special adviser to PIPSC president Debi Daviau, speaking on her behalf.”

Others with less tentative natures might more properly ask Ottawa’s eggheads: What took you so long?

For years, the Harper government has treated publicly funded science as its own private think tank. It has systematically prevented researchers on its payroll from discussing their work with peers and colleagues elsewhere in the country and world and routinely run interference with the media.

More than a year ago, PIPSC released its own evidence: “A major survey of federal government scientists. . .has found that 90 per cent feel they are not allowed to speak freely to the media about the work they do and that, faced with a departmental decision that could harm public health, safety or the environment, nearly as many (86 per cent) would face censure or retaliation for doing so.

“In particular, the survey also found that nearly one-quarter (24 per cent) of respondents had been directly asked to exclude or alter information for non-scientific reasons and that over one-third (37 per cent) had been prevented in the past five years from responding to questions from the public and media.

Finally, “the survey found that nearly three out of every four federal scientists (74 per cent) believe the sharing of scientific findings has become too restricted in the past five years and that nearly the same number (71 per cent) believe political interference has compromised Canada’s ability to develop policy, law and programs based on scientific evidence. According to the survey, nearly half (48 per cent) are aware of actual cases in which their department or agency suppressed information, leading to incomplete, inaccurate, or misleading impressions by the public, industry and/or other government officials.”

This is, of course, standard operating procedure for any class of leaders whose need to control the message exceeds its willingness to accept the facts, however inconvenient these may be.

Still, if this nonsense is occurring, the odds are it’s happening not just once and a while, but daily. If that’s true, why hasn’t PIPSC been more regularly and reliably vocal about the problem, until now? After all, public attitudes in Canada towards scientists and science, in general, are warm compared with those in certain parts of the UnIted States and Europe.

According a Council of Canadian Academies’ study, published earlier this year, “Approximately three-quarters of Canadians agree with statements such as ‘all things considered, the world is better off because of science and technology’ and ‘science and technology are making our lives healthier, easier and more comfortable.’”

The research also found that on “an index based on standard survey questions assessing beliefs about the promise of science and technology, Canada ranks 9th out of

17 industrialized countries. . .On an index based on standard questions assessing public reservations about science, Canada ranks 1st among the same 17 countries, indicating low levels of concern about any potentially disruptive impacts of science and technology. Public reservations about science in Canada have also declined on average since 1989.”

Given such evidently widespread support for science in the vast lay segment of the Canadian population, perhaps it’s time PIPSC considers changing its name to more accurately reflect a new, less hesitant brand statement – something like “fighting injuries to evidence, research, common sense, and enquiry.”

Call it FIERCE.

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The unscientific methods of Canada’s politicos

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Despite claims of mounting evidence to the contrary, Canadians are, indeed, a scientifically minded folk after all. Or perhaps we only wish we were in the face the awful truth about our patently dunderheaded ways.

In either case, a special panel of the Council of Canadian Academies is trenchant in its most recent findings on the subject. Having interviewed hundreds of people and reviewed trunk loads of data and “peer-reviewed literature”, the organization has produced what it boasts is the “clearest picture of Canada’s science culture and science culture support system in 25 years.”

In response to the question, “What is the state of Canada’s science culture?”, the panel concluded, that “Canadians have positive attitudes towards science and technology and low levels of reservations about science compared with citizens of other countries.”

What’s more, “Canadians exhibit a high level of engagement with science and technology relative to citizens of other countries; the level of science knowledge (in Canada) is on a par with or above citizens of other countries for which data are available” and “Canada’s performance on indicators of science and technology skills development is variable compared with other OECD countries.”

All of this may come as a nasty surprise to certain Conservative MPs who have made much mischief in recent years propagating the fiction that all science is, in fact, just a matter of opinion (the corollary being that one opinion is just as valid as any other, because, gosh darn it, we live in a democracy and in a democracy that’s how we roll thank you very much).

Still, if we appear hopefully and outwardly rationale to the trained eyes of the nation, dutifully respectful of logic and the scientific method, how do we explain this report, which appeared on the front page of the Globe and Mail last week: “The fate of one of the federal government’s toughest crime bills is in doubt after the House of Commons sent the wrong version on to the Senate, which debated that version and sent it on to a committee for further study.”

Apparently, the errors in the Senate’s iteration of the bill are so egregious they compromise the very purpose of the proposed legislation, which is to strengthen the rights and representation of victims of major crimes.

How’d this happen? Conservative MP David Sweet, who sponsored the bill, was darned if he knew, but trusted all would be well in the end. “There has been an administrative error that I found out about between the House of Commons and the Senate administration,” the Globe quotes him as saying. “So the legislation that was in the hands of the Senate was not the legislation that passed the House of Commons. Measures are being taken.”

Of course, even in science, mistakes happen. But they don’t generally occur at the most mundane, routine levels of research – activities that are, in this case, analogous to the clerical work that House of Commons staffers undertake to move federal bills forward.

The real outrage against logic, here, may be the assumption that across-the-board job cuts in the public service necessarily results in better efficiency for less cost.

To be fair, though, money is tight everywhere. Just ask Canada’s premiers and territorial leaders, who were meeting in Charlottetown last week to decide, among other things, which menu to order lunch off of, as the subject of interprovincial trade barriers was likely to cause a collective bought of severe indigestion.

Fortunately, taxpayers won’t be on the hook. . .not entirely. As has been widely reported, mostly by the Ottawa Citizen, the premiers have managed to secure a total of $450,000 in private-sector sponsorships from such Canadian corporate heavyweights as the Insurance Brokers Association of Canada ($150,000) and Manulife ($50,000).

Even Unifor and the Canadian Union of Public Employees are in on the act.

The wholly unscientific assumption at the centre of this cogitation is that Canadians will not view the practice of branding with private logos a political meeting convened to pursue the public interest as utterly rank and quite likely undemocratic.

Heck no, said conference host Prince Edward Island Premier Joe Ghiz.

“In my opinion it’s about supporting democracy, it helps save taxpayers’ money,” he told the Charlottetown Guardian last week. “If we’re bringing in people from all over the country, I want to show them a good time.”

Behold, dear reader: critical thinking so very hard at work.

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The secret of our success is simple. We’re crazy

 

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Each day that passes on this third rock from an average star in the boondocks of a commonplace galaxy brings fresh evidence of the truth about our circumstances as, very likely, the only sentient creatures in this region of the universe.

Homo sapiens sapiens (us) are certifiably nuts. This, we already know. But that our derangement may very well derive directly from our intelligence is a proposition no evolutionary biologist would ever entertain. Until now.

In a marvelous review – still more marvelously titled “Consume, screw, kill” – of environment writer Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Harper’s writer Daniel Smith explains Swedish geneticist Svante Paabo’s determination to locate and identify the “madness gene” that makes us unique among hominins (all humans, including the extinct ones).

Mr. Smith quotes a passage from Ms. Kolbert’s work, directly:

“Archaic human like Homo erectus ‘spread like many other mammals in the Old World,’ Paabo told me. ‘They never came to Madagascar, never to Australia. Neither did Neanderthals. It’s only the fully modern humans who start this thing of venturing out on the ocean where you don’t see land. Part of that is technology, of course; you have to have ships to do it. But there is also, I like to think, some madness there. You know?’”

Indeed, who does that? Go off into the wild, blue yonder without an exit strategy? Apparently, we do. And not just that.

Writes Smith about The Sixth Extinction (for which, you may have guessed, our lunatic species is solely responsible), “Kolbert begins coyly with a kind of fairy tale. ‘Maybe two hundred thousand years ago,’ a new species emerges on Earth. Compared with other species around at the time – mammoths, mastodons, armadillos the size of Smart cars  – the members of this new species aren’t very fast or very strong. But they are shrewd or reckless or both. ‘None of the usual constraints of habitat or geography seem to check them.’”

What do they do when they finally reach what we now know as Europe? Writes Kolbert: “They encounter creatures very much like themselves (Neanderthals), but stockier and probably brawnier, who have been living in the continent far longer. They interbreed with these creatures and, by one means or another, kill them off.”

How, then, do our tendencies, singular among all animals, to wander like zombies into unfamiliar and treacherous territories only to plunder the local wildlife (and nightlife) before moving along relate to our possessing uniquely big brains?

Consider the results of separate research conducted in Israel. Scientists at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem compared the DNA of ancient Neanderthals with that of modern humans and found them to be about 99 per cent identical, which is what they expected. But when they examined the evidence more closely, they discovered significant differences in the remaining one per cent – specifically, between those parts of the archaic and contemporary genomes that were linked to disease, especially mental disease. Suffice to say, we modern types fared rather poorly. 

“Scientists are a long way from being able to understand what this means, stressed Liran Carmel, who led the study along with Eran Meshorer and David Gokhman,” Torstar reported the other day. ‘But this raises the hypothesis that perhaps many genes in our brain have changed recently, specifically in our lineage, the lineage leading to Homo sapiens. And perhaps things like autism, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s are side-effects of these very recent changes,’ said Carmel. ‘This is an interesting suggestion, that (brain disease) is a side-effect of us being Homo sapiens and having our unique cognitive capabilities.’”

“Interesting suggestion” doesn’t even begin to cover it. 

For the first time in our lousy, rotten history, we may be at the threshold of obtaining true self-knowledge. 

Forget Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Confucius. Keep your Enlightenment thinkers to yourself. And if you think religion is going to get you out of this one, think again.

The fix was always in; the game was rigged from the get-go. To paraphrase from a tune popular during the self-obsessed “Me Decade” of the ‘70s, we’re just no good, no good, no good. . .baby, we’re no good!

Of course, this also raises a rather unsettling corollary. If cognitive capacity actually produces mental disease, does the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence amount to nothing more than a bed count at a cosmic loony bin?

Then again, at least we’ll know we’re not alone in our insanity.

 

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Heading for the hot seat of global warming

 

Beyond the headland, off to meet the horizon

It’s been four years since the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted the end of the world. In that interval, the doom-saying industry has grown to meet the rising demands of the self-flagellating, environmentally righteous among us. Still, no one does moral masochism better than the IPCC.

In a fat, new report, released Monday, the Nobel prize-winning body effectively declared that unless world leaders start taking global warming seriously, the rest of us can stick our heads between our legs and kiss our derrieres goodbye. In fact, we may already be too late.

“In recent decades, changes in climate have caused impacts on natural and human systems on all continents and across the oceans,” the report says. “Glaciers continue to shrink almost worldwide. . .Climate change is causing permafrost warming and thawing in high-latitude and high-elevation regions. . .Climate change has negatively affected wheat and maize yields for many regions 

What’s more, “while only a few recent species extinctions have been attributed as yet to climate change, natural global climate change at rates slower than current anthropogenic climate change caused significant ecosystem shifts and species extinctions during the past millions of years.”

Said IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri on Monday: “Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change.”

Added report co-author Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development at the Independent University in Bangladesh: “Things are worse than we had predicted (in the first report issued in 2007). . .We are going to see more and more impacts, faster and sooner than we had anticipated.”

Indeed, observed Princeton University professor Michael Oppenheimer, another of the report’s authors, in an interview with The Associated Press, “We’re all sitting ducks.”

Perhaps a better metaphor is: ostriches with our heads in the sand. It certainly seemed that way during Question Period this week when Canada’s Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq staunchly defended her government’s record. “Since 2006 we have invested more than $10 billion in green infrastructure, energy efficiency, adaption, clean technology, and cleaner fuels,” she said.

It’s also true, however, that since 2006, the federal government has consistently failed to meet its greenhouse gas reduction objectives. (In fact, it hasn’t even come close). Today, Ottawa couldn’t care less about the environmental impact of new oil sands projects, just as long as it gets enough pipe built to transport the black gold to all points on the map 

“Government has not met key commitments, deadlines and obligations to protect Canada’s wildlife and natural spaces,” Neil Maxwell, interim commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, declared last November.

“(There is a) wide and persistent gap between what the government commits to do and what it is achieving. . .the approval processes currently under way for large oil and gas pipelines in North America have shown that widespread acceptance of resource development depends, in part, on due consideration for protecting nature,” he said, adding,“Our trading partners see Canada as a steward of globally significant resources. Canada’s success as a trading nation depends on continued leadership in meeting international expectations for environmental protection.”

That, in fact, may be wishful thinking. If Stephen Harper evinces any concern for what his trading partners expect of him on the environmental front, it was’t readily evident last week. 

Speaking to a business crowd in Germany, he was asked for his opinion about that country’s decision to wean itself from fossil fuels and nuclear energy, in favour of renewables, such as wind and solar. Thusly replied our estimable prime minister, off-handedly, if not exactly derisively: “So this is a brave new world you’re attempting? We wish you well with it.”

Actually, he doesn’t. Over the past eight years, this country’s political establishment and accompanying officialdom have slipped backwards in all fields that require evidence and critical thinking to penetrate. Today, it seems, the only thing our leadership class respects more than oil and gas is its own high opinion of itself.  

Clearly, environmental doom-saying annoys those who are vested in regressive policies that contribute to our planet’s woes, but the science of global warming is irrefutable.

And the IPCC’s moral masochism is nothing compared with the real McCoy if we don’t start changing our minds before the climate changes them for us.

 

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Will an apple a day keep the doctor away?

 

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Just so there’s no confusion: In our processed, fast-food, anxiety-riddled society, life without sugar is not an option.

Yes, the World Health Organization (WHO) says otherwise, but. . .well, come on. . .its new recommended limit of 12 level teaspoons a day? That would get the average person through lunch.

We might as well face it, one month after Valentines Day, we’re all addicted to the kind of love that comes in a box. Hello chocolate; come to daddy.

Of course, in my case, it’s not just any chocolate. It’s this absurdly tasty, milky variety by Lindt. No other branding is necessary. I buy it by the gross. I smell it through its paper and foil packaging. I fondle its brown, yielding edges just before I pop it into my mouth. I completely surrender to the orgasmic adventure of. . .

Hey, did I mention that I quit smoking once and for all (again), just the other day? Maybe, just maybe, there’s a connection. The WHO certainly thinks there is, if only a terminal one.

“The guideline amount has been slashed dramatically amid fears that sugar poses the same threat to health as tobacco. . .Experts blame it for millions of premature deaths across the world every year. . . Graham MacGregor, a London cardiologist and health campaigner, said: ‘Added sugar is a completely unnecessary part of our diets, contributing to obesity, type II diabetes and tooth decay. . .We have known about the health risks of sugar for years and yet nothing substantial has been done. . .The new recommendations will be a wakeup call to the Department of Health and the Government to take action by forcing the food industry to slowly reduce the huge amount of sugar added across the board.’”

Meanwhile, Britain’s chief medical officer Sally Davies “has already said a tax may be put on calorie-laden food and drink to curb soaring levels of obesity. Labour suggested last night it would impose a maximum limit on sugar, fat and salt in products marketed at children.”

All that was from London’s Daily Mail last week. Here’s something else from the desks of science reporters: Contrary to everything we’ve been told since June Cleaver made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for Beaver and the boys back in the 1950s, low-fat diets do not prevent heart attacks.

“There is no conclusive proof that a low-fat diet has any positive effects on health,” The Mail quoted James DiNicolantonio, a New York-based cardiovascular research scientist. “Indeed, the literature indicates a general lack of any effect (good or bad) from a reduction in fat intake. The public fear that saturated fat raises cholesterol is completely unfounded. . .We need a public health campaign as strong as the one we had in the 70s and 80s demonizing saturated fats, to say that we got it wrong.”

So what is the culprit (apart from sugar, obviously)? Take it away, Dr. DiNicolantoni:

“From these data, it is easy to comprehend that the global epidemic of atherosclerosis, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and the metabolic syndrome is being driven by a diet high in carbohydrate/sugar as opposed to fat, a revelation that we are just starting to accept.”

Naturally, these revelations might be easier to accept if we could actually keep track of them.

If it’s not sugar that’s killing us, it’s salt. And what’s up with eggs? One week, they’re nature’s perfect protein. The next, experts are insisting we’d be better off sipping hemlock.

“Researchers found that eating one or more eggs a day did not increase the risk of heart disease or stroke among healthy people,” the Globe and Mail reported last year. “It did, however, increase the odds of developing type 2 diabetes, a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.”

And don’t imagine, for a minute, that downing a handful of vitamin D supplements will save you. It turns out we were wrong about that, too.

“Previous research has shown that vitamin D deficiency is associated with poor health and early death,” according to a HealthDay report earlier this year. “But recent evidence suggests that low levels of vitamin D are a result, not a cause, of poor health.”

We can be reasonably certain that cutting back on sugar is the sensible thing to do. But, amid the epidemic of shifting medical consensus about virtually everything these days, we’ll just have to trust our guts on that one.

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Open Ottawa’s closed door to science

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The Canadian government’s relationship with the scientific community is, at best, fractious – the inevitable result of frequent dueling over the meaning of the word ‘evidence’ and, more to the point, its value in the so-called real world.

Members of the Conservative caucus routinely poke academics and researchers, who they suspect harbour left-of-liberal sentiments, sometimes for nothing more than the sheer joy of getting a rise out of them. Careful, Dr. Egghead, your shell might crack.

This, at least, appears to the operating principle behind two recent decisions of the Tory regime – both of which are driving environmentalists and biologist bonkers.

Last year, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans announced that it would shutter more than half of its regional marine research libraries. The government justified its action – will save a total of $430,000 – on the grounds that taxpayers should not have to shoulder the annual cost of maintaining 11 facilities when six will do.

But, as Gloria Galloway reported in the Globe and Mail on Wednesday, “it was not until (scientists) saw the shelves being cleared, the books and journals being scooped up for free by private companies, and the scientific reports being hauled off to the dumpster that the magnitude of the purge hit home.”

Indeed, former DFO regional director Burton Ayles called it a “loss of historic material.” His peer, Peter Wells, a professor at Dalhousie University, went further.

“I see this situation as a national tragedy, done under the pretext of cost savings, which, when examined closely, will prove to be a false motive,” the Globe quoted him. “A modern democratic society should value its information resources, not reduce, or worse, trash them.”

One letter writer to the Globe carried the flag the following day: “This government says Canadians cannot afford the $430,000 per year required to maintain taxpayer-funded irreplaceable scientific research,” wrote Chris Marriott of Chelsea, Que.

“On the other hand, we find that it was quite willing to spend $20-million a year on the Prime Minister’s personal security (we’ve seen this week how that’s worked out), and tens of millions promoting itself through the Economic Action Plan and Canada Job Grant advertising campaigns. The public money spent on just a handful of Action Plan ads aired during last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs would have more than covered the $430,000 the government says it can’t find to preserve critical scientific research.”

Meanwhile, we learn from the Globe’s Shawn McCarthy that the federal government has told the United Nations that unless Big Oil in Canada curbs its emissions, there’s virtually no chance that this country will come close to meeting its 2009 commitments made at the Copenhagen climate summit.

Instead, according to the article, the report to the UN “talks vaguely about new regulations in its sector-by-sector approach, while adding provinces, businesses and consumers also have a responsibility to address climate change.”

Given that the U.S. government, under the leadership of President Barack Obama, has articulated a thorough plan for reducing emissions in that country – and that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has consistently tied this country’s progress on the issue to that of our neighbour to the south – the disingenuousness in Ottawa these days   fills the air so thickly, it’s hard to breath.

What this crew has against against science or, indeed, any sort of learned discipline is hard to divine. But, it is abundantly clear, from many public pronouncements of many Tory MPs over the years that healthy, vigorous debate in caucus or in the Commons is roundly anathematic to good, representative government – a supposition that is genuinely absurd.

Still, evidence and deliberation, a knowledge of history and an appreciation of nuance, are enemies of political agendas regardless of the ideological underpinnings. No party in this, or any other democratic nation, has a patent on open-mindedness. Sadly, a demonstrable ability to think critically on any given subject long ago dropped off the list of worthy qualifications for a life in public office.

We, the electorate, must either do without or reinvent it in the so-called real world of politics as usual.

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Teachable moments from the living dead

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What accounts for the unrelenting zombie craze that finds perfect prime-time expression in the American Movie Channel’s The Walking Dead and in the distraught, if otherwise perfect, visage of Brad Pitt, hero of the summer blockbuster World War Z?

Let us say the scholarship on the subject is diverse.

According to one Todd Platts, a researcher at the University of Missouri’s Department of Sociology, “It may be tempting to brush zombies aside as irrelevant ‘pop culture ephemera,’” he writes in a recent edition of Sociology Compass. “Zombie infected popular culture, however, now contributes an estimated $5 billion to the world economy per annum. In addition to movies, comics, books, and video games, individuals routinely don complex homemade zombie costumes to march in zombie walks and/or engage in role-playing games like Humans vs. Zombies.”

None of which should surprise anyone, says Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Tufts University and the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies.

“Zombies thrive in popular culture during times of recession, epidemic and general unhappiness,” he writes in The Wall Street Journal. “Traditional threats to U.S. security may have waned, but nontraditional threats assault us constantly. Concerns about terrorism have not abated since 9/11, and cyberattacks have now emerged as a new anxiety. Drug-resistant pandemics have been a staple of local news hysteria since the H1N1 virus swept the globe in 2009. Scientists continue to warn about the dangers that climate change poses to our planet. And if the financial crisis taught us anything, it is that contagion is endemic to the global market system. Zombies are the perfect metaphor for these threats.”

Still, this doesn’t explain why zombies are more suitable, metaphorically speaking, than other types of monsters to represent our scared-stiff times.

When I was a kid, growing up in Toronto and Halifax, the preferred creatures of the night included Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolf Man, Godzilla, and even Mothra. These were physical and spiritual mutations, solid incarnations of Cold-War dread. They reminded us of the existential threat – nuclear annihilation – we were not quite powerless to control. But just about.

These bad guys also had personality. Some of them even had rhythm.

Ever see a zombie dance? It’s not a pretty site.

But, of course, that is the point.

There is nothing especially charming or quaint or ingenuous about life on Earth in the breaking decades of the 21st Century. More often than not, mobs, not individuals, enlist our attention. Good ideas are becoming indistinguishable from bad ones as the steady feed of information from the world’s 650 million websites fries our neurons.

Eventually, facts become no better than opinions. Meanwhile, the weight of one’s opinions grows only in direct proportion to the number of “absolute unique visitors” to one’s blog.

In 2013, zombies are the monsters we deserve. We don’t see them coming, though they are slower than molasses in winter. They are lousy conversationalists, and yet they always move in packs. And like members of any mob, they are at their most annoying when they swarm.

We didn’t see the dotcom bubble of 2000 until it was too late. Ditto about the financial crisis of 2008-09.

We didn’t notice the chorus rising up against science (evolution versus intelligent design; global warming versus climate conspiracists) and cheering on folksy, everyday heores (tea partiers versus “elites” of any and all persuasions).

As Mr. Drezner notes, “there’s a real downside to constant references to the living dead. The most serious problem lies in the suggested analogy. Policy entrepreneurs piggyback on zombies to capture attention, but they too often overlook a key element of zombie stories: They are relentlessly, depressingly apocalyptic. In almost all of them, the living dead are introduced in minute one, and by minute 10, the world is a wasteland. The implication is that if zombielike threats emerge, the state and civil society will quickly break down.”

But this is neither the time nor place for yet another dissertation on Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.

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