30 January 2006

Science v. the Supremes

Just in time to watch Sam Alito get confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but too late to influence the debate, New Scientist weighs in this week with some thoughts on the future of American science at the hands of a court tilting rightward. It's subscription-only (worth it if you have $200 burning a hole in a pocket somewhere), so I'll steal a few excerpts for you:

Areas affected could include genetic screening, intrusion of a tech-savvy federal government into individual privacy, and the teaching of intelligent design in schools.
Past decisions by the court have helped the US lead the world in areas such as environmental protection. "Once, the US supreme court was a beacon of light on a lot of issues," says Robert McKeever, a political scientist at the University of Reading, UK. But in recent years the initiative has passed to Europe and Canada...

Experts think that the new court won't be much different from the old one on matters concerning the environment. The conspicuous exception could be on the question of who has the "standing" to file environmental lawsuits. ...

The records of both Roberts and Alito suggest that they are likely to rule more narrowly than Sandra Day O'Connor, the judge Alito will replace, on the issue of who can sue. "I fully expect that both Roberts and Alito will now be sympathetic to restricting environmental standing," says Robert Percival of the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore.
By contrast, genetic screening of fetuses could be anathema to the new court. Following the supreme court's 1973 ruling in the Roe vs Wade case, women have an unrestricted right to abort a fetus in the first 13 weeks of pregnancy. But the prospect that parents might screen fetuses for genetic traits they consider desirable - and abort those that do not have them - could lead legislators to pass laws limiting this right.
Also uncertain is the new court's position on whether intelligent design (ID), the creationist challenge to Darwinism, can be taught in schools. Initial impressions suggest that ID might find more favour than before in the new court. "Justice Alito does not appear to be a big fan of the wall separating church and state," says Robert Boston of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State...

A little worrying, I suppose. But then, there's always the Souter scenario:

Predictions are one thing; what happens in practice is another. History tells us that analysing how a judge might vote when appointed to the supreme court is fraught with uncertainty. In 1990, when President George H. W. Bush appointed David Souter to the supreme court, the judge was expected to be conservative, yet as a supreme court justice he has often opposed his conservative colleagues.

27 January 2006

We're Number 1!

Rule No. 1: Everybody loves a good list.
Rule No. 2: Criteria for inclusion and/or ranking of lists need have absolutely no grounding in reality.

That's a lesson I learned about a decade ago during one of my stints as a newspaper reporter and editor. The boss had us compile "top 10" lists of just about anything, even though we were ostensibly a serious paper covering Canada's Parliament. We didn't have to consult any authority, just arbitrarily arrange 10 topical items relevant to the issue at hand and presto: a user-friendly guide to whatever it is we're supposed to be experts on.

Judaism figured this out a long time ago. The 10 Commandments are much easier to digest than theological tracts, and even though the last two are really just variations on the same prohibition (coveting), the authors knew that a nice round 10 was more attractive than nine. And the No. 1 rule is always the most important -- Yahweh being a jealous god and all.

David Letterman's Top 10 lists appeal to the same innate sensibilities. Despite the fact that his writers rarely make No. 1 the funniest item, you have to count backwards, because, again, No. 1 is supposed to be the most important.

Science section editors are no less immune from the temptation to rank. And so it is, climate change being such a hot topic these days, that each year they run the latest list of the top warmest years on record. A story that says the year that just drew to a close is No. 1 is too good to resist.

Which explains why in the past week or so, many a story found its way onto science pages and websites proclaiming 2005 the warmest year on record. Here's a typical example. But only a few days earlier, from similar sources, came stories claiming 2005 was tied (with 1998) for second warmest year (See here and here.) So what was it?

Actually, it's not important. The fact that it was pretty darn close to the warmest year on record is enough to warrant concern, given the climatological predictions that things are only going to get hotter as the century unfolds. Resisting the temptation to get all hot and bothered about whether 1998 or 2005 was No. 1, which is what good science journalists should do, is apparently too difficult for even the best of us.

The problem is that it leaves reportage open to the like of Steven Milloy and his "junk science" acolytes. Just this week he posted a PC vs Not PC comparison belittling the "2005 was warmest year on record" story.

It's only when you get into the details that the story actually acquires some gravitas. For example, the press release from NASA on which the latest story is based, actually gets into a very interesting and provocative point. The basic idea is this: 1998 was an El Nino year, meaning much of the world was warmer than usual because of a weather pattern unrelated to anthrogenic climate change. 2005 wasn't an El Nino year, and yet it still tied (or topped) 1998. That means
...what's significant, regardless of whether 2005 is first or second warmest, is that global warmth has returned to about the level of 1998 without the help of an El Nino.
Now, consider that El Nino is just an irregular but recurring phenomenon that merely redistributes heat from the western side of the Pacific to the East. (Thanks to Gavin at Real Climate for helping me with this one.) So how does its presence or absence change global warming? The answer is that El Ninos not only move heat across the Pacific, they vent some heat from the ocean into the atmosphere. And most of our global warming measurements are based primarily on what's going on in the air, not the oceans.

The implications for climatology are not insignificant. Roger Pielke Sr., the sometimes controversial researcher who heads up a climate change research group at Colorado State University (and who resigned last year from the federal Climate Change Science Program Committee), says this bias in favor of atmospheric temperature is a serious obstacle to good science. On his blog, he wrote recently that "a more meaningful metric than global average temperature to assess global warming is ocean heat content."

I think it safe to say that debate over how to measure climate, which is very real, is far more interesting and consequential than a headline-grabbing list. All of which is not to say that lists aren't useful things through which necessary attention can be focused. But it's probably a good idea not to take most of them too seriously without looking closely at the criteria involved in assembling them.

By the way, after 2005 and 1998, the next three warmest years on record, according to just about everyone, are, in descending order of heat content, 2002, 2003 and 2004. I mean, hey -- everybody loves a list.

26 January 2006

What would Darwin think?

Much is being made of a new poll of Brits that suggests Charles Darwin's homeland isn't quite as intellectually advanced as previously believed. The main poll question and statistic of interest is "44% said creationism should be included" in science classes. PZ Myers, for example, heralds the Ipsos MORI poll, conducted for the BBC-TV Horizons series, as evidence that "Brits are just as stupid as we are."

That's one way of looking at it. A recent Pew survey, for example, found 42 percent of Americans believe humans have existed in their present form only (i.e., are creationists). But we really shouldn't be too surprised. Several polls have looked into the level of atheism and religiosity in the early 21st century, and most generate consistent results: between 39 and 44 % of Brits do not believe in God (compared with single digits in the U.S.). That leaves upwards of 61 % who are susceptible to supernatural explanations of things like the diversity of life.

I know that mixing disparate poll results is bad form -- differences in sampling techniques can play havoc with meta-results, for one thing -- but if we assume all the stats are representative, then it would appear that only two-thirds of the U.K. faithful are creationism junkies. The numbers in the U.S. aren't exactly the same, but they show a similar trend. With near 90 % of the populace calling itself religious, only 65 % of the country wants creationism taught, either alone or along with evolution.

What does this say about the never-ending debate we science bloggers are having on this side of the pond over the compatibility of science and religion?

The very model of a (post)modern human being

Regulars will recall my review of Ray Kurzweil's new book, The Singularity is Near. One of the author's fans, realizing that the book's length probably exceeeds the attention of span of most of us mere mortals, has condensed the Singularitarian vision into a few stanzas, sung to the tune and meter of "I am the very model of a modern major general" from the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Pirates of Penzance. Hilarious and good production values, to boot. Lyrics and audio file link are here.

Thanks to Boing Boing for reminding me to check out Kurzweil's website.

24 January 2006

Cautious Canadians

The implications for Canada of the victory of the Conservative Party in last night's federal election aren't immediately obvious. The most likely scenarios hint at very little change on just about every front, and when it comes to things children of the Englightenment care about, the strongest language I would use is the old standard of "cautious optimisim."

For the benefit of American readers unfamiliar with the subtleties of politics north of the border, and despite what the Washington Post and the rest of the U.S. press would have you believe, the election results do not signal a significant "swing to the right." Yes, the popular vote swung by six percentage points from the Liberals to the Conservatives, but it would be a mistake to read too much into party names.

A more accurate description would have the center-right Conservative Party, not the electorate, swinging closer to the center in order to attract centrist voters unhappy with a tired Liberal Party that had become tainted by scandal. It's as simple as that. It's important to note that the victors ended up with 37 per cent of the vote, and only 40 per cent of the seats in Parliament. Hardly "a striking turn" as the New York Times would have you believe.

With a few notable exceptions, this is essentially what happens in every election in Canada, whose populace distrusts anyone who strays too far from the center. If the Conservatives had won a majority and therefore real control of Parliament, one could worry about the old "campaign from the left and govern from the right" strategy that has marked past disingenuous governments, but that's not the case here, not with a minority government.

I take comfort in the knowledge that the Conservative Party managed to win in large part by abandoning its recent past, a past sullied only a few years ago by a leader who believed humans and dinosaurs once walked the earth together. The new prime minister, Stephen Harper, may be a fiscal conservative, but he knows the social conservatism of his predecessors leaves a bad taste in the mouths of mosts Canadians. He led his party to victory by rejecting the homophobes and anti-abortion activists that once dominated the right wing in Parliament.

The bottom line is we're not going to hear calls to teach the evolution controversy from the Prime Minister's Office.

Harper, in fact, took over his party by negating that kind of thinking, and he is loathe to even mention religion. The strongest statement I could find from his lips on this subject is:
My view is that the purpose of a Christian church is to promote the message and the life of Christ. It is not to promote a particular political party or candidacy. I don't think this is good religion, besides being bad politics at the same time." (CBC News Online, Jan. 24.)
That's good news. Whatever Harper's views on monetary and foreign policy, and no matter how often his critics suggest he constitutes a best friend for George. W. Bush, I'm not going to lose any sleep over the outcome of this election.

Even on those issues where Harper shows a lack of respect for reason -- his opposition to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, for example -- his power to effect any real change is extremely limited, by his failure to win absolute control of Parliament, and the opposition of the Senate, which is still a very Liberal (and decidedly liberal) body.

20 January 2006

Polar bears and penguins

Science culture blogger Chris Mooney wonders whether he's getting needlessly worked up over the cinema ad now playing around the country in which polar bears and emperor penguins get all chummy over a bottle of Coke. (See it here, if absolutely necessary.) I share his discomfort with the confused biogeography that would suggest the two species even share the same hemisphere, let alone habitat. I also tend to let such things get under my skin when really I should just chill. As Chris and some of his commenters point out, it's just an ad.

Should we really let such offenses to basic ecology pass without comment? Maybe, like Chris, I am taking it too seriously. The New York Times has a story today the type of people who spend their days reading and writing science blogs -- reporter Stuart Elliott says we're now known as "Leonardos. " But the more I think about it, the more annoyed I get.

Part of my problem is that I don't think it's necessary to get the science wrong in order to tell a good story, attract an audience or move product. I could be way off base here, but I suspect ad execs used to have more respect for science back in the day. One piece of evidence comes to mind courtesy of the U.S. release of the "March of the Penguins" DVD. Among the special features is a classic Merrie Melodies cartoon "Eight-Ball Bunny," in which hapless Bugs tries to take an out-of-work showbiz penguin home to the South Pole -- not the North. (It's also the one in which a haggard Bogart makes several non-sequitur appearance asking if Bugs can spare a dime for an American down on his luck -- hilarious and justification enough of my monthly Netflix subscription fee.)

I know that isolated anecdotes do not a case make. But I strongly suspect that such violations of what cinematographers call verisimilitude were less common, especially when it comes to simple facts such as polar bears live around the North Pole and penguins primarily the South. (Chris is also annoyed by the ad's implication that bears would tolerate the company of a penguin rather than try to eat it, but I'd let that one go as standard anthropomorphic silliness. We're talking about animals without opposable thumbs, after all. How are they going to hold a Coke bottle?)

I recall a tour of the Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta (I know, I know, but that was before the new Georgia Aquarium, back when there wasn't much else to do in Atlanta after you'd done the CNN studio and Carter Center), and I have no memory of any similar insults to biology or physics among the hundreds of examples of a century worth of pushing Coke. The NY Times' Elliott has bit to say about the handling of science in the recent past:

To be sure, there have been previous periods when science captured the fancy of Americans who did not live or work at Cape Canaveral, the Livermore National Laboratory or Los Alamos. In the 1950's and 1960's, the space race produced a generation that said "A-O.K.," drank Tang and yearned to embody "the right stuff."

In the 70's and 80's, magazines and newspaper sections were created to chronicle the rise of personal computers and the booming interest in what was called "science fact." In 1980, Time Inc. brought out Discover magazine, perhaps the best known of those publications, which is still in business but on its fourth owner.

The difference is that now the new science publications, like SEED, are targeted only at the science geeks, Leonardos, or whatever you want to call them, instead of a larger slice of the demographic pie. Like television channels, there's a subculture, complete with media, ad campaigns and sponsored blogs, for everyone. Fair enough. But does fidelity within a niche market let the corporations off the hook outside in the wider world? I hope not.

This blog is about the fight to restore respect for reason and doubt in the larger public sphere. My hope is that I'm not writing exclusively for the converted, but these kind of developments make me wonder. That's why those hits from Southern Methodist University give me hope.

Incidentally, and if you want someone to blame, the offending ad was produced by New York's Berlin Cameron Red Cell agency, with Chris Shipman and Izzy DeBellis identified as the "creatives" responsible for the idea. Music courtesy of the Beach Boys. According to Duncan's TV Ad Land, it's the 10th Coca-Cola television ad featuring polar bears.

19 January 2006

Selecting for intelligent posts

It's amazing what the some newspaper websites moderators will let through in the name of fairness and balance. In the public comments section of a story in today's Globe and Mail about the fascinating discovery of a raft of new species in a California cave, one "Rain SM from Vancouver, Canada" offers the following complaint in response to a quote referring to adaptation.
How does someone turn an exciting scientific discovery into an evolution issue. Someone should be reading their bible instead of the news
I'll tell you how: Through an appreciation that every discovery of a new species is an evolution issue.

I can appreciate how an anti-intellectual Bible-thumper might bristle at the mention of adaptation or related issues in evolutionary biology. What I don't get is a) why such people are reading the science sections in the first place, and b) why bother with a moderator if such drivel is going to make it past the idiocy filter?

17 January 2006

Another win for evolution

Among my lamentations in my year-end review was the continuing campaign against evolution in such places as Frazier Mountain High School, which is part of the El Tejon Unified School District in California. Today we learn, through the ever-vigilant folks at Panda's Thumb, that the district has agreed to bring its creationist-inspired "philosophy of design" course to an early end. And, according to the terms of the agreement it reached with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, it promised never to do it again.

This was an important one. Instead of trying to place the square peg of intelligent design into the round hole of a science course, special education teacher and soccer coach Sharon Lemburg thought she could get away with hiding her retro-instruction in a philosophy course. A UA lawsuit followed. And good thing, too, as her course was largely built around "young-earth" silliness found in creationist literature, something the Supreme Court ruled a no-no in public schools in 1987.

Mind you, there's still another dozen states or so out there sticking to their anti-evolution guns.

Laugh long and prosper

Anyone who has ever had even a passing encounter with publishing a scientific paper, and anyone else with a high school education and a sense of humor, will love today's gag in the New York Times.

15 January 2006

Unweaving a tangled web

Two of the biggest stories of recent times in science and politics share a common theme: deception. How society deals with the offenders in each case could hardly be more different, and that disparity has got me thinking.

For perpetrators of laboratory fraud, there can be no redemption, even though no lives have been lost and the only careers to be ruined are those of the liars themselves. In the political sphere, however, the reverse is true -- though the consequences of the lie involve death tolls in the tens of thousands, those responsible remain in power and, to a large portion of the public, remain beyond reproach.

I am comparing the phony clones of Hwang Woo Suk with the war in Iraq. The scientific community was sold a bill of goods when the South Korean biologist claimed to have made a major breakthrough by cloning embryonic stem cells, an accomplishment that, if true, heralded a new era for medical research. The American and British public, meanwhile, were sold a far more consequential tale involving the threat of mass destruction and terrorist conspiracies that, if true, implied very bad things to come.

Both lies employed ostensibly incontrovertible photographic evidence that had been deliberately mislabeled and misinterpreted. Both were also based on the naiveté of their respective audiences, each of which demonstrated an astounding willingness to suspend disbelief in the face of compelling and growing cause for doubt.

First, George W. Bush's Big Lie. By November 2004, it was clear to all but the most loyal members of the Ann Coulter fan club that the Bush and Blair administrations had "cooked the books" on the threat posed by Iraq and terrorists in general. The New York Times and the Washington Post had published lengthy apologies that essentially accused government officials of lying to reporters about weapons of mass destruction, ties between Al-qaeda and Iraq, and all sorts of related slander.

The only scientific estimate of the number of Iraqi civilians sacrificed in the current war topped 100,000. The U.S. death toll is about 2,200, the federal deficit and debt continue to set records, and Iraq now looks like it's heading for a civil war. An honorable retreat from Vietnam now looks like a cakewalk compared with the challenge of how to extract ourselves with dignity from Iraq.

Yet approximately half of American voters returned Bush for a second term and Tony Blair is also still in office (although his future is less certain). If I live half as long as Ray Kurzweil says I could, I'll never figure that one out.

Dr. Hwang and his clone-factory colleagues, on the other hand, have not fared nearly so well. Recent reviews of his research have concluded that he probably did clone Snuppy the dog, but made up the rest. As a result, his status as national hero in South Korea has been, shall we say, downgraded a notch or nine. He might be able to find a job cleaning test tubes, but even that's a long shot considering how desperate undergrad biologists can be for the honor of polishing their mentors' glassware.

It has been suggested that Hwang thought he could get away with his story of successfully cloning human embryonic stem cells because the basic idea was sound. Sooner or later, someone else would do it for real, and then no one would bother examining his faked data and photos. He'd be remembered as the guy who did it first.

It probably seemed like a clever plan. Everyone in South Korea certainly was rooting for him. But he underestimated how jealous scientific competitors could be. It only took about seven months for his crime to be revealed. (One might argue that it would have been exposed faster if more American biologists had access to human ESCs, a restriction imposed by Bush on the false contention that enough existing ESC lines are available and the even more dishonest claim that adult stem cells offer more promising avenues of research, but I digress.) And other than some embarrassed journal editors who with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight should have realized that it was Hwang's photos that had been cloned, instead of the ESCs, the damage was limited to one man's lab.

As the Washington Post's science writer Rick Weiss writes today, ESC research continues uninterrupted. Everyone has learned to be a little more vigilant, and the chances of future opportunities for similar dishonest tactics are that much slighter. The error-correction algorithm built into the scientific method, peer review, appears to be operating quite well, thank you very much.

Of course, scientific fraud will never go away. According to Weiss,
Several scientists and ethicists said it is becoming clear that, if anything, Hwang Woo Suk was a rather typical faker. What made the case big was not the scope or creativeness of his lies, but the extremely high profile of the scientific field in which he chose to perpetrate his charade.
Just this weekend, for example, we learned of a Norwegian researcher who fabricated data on oral cancer. But the lag time between publication and unmasking was only three months this time. The fact remains that the need to replicate any scientific finding means that sooner or later, the truth will out, and the acceleration of the information society means that it will probably be ever more sooner than later.

So what happened to democracy's error-correction algorithms, otherwise known as a well-informed citizenry and free and fair elections? It would seem that too many of us were asleep at the switch.

Obviously the political sphere is far more complicated than the scientific community -- more complex, perhaps, but with more competing motives and conflicting demands. Are there no elements of the scientific approach that we can apply to politics? What about peer review? In a way, the press is supposed to fill this role, by turning to independent experts to evaluate administration claims. But when it comes to national security, independent experts by definition don't have access to all the data. Unfortunately, that leaves us with nothing more than the skeptic's toolbox, one that requires extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims.

In his book, the Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan offered a "Baloney Detection Kit" to battle paranormal and other pseudo-scientific claims. It might not be a perfect fit for politics, but I think we could do a lot worse:
  • Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts.
  • Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  • Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no "authorities").
  • Spin more than one hypothesis - don't simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
  • Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it's yours.
  • Quantify, wherever possible.
  • If there is a chain of argument every link in the chain must work.
  • "Occam's razor" - if there are two hypothesis that explain the data equally well, choose the simpler.
  • Ask whether the hypothesis can, at least in principle, be falsified (shown to be false by some unambiguous test). In other words, it is testable? Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result?
  • I humbly suggest that if Colin Powell's case for war, as offered to the U.N., had been subject to the Baloney Detection Kit, it would not have survived long. That's the best I am come up with, anyway. Anyone got a better idea?

    12 January 2006

    Will the real 2005 please stand up?

    At first blush, 2005 seemed a like great year for those who believe in good old fashioned science. Looking back just a few days after Judge John E. Jones III's devastating blow to intelligent design in his Kitzmiller ruling, it was hard not to adopt an optimistic outlook for the coming year.

    There was the positive reception for Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science and growing acceptance of the reality of climate change. Those who would abuse the scientific method for their own nefarious ends seemed to be in retreat. Even Sen. Rick Santorum was climbing aboard the ship of reason.

    Sadly, it didn't take long for reality to set in.

    Yes, Jones did write a spectacularly cogent and comprehensive debunking of ID as nothing more than creationism warmed over. But as for the impact of the judgment? My initial guess was it's going to galvanize at least as many creationists as it discourages. Already this year the Ohio State Board of Education voted down an attempt to cleanse the state's high school science curriculum of a lesson plan that has been denounced as a disingenuous attempt to undermine students' confidence in evolutionary theory.

    Over in Tennessee, the Blount County Board of Education is forging ahead with a plan to allow teachers to include ID in biology class, Considering the financial fallout from the Kitzmiller ruling -- the Dover school board is on the hook for between $1 million and $2 million in legal fees -- you might think other boards in the country would feel at least a little reluctant to take on Darwin. But you would be wrong.

    Even California isn't immune. Frazer Mountain High School, near Los Angeles, is now facing a suit from parents of students over a philosophy class that allegedly teaches the old, discredited, irreducible complexity argument on which ID is largely based. Sigh.

    And then we have Kentucky Governor Ernie Fletcher, who, in a state of the commonwealth speech, asked:

    What is wrong with teaching “intelligent design” in our schools. ... This is not a question about faith or religion. It’s about self-evident truth.

    But what's really got me depressed about the prospects for 2006 wasn't the refusal of ID to give up the ghost, but the persistence of ghosts themselves. While waiting for something meaningful on television the other night, I stumbled across Larry King on CNN. Ordinarily I have no time for the King, but the topic of that evening's program caught my attention: "Are Psychics for Real?"

    It was the same old phony-debate shtick, with the skeptics barely getting in a word edgewise. Here's an excerpt from the tail end of the show, during which a "spiritual intuitive" who goes by Char Margolis was doing the cold-reading thing with a caller:
    MARGOLIS: OK, but I work in a certain way. And this nice gentleman has to work with me, OK? Just say yes or no. Don't tell me anybody's name. But you need to tell me whether there's someone living or deceased, OK?


    MARGOLIS: First I need to know if there's someone with an "M" or a "J" initial around you.

    CALLER: No.

    MARGOLIS: Anyone deceased?

    CALLER: Yes.

    MARGOLIS: Is that a female?

    CALLER: Yes.

    MARGOLIS: Is it spelled M-A...

    CALLER: ... yes.

    MARGOLIS: R, like Mary or Margaret.

    CALLER: Margaret.

    MARGOLIS: Is this your mom or your grandma?

    CALLER: It was my mom's sister.

    MARGOLIS: Your mom's sister, OK. I have a feeling her spirit's with you. And what are you -- are you changing your home or thinking about changing your home?

    CALLER: We were. We just did a bunch of remodeling.

    MARGOLIS: You just redid your home? Because she's -- the feeling I get from this is that she liked what you did to your house, or what you changed with your house.

    KING: All right, I'm sorry I've got to cut this, we've got to take a break. But that seemed pretty good. All we'll be right back, don't go away.
    Sorry, Larry, but I went away. What part of "Just say yes or no" didn't the caller understand?

    Looks like the battle is far from over, Judge Jones' efforts notwithstanding.

    10 January 2006

    The upside of online advertising

    The advent of user-targeted advertising is a curious phenomenon, one that raises some troubling privacy issues. But there may be a positive, unintended, almost ironic side-effect of this trend, thanks to the shortcomings of the targeting software. Allow me to explain.

    Along the top and down the sides of many a commercial website, private blog and even webmail pages can be found small advertisements supplied by Google Adsense, Blogads and their competitors. The ads are generated by software that tries to match the ads to the subject matter of the web page on which they appear.

    It's a nice idea, especially for popular bloggers who are trying to get paid for their derivative ramblings, but it also opens the doors for reader tracking and the consequent privacy concerns raised thereby, all of which does give me pause. Just a little though, and that's a subject for someone else to tackle.

    Back to my point. In theory, the ideal software would supply only those ads that promote products and services compatible with the needs, desires, politics and worldview of the reader. But of course, the algorithms being used by the ad services are hopelessly flawed. At one time, one of my favorite bloggers, Carl Zimmer (The Loom), was forced to apologize because ads promoting creationist literature were appearing on his blog, a major theme of which is rationalism, the scientific method and just about everything that creationism isn't.

    Just today, I was reading a Live Science story about the auto industry's worst polluters, and what did I see across the top? An ad for Ford Trucks. They're built tough, did you know? The software, it would appear, can't tell the difference between complimentary and denigrating commentary.

    My point is that this is a good thing. In an era in which fewer and fewer people dare to read anything that might challenge their preconceived biases, when the Internet allows you to wrap yourselve in a coccoon of like-minded blow-hards, the appearance of accidental counter-propaganda can only be a welcome development.

    You don't see any ads on the Island of Doubt. But that's not because I fear corrupting the page with commercial pleas. As soon as traffic is sufficiently high to justify such corruption, I'll be on board. And I'm willing to bet a few day's income from those hypothetical future ads that many of them will be hyping items that are getting the skeptical treatment in this space.

    And why not?

    09 January 2006

    Keeping it simple, too simple

    Once again, Canadian voters are getting ready to cast ballots in a federal election without the benefit of a fair national debate thanks to the collusion of the major television networks and what the media call the "main" political parties. The problem is the leaders' debates, which are restricted to the main parties by arbitrary and self-serving qualification criteria. Any party that isn't already represented by an existing member of Parliament doesn't get to play ball.

    Not that that's unusual for a 21st century post-industrial democracy. The United States has evolved an even tighter establishment control of the electoral process, institutionalizing the Republican and Democratic stranglehold on Congress as the only two legitimate options. And just as in Canada, alternative voices are excluded from televised debates and afforded little coverage by the traditional media.

    Because Canada goes to the polls in two weeks, and because I'm still eligible to vote there, I'm obsessing on this issue for a bit. It might seem be a bit off-topic, but it's closely related to the standard Island of Doubt theme of attempts by those wielding power to restrict independent thought and convince the average the citizen that life is full of either-or, black-and-white choices, instead of the subtle shades-of-grey judgments we really have to make.

    The big problem with Canada's televised leaders' debates is that they are run by a cabal of network executives answerable to no one. The biggest player, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, is supposed to operate at arm's length from its government masters, but on the matter of whom to include in the debates, it's clear that a massive conflict of interest is preventing it from doing the right thing and opening up the debate. The private members of the network consortium simply want to make the debate easier to orchestrate. Fewer participants makes for more compelling television. Or so the best argument they can make goes. Sad, really.

    The Green Party has, once again, been excluded from this year's round of debates, the second and third of which air tonight and tomorrow. Once again, it is complaining to the federal telecommunications watchdog, the CRTC, but there is no hope in hell in that the complaint will do any good, despite the fact that none of the arguments used by the networks to limit the debate to the main parties holds a millilitre of water.

    To wit: The networks say they need objective criteria to determine who does and who doesn't get to debate. But the Green Party has attracted almost as large as share of public support as the New Democratic Party, which does get to play. The Green Party has never elected a member of Parliament, but neither had the Bloc Quebecois when it was granted the honor of taking part in 1993. The Greens are running candidates in every riding, something both the NDP and BQ have repeatedly failed to do.

    Exceptions prove the rule: the Reform Party joined Parliament thanks to a byelection win in a single riding in the late 1980s, and then was granted participation in the leaders debate on that basis alone, despite the absence of a significant national support or a national slate of candidates. The BQ arrived on the scene only when a handful of Conservative Party MPs invented the new party in-between elections, and was granted participation on that basis alone, despite a single election win or significant national support or full slate.

    The bottom line is, getting involved in the leaders debates leads to increased support, as past federal. and provincial elections resoundingly proves. So for the networks to argue that a party doesn't get to debate until it has attracted enough support to get elected is a Catch-22.

    See here for more details on these issues.

    I'm not naive. I understand why these things happen. If, for example, the BQ had been excluded in 1993, the entire province of Quebec would have busted a gasket, politically speaking. The same thing applies to the Reform Party and Western Canada. So far, support for the Greens is too diffuse to be of concern to Ottawa. But that doesn't make it right. And when you're talking about elections, there should be at least a token attempt to be fair.

    There's nothing Canadians can do about the private networks without a law requiring them to stop playing favorites. But we should expect more from the CBC that a single tautological line in today's story on tonight's debate: "The Green party, meanwhile, has complained to the CRTC that leader Jim Harris isn't being allowed to take part in the debates, so he can't be heard at all in that forum."

    Each year, I write a letter to the CRTC and add my voice to the list of those complaining about the exclusion of the Green Party. There's also an online petition (it won't do any good, but there are more than 43,000 signatories so far, so what harm can it do?)

    For the record, I've already voted (via special ballot through the mail), and it wasn't for the Greens. In the riding in which I chose to vote, the Western Arctic, the best candidate by far, Dennis Bevington, is running for the NDP. So there.

    06 January 2006

    Messin' with Texas

    Most Texans were probably too drunk celebrating the Longhorn's Rose Bowl win to notice that their governor, Rick Perry, thinks intelligent design is "a valid scientific theory" and should be taught to public school students in the state.

    His announcement came just a few weeks after Federal Judge John E. Jones III brutalized the ID movement in Pennsylvania by ruling it isn't science and therefore can't be taught on the taxpayer's dime. (That ruling will cost the taxpayers of Dover, Penn, between $1 million and $2 million in court costs, thanks to the obstinate former board members of the Dover Area School District responsible for trying to sneak creationism into the classroom despite their lawyer's advice to drop it.)

    Perry, a Republican, is up for re-election this year. And judging from the responses from his challengers to his latest gaffe, it's looking more and more like alleged fringe candidate Kinky Friedman could get the skeptic's vote. Kinky reportedly told the Austin Statesman: "I'm agin it; there's nothing intelligent about it."


    05 January 2006

    When astronauts go bad

    Much has been made lately of the dangers of letting politicians tread onto scientists' territory. (see Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science for a primer on how poorly most members of government understand the scientific process.) But there is a corollary that gets far less attention.

    I refer to the dangers of letting scientists set public policy, and a speech this week by a former astronaut seeking a seat in Canada's Parliament is a timely reminder. Marc Garneau, who is running for the center-right Liberal Party in a rural riding (what congressional districts are called in the Great White North) between Ottawa and Montreal, had this to say about Quebec separatism:
    "I believe that there are a lot of sovereigntists who have not worked this through to the end. It's a little bit like the United States going into Baghdad. It happened very quickly but what after that?" (Globe and Mail, Jan. 5)
    Yeah. He really said that. I kid you not.

    Now, I have no objection to astronauts running for public office. In the U.S., pioneering astronaut John Glenn distinguished himself, modestly at least, in the U.S. Senate. Legislatures can only benefit from a wide variety of perspective among their members. Why not welcome a scientist like Garneau to the halls of power?

    He has a doctorate in electrical engineering and was Canada's first astronaut, a "mission specialist" rather than a space pilot. And like Sen. Glenn, he can draw on military experience. But even a bright guy who "designed a simulator for use in training weapons officers in the use of missile systems aboard Tribal class destroyers," may not be qualified to weigh in on matters of state.

    Garneau's leader, Prime Minister Paul Martin, introduced the neophyte candidate by glibly observing that "Space and Parliament can be kind of similar at times" CBC, Nov. 30). He was joking (I hope), but if that's the best argument that Martin could find to justify Garneau's nomination, then we have a problem.

    Of course scientists can make good politicians. In theory. Lawyers can make good politicians, too. There are even some half-decent men of the cloth holding public office (although we should probably keep a close eye on anyone who wants to mix theology and democracy). But just as legal acumen in of itself does not warrant political responsibility, so excellence in science is insufficient, as Garneau's bizarre comparison of Iraq and Québec makes all too clear.

    More evidence that Garneau may not be ready for prime time, from the same Globe story:
    Earlier in the campaign, he had to apologize to a Québec paraplegic association for a speech he gave in 1986 when, as he tried to argue the importance of financing science and technology, he suggested that government grants to handicapped people weren't as profitable.
    By all means, let's welcome more scientists into public office. A little experience with professional skepticism would really help right about now. But let's make sure they're more than just students of nature. Humans don't behave with mathematical predictability or precision. Besides, the last thing we need is a scientist embarrassing the whole scientific community by saying daft things in public.

    03 January 2006

    Rock and Roll

    SUVs kill babies.

    That may be a bit of an exaggeration, or at least a decontextualized distortion, of a new study published this week in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. But compared with today's confusing media coverage of the study, it's at least straight to the point.

    The truth, of course, is that all sort of vehicles, and all sort of other things, kill babies. What the new Pediatrics paper (not available online yet) actually says that is that you are not reducing the chance that you will injure or kill your children if you drive an SUV instead of a ordinary car. And because we know that SUVs threaten the lives of everyone in anything smaller on the roads, the net societal impact of the 250 percent increase in SUV sales between 1995 and 2002 is negative.

    The child-injury stats will surprise many parents, as they probably assumed that bigger is better when it comes to physical protection on the road. It's not really news as far as adult injuries go, though. Statistics showing a slight increase in injury rates for SUV riders comprise a central portion of High and Mighty: SUVs--The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way, a book-length exposé by auto journalist Keith Bradsher that came out three years ago.

    But because parents tend to react more strongly to emotional arguments rather than statistics, and they're too busy hauling their kids to soccer games to read a 464-page piece of nonfiction, they will be surprised, shocked even, to learn that instead of improving the safety of their offspring's world, they have actually put them at increased risk for some kinds of injury.

    This is a perfect example of why we should all have more respect for the tools of science. The way the universe works is often counter-intuitive. Common sense, particularly sense derived from an emotionally charged, advertising-and-propaganda-filled environment, can get you killed.

    The coverage the story received this morning certainly doesn't help. The most alarming (almost as alarming as my deliberately misleading opening) comes from a brief UPI item. under the headline "Children's risk triple in SUV rollovers":
    PHILADELPHIA, Jan. 3 (UPI) -- Children riding in SUVs involved in rollover crashes are three times as likely to be injured, research released Tuesday concludes.
    That's technically true, but the triple risk actually refers to children involved in rollovers compared with non-rollover crashes, not rollovers in cars. Big difference.

    Most other news sources did a more responsible, but still confusing job. The Mississippi Sun Herald's headline was "SUVs no safer for children than cars." Most cherry-picked statistics like the Sun Herald's observation that "A child who was properly restrained in a seatbelt or child seat during an SUV rollover had twice the chance of serious injury." Many included a paraphrase of the study's finding that "Rollover crashes increased the risk of injury in both vehicle types."

    Furthermore, there's a "doubled risk of rollovers in SUVs" (Chicago Sun-Times) and "though rollovers represent only 3 percent of accidents, they account for more than a third of annual highway deaths" (the Sun Herald again). The Bloomberg business wire offers this take: "Child injuries from rollover accidents were more common in SUVs and outweighed the safety benefits of larger, heavier vehicle frames."

    Confused? Depending on what story, and how closely one reads the stories, it may seem like SUVs are three times, two times, a bit more, or just as likely to get your child injured or killed.

    The bottom line is that the heft of SUVs does offer some protection, but only enough to compensate for the increased likelihood of rolling over. What the study actually says is that
    "... despite the larger size of SUVs and the consequent perception of improved safety, children riding in SUVs have a similar risk of injury, compared with children riding in passenger cars. The protective effect of increased vehicle weight offered by SUVs is tempered by their higher risk of rollover crashes "


    "After adjustment for all of the aforementioned factors, the risk of injury was not significantly different for children in SUVs versus passenger cars."
    This is not something that lay people can easily figure out by themselves. They have to rely on trained statisticians to tease conclusions out of the enormous accident databases of the federal government.

    In addition, responsible and science-literate reporters must help them make sense of the numbers. None of the stories I found mentioned the "odds ratio" the researchers used to describe the comparative risk. The final OR for kids in SUVs was 1.5 times that of kids in other cars, with a 95-percent confidence interval of 0.88-2.57. That means the real risk could be slightly lower or as high as two-and-a-half times. I would expect that after being exposed to those numbers, a parent would be even less comfortable with the idea of driving their kids to soccer practice in an SUV.

    Also overlooked in my review of the coverage so far was the bigger picture. Any responsible analysis would come to the conclusion that SUVs are not good for society or the planet. Marketers tell customers they can drive off-road in comfort, although hardly anyone actually does that -- and good thing, too, since it's illegal just about everywhere as well as being bad for wilderness and wildlife. They use too much gasoline, pose a threat to anyone not ensconced in the extra 1,317 pounds that it takes for an average SUV to qualify for an exemption to the national fuel-efficiency standards, and make life miserable for small towns trying to keep their roads free of potholes.

    And now it turns out they're not any safer.

    The problem is, trading in your SUV for a smaller vehicle only transfers the risk to someone else. In the used-vehicle market, the buyer will likely be younger than most parents, meaning a less-skilled driver will now be driving a machine that's more difficult to drive in the first place. Meaning more accidents and rollovers...

    Oh well.