Canada – On The Fast Track to Ignorance

March 17, 2009

Canada’s science minister, Gary Goodyear, will not confirm whether he believes in evolution.

“I’m not going to answer that question. I am a Christian, and I don’t think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate,”

Okay, let’s reboot for a second and approach this in as calm a manner as possible.

What the fuck!!???

First, the question is meaningless to begin with; one does not “believe” in evolution. One accepts the vast, overwhelming evidence for evolution, in the same way that one accepts the vast, overwhelming evidence for gravity.

Second, what does being a Christian have to do with this? “Do you believe in evolution?”, no matter how silly the question (see above), is not in any way a question about religious faith. No, it is a question, asked of our minister of science (who’s job it is to promote and defend science in Canada), about whether he accepts scientific evidence.

Mr. Goodyear also apparently believes in the god-of-the-gaps:

“I do believe that just because you can’t see it under a microscope doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It could mean we don’t have a powerful enough microscope yet. So I’m not fussy on this business that we already know everything. … I think we need to recognize that we don’t know.”

This is, of course, technically true; he’s merely stating the fact that one cannot prove a negative. No one is claiming we already know everything, Mr. Goodyear. In fact, science says precisely the opposite (that is why we need more money, sir); we need to know more about how the universe works, about how the human body works, and about myriad other things; that’s how we’ve grown as a society. The history of empiricism shows that science works.

On the contrary, you’ve had two-thousand years to provide some evidence for your god, and still you have nothing.

So Mr. Goodyear, let’s have it out; do you accept scientific fact or do you accept magic?

Pope Visits Africa; Unimaginable Slaughter Continues

March 17, 2009

The Pope is visiting Africa this week, where he continues to spread his message of hate, ignorance, and stupidity.

First up, the HIV/AIDS epidemic that currently kills over 2 million people in sub-Saharan Africa each year (see for more details).

There is absolutely no question that sexual abstinence is the best mechanism through which an individual can avoid getting infected with HIV. Abstain from sex and avoid I.V. drug use, and you’re virtually guaranteed not to get infected.

The smack-me-in-the-face-because-it’s-so-fucking-obvious problem with this is that people don’t abstain from sex. Human beings are human beings, and the human sex drive is strong. So how do we get around this little problem? Simple; we teach people how to have sex safely; to avoid risky behaviour, and to use condoms. Condoms are not as effective as abstinence, naturally; but they’re one hell of a lot more effective than nothing at all.

So if the Pope cares about ending human suffering, he should be championing the use of condoms, right?

Of course not. The Pope believes that the invisible creator of the universe disapproves of condoms; the Pope believes that the alleviation of suffering that would surely come from increased condom use is less important than ensuring that Yahweh is kept happy. Actually, the Pope believes that condom use wouldn’t alleviate suffering at all:

“You can’t resolve [the HIV/AIDS epidemic] with the distribution of condoms,” the pope told reporters aboard the Alitalia plane headed to Yaounde, Cameroon, where he will begin a seven-day pilgrimage on the continent. “On the contrary, it increases the problem.”

Perhaps the Pope would like to expand on exactly how condoms “increase the problem”? If the problem is pissing off the god of Abraham, then I imagine he’s right. If the problem is the >2 million Africans dying needlessly each year, then the Pope is hopelessly, murderously wrong.

The accumulating evidence tells us that abstinence-only sex education does not lower incidence rates of HIV and STD infection or rates of sexual activity.

This whole episode once again demonstrates the fundamental problem with religion; religion places concern for the sensibilities of imaginary gods above those of real flesh-and-blood human beings. I should point out that I have no doubt that there are deeply religious people who support the distribution of condoms in sub-Saharan Africa; these people, while doing great work, did not arrive at this state by way of their faith, but by way of their secular concern for human suffering (I’ll take what I can get, while noting that religion gives bad reasons to do good things, when good reasons are available).

This episode also highlights the impossibility of practicing religion in a vacuum. The Pope is free to believe whatever nonsense he wants to. Other rank-and-file Catholics are free to believe whatever they want; they’re free to go to church on Sunday and eat and drink Jesus and listen to a bunch of hateful crap. They’re also free to donate money to the Catholic church, the official position of which (and the one that is acted upon by its high-ranking officers in the Vatican) is that the slaughter of millions of Africans is preferential to a solution with known efficacy. Have you given money to the Catholic church lately? If so, you are participating in this, no matter what your personal beliefs about condom use are.

When are we going to grow up? When are we going to start demanding evidence for our beliefs before we sacrifice millions of lives? When are we going to see these allegedly “moderate” Catholics rise up and stop supporting a murderous organization like the Vatican? If moderate religion is the answer (which I strongly believe it is not), then lets see it. If I’m painting religion with too broad a brush, let someone come forward and explain to me how they, as a believer, are fighting against not just the killing in Africa, but against the organizations that are committing the slaughter. Religious moderates: the world can no longer endure your silence.

Embryonic Stem Cell Research Back On; God Pissed

March 9, 2009

President Obama has announced that US federal funding will resume for embryonic stem cell research. Burn victims, suffers of Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, cancer, heart disease, type I diabetes, multiple sclerosis, lupus, and any number of other horrific conditions have moved one small step closer to having their daily pain ameliorated.

Meanwhile, Kansas Senator and general all-around real-good-Christian-type Sam Brownback, says:

“If an embryo is a life, and I believe strongly that it is life, then no government has the right to sanction their destruction for research purposes.”

Nothing like moral equivocation between the demonstrable, quantifiable pain experienced by millions of sentient people around the world each and every day for the rest of their lives and the “destruction” of an otherwise-non-viable mass of cells. Nothing like comparing the agony that families have to go through watching their loved ones die a slow, excruciating death to the termination of a pregnancy.

A fine example of just how religion replaces real moral values (like trying to lift the suffering of your fellow humans) with imaginary ones (like trying to do the will of your particular version of the invisible creator of the universe).

The most sensible thing I’ve read in months

March 5, 2009

The Globe and Mail’s Andre Picard, who’s science journalism is almost always right on the mark, has a column out today that is, without a word of hyperbole, the best thing I’ve read in the Globe, or anywhere else for that matter, in a very long time.

Picard notes that the general tone of letters he receives in response to articles about a new drug or therapy, or a new finding regarding disease prevention, has deteriorated in recent years, and has gone from being a representation of an opposing view point with respect to the evidence, to a more ad hominem, ‘attack-the-messenger’ approach, where anyone who supports ‘traditional’ evidence-based knowledge is either too blind to see the truth, or is ‘in the pocket’ of some evil cabal (usually a drug company). Picard writes,

What is truly troubling is that the most common “debating” technique in cyberspace has become the dismissal of anyone with respect for scientific fact and reasoned opinion as part of some vast conspiracy.

If you read scientific literature and health research with an open mind and still conclude that vaccines are not poisons, that chelation therapy will not cure heart disease, that realigning someone’s chakra is not going to clear up a bladder infection, or that strange concoctions of vitamins and minerals cannot cure bipolar disorder – all theories that have pretty broad followings on the Web – then you are dismissed as an agent of an evil empire.

Science is not a collection of facts about the universe; it is an approach to understanding the universe, or at least a small part of it. Science is a set of guidelines that we follow that allow us to have ever-increasing confidence in the validity of our conclusions; to allow us to let our beliefs about the universe scale with the evidence. Science is empiricism.

The remarkable success of empiricism suggests that it is a valid way of knowing how the universe works. We can argue about the problem of induction all we want, but the fact remains that evidence-based knowledge has, in the last hundred and fifty years alone, brought us an understanding of how life has evolved and diversified on Earth, and how the universe began and continues, to this day, to expand. And as I’ve written before, to those who disbelieve in the validity of the scientific method and empiricism, I invite you to do so while jumping from an airplane at 35,000 feet, sans parachute. I assure you that whether you accept Newtonian, Einsteinian, or Aristotelian theories of gravity, your fate will remain the same. No one ever asks for the homeopathy ambulance when they’re having a heart attack. Science when it suits; woo when it doesn’t.

Evidence-based knowledge has given us cures and treatments for the most horrific diseases imaginable, and the body of knowledge that will provide the next generation of cures and treatments continues to grow with each passing day.

In short, empiricism should be beyond all criticism. We can have legitimate discussions about the interpretation of evidence, or the processes through which evidence was gathered. But to question the concept that the degree to which we accept certain propositions as ‘true’ should scale with evidence is to denigrate the entire body of man’s collective progress.

Asking for evidence has become, it would appear, of secondary or tertiary concern. Answers that simply placate our desire to have an answer; any answer, have usurped our desire to know the truth. To the best of our knowledge, vaccines do not cause autism. How can I say this with such matter-of-factness? Because there is no evidence to suggest otherwise. A good scientist says “show me the evidence”, and so we, on the side of empiricism, await evidence that will sway what we know is true.

Again, if what we desire is to settle our mind; if we want to truly feel that breast cancer is caused by having an abortion, in order to provide some sense of assuredness about what would otherwise remain a complete unknown, then that is one thing. But if what we desire is to honestly know if abortion and breast cancer are linked, then we must follow what the evidence suggests. And in this case, the evidence suggests that there is absolutely no link.

So who do you trust?

Well, you depend on chiropractors and Hollywood stars to give you advice about vaccinating your baby; you trust the guy at the health-food store to offer up a sure-fire cure for arthritis; and you take as gospel the e-mail that warns ominously that if new food safety rules are adopted by government, storm troopers will soon be busting down your front door to seize the chamomile tea.

In the world of cyberspace science, the best evidence is anecdote and the more fantastical the claims, the larger the following they seem to garner.

Absolutely spot on analysis here. Anecdote is never, ever evidence; it is the absolute lowest rung on the ladder of evidence.

What one needs to wonder, however, is why there is such an appetite for quackery.

It has emerged largely in the vacuum created by a lack of science literacy.

In an era in which we are constantly bombarded with information, our education system is not equipping people with the tools to reason critically, to analyze and to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Precisely. Even undergraduate science programs do not provide a good foundation in simple logic or in the evaluation of evidence.

Sure, science isn’t that exciting. It tends to offer up steady, incremental bits of knowledge rather than miraculous cures, and there remain a lot of unknowns. But these voids need not be filled with fantasy and snake oil.

And, yes, Big Pharma and big business have had their scandals and excesses, but these have been exposed and denounced by the so-called establishment, and they do not negate the good.

It’s true; science is pretty boring. You don’t get many instances where a single finding radically changes the world. What you do get, however, is a slow, steady march toward a more complete understanding. And this march has, as I noted above, resulted in findings that have radically changed the world, or at least our knowledge of it.

And as Picard notes, science has had its bad days. Data have been misinterpreted; scientists have lied and falsified data; and some seriously bad technology has come out of our understanding of some of the most fundamental processes in nature.

But in each and every case, it was science that righted its own ship. Professional science operates in such a way that mistakes or outright lies are generally caught quickly, mainly because data cannot be reproduced. While quackery like intelligent design creationism or the anti-vaccination movement point out perceived ‘flaws’ in the science, they do nothing to add to the legitimate body of evidence; it is, and has always been, science that fills the gaps and corrects its mistakes.

I don’t know what the cure for this is. The sheer volume of information that is easily accessible today means that rationalists will have their work cut out to ensure that popular but completely false notions do not come to dominate public perceptions. What I do know is that while it doesn’t directly harm me as a person when someone wears a Q-Ray bracelet and thinks it helps their arthritis, it does become a bit troubling when one considers that the only reason this person has lived long enough to get arthritis and to seek out a quack, placebo-based cure for it, is the development of modern, evidence-based medicine. The web of empiricism is vast.

In a world where what is popular is confused with what is true (thank you, Oprah), empiricism has quite a battle to fight. But if we don’t continue to fight woo and quackery, we run the very real risk of undergoing a gradual, but ever advancing, dumbing-down of society.

One in nine people will misunderstand statistics

February 27, 2009

Have you seen those ads for the Weekend to End Breast Cancer; the ones with the tagline “Breast cancer is hard; walking is easy”?

As a prostate cancer researcher and advocate for increased funding for prostate cancer research, I really have to hand it to the breast cancer fundraising community; they have done an absolutely outstanding job at raising awareness and especially in raising money for breast cancer research. We in the prostate cancer community (which has about the same incidence and mortality as breast cancer) could learn a thing or two about how to take a disease that was not discussed and elevate awareness and funding for it to unimaginable heights. In 2005, breast cancer received about 15% of all cancer research funding in Canada and accounted for approximately 12% of all new cancers and 7% of all cancer deaths in 2003. By contrast, colorectal, lung, and prostate cancer, which each accounted for approximately the same number of new cases of cancer (and in the case of colorectal and lung cancers, far more deaths than breast cancer), each received 3-6 times less funding than breast cancer. There is no doubt that the massive public awareness campaign for breast cancer and breast cancer research fundraising have played an enormous role in this. Once again, I say this not to disparage the breast cancer advocacy community, but rather to sound the alarm that a similar initiative is needed in prostate and colorectal cancers, both of which have a slight public image problem due primarily to the anatomical location of the affected site.

So kudos to the breast cancer community for getting it right. And shame on the breast cancer community for getting one thing completely and utterly wrong.

If you’ve heard the commercial, you may remember one line in particular:

“One in nine women will get breast cancer.”

This is a shocking statement; one clearly designed to elicit a response. Look around you in the room you’re in; this ad suggests that if there are nine women in the room, at least one of you will develop breast cancer.

The problem, of course, is that this is completely misleading.

In 2007-2008, there were 364,085 births in Canada. If we assume 50% of these births were of females, that makes 182,040 new Canadian girls. There were an estimated 22,600 new cases of breast cancer diagnosed in Canada in 2008, which means about 12.4 cases per 100 girls born, or about 1 case for every 8 female births. Everything seems right so far (even slightly scarier at 1/8 instead of 1/9). There’s a problem, though.

The incidence of breast cancer, as with most cancer, is not evenly distributed. For instance, about 42% of all new cancer cases and about 60% of all cancer deaths will occur in people over 70 (Canadian Cancer Society, 2008 Statistics).

The most telling way of assessing one’s actual risk of developing cancer is to determine the probability of getting cancer in the next ten years, given one’s current age. Luckily, we have a very committed group of people at the Canadian Cancer Society (some of whom are former colleagues of mine) who dedicate their time to do these types of calculations.

On page 52 of the 2008 Canadian Cancer Society Statistics book (found here), you can see just these sorts of calculations.

A woman’s lifetime risk of developing breast cancer is, indeed, one in 9.1 (11%). But the risk of a 31 year-old woman developing breast cancer in the next 10 years is only 0.4% (or less than 1 in 100). As the woman ages, this risk obviously rises (though at a slower rate than has been the case in previous years, thanks in part to the reduction in Hormone Replacement Therapy use), until she hits age 70. At age 70, she has a 3.1% chance of developing breast cancer, or about one in 32. Yes, all you breast cancer-free 70 year-olds out there; your risk of developing breast cancer in the next ten years is only one in 32. And the 80 year-olds? Their risk is even lower; one in 40. How can this be? Simple; most 80 year-old women are developing other diseases and dying of other causes.

The general public cannot be expected to perform this type of exercise every time a commercial comes on TV. However, The Campbell Family Foundation for Breast Cancer Research, who hold the Weekend to End Breast Cancer and are the recipient of the funds, should know better.

So what is the correct statement?

“One in nine women, who live to their full life expectancy, will develop breast cancer.”

Not quite as snappy, but far more accurate, and not nearly as misleading.

Lisa, I want to buy your rock…

December 17, 2008

A little post-hoc-ergo-propter-hoc from W:

[Bush] credited his administration terrorism fighting strategy: reorganizing the government’s intelligence and military communities to confront the threat; pre-emptively targeting potential threats and making no distinction between terrorists and their supporters; and nurturing democracies.

“While there’s room for an honest and healthy debate about the decisions I made — and there’s plenty of debate — there can be no debate about the results in keeping America safe,” Bush said.

I’m reminded (EDIT: as were the folks at The Wonk Room) of a classic Simpsons episode (‘Much Apu About Nothing‘):

In response to an infestation of bears in Springfield, a Bear Patrol is summoned:

Later, a full-force Bear Patrol is on watch. Homer watches proudly.

Homer: Not a bear in sight. The Bear Patrol must be working like a
Lisa: That’s specious reasoning, Dad.
Homer: Thank you, dear.
Lisa: By your logic I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away.
Homer: Oh, how does it work?
Lisa: It doesn’t work.
Homer: Uh-huh.
Lisa: It’s just a stupid rock.
Homer: Uh-huh.
Lisa: But I don’t see any tigers around, do you?
[Homer thinks of this, then pulls out some money]
Homer: Lisa, I want to buy your rock.

That’s the kind of unfalsifiable logic that keeps the churches full on Sundays…

Oh Canada, our home and ignorant land

December 15, 2008

It’s always nice to have some numbers to back up the gut feeling you have that many of those around you are idiots. Sure, one can go off all high-and-mighty and claim that there is widespread ignorance, but it’s just so, well, satisfying to see it out there for the whole world to see.

Apparently, more than half of Canadians (51%, in fact) believe that the Prime Minister is directly elected. Huh??? Fifty-one percent???

Now, I know that our voter turnout levels are terrible, and one wonders if the 51% of mistaken Canadians are those that aren’t able to pry themselves away from the TV once every few years to make a fricken checkmark in a box, but WTF??? Do these people actually recall voting for the Prime Minister? Do they???

Now you see why appealing to truthiness, rather than the truth*** is such a valuable proposition for politicians.

I don’t know why I’m so shocked, but there you go.

*** – Not at all trying to imply that Wikipedia is the ultimate database for what is true; just trying to show that this information is out there, on the Interwebs, for anyone to learn from.