Category Archives: Science

Nature blasts Swiss anti-immigration referendum

As part of Switzerland’s system of direct democracy, Swiss voters recently approved immigration caps by a narrow margin. This means that the country, which has remained independent of the European Union, will no longer be able to continue to allow the free movement of labour with its neighbours (a fundamental plank of the EU).

It’s not clear yet how much the Swiss government is going to clamp down on immigration but the vote has already attracted condemnation from the editorial board of the leading scientific journal, Nature. They note that the move was fuelled by xenophobia rather than rational debate:

But direct democracy becomes problematic if it is driven by populism and irrational fears, such as those over unemployment and crime (Switzerland is, in fact, one of the safest countries in the world, and the current unemployment rate is barely 3.5%). Certainly, immigration there has increased over the past decade — but this is in large part because the economy and health system rely heavily on the services of foreign workers. Ironically, the initiative to ‘stop mass immigration’ got the highest level of support in rural areas, where there are relatively few foreigners. In cosmopolitan cities, such as Zurich, Basle and Geneva, a majority of voters rejected the initiative.

I’m encouraged to see Nature weigh into this debate. Often scientists are wary of stepping into political debates – either for pragmatic reasons (you need to keep everyone happy to keep funding up) or personal disinterest (they’d rather focus on their experiments). But in USA under George Bush and in Canada under Harper, we see a continued assault on science and pure research by those who would rather focus on industry and climate change denialism.

Similarly, immigration debates have a huge impact on the exchange of ideas. Here in the UK, there are many stories of professors, professionals with PhDs, who are unable to secure the proper visa to begin employment, due to draconian anti-immigration laws.

It’s time for elected local education authorities in Britain

There is a lot to learn coming from Canada about the complicated education system serving England and Wales.

Differences abound from the widespread use of uniforms, to near-universal behavioural challenges, to the fact students don’t earn diplomas but are expected to either take the right classes to go to college (a step toward university) or just drift off into the workforce. There is also an intense effort by the government to oversee every aspect of the system through a convoluted merit-pay system and the teacher’s unions were debilitated by Margaret Thatcher.

Beyond all of that though, England has never had elected school boards – or Local Education Authorities as they’re called here. Basically, the local municipal or city council just appoints a few bureaucrats to run the schools.

This naturally raises the question: Are appointed or elected school boards more effective?

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Woo and health charities

Charities and non-profits operate under tough conditions. There is never enough funding, staff, or expertise to achieve perfection and the demands from clients, donors, and funders often force the charity to be more flexible than it might otherwise.

Because of these limitations, you can wind up with articles like “Energy-based therapies and cancer” from Macmillan Cancer Support, the UK’s leading cancer charity.

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Council of Canadians resorts to fear on fracking

I somehow got on the Council of Canadians direct mail distribution list. While I like most of their work, I had to respond to their latest mail out and had to ask to be removed.

The envelope featured the iconic flaming tap image as part of their petition to end hydraulic fracking as a method of natural gas extraction. While the science is complicated on the question, I do sympathize with the need to abandon fossil fuels for renewable energy. Nevertheless, resorting to pseudoscientific fear mongering is one of my pet peeves about the environmental movement.

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Terahertz Atheist Video Blog

I always have a number of long-term projects in my head. Reaching out via different mediums is one of them, and practice speaking and editing is always important for me.

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To accomplish this I’ve started an intermittent video blog/podcast supplement to this blog. Only two episodes are up so far – the first on Fusion: Hot and Cold and the second on GMO Labelling – and it’s only available through YouTube for now (I may look into the technical aspects of how to iTunes it next week). You can subscribe to the RSS feed here or follow the YouTube playlist here.

My goal is to produce quality, short, informative and interesting videos. It will take a few before I hit my stride and I don’t promise a consistent release schedule (which means it may drop off the radar for a while).

Here’s the first two episodes:

Episode 1: Fusion Hot and Cold

Episode 2: GMO Labeling

California Rejects GMO Labeling, and why I approve

You may have missed it, but Barack Obama won re-election Tuesday in what the media wrongly called a very close race. While Mitt Romney was able to score over 70% of the vote in Utah, he failed to achieve either the popular vote nationwide or the only one that matters – the electoral college vote.

But what I found more interesting than the presidential election that was essentially pre-determined (at no point did Nate Silver’s 508 analysis give Romney a leading chance), was the array of ballot initiatives across the USA.

Obviously, I’m happy to see a number of states approve gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana. There were many more smaller ones though. For example, Florida voters rejected two proposals, one that would have made it legal for the state to give money to religious organizations and another that would have made it illegal to provide state funding for abortions. These results also make me happy.

I’m disappointed that California upheld the death penalty and probably have to read more about the failed Alabama proposition that would have removed racist language from the state constitution, which was opposed by black legislators (I think because it would have removed education as a right as well).

But today I want to talk about GMO labeling in California.

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Why read when you can watch and listen?

A bunch of shameless self promotion.

Back in August I was invited to join Don McLenaghen on Radio Freethinker, the skeptical podcast of CiTR radio (the UBC radio station). Ethan was away that week, so we spent the entire hour talking about Humanism.

You can listen to that interview here (mp3).

Last week, I took a road trip to Edmonton, via Kamloops.

While in Kamloops I dropped by a meeting of the Kamloops Centre for Rational Thought and gave a (somewhat impromptu) short speech on Humanism before going into an extended discussion. I posted my brief presentation on YouTube:

Then, in Edmonton I gave my speech on communicating evidence for the Big Bang, entitled 13.7 Billion Years in 90 Seconds for my old group, the University of Alberta Atheists and Agnostics.

Announcing Bad Science Watch

The promoters of science-based policy in Canada have a new defender.

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Bad Science Watch, a new Canadian science advocacy group, has issued a challenge to the Canadian government: stick to the science in the development and implementation of important policy decisions. This group will work diligently to ensure Canadians are protected from exploitation by unscrupulous organizations peddling useless and potentially harmful products and services.

The group is being led by former CFI Vancouver executive director Jamie Williams and former CFI Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism co-chair Michael Kruse. Their advisory panel and board of directors includes a number of scientists and doctors from across Canada. I was involved early as a part of the steering committee (those responsible for vetting projects for BS Watch) but stepped out due to my other commitments (there’s just not enough hours in the day).

Noting the need for a professional advocacy organization in Canada, dedicated to finding bad science in our policies, this group hopes to only take on projects where they can make a measurable difference in Canadian’s lives. This means no tilting at windmills as they actively strive to make substantive policy changes when it comes to health, consumer advertising, and public policy.

Their first campaigns include “targeting bogus food-intolerance testing in Canadian drugstores and an intensive investigation into the state of the Canadian anti-WiFi lobby.”

Edmonton skeptic and host of Skeptically Speaking Desiree Schell did the voiceover for their fantastic kickoff video:

Please consider signing up for their Action Alerts Newsletter and making a contribution to their Peerbackers Project.

It will be exciting to watch this project grow and gain momentum as it affects real change on important issues.