The Big Bang Theory is ruining science

When The Big Bang Theory first premiered, I watched it with a lot of hope.

It had science script checkers and sought to bring the nerdy culture of physics into the mainstream. My wife (then girlfriend) and I started watching it while we were both undergrads – me in engineering physics and she in physics. While it’s predominantly male cast and token ditzy blonde was problematic from the start, it was relatable for us and our friends. Even if none of us were a Leonard, Sheldon, Raj, or Howard, we saw bits of each of those characters in each of us. Even Penny started to develop into a rounded character and slowly they introduced a couple female scientists. Overall, it was good.

But it’s moved so far from that. Many of our friends gave up on it years ago as the show drifted toward the lowest common denominator. The physics jokes are almost entirely gone and the humour is more about laughing at the gang for being nerdy and socially awkward than the humour in the situations they get into.

This latest episode – the ninth season premier at that – reached an incredible new low though. Amy’s escape from her joyless relationship with Sheldon was seen by Sheldon as an indictment on half the population. The script writers then chose to run with that “gag” through the entire episode. In one scene Sheldon is creeping in a window because he wanted to pressure Amy into getting back together with him. By the end he’s saying that the only good woman is scientist Marie Curie but she was “an honorary man because she had a penis made of science.”

Not to be outdone on the creep-factor, comic book store owner Stuart’s gag was to instantly prey on every female character as soon as he had a hint that she might be single. Meanwhile Leonard follows up his elopement to Penny by revealing that he works with a woman he cheated on Penny with and then offers sex as a means to distract her.

Given the deep systemic issues faced by women in science, there’s no forgiveness for this show to stoop to this level. What could be a way to make science cool, fun, and engaging has instead just become offensive for its misogyny, its disservice to the incredible women in science, and for perpetuating cruel stereotypes about men in science.

I feel betrayed.

Libertarian activist puts politics before reality to argue the left puts politics before reality

On the libertarian blog Reason, John Stossel trots out the tired cliche that the left are just as anti-science as the right, and in this case potentially even more damaging. Because non-evidence based views about climate change have no real world consequences right?

He cites the usual tropes as the left-wing anti-science positions, yet fails to actually show any political divide for any of the claims. In fact, public opinion research debunks his two main examples: vaccines and GM. In the US, at least, there is a divide on support for nuclear power and animal research* – but a majority of Democrats still support nuclear power and the question of animal research is far more about values than evidence.

Compare this to the gap between science and reality on the right on evolution, stem cell research, global warming and corporal punishment (to name but a few)

Stossel’s final argument is that the left is styming research into IQ differences between men and women and between different races. Even though he only cites his own anecdote, given history, I’m okay with some pretty critical lenses being applied to anyone starting down this path.

So no, the evidence doesn’t support the claim the left is anti-evidence.
*I’m being charitable and assuming his rant about SeaWorld – an entertainment facility first, research second – is about animal research.

Lunney unleashed

Citing media “intolerance and bigotry”, anti-science Canadian MP James Lunney has quit the government caucus to sit as an independent. Among Lunney’s claim to the crown as Canada’s least scientifically literate MP are:

  • He doesn’t believe in evolution
  • He’s a chiropractor
  • He’s claimed there’s a link between vaccines and autism
  • He doesn’t believe the climate is changing

In his surreal press release (dated March 31, not April 1), he states that he will address his religious beliefs in Parliament at his next opportunity, which sounds like it will be a hoot. Lunney claims that Christians are being persecuted in Canada, a claim that is thoroughly debunked by the excellent Ottawa Citizen editorial:

Add MP James Lunney to the list of people who somehow have come to believe they’re being persecuted — that indeed, their fundamental human rights are under threat — when people disagree with them on Twitter.

Lunney is standing down before the election in October so we’ll only have a few more of his public gems of wisdom.

Good riddance.

Got DNA evidence of Bigfoot? Don’t peer review, write a book!

Science Editor Jonathan Leake skewered Bryan Sykes in The Sunday Times today [paywalled] over bigfoot claims. Sykes is publishing a new book in which he’ll present the DNA evidence he claims to have for the existence of yetis and bigfoot. This claim comes despite the lack of any good photographic evidence in the era of cameras in everyone’s pockets.

Sykes previously hosted The Bigfoot Files on the UK’s Channel 4. Leake has some sharp comments on Sykes’ credibility:

Bryan Sykes, who describes himself as a ‘professor of human genetics at Oxford’…

Sykes has not published any research on these creatures…

Sykes is a fellow of Wolfson but he admitted [his Institute of Human Genetics at Wolfson College, Oxford] was mythical. “The journal required some sort of additional address in the college and, hey presto, I became an institute!”

Sykes’s book says he has been professor of human genetics at Oxford since 1997, but university officials said he had not held that post for a decade or so.

My favourite piece is the final comment from another scientist:

Tom Gilbert, professor of geogenetics at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, said: “Bryan’s data highlights that a lot of people strongly believe they have evidence for them (yetis etc), but none of it holds up under scrutiny.”

Edmonton Journal grants space to debunked anti-WiFi conspiracies

Some parents in Alberta are trying to get schools to ban wi-fi on baseless fears and scare-mongering. The kicker: these same parents are fine with wifi in their house. 

It’s not so much the parents who bother me in this story as the Canadian Teachers Federation, the local school councils, and particularlu the Edmonton Journal who all give far greater space to these conspiracy theories than to sound science and expertise.

Continue reading Edmonton Journal grants space to debunked anti-WiFi conspiracies

Arctic Apples highlight absurdity of GM regulations

Okanagan Specialty Fruits is a small biotech company from central BC. For the past twenty years they have been trying to get their main product to market, jumping regulatory hoop after hoop. All they have been trying to sell is an apple.
But their apples are special.
They don’t brown like a normal apple when sliced because they have been genetically-engineered to not produce the chemical that in most apples oxidises when exposed to air. Because GM techniques were involved, it took nearly 20 years to finally get USDA approval to grow their apples in the US (Canada is expected to grant permission soon).
This means that these are the most scientifically tested apples ever grown by humans.

Much of the GM debate focuses either on unfounded claims about the safety of GM foods or, when those are debunked, the concern that GM tech is being dominated by a few small big-agri companies (argumentum ad Monsantum). But both of these arguments completely miss the fact that small companies are spending absurd amounts of money and time, to an unreasonable degree, the safety of their food and that there is a large amount of public-sector research into GM happening.
So congrats to Arctic Apples on being deregulated in the US (and hopefully soon making it to shelves) and let’s hope their steadfast efforts pave the way for other novel foods to make it forward.

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?

Continue reading It’s time for elected local education authorities in Britain

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.

Continue reading Woo and health charities