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.

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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

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.

Continue reading Council of Canadians resorts to fear on fracking

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