Episode 50: Climate Change, Part 1

Episode 50: Climate Change, Part 1

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Greg Christensen, Richelle McCullough, and Donna Harris discuss the science (and politics) of global climate change.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Links: Correlation and Causation (Wikipedia, Internet Explorer Market Share Linked to Murder Rates, Ridiculous Infographics) | Milankovitch Cycles (Wikipedia, Khan Academy) | Bob Carter (Wikipedia, Skeptical Science, Telegraph Article) | Greenland Ice Sheet May Melt Completely | Hurricane Formation (Principle Layers of the Atmosphere, Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, North Atlantic Oscillation) | Global Warming & Climage Change Myths from Skeptical Science

Correction: In this episode, Donna mentioned that Tracie Harris would be speaking at February’s HAAM meeting. Tracie will in fact be speaking on 12 March 2013.

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Bad Science Watch Completes Investigation of Anti-WiFi Activism

Bad Science WatchBad Science Watch is an independent non-profit activist organization dedicated to improving the lives of Canadians by countering bad science. The group is driven by a vision of a safer, healthier, and more prosperous Canada where critical thinking and sound science are paramount in the making of important societal decisions.

December saw the completion a project investigating anti-WiFi activism in Canada. The project committee (which I chaired) presented its findings to BSW, and the full report is now available on Bad Science Watch’s project page.

I’ll quote here from the conclusion of the paper:

We have been unable to identify any high quality reproducible evidence that any symptom of idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields (IEI-EMF) is caused by exposure to nonionizing electromagnetic radiation. Systematic reviews of both provocation studies and purported treatments for IEI-EMF support the conclusion that EMF is not the cause of the syndrome.

Despite the claims made by the authors of one review paper and the aforementioned anti-WiFi groups, Bad Science Watch was unable to locate any compelling evidence of legitimate scientific debate about WiFi induced illness, or the safety of low-level EMF exposure in general. While fringe groups continue to present flawed arguments and promote poorly designed experiments, the preponderance of research on the matter robustly dispels the connection between WiFi and IEI-EMF. For those tasked with making decisions about the inclusion of WiFi technology in their organization, school, or home, we can find no reason to ignore the advice of health organizations worldwide. The benefits of WiFi are numerous and varied, and there is no compelling evidence that any health effects arise as a result of this technology.

You can read the full report here.

If you’re interested in supporting future projects undertaken by Bad Science Watch, I encourage you to to donate or volunteer.

SkeptiCamp Winnipeg 2012: A Sampling Sampler

On Saturday, 29 September 2012, the Winnipeg Skeptics held their third annual SkeptiCamp event. SkeptiCamp Winnipeg is a conference for the sharing of ideas. It is free and open to the public: anyone can attend and participate! Presentations and discussions focus on science and free inquiry, and the audience is encouraged to challenge presenters to defend their ideas.

Dr. Laura Targownik is a professional gastroenterologist and health services researcher (and yes, she was already heard your colonoscopy joke). She is most interested in discussing how to improve the public’s understanding of medical issues, better living through statistics, and in improving resources for skeptical families.

SkeptiCamp is an open conference celebrating science and critical thinking. For more information please visit SkeptiCamp.org.

SkeptiCamp Winnipeg 2012: Measures to Avoid Adverse Consequences of Fossil Fuels

On Saturday, 29 September 2012, the Winnipeg Skeptics held their third annual SkeptiCamp event. SkeptiCamp Winnipeg is a conference for the sharing of ideas. It is free and open to the public: anyone can attend and participate! Presentations and discussions focus on science and free inquiry, and the audience is encouraged to challenge presenters to defend their ideas.

Dennis LeNeveu worked for 20 years at Atomic Energy of Canada doing research on nuclear fuel waste management, focusing on probabilistic risk assessment. Subsequently, he did consulting work in the area of risk assessment of carbon dioxide capture and sequestration in oil fields. Through this work, he became interested in the consequences of fossil fuel extraction and usage.

SkeptiCamp is an open conference celebrating science and critical thinking. For more information please visit SkeptiCamp.org.

A Brief Summary of my Thoughts on the Subject of Organic Agriculture and Its More Conventional Alternative

Cross-posted from Startled Disbelief.

We’ve been trying to get an episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else on the subject of Organic Agriculture together for quite a while. But, as this is a very complicated topic, and I am very busy, we haven’t recorded it yet.

Image (CC BY-SA 3.0) by Bluemoose via Wikipedia

My friend Ali (who you may remember from the LUEE episodes Leaving Faith Behind and Justice and Hate Crimes) asked for my thoughts on the subject, specifically focusing on the question, “Is organic agriculture more environmentally friendly?” And so, here are my thoughts. I’ve tried to keep them brief. But I’m not very good at that. I also tried to stay on topic. But I’m not very good at that, either.

Is “organic” better for the environment? The answer to that seems to be: it depends. Probably, but it’s very complicated.

There have been several large studies that seem to show that the production of organic foodstuffs is no more environmentally friendly than conventional agriculture (and may in some cases be more harmful). See this recent study, for example.

These summaries of the evidence, by Brian Dunning, are pretty good in my opinion:

Organic Food Myths
Is it a revolution in health and the environment, or a counterproductive fad?

Organic vs. Conventional Agriculture
Is organic agriculture truly safer or better for the environment than modern farming?

Amy Davis Roth of Skepchick also did a pretty good job with this Q&A: Ask Surly Amy: Genetically Modified Plants.

My provisional view on the matter is that when it comes to safety or health, there doesn’t seem to be any real difference between organic and conventional agriculture. When it comes to environmental concerns, I tend to lean more toward conventional agriculture, as I am persuaded by the argument that centralized distribution is more efficient, and by the argument that while yields may not be substantially bigger with conventional crops, they tend to be hardier and require fewer “inputs” (fertilizer, etc.). My concerns come in when you have large and aggressively litigious agribusiness companies controlling large swathes of the food supply (which we now do), who have patented certain organisms and who force farmers to be completely dependent on them for seeds year-by-year. This is bad, for a plethora of reasons, most of which should be obvious.

I’ll conclude with a few stray observations about “organic” foodstuffs.

Turning to safety, there was recently a completely terrible study published claiming that GE corn resulted in cancer in rats. For a lengthy discussion (and takedown) from a skeptical oncologist, I recommend reading this. Additionally, a large meta-analysis was recently published, finding no significant nutritional benefits from organic produce.

I am annoyed by the “organic” label, because the term “organic” has a very rigorous and well-defined meaning in chemistry, but not so much when it comes to agriculture. But that’s mostly just me being a linguistic prescriptivist, and I recognise that this position is untenable. (On a side note, the French term, “biologique”, translates as “biological”, which is even worse.)

I am supportive of the “free range” movement. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell “free range” isn’t a regulated term, so there’s no guarantee that the animals involved are actually better treated.

I am concerned that use of antibiotics in livestock may be excessive, and are in some cases used to “enhance productivity” instead of to “target an identified pathogen”. The issue is complicated, however. (This whitepaper has some fairly good summaries, in terms of antibiotic use in agriculture; it does disclose that the conference that generated it was partially funded by Pfizer, etc.)

Also, I advise against using terms like “GMOs” (Genetically Modified Organisms), because every agricultural product is genetically “modified” in some way, via hybridization and/or artificial selection (either intentional or unintential). Instead, I prefer to speak about “GE” foodstuffs (Genetically Engineered).

So, in my mind, there may be good reasons to avoid the products of big agribusiness companies like Monsanto: but these criticisms tend to have more to do with big business and less to do with science.

There remains, of course, much more to be said (about the various things that “organic agriculture” can mean, for example, or the several disparate ideologies that may motivate some people to choose organic), but that incomplete (and probably flawed) analysis of this complex topic will have to stand. For now.

Bad Science Watch Launches Investigation of Anti-WiFi Activism

Reprinted from Bad Science Watch.


Critical Investigation of Anti-WiFi Activism Launched by Independent Watchdog

Toronto, ON, August 13 2012 – Bad Science Watch has announced the launch of a critical investigation of the state of anti-WiFi activism in Canada. The independent non-profit plans to document the motivations, funding sources, agendas, and any conflicts of interest for those groups and individuals promoting misinformation about wireless networking technology (WiFi). These activists claim WiFi and related technologies can cause a variety of adverse health effects, and are attempting to convince city councils, libraries, and school districts across the country to remove or restrict the deployment of WiFi networks.

“While many of these activists are well-meaning yet misinformed, others are profiting from the uncertainty and doubt that has been manufactured.” said Jamie Williams, Executive Director of Bad Science Watch. “Some of the most prominent anti-WiFi scaremongers are tied to the sale and promotion of bogus products to ‘block’ WiFi, or promote sham medical diagnoses and treatments for false illnesses.”

Many activists blame WiFi’s low level radio signals for a broad variety of medical problems, from mild headaches and fatigue to chest pain and heart palpitations. When someone using or living near WiFi networks experiences these or other symptoms, they are told they have ‘Electromagnetic-Hypersensitivity’, or EHS. The existence of EHS is not supported by rigorous science, and has not been accepted by the medical and scientific community as a real condition. This distraction can lead to greater anxiety for parents who are worried about the well-being of their children, and may instead serve to delay the diagnosis of more serious and treatable medical problems like anxiety disorders or heart defects.

Bad Science Watch will use the findings of this investigation as a starting point to counter misinformation in the public sphere, and represent sound science to public officials who are confronted every day with requests to act on it.

Individuals who would like to support this and similar projects are invited to visit www.badsciencewatch.ca, subscribe to the mailing list, and make a donation to Bad Science Watch.

For media enquiries, or additional information, please contact:

Jamie Williams
Executive Director
Bad Science Watch
1-888-742-3299 x 102

Bad Science Watch
180 Danforth Avenue
Toronto, ON M3K 3P5
Tel: 1-888-742-3299
Fax: 1-888-813-3569
Email: info@badsciencewatch.ca

Bad Science Watch is an independent non-profit activist organization that provides analysis of dubious scientific claims to Canadians, our government, and the media, promotes objective critical thinking and advocates for the enforcement and strengthening of consumer protection regulation.

Bad Science Watch relies largely on individual donations from the public for its operational funding, and is committed to organizational transparency.