Episode 86: Interview with a Mariachi Ghost

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Ian James sits down for a conversation with Rafael Reyes, guitarist for local Winnipeg band The Mariachi Ghost.

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: The Mariachi Ghost Website | The Mariachi Ghost on BandCamp | The Mariachi Ghost on Facebook | Conservative Leader Brian Pallister on “Infidel Atheists” Who “Celebrate Nothing”

Contact Us: Facebook | Twitter | Email

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Write Canadian MPs to bring Clinical Trial Transparency to Canada

The fine folks at AllTrials have an important reminder for you. Act now! (Stay tuned to the next episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, when we discuss some of these issues in a bit more depth.)

We have just heard that we have a chance to improve clinical trial transparency in Canada. Bill C-17 or “Vanessa’s Law” is being considered this Tuesday and there’s a chance to get clinical trial transparency measures added to it.

We urgently need you to write to the MPs on the Standing Committee on Health to tell them how important clinical trial transparency is. A template letter is below, followed by the emails for the MPs on the committee. We’ll keep you posted about the Bill’s progress, but please send your emails today.

They have a sample letter that you can send on their website. Because I’m also concerned about Vanessa’s Law ignoring potentially-dangerous natural health products, I sent a slightly modified version, below:

Ben Lobb, Chair ben.lobb@parl.gc.ca
Libby Davies, Vice-Chair libby.davies@parl.gc.ca
Hedy Fry, Vice-Chair hedy.fry@parl.gc.ca
Eve Adams eve.adams@parl.gc.ca
Claude Gravelle <laude.gravelle@parl.gc.ca
Wladyslaw Lizon wladyslaw.lizon@parl.gc.ca
James Lunney james.lunney@parl.gc.ca
Dany Morin dany.morin@parl.gc.ca
David Wilks david.wilks@parl.gc.ca
Terence Young terence.young@parl.gc.ca

Dear members of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health:

I'm writing to you regarding Bill C-17, known as "Vanessa's Law". I am pleased that Parliament is considering a number of new measures such as the power to recall drugs that will significantly improve patient safety; however, I strongly believe the Bill needs key amendments to fully protect patient safety.

Specifically, it is clear that the bill needs to be amended (1) to require that all clinical trials and observational studies are publicly registered before they begin; (2) to mandate that all trials have their full methods and results reported after completion (preferably within one year); and (3) to include provisions for natural health products (NHPs) to be recalled in the same fashion as pharmaceuticals.

Results from around half of clinical trials have never been published and many have never been registered. New laws in the United States and Europe require the registration and reporting of future clinical trials but in Canada there is no legal requirement to register or disclose the results. Information on what was done and what was found in these trials could be lost forever to doctors and researchers, leading to bad treatment decisions, missed opportunities for good medicine, and trials being repeated (at great cost). Further, the regulator's interpretation of the evidence must be publicly available when it approves, refuses or recalls a drug from the market.

Further, it's very important to ensure that information about clinical trials and observational studies is not considered confidential. This information is generated because people participate in trials in the hope of advancing knowledge. If we treat this information as private property, it ignores the contribution that clinical trial participants make.

Finally, it is my understanding that the law currently exempts natural health products (NHPs) from the same level of scrutiny that it applies to pharmaceuticals. To be clear, NHPs are drugs. They are pharmacologically active, they can be dangerous in certain circumstances, and they can have negative drug-drug interactions with pharmaceuticals. For this reason, it is vital that we not exclude NHPs from close scrutiny and potential recall simply because they are "natural".

I understand that Bill C-17, in its current form, lacks these important measures. For this reason, I'm writing to you, in your capacity as a member of the Standing Committee, to urge you to consider amending Bill C-17 to make sure Canada's drug regulatory system is transparent and to ensure that Canadians are protected from all drugs, whether they're "natural" or not. These critical amendments would ensure that the evidence base behind all drugs are open to scrutiny, physicians and other health care providers are adequately informed about the risks and benefits, and patients are better protected from harm.

Sincerely,
Gem Newman
Winnipeg

Hat tip to Ian Bushfield from Sense About Science.

The Cross-Canada Skeptical Smackdown!

The Cross Canada Skeptical Smackdown is back! CCSS is an annual pub quiz that’s held in multiple locations across Canada, with local and national bragging rights at stake. Teams of four(-ish) will compete in a series of trivia rounds to see whose knowledge of all things skeptical will reign supreme!

Last year's CCSS.
Last year’s CCSS in Winnipeg.

If you want to participate, form a team of up to four players and come down to the closest event near you. And if you don’t have a team, don’t worry about it! Single players will be placed into new or existing teams upon arrival. If you decide to come down, I will personally guarantee you’ll have a great time!

Our event in Winnipeg will be held in the Wood Tavern at the Norwood Hotel (112 Marion Street) on Friday, 26 April 2013 at 7:00 pm. You can RSVP at our Meetup site, or you can just show up! Make sure you invite your friends!

But if you’re not in Winnipeg, you can attend one of the other events across Canada.

Online Skeptical Activism: Does It Work?

The Winnipeg Skeptics is first and foremost about community: until 2010, skeptics, critical thinkers, science enthusiasts, and curmudgeons in Winnipeg didn’t really have a group to call their own, and so we created one. But many of us also care passionately about skeptical activism—and one of the easiest places to “do skepticism” is online.

In addition to our Facebook page (which you should “like”, by the way), we also have a Facebook discussion group (which we welcome anyone to join). I always enjoy engaging in critical discussions on scientific topics in the comments section of the blog, where I recently had an extended conversation about the purported dangers of radiofrequency EMF. (It’s worth noting parenthetically that “how do i start an anti wifi group” is currently one of the top web searches that leads to the Winnipeg Skeptics site.)

But one of the questions that I frequently encounter when discussing online skeptical activism is simply: Does it work?

I believe that it’s important to counter misinformation wherever and whenever we find it (especially when it seems likely that those who are misinformed may come to serious harm), and confronting pseudoscience on social media serves a valuable role. While you may not persuade those with whom you’re arguing directly (not immediately, anyway), you can prevent bystanders and passers by from being convinced by shoddy evidence, and you can help curtail the spread of bad science.

Members of the Winnipeg Skeptics are always doing battle against pseudoscience, and so I thought that I might share some of our recent social media escapades. I’ll note that a few of the snippets that I’ll present have been reordered slightly. This is because in some cases many people were posting to a thread simultaneously and responding to each other’s comments, and I’d like to present sufficient context for the discussion without forcing the reader to wade through every single comment. I’ll also link to a full screenshot of each discussion for those readers who would like to see each comment in its original context. I have also redacted the names of those participants who I don’t know to be “out” as skeptics. On the one hand, that’s sort of a shame, because there were a fair number of very solid points made and credit should go where credit is due. On the other hand, I feel that leaving these people’s names in there without permission would be rather rude.

We’ll start off with a discussion on the Little Remedies Canada Facebook page from a couple of months back. In their original post they claim that, flu season having arrived, squeezing a clove of garlic into your child’s food would give their immune system a “super boost”. (Full discussion.)

Little Remedies Canada, Image 1Little Remedies Canada, Image 2Little Remedies Canada, Image 3Little Remedies Canada, Image 4Little Remedies Canada, Image 5Little Remedies Canada, Image 6Little Remedies Canada, Image 7

Next, I’ll present a brief exchange that Richelle had with the proprietor of Calgary’s The Naked Leaf tea house, in which they slyly claim-without-actually-claiming that their tea treats high cholesterol and high blood sugar. (Full discussion.)

The Naked Leaf, Image 1The Naked Leaf, Image 2The Naked Leaf, Image 3

The response is classic: they promote nonsense, they’re called on it, and they responded with the old, “Well now, we’re not making any claims! We’re just letting other people make claims on our behalf!” (This is standard operating procedure for multilevel/network marketing schemes, incidentally.)

The last discussion that I’ll cite in detail comes from the Facebook page of Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region. At the end of last month they announced, “Planned Parenthood is proud to be hosting ‘Night with a Homeopath’ on Tuesday February 26th … [to] discuss what a homeopathic practitioner is and what they can do for us.” PPWR described the event as a great chance to learn about “alternatives to ‘modern medicine’.” The skeptical response was swift and decisive, with Rebecca Watson and members of the Winnipeg and Ottawa Skeptics spreading the word on Twitter and Facebook. (Full discussion.)

Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region, Image 1

That first comment pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it?

Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region, Image 2Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region, Image 3Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region, Image 4Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region, Image 5Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region, Image 6Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region, Image 7Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region, Image 8Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region, Image 9

All of that took place within an hour of the announcement. It seemed like Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region wasn’t going to back down, given the fact that they opened with the “you’re not being open minded” gambit, entreating us to just hear the homeopath out. But we were determined to spread this story far and wide, and just a few minutes later links to the announcement returned this:

Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region, Image 10

And this announcement followed soon after:

Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region, Image 11

How’s that for a win?

And this news came just a few days before it was announced that the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation had dropped notorious anti-vaccine crank Jenny McCarthy from their Bust a Move charity fundraiser in response to pressure from groups like the Ottawa Skeptics and Bad Science Watch. The #dropjenny campaign, spearheaded by the Ottawa Skeptics’ Chris Hebbern, took place almost entirely on Twitter.

So, online skeptical activism: Does it work?

It certainly seems to.

Announcing Bad Science Watch!

Reprinted from Bad Science Watch.

PRESS RELEASE
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

New watchdog targets bad science in policy and regulation nationwide

Toronto, ON – Monday, July 9th, 2012 – 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.

Bad Science Watch strives to serve as a key Canadian lobbying organisation, dedicated to challenging lax consumer protection measures and fighting for the rights of Canadians to accurate information when making decisions which affect their health, prosperity and well-being.

“The Canadian public has been poorly-served by a government which displays little respect for objectivity and science,” said Bad Science Watch Executive Director, Jamie Williams. “Consequently, weak consumer protection regulations allow the sale of products and services that don’t work, and Canadians are exploited by the unscrupulous or misinformed.”

Bad Science Watch will announce details of its first projects in the coming weeks. Among them: targeting bogus food-intolerance testing in Canadian drugstores, and an intensive investigation into the state of the Canadian anti-WiFi lobby.

“Bad Science Watch will fill a unique role as the only national organization in Canada with a focus on strengthening consumer protection against bad science,” explained Chair of the Board of Directors, Michael Kruse. “With a strong commitment to the most professional and transparent non-profit practices, our experienced Board of Directors, Steering Committee, and Executive are striving to create the most effective and consistently successful force countering bad science in Canada.”

Canadians interested in volunteering and donating to Bad Science Watch can find more information at www.badsciencewatch.ca. Bad Science Watch can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

For media enquiries, or additional information, please contact:

Jamie Williams
Executive Director
Bad Science Watch
jwilliams@badsciencewatch.ca
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 is funded by individual donations, and is committed to organizational transparency.

Episode 25: Curiosity and the Love of Science

Episode 25: Curiosity and the Love of Science

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, the LUEE hosts take the day off to enjoy a wonderful Canada Day, which allows hosts Robert Shindler, Richelle McCullough, and Gem Newman a chance to look back at the past year to share with you a couple of presentations from our vault.

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: Drinking Skeptically | Science and Media: A Love Story | SkeptiCamp Winnipeg | SkeptiCamp.org | Curiosity Didn’t Kill the Cat | TEDxManitoba | TEDx | TEDx Talks on YouTube

The recording of Gem Newman’s TEDxManitoba talk is owned by TED, and was released by TEDxTalks under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Contact Us: Facebook | Twitter | Email

Listen: Direct Link | iTunes | RSS Feed


Correction: July’s Drinking Skeptically will take place at Smitty’s Lounge, 1017 St. James Street, instead of the usual location at the Norwood Hotel.

Prayer at City Hall

Cross-posted from Startled Disbelief.

On Tuesday, I was contacted by a producer with Radio-Canada (the French division of CBC) for an interview. They were putting together a téléjournal (television news) piece about prayer in Winnipeg City Council meetings, and were hoping for comment from the Winnipeg Skeptics. I agreed to speak with them, and also attempted to put them in contact with Jeff Olsson of the Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics of Manitoba and Robert McGregor of the Winnipeg Secularists (who, I informed them, had put together a petition on precisely this subject).

Robert McGregor speaks to Catherine Dulude. Image from CBC. Used under fair dealing.

Winnipeg City Council generally starts the day with a prayer—see, for example, the minutes from the City Council meeting on 25 April 2012. (The minutes of all City Council meetings can be found here.)

There were several points that I stressed in the interview, which I’ll summarize here.

First of all, while the Winnipeg Skeptics has no official position with regard to any particular religious claim (except for those that relate to science, such as creationism), the organisation is supportive of secular government over sectarian government.

It is true that Canada doesn’t have a constitutional separation of church and state; indeed, while we have no official religion, our head of state is also the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. That said, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees freedom of thought, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religion.

I have no problem with members of City Council praying privately. I would never ask a politician to “check their religion at the door”. But when religious observance is carried out by an elected body that is meant to represent the people, that religious observance is effectively being carried out on behalf of the people. Canada’s government is committed (nominally, at least) to multiculturalism and religious pluralism. It seems to me that, in such a nation, governmental entanglement with religious practice (such as prayer) should be minimized.

Even the most benign, vague, and seemingly inoffensive prayers can be divisive. A simple prayer to “God” may be offensive to a deist, who may not believe in an interventionist god, or to a Hindu, who may believe in many. Members of minority religious or cultural groups may see governmental prayer as another way in which they are marginalized.

As is to be expected, the five-minute discussion that I had with the journalist was cut down to a single soundbite—but one that accurately represented my position—while Robert McGregor was (appropriately) given a more extensive interview. I thought that the finished piece (which is a distinctly Manitoban combination of French and English) was very good, and you can view it here.

Image from CBC. Used under fair dealing.

Less good was the online article summarizing the téléjournal piece, which identified me as the organiser of the Winnipeg Secularists and seemed generally convinced that Robert and I were the same person. This has since been corrected, but until about an hour ago still listed my name as “Greg”.

If you don’t read French, feel free to have Google translate the article for you. Alternatively, there is a similar article (bereft of any reference to yours truly) on CBC. The usual caveats against reading the comments section apply, of course.

Third Annual Cross Canada Skeptical Smackdown

The Cross Canada Skeptical Smackdown is back… and this year more cities are participating than ever before!

The Cross Canada Skeptical Smackdown is a British-style pub quiz that occurs every year on or around Pi-Day (the fourteenth of March) in multiple locations across Canada, with local and national bragging rights at stake. Teams of four(-ish) will compete in a series of five rounds of questions to see whose knowledge of all things skeptical will reign supreme!

If you want to participate, form a team of up to four players and come down to the closest event near you. And if you don’t have a team, don’t worry about it! Single players will be placed into new or existing teams upon arrival. If you decide to come down, I will personally guarantee you’ll have a great time!

Our event in Winnipeg will be held at the Norwood Hotel (112 Marion Street) on 14 March 2012 at 7:00 pm. You can RSVP at our Meetup site, or you can just show up!

But if you’re not in Winnipeg, you can attend one of the four other events across Canada this year.

City Venue Date Time
Halifax TBA TBA TBA
Niagara Region Mahtay Café TBA TBA
Ottawa Foolish Chicken 14 March 2012 TBA
Vancouver Billy Bishop Legion 14 March 2012 7:30
Winnipeg Norwood Hotel 14 March 2012 7:00

Participation is free!

The champion team for the past two years running is missing a core member. Come on out and give it your best. Have fun, and maybe walk away as the new national skeptical champion!

For more information on the other locations across Canada, this post will be updated as information becomes available. You can also email XCANSKEPSMACK@gmail.com for more info.

TEDxManitoba Favourites

All of the talks from TEDxManitoba have been uploaded and are now available for your viewing pleasure!

First, the obligatory self-promotion. As the Sirius Cybernetics Nutrimatic Drink Dispenser might put it: Share and enjoy!

Remember: The “Like” button is your friend! The full text (along with references and annotations) can be found here!

Now that that’s done with, here are a few of my favourite TEDxManitoba talks, in no particular order. The event itself was amazing, the speakers were awesome, and I got useful ideas out of every single talk, whether I agreed with the core premise or not. So watch them all!

But if you don’t have time to watch them all, at least watch these ones!

Robert J. Sawyer: To Live Forever – or Die Trying

TJ Dawe: An Experiment in Collective Intelligence

Kale Bonham: Bridging Cultures Through Community Provoked Art

Matt Henderson: Teaching Ourselves to Last Forever

Hazel Borys: Confessions of a Former Sprawl Addict

Brad Tyler-West: Opposites Distract

Curiosity Didn’t Kill the Cat

This is a talk that I gave at TEDxManitoba on 9 February 2012. Below the video you can find the full text of the talk, with annotations and sources provided. Cross-posted from Startled Disbelief.


As a kid, I loved playing Monopoly. I was great at it, too! I was very nearly unbeatable.

I remember one game, looking down at the board and wondering how I was ever going to win. My mother had just pulled a $500 bill out from where she’d hid it between the couch cushions, my stepfather’s hotels were crowding two sides of the board, and my houses on Mediterranean and Baltic just weren’t paying off. How could this be? I thought to myself. I’m a smart kid. I’m great at Monopoly! But the odds were stacked against me, and the situation seemed impossible.

But that’s what made me such a great Monopoly player, I guess. Somehow, I’d always pull out a win in the end. Thinking back, I don’t remember losing a single game!

At some point, we all need to come to terms with the fact that maybe things didn’t happen quite the way we remember them. As humans, we’re just not that great at telling what’s true from what we want to be true. Let’s be frank: I was ten. I probably sucked at Monopoly. But I remember being awesome.

As Yale neurologist Dr. Steven Novella notes, “Our memories are not an accurate recording of the past. They are constructed from imperfect perception filtered through our beliefs and biases… Our memories serve more to support our beliefs rather than inform them.”[Reference 1]

We’re not great observers, we humans, and we tend to pay much more attention to data that confirm our preconceived notions than to details that don’t fit our theories. We have a marked tendency to remember the hits and forget the misses; presumably why people like Sylvia Browne and John Edward remain so popular.

It’s for this reason that independent confirmation is one of the cornerstones of science.

I’m not a scientist, but I do think of myself as a “science cheerleader”. And science needs cheerleaders, for a couple of reasons.

First, because it’s important for everyone to have a basic scientific understanding. Professor Art Hobson put it this way: “the most crucial decisions [in industrialized nations] concern science and technology, and in democracies, citizens decide.”[Reference 2]

The second reason that science needs cheerleaders is that it is so oft maligned. Scientific skepticism is often portrayed as cold, unfeeling; antithetical to compassion or human emotion. Those with a penchant for whimsical nostalgia stubbornly insist that life was better and that times were simpler before science got all muddled up in society.[Note 1]

Could it be that they’re right?

Science is the quest to understand ourselves, our universe, and our place in it. Science is curious by nature, for its goal is to figure out what’s really true—but for that reason, science must also be skeptical. It insists that we shouldn’t simply take claims at face value, but instead we should proportion our belief in a proposition to the evidence supporting it.

A series of studies conducted in the 1980s found that roughly 80% of people consider themselves above average drivers.[Reference 3][Reference 4] A 1987 study of Australian workers found that only 1% of them rated their workplace performance as below average.[Reference 5] Unless I badly misremember how numbers are meant to work, it seems to me that something very near to half of them are mistaken.

The way that we see the world is coloured by many things, our own egos foremost among them. Perhaps when it comes to Monopoly games we can be forgiven if we see ourselves through rose-coloured glasses. Concern may become warranted when our callous assumption that we outperform our contemporaries affects the quality of our work or the safety of our driving.

But what about when it really counts? What if your child is sick? There are clearly many cases where we simply cannot afford to let our petty biases influence the way we see the world. And that’s where science comes in.

While it’s true that public support for science has remained generally high over the last several decades, and scientific literacy has been increasing more-or-less steadily, there have been some troubling developments in the popular media and in culture at large.[Note 2]

The image of the “mad scientist” is deeply ingrained in our culture, and probably dates to Mary Shelley’s celebrated Frankenstein, in which the relentless pursuit of knowledge leads inexorably to unspeakable horrors. This idea is not a new one. Anti-science messages have been with us for hundreds of years.

Here’s the problem: science is seen by many as unnatural, inaccessible, or even sinister. Scientists are widely regarded as arrogant, superior, or closed-minded.





What’s the common thread here? Aside from being totally awesome, that is. Any guesses?

As unbelievable as it might seem, all of these stories are riddled with anti-science or anti-reason messages. Even in science fiction, the genre that inspired so many of the technologies and conveniences that we take for granted today, it is common to see science portrayed as sinister and destructive.

In Star Trek, a series that celebrates human ingenuity, Spock is set up as a straw man, his much lauded Vulcan logic inevitably knocked down by Kirk’s emotionally driven human pluck. When it comes time to choose between thinking with your head and thinking with your heart, the message is clear: human emotion wins every time.[Note 3]

In Jurassic Park, the audience is shown the consequence of scientists “playing God”. As in Frankenstein, disaster is the inevitable result of scientific excess.

In Lost, John Locke constantly admonishes the other characters to have faith, that they are all on the island for some mysterious purpose. And, because it’s a fictional story, it turns out that he’s right.

Oh, and then there was that episode of The X-Files that showed faith in the supernatural triumphing over the skeptic… Which one was that again…? Oh, right: all of them. Don’t get me wrong: I loved The X-Files, but seriously—it was always a monster? Every time?

And even Scooby-Doo, a longtime favourite among skeptics of the paranormal, isn’t blameless. Recent adaptations are much more likely to feature real monsters than grumpy old groundskeepers who would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids!

But perhaps the most egregious example of anti-science rhetoric in popular fiction is found in Ronald Moore’s 2003 reimagining of Battlestar Galactica.

While dramatically enjoyable, the emphasis of faith over reason was a thread that wound its way through the entire series. What’s worse, the final episodes first hinted then proclaimed that in a society that embraces science and technology, a technologically driven holocaust is inevitable. This has all happened before, we are told, and it will all happen again.

The series culminates (spoiler alert) with the entire human race abandoning all technology in favour of founding a nomadic hunter-gatherer society. Science fiction becomes luddite fantasy—famine, disease, and the concomitant contraction of the human lifespan be damned.

This message is getting through to the public, loud and clear. A 2001 NSF survey found that 50 percent of Americans believe “We depend too much on science and not enough on faith”.[Reference 6] I find this distressing.

From The Terminator to The Matrix to 28 Days Later, the idea that science will lead to some sort of technopocalypse is ubiquitous these days. And after all, why not? Isn’t there a grain of truth to the idea?

Perhaps you might rightly scoff at Ben Stein’s contention in the pseudo-documentary Expelled that the science of evolution led to the Nazi holocaust…[Note 4]

…but what say you when the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are laid at scientists’ feet? Who can help but shiver upon hearing Oppenheimer’s words? “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” How can we answer such a charge?

In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were forbidden the knowledge of good and evil, but their curiosity got the better of them. According to this story, it was our thirst for knowledge that led to the fall.


Curiosity, we’re told, is what killed the cat.

Knowledge can, of course, be used for good or for ill. Scientists invented the bomb—but it was politicians who called for it, taxpayers who funded it, and the military who saw it deployed. If you want to lay death and destruction solely at the feet of scientists, I don’t think that you’re playing fair.[Note 5]


“Curiosity killed the cat.” How unjust!

That we should be incurious is perhaps the single most damaging message that our children receive from popular culture. Curiosity is one of the greatest assets that we as a species possess. It fuels free inquiry! It fuels innovation! Without nurturing our curiosity we risk retarding our progress as a civilisation.

Knowledge is not evil, nor is the pursuit of it. Knowledge of the way this wondrous world really works equips us to better our own situation and that of every other living being with whom we share this planet.

“Curiosity killed the cat.” You would be hard pressed to find an idiom that irritates me more.

You want to know what probably didn’t kill the cat? Diabetes, hyperthyroidism, intestinal parasites! For every cat killed by curiosity, I would wager that there are hundreds who have been saved by veterinary practices unknown a century ago.

Curiosity cured the cat!

Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, is credited with saving one billion people from starvation. We have indoor plumbing and flush toilets, and hand-washing, and the germ theory of disease, all of which save countless lives every day. These victories aren’t just victories for science; they are victories for humanity. Science wins this fight.

As for the arrogance and closed-mindedness of scientists: I find this charge frankly startling, for in the process of skeptical inquiry I see the most amazing intellectual humility. The success of the scientific endeavour requires us to admit to our human foibles and failings, our petty biases and conceits. It is only in accounting for these human weaknesses that we make progress. Science is rooted in curiosity, and one cannot be curious without being humble. To wonder how something works, first you must admit that you don’t know.

So if science is so successful in improving our lives, why does science still have such an image problem? Why do people fail to understand that science isn’t the enemy of nature, but merely the study of it?

It probably isn’t news to you that the media has a huge effect on how we think and behave. That’s what advertising is all about, after all, and study after study shows that it works, even when we think that it doesn’t.

In The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Carl Sagan laments that “Scepticism does not sell well. A bright and curious person who relies entirely on popular culture to be informed about something like Atlantis is hundreds or thousands of times more likely to come upon a fable treated uncritically than a sober and balanced assessment.”[Reference 7]

In a culture so steeped in irrationality, a culture that prizes faith over evidence, it can be difficult to make progress in promoting science. Right now, the greatest obstacle to the public understanding of science is the way it’s presented in the media.

So what if our stories had skeptical, pro-science messages? What if they encouraged the audience to think critically, rather than just nodding along? What if the heroes of our stories weren’t those who simply fought for what they believed in, but those who had the courage to ask themselves why it was that they believed it?

We have the power to reignite the public passion for learning new things. We need to teach everyone (everyone) what science is, at its core. That may sound daunting, but it’s really a very simple idea: Beliefs should be supported by good evidence.

None of us are perfect, and so if we’re serious about figuring out what’s really true we need to understand our own biases and apply a basic skepticism to all claims to knowledge. We need to avoid the temptation to look only for the evidence that confirms what we already believe. Or, as Randall Munroe put it, “You don’t use science to show that you’re right, you use science to become right.”[Reference 8]

And we already have allies in the popular media.

On the front lines, I see novelists like the excellent Robert Sawyer (from whom you heard only a moment ago) and the unbelievably popular J.K. Rowling.

Sawyer is famous for stories that show rationalism triumphing over superstition. In the Harry Potter series, Rowling provides an excellent role-model in Hermione Granger, whose success is due not to some innate talent, but to hard work and a willingness to question popular wisdom.

There are musicians like George Hrab and the inimitable Tim Minchin who encourage us to be skeptical of extraordinary claims. Sara Mayhew infuses her manga with a love of science. Randall Munroe and Zach Weiner pen comics that make us laugh and make us think. We have Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson working to communicate science to people of all ages. Adam Savage, Jaimie Hyneman, and rest of the gang at MythBusters remind us how exciting it can be to figure out what’s really true.

At this point, you might be wondering what you can do to help.

Be curious. Question everything. Prize learning over simply knowing, because even things that we think we know can turn out to be wrong. As Carl Sagan said, “it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”[Reference 9]

With everything that science has done for us, it deserves our support. So when you hear someone complain that science is arrogant, closed-minded, or dangerous: speak up. Because you know better.

References

[1] Steven Novella, “More Evidence Our Memory Stinks”, http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/more-evidence-our-memory-stinks/

[2] Art Hobson, “Physics literacy, energy and the environment”, http://physics.uark.edu/hobson/pubs/03.03.PEd.pdf

[3] Ola Svenson, “Are we all less risky and more skillful than our fellow drivers?”, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0001691881900056

[4] Iain A. McCormick, Frank H. Walkey, Dianne E. Green, “Comparative perceptions of driver ability – a confirmation and expansion”, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0001457586900047

[5] Bruce Headey, Alex Wearing, “The Sense of Relative Superiority – Central to Well-Being”, http://www.jstor.org/pss/25427006

[6] National Science Board, Science and Engineering Indicators 2002, “Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Public Understanding”, http://nsf.gov/statistics/seind02/c7/c7s2.htm

[7] Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, page 9

[8] Randall Munroe, xkcd, “Science Valentine”, http://xkcd.com/701/ (image alt text)

[9] Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, page 16

Notes

[1] They set science and rationalism here and they set mystery and compassion there and demand that you choose between them, even though such a choice makes no sense. Science is no more a cold, unfeeling monstrosity than is a screwdriver or a pair of spectacles. Science is a tool that helps us overcome some of our inherent limitations. And yet, the idea that life was somehow better, humbler, and more existentially satisfying in some misty, bygone age is pervasive in our society.

[2] In our culture, the scientifically illiterate can get on by saying that they’re just not “science people”. Basic scientific literacy is very important, but ScienceDaily reports that in North America it sits around 30%. It’s perfectly acceptable in our culture for a person to be scientifically illiterate, but just imagine what it would be like to have a similar attitude toward those who can’t read or write.

[3] To learn more about the Straw Vulcan, I refer you to the TVTropes page that coined the term. I also highly recommend Julia Galef’s talk from Skepticon 4, The Straw Vulcan.

[4] For more about the absurdity that is Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, I refer you to Expelled Exposed, a site created and maintained by the National Center for Science Education. This site cheerfully exposes the anti-science propaganda behind this so-called documentary, while managing at the same time to be an enjoyable read! I doff my proverbial hat to Eugenie Scott and the rest of the folks at the NCSE for their tireless work in combating creationism masquerading as science.

[5] Neil deGrasse Tyson expressed this sentiment well. “Scientists don’t lead marching armies!” he said. “Scientists don’t invade other nations! Yes, we had scientists who invented the bomb, but somebody had to pay for the bomb, and that was taxpayers, that was war bonds. There was a political action that called for it. But everyone blames the scientists! … At the end of the day, a discovery itself is not ‘moral’, it’s the application of it that has to pass that test.” (This quotation is taken from an interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson at Montclair Kimberley Academy. The interivew was conducted by a rare out-of-character Stephen Colbert, and is fantastic. You can watch it here.)