Documentaries – improving and diverting (a wee review)

I am enamored with Netflix. I am still stuck in my infatuation phase with Netflix and have sadly I have reverted to a teenager (OMG I can watch Netflix whenever I want to!). The existence of Netflix is far more exiting than when my parents bought that Betamax player (may they rest in peace). When I am exhausted, my guilty pleasure is cuddling up with my iPad and – you guessed it – Netflix. I started, however, feeling very guilty about watching things that were diverting (and clearly set in the 18th or 19th centuries). I have now opted for things that both are improving and diverting. Documentaries! which I love but have an added bonus of making me feel like I have a more adult relationship with streaming video joy.

So just in case you are in need of diversion which can make you feel less guilty about your Netflix addiction, and you want an opinion – here is my brief review of the top 3 Documentaries I have watched in the last 3 months.

1. Miss Representation

This is a great film about the focus on females being there ‘to be looked at’ rather than to add anything intellectual in films and the media. This documentary shows how even with even female politicians, the media (and we) focus much more on what they are wearing and their appearance than what they have to say. Not only are there are huge number of interesting men and women interviewed for this, many of which took me by surprise, there are young girls giving there opinons and asking some pretty damn good questions. ‘Why are there not many female protaganists in films?’ ‘Why do we care how girls dress, rather than what they have to say?’ This film also looks back at depictions of women in films, pointing out – quite rightly if you ask me (and remember at this stage in my special relationship with Netflix I have seen many of these films) – that many leading lady roles back in the 40s and 50s were much emotionally and intellectualy broad compared to modern cinema.

If you have a (UK) Netflix subscription this particular documentary will be no longer available after the 31st of this month – so act soon!

2. Blackfish

This is a film about Sea World and specifically Sea World’s treatment of Killer Whales. It is frightening and sad. I watched it three times. I would challenge you to watch those bent dorsal fins and not be saddened. Hopefully if enough people watch this, and speak about it, there will be no more Sea World’s in the future (I hope so). Free Willy, indeed.

3. Breaking the Taboo

This Documentary is about ‘the War on Drugs’. Specifically how the War on Drugs has failed. It interviews Bill Clinton, who emphasizes that the war on drugs has failed – a war when he was president he helped perpetuate (regardless of what you think of Bill, it’s pretty cool to see an ex-Pres say what he got wrong. This movie also emphasizes some ways in which maybe we can help drug addicts instead of criminalizing them. They also have the laudable goal trying to influence politicians (everywhere) by starting a global discussion on how to solve problems of drug trafficking, drug addiction. This is great, as opposed to the ‘isn’t this sad’ approach, the makers of this film have tried to start the ‘let’s make it better discussion.

So go for it, fight for women’s rights, whale’s rights and against the war on drugs – all from the safety of your couch.

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That dumb flag – It’s time to let it go

I miss my home town. I miss the sound of cicadids on a summer evening. I miss the construction of a fine, Southern sentence. I miss running around in bare feet. I miss catching fireflies and putting them in a jar – only to release them 10 minutes later out into the humid, dark night. I miss my rose-tinted lenses of childhood or to quote James Agee:

“We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville Tennessee in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.”

This is how I like to remember the South, through some sort of idyllic filter that overlooks the racism of the past. This halsian view ignores that there was a ‘white side of town’ and a ‘black side of town’, as a result of segregation. This fantasy of the golden South denies that a fair number of white people still use the N-word on a regular basis and still make jokes about African American’s eating habits. It is much more comfortable when I think about my home to live in a fantasy world, ignoring the fact that people still plant the Confederate Flag on their front lawn and scream ‘Heritage not Hate’ when you tell them they look like a bunch of loony white racists.

It’s been 150 years; the Confederacy lost that war. That war was started in a push and pull with the Federal government over State’s rights – specifically a State’s right to own slaves. Now you can try to tell yourself as much as you want that this was not all about slavery, but the Confederacy was exactly about slavery. The secession from the Union was predominately concerned with maintaining the economic structure of the cotton growing South which depended explicitly on slavery.

Especially in light of recent events, it is time that the South took yet another deep look at itself and worked towards letting this ridiculous, ignorant attachment to the Confederacy go. It is time we admit that our racial bias still exists and start to deal with it. It is time to walk away from the past. Like it or not my fellow Southerners, the Rebel flag is entrenched as a symbol of hate. It’s time for us from the South to disown that heritage of racist, bigoted bias and slavery.

Will getting rid of a flag stop racism? Of course not, but it will be a step towards disowning that heritage of hate. The first step in recovery is admitting you have a problem. If any flag burnin’ is gonna happen, I vote for the symbol of Johnny Reb, hands down. I vote for standing up when someone uses the N-word, I vote for calling out our Southern brothers and sisters for off hand racial comments. I think Dylann Roof’s old friend said it best, his horror in this statement is evident:


“He made a lot of racist jokes, but you don’t really take them seriously like that. You don’t really think of it like that.” But now, he said, it seemed that “the things he said were kind of not joking”.

It’s time to pull ourselves out of this collective denial and stop pretending that we don’t have a problem with racism, we do. It is time for us to disown that dumb flag and move into the bright light of day.

I should point out that, this post was in part inspired by sentiments are shared by Allen Clifton, who wrote a somewhat similar post (before I did) for Forward Progressives entitled: I Have A Message For Those Who Claim The Confederate Flag Represents Their Heritage.

Posted in Confederacy, Racism, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Cry, cry, cry (for backwards Nobel Laureates)

So this happened – at The World Conference of Science Journalism, at a lunch sponsored by Korean female scientists and engineers – just yesterday.

Tim Hunt on women

So as a human being, I am not sure I particularly care what Professor Tim Hunt, FRS thinks about women. I am however grateful I never worked for the man as it might have been pretty weird to be a female in his lab, because apparently you would have to run around with a big stick trying to avoid Prof Hunt’s affections. Not to mention the crying, it’s difficult to pipette when crying. It might be hard working for a man who seems to have the emotional outlook of an adolescent, where you would be in danger of falling in love at every stage of your research – not knowing where to turn. The Royal Society have distanced themselves from Hunt’s comments at this stage saying ‘Science needs women’ – I think Hunt would agree with that, you have to have women around to fall in love with and of course it is ok if they dabble – they can have their own labs – no boys allowed. Apparently, in the world of Tim Hunt segregation is some kind of reasonable modern answer.

As a professional scientist, I am annoyed. I am not particularly annoyed that Prof. Hunt thinks that – I don’t care what he thinks – I am annoyed that a well known, acclaimed scientist thinks it is somehow rational to stand up in public and say ridiculous things like that. Unless he is just completely unaware of his surroundings, which is doubtful, then clearly he wants everyone to know exactly what he thinks – after all he is at a conference with a whole heap of journalists. He wants the world to know that girls are a pain in the lab (for whatever reason he came up with) and that we should be segregated from the boys. Shall we step back into the 1950s? Do we women need to leave our Co-ed labs because we are married – after all we will merely tempt otherwise productive male scientists into falling in love with us – unless of course we are ‘ugly’ I guess, then it is OK.

Now clearly, no established scientific body, unless they are really as crazy as Hunt and fancy death by media, is going to publicly agree with these sentiments. What is terribly worrying about this is that it sends the message to women or any other minority in science that ‘You are NOT welcome’. It is not some cranky failed academic saying this, it is a Nobel Prize winner and Fellow of the Royal Society saying this. When someone this prominent in the scientific community says this – others are left thinking – ‘well who else thinks that? and ‘am I really not welcome’?

It is equally not fair to blame the Royal Society for Hunt’s comments – he made them, they didn’t – but it will be interesting to see what happens next. If I were the Royal Society I would be livid: statements like this set their diversity program back, making them have to work much, much harder in the future to give the message that they are not like that. A simple statement doesn’t do it, no matter how well meant. These messages don’t go away so easily, they have been around for a long time. ‘you are not allowed’, ‘you are a sexual object’, ‘you are a temptress’, ‘you shouldn’t be here’, ‘you must be kept apart’ – how often have women heard that?

If I am going to cry for anything, it will be for the fact that one flippant statement made by a fool might make 51% of the population feel unwelcome in a profession which should be open to all.

Posted in Tim Hunt, WCSJ, women in science | Tagged , , | 18 Comments

We’ve all got troubles (including the Open Science Framework)

Surprisingly to some and not-so-surprisingly to others, we scientists have our own fair share of troubles in the way we perform our day job – bias, fraud, irreproducibility, lost results, bad data management, difficulty in publishing non-conclusive results. We also have trouble with finding research funding, pressure to publish in high profile journals, pressure to ‘make it’ (whatever that means) in this big, bad scientific world. The list could go infinitely on.

Philip Ball’s recently published article The Trouble with Scientists, has a lot of interesting stuff to say about bias and reproducibility in professional science. As usual for Philip Ball, he presents a clear narrative and a balanced view of practising science as we know it. What is particularly good is that the article itself encompasses the difference between bias and out right fraud, in a non-blamey kind of way. He doesn’t couch scientists as evil, careless fraudsters – which seems to be implicit in many of these types of articles about trouble in science. Of course, I am a scientist and a human, so I might just be guilty of feeling a wee bit defensive.

The Trouble with Scientists focuses, in part, on a man (Nosek) who has a vision of a scientific utopia. A number of his ideas I agree with, such as trying to make data more open. Personally I think openess is less of a problem than having the ability to sift through all the nitty gritty details of someone else’s experiments, but nevertheless data being more open is not a bad idea in principle. Nosek’s vision is to correct some of the problems within professional science via an Open Science Framework. His idea


is that researchers “write down in advance what their study is for and what they think will happen.” Then when they do their experiments, they agree to be bound to analyzing the results strictly within the confines of that original plan.

As a scientist, I find this vision more than a bit naive and quite limiting. Active scientific research is not some sort of laboratory practical where you design an experiment and know the result beforehand. Nor is it binary, usually the answer is NOT a simplistic does-this-fit-my-hypothesis yes or no but more like ‘maybe’ or even ‘WTF?’. Usually results lead you to modify your original hypothesis, leading to further experiments. What Nosek’s vision seems to imply is that this is not the right way for scientists to think about their research, rather we scientists must stick within strict bounds and DO NOT DEVIATE, no matter how much you might think this is the way forward. This stricture perhaps would prevent error but I doubt it, I think more likely it would do much to stagnate scientific discovery- slowing science down to some kind of snail’s pace of tedium.

Recently my group published a paper where we put forth the hypothesis that water helps mediate protein folding in the initial stages of the protein folding process. Our data indicate that this might be the key to understanding how proteins start to fold in nature. What our data and analysis thereof DO NOT do is PROVE that this is the key to understanding how proteins fold in nature. We merely put forth this hypothesis, supported by our data. Based on this result, we are actively trying to prove or disprove (with the emphasis on disprove) our hypothesis, with further experiments. We also published this paper NOW (well OK 2 years ago but close to now) because we want to get that hypothesis out there in the literature so others can support it or disprove it. We do not want to wait until we can design the perfect, definitive experiment. In science definitive experiments are pretty hard to come by anyway, until we have technological advances or can build the LHC – look how long Higgs had to wait, and that was relatively fast for science.

gpg and water
A representation of water mediating a peptide to help it fold in solution (Busch, et al. Angew. Chem. 2013)

Our original experiment design/hypothesis was something slightly different. We merely wanted to look at the hydration of different functional groups in proteins. If we had been restricted to strictly sticking to our original plan, we would have ignored/overlooked this hypothesis from our data. Nosek seems to argue this is exactly what we should do have done and that if we came up with a new hypothesis we should log that into the book and then go from there. In my mind it is better to get your hypothesis out there ASAP so that others can have a look and either support or refute your findings. This seems a long way away from bias in my mind. In fact I would argue that getting your hypotheses out there in public helps TO eliminate bias. Of course we think we are right, it is OUR pet hypotheses, but the reality is that we may not be and that is where (we hope) the wider scientific community can help. A scientific community who is much less biased than we are about out own hypothesis.

Posted in Bias, scientific publishing | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Women and Minorities have got it good, if they are fictional of course.

As all y’all know, because I am constantly reminding everyone, I am from Tennessee. I like to think I am not racist and I really sincerely hope I am not racist, but the culture I grew up in has a bad, complicated history with racism so I know I have to keep a watchful eye. I have to be vigilant. When I was being drug up in the 1970s, I remember my old aunt who said all sorts of crazy stuff about people who weren’t white and (protestant) christians. She believed so much in her misplaced superiority, she and my uncle moved home because the neighborhood they lived in had too many African-Americans move into it. My mother, suitably horrified by her much older sister, usually worked pretty hard to shuffle her away from me and my brother when she started talking about such things, as we – like most 6 and 9 year old kids – were incredibly confused by all of this. It wasn’t until I was older I worked out my aunt was just an ill-educated bigot.

When I was quite a bit older than 6, I taught high school science for a year. I taught in an affluent Southern town where the school mascot was the ‘Rebel’. The ‘Rebel’ was a slightly chunky Colonel Sandersesque cartoon Reb, complete with Civil war mustache and, amazingly, waving a Confederate flag. This was in 1999, I have to admit I was suitably shocked when I saw it waving in the breeze off the top of the school, but what did I do? Pathetically, nothing. Fortunately only a very short time after I arrived, the Rebels played a football game against another local high school. At this game, one of the parents of a player from the other school saw the Rebel fans a waving that ridiculous flag and took it up with the authorities. The result? The State of Tennessee made the Rebels get rid of their Confederate flag, thankfully.

While this tale makes the matter seem like a seamless affair, it wasn’t. The students, some of the teachers and parents were appalled their Rebel was getting a face-lift and used that classic Southern argument ‘heritage not hate’. While I am happy sit over a beer and pontificate about my civil war knowledge and the fact that war was NOT all about slavery, this ‘heritage’ argument is just stupid. It is especially silly in East Tennessee where most folk’s ancestors supported or fought for the Union, not the Confederacy. More importantly though, everybody and their brother that ISN’T from the South thinks that flag signifies racism, no matter how hard you try to reclaim it.

In order to prove their ‘heritage not hate’ argument my students polled themselves (anonymously, of course) to find out if they were indeed racist or rather if the school had a racist atmosphere. And what a surprise for a school that was about 95% white, they found they were not racist – hoorah! – thus proving that ‘heritage not hate’ was a plausible reason why they could still act like a bunch of fools and wave that flag around with impunity, because it didn’t mean racism. To them anyway. Fortunately, the state of Tennessee had other ideas.

If you ask most people if they are racist, they will almost certainly say ‘no’. Not very many people think they are racist, or sexist or chauvanistic themselves when you ask them. Not many people will likely even admit to being victims unconscious bias (which we all are). Of course I have no link for a study on this, but how many people do YOU meet that will just slap there cards on the table and say, ‘yep I’m a racist’. It is more likely they will say something along lines of “Now, I have a lot of friends who are ____________, BUT….” , which, at least in my experience, is a mechanism of putting forth some kind of non-racist credentials so then you can proceed to say whatever kind of biased statement you want.

As I am sure many (if not most) of you know there was a recent study in PNAS on how there was a 2:1 bias towards women being highered for tenure-track positions. There’s been much criticism of this study – such as from my fellow Occam T blogger Athene Donald. And how did the researches conduct this experiment? In their own words:

To tease out sex bias, we created fictional candidate profiles identical in every respect except for sex, and asked faculty to rank these candidates for a tenure-track job

Fictional characters, oh good, because that is realistic. I am sure they conducted their investigation properly, with these fictional characters, but what exactly do we learn from this? That in a fictional study, people will behave as they think they should behave and probably think they do behave. Unconscious bias isn’t easy to sniff out, even in yourself, so how exactly is this completely unrealistic study helping to change things for women, for minorites, for anyone that is not in the majority? It isn’t. The danger is that investigations like this can be used as a canard and a dangerous one that may just keep us in academia from addressing the real problems for diversity in STEM.

Posted in Racism, women in science | Tagged | 1 Comment

“To generalize is to be an idiot” (William Blake)

In the 1990s, there was a serial bomber in the USA named Eric Rudolph. Rudolph bombed abortion clinics, gay bars and even the 1996 summer Olympics. To escape the law, Rudolph took to the woods of North Carolina where he escaped capture for years, allegedly aided by his nearby family. He was even, rather depressingly, somewhat of a local hero in North Carolina. Rudolph was a Christian – He ascribed to Christian Identity which “elevates white supremacy and separatism to a Godly ideal,”. He was also nuts.

When all of this happened 20 years ago, no one condemned Christianity for Rudolph’s horrible actions. Not one word I that I recall anyway, no one thought that Christianity led him to it. He was crazy, poorly educated and a terrorist.

Timothy McVeigh blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City in April 1995. McVeigh too was a Christian and big fan of the US constitution. In his own words (from a letter to his friends):

I have sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and I will….I have come to peace with myself, my God, and my cause. Blood will flow in the streets, Steve, Good vs Evil. Free men vs. Socialist Wannabe Slaves. Pray it is not your blood, my friend.

Timothy McVeigh was crazy and a Christian. Like Rudolph, I don’t remember anyone blaming Christianity as a whole for McVeigh.

This past week there were horrific killings in Paris, starting with the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris ending with 17 dead. The killers – the Kouachis – were Islamic Militant Muslims. They are also crazy. And there are people blaming Islam. From the extreme tweet of Rupert Murdoch:

Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible.

To the somewhat more benign assertions which quote Steven Weinberg: for good people to do evil — that takes religion.

Which is just patently untrue – there were the Stasi, the Nazis, Chairman Mao – none of them were religious. Dogmatic, yes, religious, no.

I am no religious scholar, but I do believe in the rights of people to believe whatever the hell they want to believe. This is why I am a card carrying Democrat. I also absolutely believe that Charlie Hebdo had the right to publish whatever they wanted to – no matter who found it offensive or not. We have the right to free speech and we have the right to offend, not offend, paint our faces blue. We do not have the right to kill people. And while it is true that all of the terrorists I have mentioned, like serial killers, ascribe to a dogmatic code – in reality this has nothing to do with religion per se. These are just crazy people ascribing to a dogmatic code, because that is what psychopaths do. Son of Sam, the serial killer in the 1970s, who insisted he was told to kill people by the neighbor’s dog; he had a crazy, dogmatic belief too.

There is a discussion to be had about the rise of militants, this is for sure. With terrorism of this particular variety seemingly on the rise, we need to talk about why this is happening. But the best way to do that is not by picking the low fruit a la ‘religious people are crazy, that’s why’. This dismissive idea does nothing more than alienate people who are just as interested in avoiding mass shootings as anyone else. Generalizations of this kind kill open, informed discussion; turning us all into reactionary idiots.

Posted in freedom of speech | Tagged | 15 Comments

The implications of religion among scientists

I recently attended a meeting in London – ‘Exploring the implications of religion among scientists in the UK and India’, which is a subset of a larger investigation by Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public policy headed up by Prof. Elaine Ecklund. When I received the invitation back in May, I didn’t really quite know what to expect. Well actually, having not done my homework, I thought I might have signed up for something that was a bit flaky – a sort of let’s have a group hug and sing Kumbaya for how-much-religion-can-teach-science conference.

I was so very wrong, the meeting was anything but soft and squishy. Prof. Ecklund and her team very adroitly presented some preliminary results for their recent study on ‘Religion among scientists in International context (RASIC)’. They exhibited their findings to a handful of social, biological and physical scientists in order to get feedback on what people thought the implications of the data might be. This process was weird for me as a scientist and reminded me that I need to get out more. In science, while you might talk to your colleagues in your department or attend conferences to present your results, you wouldn’t necessarily invite a whole myriad of interested parties, give them nice champagne, and ask them to discuss, critique and give feedback on your research. It is a good process though, I like it and I wish there was a similar mechanism in science and not only because I’m a fan of a glass of bubbly.

While the questions that emerged from this study are much more extensive and complex, it all has to start with the basic question: Are scientists religious?

The answer? In the UK, probably not. In India, probably so.

Which leads to another related question: Are scientists predominantly atheists? (Atheism not being synonymous with non-religious)

In the UK probably so – at least the majority are. But so is the rest of UK society, in the main. Around 50% of the UK population claim to be non-believers.

This led to a working question for RASIC, with respect to the UK anyway, which is:
Are scientists at the forefront of current societal thought? Or in a more expanded form, given that scientists are perceived as more ‘intelligent’ are they riding along on the crest of the societal wave leading the UK into more ‘rational’ atheistic beliefs?

Besides just wanting to figure out if scientists are ahead of the curve in societal trends (which admittedly is well nigh almost impossible to answer without access to the future Zeitgeist), the assumption packed into this hypothesis is that scientists are more intelligent/rational than other people. And this is the bit that really irked me … Not the question itself I should say, but this underlying assumption that scientists are somehow more intelligent and rational than other people. Scientists are people and like every other human in the world can be entirely irrational and hide bound.

To be fair to the meeting conveners, they never stated whether they actually thought scientists in general were more intelligent or if they just thought this was public perception. Deciding that scientists are ‘more intelligent’ and have something to say about everything because they are ‘more rational’ is giving the body of scientists as a whole (as opposed to individual scientists who might happened to be well versed in something besides science) a whole lot more credit than they deserve for pontificating about things they may not know much about. As most of us who have lived for more than 10 minutes know, in this life we can be smart enough about some things but completely ignorant of others. With respect to religion, and perhaps I am wrong, I’d suspect that a large number of practicing scientists have limited religious training or formal education in theology. So why, would we assume that scientists, because they ‘more intelligent’, can say more about religious belief than say a philosopher, or a psychologist or hell even my grandmother?

Now while I definitely am NOT saying that intelligent, thoughtful people who have no formal training have nothing good to say, just thinking that the majority beliefs of one group of people must be correct because they are all ‘smart’ is a bit nuts. It’s sort of like when you ask Miss America how she would cure cancer or when we ask actors what they think about public policy. Granted, we do it, or rather the media does it, but why do we assume these folks know more than everyone else just because they are pretty or are actors? Just because you know about one thing doesn’t mean you know about everything.

Underlying all of this, is that annoying recurrent meme that, yes Virginia, atheists are more intelligent/rational people than the rest of humanity. While, I am sure Richard Dawkins, who’s already decided he’s smarter than everyone else, would give a withering ‘obviously’ to that, the rest of us mere mortals should all keep in mind that self declarations of superior rationality should be met with a certain amount of scepticism.

Posted in Atheism, implications of religion among scientists, religion, stereotypes in science | 9 Comments

Good bye my old friend

I met Rick Bigbee, like many people met Rick Bigbee, in Long Creek, South Carolina. He was the head guide for Wildwater, Ltd on the Chattooga River, I was a new guide, intimidated and more than a tiny bit scared. Rick made me feel like I belonged. In the early days, he was my daily cheerleader. He always believed I could do it. He told me stories about the other guides when they were new. He’d been there a long time, he knew we all started out the same.


The White House, Wildwater, Ltd. Long Creek, South Carolina

After my first season was over in October 1991, most of the guides, who didn’t have their own houses, left. They left to go back to university or to become ski instructors but Rick and I stayed at Wildwater. We were roommates in a colossal house (the ‘White House), with no money or heating and not much to do. Rick and I ran together. Or rather Rick and I ran a loop and he’d wait for me at the end. We drove buses. We cleared the gravel driveways. We, very occasionally and when we could scrape the gas money together, would drive 45 minutes to Clemson to see a movie, listening to Dwight Yokum all the way there and back. To this day when I hear “Guitars, Cadillacs, Hillbilly music”, I think of Rick.

There was no internet or phone, so mostly we just sat around. I was having a personal trauma at the time, my boyfriend had just dumped me. Rick listened to me lament over and over and on and on. If he found me annoying, he never said so. We developed a plethora of personal jokes … ones that he and I would only ever think were funny. Those kind of jokes that loose all their humor in the telling. To this day I can’t hear the phrase ‘eat shit’ without laughing until I cry. And now, this is probably best kept to myself, I have lost my friend to share it with.

After the winter of 91-92, when the new rafting season was upon us, there was hardly anyone around to guide those rafts. I had just been ‘checked out’ to guide on Section IV – the more difficult section of the river – the season before, when the water was low. It was spring and the water was no longer low. I was worried. Rick was in charge. He and the other seasoned guides would put me in the middle of the raft train to make sure I was covered. Rick kept telling me I could do it. Never once did he doubt me, never once did he say sit this one out. He just kept telling me it was fine. And it was, it was fine.

I am pretty sure for all of us who worked there, that the Chattooga will always have special place in our souls. There is something about that place that stays with you. I, in part, grew up there and Rick was a big part of that. I have no pictures of Rick, but I still have my first Wildwater green life jacket. It would no longer float even a feather but I can’t let it go. I never met his wife, Allison, she came along after I had moved away, but I know he met her on the Chattooga.

One day about 4 years ago I got an Facebook request for Rick to be my friend, where we got to say hello again. I had forgotten some of the mutual stories we shared, I had forgotten some of the times that he stood up for me. I had forgotten some of the little things. But I hadn’t forgotten Rick. He was one of the best of men. He was one of the kindest of men. He was too young to go. I am incredibly sad, but I know, like that wonderful river in South Carolina, Rick will always have a special place in my soul.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

My rights are bigger than your rights

or why corporations are now individuals

This past Monday, the US Supreme Court made a decision on Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.. Under the Affordable Health Care act (ACA; aka Obamacare), profit making companies must provide health insurance for their employees. They do this through a third party insurer, but the companies pay a proportion of the insurance to the provider while the employees pay a smaller (hopefully!) contribution. The Hobby Lobby didn’t want to pay for insurance for contraception for their employees, saying that it was against their religious beliefs. The court, very surprisingly, voted in favour of The Hobby Lobby – 5 to 4.

What’s even more interesting is that the Hobby Lobby’s religious beliefs (along with 71 other US companies to a greater or lesser degree) don’t eliminate some kinds of contraception – such as vasectomies and presumably birth control pills, but it does eliminate 4 types of contraception which they deem ‘abortive contraception’ – necessarily only affecting women.

So what you might easily think is, so what? Why don’t employees just use other forms of birth control? On the surface this (almost) seems reasonable – except for what if other forms of birth control don’t work for you – your rights are impinged. What if the chemically invasive birth control causes an adverse reaction and you need to be fitted with an IUD. Your rights are impinged. Your rights are impinged anyway, even if none of these things happen. This decision would allow an employer (who don’t always employ people with the same beliefs – and shouldn’t because that is discriminatory) to deny a portion of insurance-covered health to you. Your rights are impinged – dictated by someone else’s beliefs.

This decision is frightening. It is an opt out clause to avoid laws, based on beliefs – in this case they are religious but they could be say a cultural belief. It’s a slippery slope. Who’s next? Now that precedent is set can, to quote dissenting justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, corporations that are devoutly Muslim decide not to pay for pork-based pharmaceuticals? Bye-bye coverage for gelatin pills. Can New-Age and Snake Handler owned companies refuse to pay for vaccinations? Where does it stop? Let the legal games begin.

If you read the majority decision, the argument seems to be focused around whether or not a corporation is an individual. Well now, according to Justices Scalia, Alito, Thomas, Roberts and Kennedy, apparently it is! So as an individual citizen, Hobby Lobby may not be able to buy me a beer or do me a favor on my daughter’s wedding day but it can refuse to pay for something other people are required to pay for, because … beliefs! By this logic I should be able to stop paying the portion of my taxes that goes to something I don’t like – say the military. I don’t mind the military actually but I am tired of too many wars, so I’ll pay for soldier’s salaries and some material but you know not all those extra tanks – that’s against my beliefs. Better yet, as a friend of mine posted on Facebook today: It’s against my beliefs to pay back my student loans, the Bible says that all debt should be forgiven after seven years, I’m not paying!

The US was founded on a philosophy where someone’s beliefs should not adversely affect another person’s well-being. At least on paper, US citizens enjoy the right to religious freedom – unimpeded by the law of the land as long as you respect other folks freedoms and rights. You can believe whatever you want to believe but you have to follow the law of the land which applies to everyone. This is what a goodly portion of the Constitution is about. I am really not this naive. Of course people infringe on the rights of others all the time. Sometimes knowingly, sometimes unknowingly. Sometimes claming a moral ‘I’m better than you are!’ high ground, sometimes not. The highest court in the land should be responsible for upholding these unalienable rights. The US Supreme Court has failed to do this in this recent decision.

BUT there is hope. This is not the end. The Supreme Court (or rather the 5 justices who voted FOR; the 4 that voted against were far more eloquent on why this was a bad thing than I am) has made an abundant number of dreadful decisions over the years that have been subsequently over turned by other rulings from the Supreme Court. Take the Dred Scott decision (1857):

Dred Scott was a slave who sought his freedom through the American legal system. The 1857 decision by the United States Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case denied his plea, determining that no Negro, the term then used to describe anyone with African blood, was or could ever be a citizen.

Thankfully and with a lot of hard work, time, oh and a war, that’s been overturned. The good thing about the US constitions and its legal system is nothing is ever written in stone. Hopefully this time we won’t need a war.

This is not about religion per se. This is about someone using their beliefs to opt out of the law in a country that has a formal mandate not to do this. It shouldn’t matter legally in the US whether you are a Muslim, a Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Atheist – you name it we all have to abide by the same legal doctrine – or go to jail. Even though the Hobby Lobby decision is just a chip in the iceberg for this issue, it’s still a chip and as Justice Ginsberg said “The court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield.”

The full court opinion and dissenting opinion can be found (as a .pdf) here.

Update after posting: Apparently now – according to an article in The Nation:

On Tuesday, the Court indicated that its ruling applies to for-profit employers who object to all twenty forms of birth control included in the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate, not just the four methods at issue in the two cases decided on Monday

Scary, scary times indeed!

Posted in Hobby Lobby, US Supreme Court | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Under the microscope

This week I attended ‘Circling the Square’ – a conference on science, science communication and science policy at the University of Nottingham (lovely Campus – well worth a visit). I certainly felt in the minority being a physical scientist rather than a social scientist. It was a very interesting conference but one of the things that struck me was how many negative statements were directed at ‘scientists’. Specifically, given the nature of the conference, with respect to how ‘scientists’ interact with the media and with influencing policy. On the panel I happened to find myself on (‘Citizen Science’ and New Social media) I brought this up in my intro bit.

Here are some of the comments I heard (from various speakers and panel members)

“[Many] scientists shouldn’t communicate with the media”

“Scientists (trying to change policy) are communicating with the wrong people”

“Scientists are asking the wrong questions”

“Scientists are self-indulgent [in the way they interact with the media]

To be fair, I have taken these statements out of context. Such as ‘scientists are asking the wrong questions’ which was a statement made by Ian Boyd, Chief Scientific Advisor of Defra referring to research which affects Defra questions. This statement I thought was very off the mark, because scientific research isn’t necessarily just directed at solving the next environmental crisis. So scientists may not be asking the questions that Ian Boyd thinks that they should but this doesn’t mean they are asking the ‘wrong questions’ in a different context. But I digress…

A recurring theme in the discussions at Circling the Square (though not universally) seemed to be that ‘scientists really shouldn’t attempt to communicate because they muck things up!’. Clearly I am exaggerating somewhat – there were a few shout outs for Guardian science blogs and good science communicators – but the perception that scientists are just bad at things that aren’t science itself I find odd. Are ‘scientists’ really that bad at communicating to the general public? Should scientists really just be ‘Honest Brokers’ when it comes to policy making and only offer ‘the facts’ with no opinion as Roger Pielke Jr. suggests? I would argue against that simply on the basis if you are just offering facts than which facts do you offer? It’s very useful to have the opinions that go along with those facts – or the caveats that inform you about the facts. Science doesn’t just provide ‘facts’ but rather it is the linking of observables (not facts per se) to develop theories about what is going on in the natural world. Not to mention some scientists happen to be fantastic communicators – I’ll stand in my big boots on anyone’s coffee table and say Jim Al-Khalili is a fantastic communicator!

What I guess I find weird about sweeping statements about ‘scientists’ is this idea that it implies that there really is a body of people called ‘scientists’ who all uniformly think the same way and who all fail in the media, or who are all really,really bad at dealing with policy. It all seems to be vaguely based on the stereotype that all scientists are slightly autistic, focused only on details of research and are slightly naive about the rest of the big bad world. Scientists, all of us, depicted as fervent purveyors of the scientific ‘truth’ (whatever the hell that is) who all believe if they ‘explain the facts to the world’ enlightenment will ensue.

I am generalizing of course, and that there are prominent academics in the media that adhere to this stereotype isn’t exactly helpful, but I think any discussion of ‘scientists’ and how they interact with policy makers and communicate in general needs to be expanded. It needs to encompass the fact that scientists are human and as humans we span the complexity in opinions, beliefs and communication skills which are part of this big, bad world.

For some more blogs on Circling the Square see Athene Donald, Alaisdair Taylor (who gave a nice sum up of the first day of the conference), Philip Moriarty and I am sure there will be many more (just check out #circlesq on Twitter)

Posted in Circling the square, science and the media, science communication, science policy | Tagged , | 2 Comments