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

Catch a Tiger by the Toe

Last week Donald Sterling, former owner of the LA Clippers Basketball team was banned for life from the sport and given a $2.5m fine from the US National Basketball Association over his rather overt racist remarks.

The arguments against this banning, as always, usually focus around having the ‘right to say’ what ever you want to say. The First Amendment to the US Constitution gives its citizens the right to free speech. This same right-to-say-whatever argument was used to support Phil Robertson – head of a Christian family who’s reality show ‘Duck Dynasty’ appeared on A & E network. The network suspended Mr. Roberson over his anti-gay remarks. Phil has the right to say what he wants! were the argument’s against A & E’s decision. Free speech, democracy, free speech! They are right about that – Phil does have the right to say whatever he wants, but he doesn’t have the right to not having any consequences for what he says.

In reality suspending either of these gentlemen has nothing at all to do with the right to free speech. Both of these men said what they said. They were free to say it. Were they thrown in the gulag? No. Were they drummed out of the brownies? Yes. But this is not an impediment to free speech, it is a consequence of using that right. The right to free speech doesn’t say you can say any stupid thing you want and no one is going to react to it.

Just as these gentlemen have the right to free-speech, the establishments these gentlemen represent have the right to fire them; it is really as simple as that. Using ‘hate speech’ to illicit violence being a separate issue, being racist or homophobic is your right in a Democratic country, but also your employers have a right to fire you. Both of these gentlemen have been sanctioned for their opinions, because their employers – quite rightly – don’t want to be affiliated with such overt racism or homophobia.

Meanwhile back in Britain, there is Jeremy Clarkson. Mr Clarkson who seems to be able to say whatever he wants in terms of racist comments and has no sanction. The BBC has given him “a final warning”, saying he will be fired ‘next time’ but given Clarkson’s history it doesn’t seem likely that the BBC will ever deem him offensive enough to be sanctioned. I’d really hate to see how much further he’d have to go. Perhaps arguably, Clarkson’s slurs are more covert compared with Phil Robertson or Donald Sterling, so therefore more difficult to really call racism. And after all, Clarkson always seems to have a ready apology/non-apology/I-didn’t-really-mean-it-like-that excuse for his thinly-veiled ‘casual racism’. Clarkson has spelled this all out for us, he professes to be merely confused about current culture according to Tim Adams writing for The Guardian – quoting Clarkson:

‘The N-word’ is a good case in point,” Clarkson went on. “When I was growing up it was no more shocking than ‘cauliflower’. You didn’t see Bill Grundy being escorted from Broadcasting House [for saying ‘fuck’ on air] because you were watching Alf Garnett on the other side, roaring with laughter as he peppered the screen with his racist abuse. And yet now, 30 years later, ‘the n-word’ has gone. In fact, it is just about the only word I simply would not let my children use…”

(I have replaced the original quote with ‘the n-word’ as that word is really offensive to me so I don’t want to repeat it here)

What’s the rub? Clarkson said this in 2005 – seven years prior to his utterance in 2012 or rather prior to his trying NOT to say this word seven years later.

In defense of Clarkson or rather attacking those of us who are repulsed by the man – Marina Hyde opines that The Top Gear presenter’s mumbled outtake is not equivalent to vilifying an entire race. and seems to insinuate that any one offended by Clarkson is just being unfair to the man to take his use of the N-word in context, or as she puts it

Most of the coverage of – and an unscientific half of the reaction to – Clarkson’s mumbling of what sounded like the N-word in a Top Gear outtake has appeared to be based on the misapprehension that the only context in which to consider one of Jeremy Clarkson’s remarks is a selection of Jeremy Clarkson’s other remarks. It’s a sweet idea, but it’s not going to win any arguments.

Besides not understanding what she means by ‘an unscientific half of the reaction’ – I think she is dead wrong about this. Call me a sweetheart, but the point is that Clarkson said this WITHIN the context of the kind of slurs he is constantly making. This is actually the entire point of why so many are up in arms. The man, who is a top BBC presenter stoops to covert casual racism repeatedly and nothing happens. While it is very true that unconscious bias is more insipid and much harder to identify than overt bias, I don’t think Clarkson’s comments can be attributed to some unconscious mechanism. In fact the most offensive bit about Clarkson are his continual ‘I-didn’t-really-mean-that’ or ‘back-in-my-day-it-was-ok’ excuses. Does anyone really find this believable? Even if he IS in earnest, it is no excuse, it doesn’t make what he says OK. He’s old enough to know better.

The version of eeny meany miney moe I learned as kid was:

eeny meeny miny moe
catch a Tiger by the Toe
if he hollers let him go
eeny meeny miny moe

I didn’t even know about the other version until I was at least 30 years old – and I grew up in one of the most racists parts of the Western world. My forebearers sorted it out why can’t Jeremy Clarkson? And to the BBC’s decision to give Clarkson a mere ‘final warning’? Echoing the words of Chicago Tribune Journalist Clarence Page on a radio shock-jock not being fired over similar Clarkson-esque utterances:

I know other stations — everybody knows by now, some shock jock who lost his job for less than this, or been at least suspended for a month or two. Why does Don*, a repeat offender, keep getting away with it? I want to know.

*Don being Don Imus – a radio shock jock from the US

Posted in Jeremy Clarkson, Racism | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Spotting bad science – is it really so easy?

On the Interwebs – I have seen several links to this helpful PDF on How to spot bad science – a rough guide.

Learning how to sniff out bad science – or really bad science reporting which is what this guide seems to be aimed at – is important. As most folks know, after cold fusion and arsenic in DNA, spotting when there is something that smells funny, should be part of any scientist’s or science aficionado’s tool kit.

To be abundantly clear, I think detecting bad science (and there is much of it out there) is a good thing. I think, for the most part, this quick guide is also a good thing – especially with advice on being wary of ‘sensationalized headlines’ and being cynical about everything you read and believe.

However, sadly, this rough guide is too simplistic in some of its advice, advice which is a bit too vanilla to be of much use when reading a scientific report.

Take for example ‘unreplicable results’. This is a big warning for bad science, clearly, but how exactly can you detect this in an NEW article? If you are reading a scientific press release it is likely a fresh set of exciting results, which no one has had the chance to try and replicate yet. Also you have to be a bit cautious between ‘unreplicable results’ and ‘results which haven’t been replicated yet’. The former is bad science, the later may be opening up an new area of science that is somewhat outside the paradigm. Or in other words beware of the Physics-is-dead syndrome.

What about ‘misinterpreted results’? Another big warning sign for bad science but incredibly difficult to detect, especially when reading a scientific study outside your area of interest. Misinterpretations abound in the literature, often because at the time they don’t seem like misinterpretations – it only becomes clear when some new data pops up, often well into the future.

Then there is ‘conflict of interest’. We all have conflicts of interest. It is impossible to be a human and not have a conflict of interest somewhere. The warning in the guide is probably to flag up tobacco-isn’t-that-bad-for-you arguments by the major cigarette companies but, importantly, it’s worth remembering that much good research takes place in industry. R & D laboratories which are privately funded are not all hell-bent on misleading the public.

The rough guide advice I found the worst, hands down, was ‘speculative language’ where the guide states:

Speculations from research are just that – speculation. Be on the look out for words such as ‘may’ ‘could’ ‘might’ and others, as it is unlikely the research provides hard evidence for any conclusions they precede.

The first tautological statement notwithstanding, Really?!? Science rarely presents exact conclusions – usually research opens up more questions than it answers. Saying ‘we see this’ and ‘we think this means that’ is perfectly acceptable in scientific literature. In fact it is the bread and butter of many research publications. I am far more dubious of a study which says ‘we see this, therefore it absolutely must mean that’. Most scientific studies are a process of slowing marching forward (and back again and then sideways a bit, oops and then we all fell in the lake) to make new, even if they are small, discoveries. It’s important to be speculative, otherwise the whole shebang would get rather boring and dogmatic.

Posted in bad science, science communication | Tagged , | 12 Comments

Evidence-based policy? – A Week in Westminster

Evidence-based policy, this phrase gets bandied about so often, but it is not always clear how it is meant to be applied. Notwithstanding the desire to have scientific evidence inform things that are actually scientifically based, such as better practices in the NHS – it is often far from clear how evidence can be used in policy. What evidence is actually applicable? Often the evidence can point to many conclusions, especially those which look ahead to the future, where many factors are well beyond anyone’s control – no matter how assured the predictions based on past evidence.

This year I was selected to be one of the participant’s in the Royal Society’s Week in Westminster pairing scheme, where scientists are paired with either MPs or Civil servants. (It was great – I highly recommend it to
anyone in science who has even the vaguest interest in how the UK government works). What I was particularly struck by is how people who work in government must balance the needs of many with heaps and heaps of evidence in order to make a decision. The *right* decision or the most *right* decision for the needs of the many. This after all (idealistically) is the job of the government to balance the disparate needs of many and not just those with the loudest voices.

Scientists in Parliament

Scientists in Parliament – during the Royal Society’s Week in Westminster – December 2013

In scientific research, evidence can lead to a myriad of different conclusions, a multitude of theories. Over time, most scientific theories are thrown on the scrap-heap or at the very least greatly modified by the emergence of new evidence. But scientific enquiry moves at a different pace and has for the most part, much more finite questions than government policy. There is often less evidence to balance with a particular theory in research than there is for government policies.

Also, like science, evidence in policy can point to many different decisions and sometimes the *right* decision isn’t revealed until well after the fact. How policies affect any given group of people is not easy to track as life is much more complex for most of us than laboratory experiments.

I am all in favor of evidence, when evidence is incontrovertible, but more often than not it isn’t. Before we all start crying for evidence-based policy, we need to be careful about what we are asking for in each particular instance.

Posted in evidence based, politics, Uncategorized | Tagged | 4 Comments

UK University debates, when gender segregation is OK?

Get real UK Universities

Universities UK have issued some guidance on separating genders during debate,* apparently it is OK if the facilities are separate but equal. Women can be placed separately from men as long as they aren’t seated behind. Because in some sort of alternate reality this is perfectly acceptable equality. Separate but equal.
And where have we heard that nonsense before?

Life is complicated. To segregate or not to segregate based gender, race, creed, colour, sexual orientation, or whatever discriminatory category you choose to pick is not, however, a complex issue. In fact it is pretty straightforward if you are a public body in a democratic society, you don’t do it.

Apparently this is quite a difficult concept for Universities UK, who have magically transported themselves back to mentality of lawmakers in the US South in the 1870s. They have also managed to forget the landmark case of Brown vs. Board of Education where the US Supreme Court deemed that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” (the UK never had such policies).

According to the illustrious UK university leaders, however, this is a really difficult issue viz

Segregation at the behest of a controversial speaker is an issue which arises “all the time” and banning men and women from sitting next to each during debates is a “big issue” facing universities, Universities UK has said.

How on earth can this possibly be a ‘big issue’ ? If the speaker requests that genders (or whoever) should be separated, the answer should be a polite, respectable, PR-compliant form of ‘tough shit’. This is not a hard issue. You don’t do it. Full stop. End of. And please don’t try to couch it as some sort of difficult, soul-searching issue. It isn’t. Segregation is not acceptable, don’t do it.

I ask the leaders of Universities UK, what kind of message does this send? Universities should be the place where ideas are discussed, equality is striven for, openness and debate are applauded, exemplifying the epitome of a free society. Granted this is the ideal, but any University policy should uphold this ideal. You can’t just change your policy because someone *important* requests it. By this guidance, Universities UK give the message that discrimination is OK, if you are famous/important that is, otherwise Universities really should be against this sort of thing.

I was an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee (USA). During my time there, every Summer the university was ‘rented’ as a convention venue by one of the very-conservative-religious groups from somewhere in Tennessee. They paid a fair amount of money to use the place. One summer, this convention happened to coincide with the university art-school exhibit of nudes, which was displayed prominently in the student center. The head of the very-conservative-religious group went to the President of the university to complain and have the art removed. The President said, in a decision that surprised all of us who were convinced the Uni was just money hungry, NO. In no uncertain terms, no.

If you ask me, the ‘leaders’ of Universities UK might just learn a thing or two from old Joseph E. Johnson, who knew how to draw the line between the requests of the few vs. the rights of many. No matter how rich, important or controversial they may be.

*I have linked to a Telegraph article above, but here is a link to the actual advice from UK Universities – see page 27 – Thanks to Ian Hopkinson and Bob O’Hara for pointing this out.

Posted in Academic dishonesty, women in science | Tagged | 31 Comments