Monday, April 30, 2007

Online sexual harassment and threats covered by Washington Post

About a month ago, Salon had a good piece about how women are treated online, which I covered here.

Now, the Washington Post also covers the subject.

Sexual Threats Stifle Some Female Bloggers

A female freelance writer who blogged about the pornography industry was threatened with rape. A single mother who blogged about "the daily ins and outs of being a mom" was threatened by a cyber-stalker who claimed that she beat her son and that he had her under surveillance. Kathy Sierra, who won a large following by blogging about designing software that makes people happy, became a target of anonymous online attacks that included photos of her with a noose around her neck and a muzzle over her mouth.

As women gain visibility in the blogosphere, they are targets of sexual harassment and threats. Men are harassed too, and lack of civility is an abiding problem on the Web. But women, who make up about half the online community, are singled out in more starkly sexually threatening terms -- a trend that was first evident in chat rooms in the early 1990s and is now moving to the blogosphere, experts and bloggers said.

For those of us who have participated online for years, the online stalking, harrassment, and direct and indirect threats towards women have been obvious. Unfortunately it has been hard to back these claims up except with annecdotes - a type of evidence which can only be used to a negative to an absolute ("there are no female scientists" can be dismissed by "I know several"), but it can't be used as postive evidence for absolute claims ("there are no female scientists" cannot be proven by "I don't know anyone"). Fortunately there have been some studies into the subject, and as the Washington Post article makes clear, they are conclusive.

A 2006 University of Maryland study on chat rooms found that female participants received 25 times as many sexually explicit and malicious messages as males. A 2005 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that the proportion of Internet users who took part in chats and discussion groups plunged from 28 percent in 2000 to 17 percent in 2005, entirely because of the exodus of women. The study attributed the trend to "sensitivity to worrisome behavior in chat rooms."

Many Americans mistake my first name to be a female first name, so I have had a couple of episodes where I have been mistaken for a woman when debating online. While I have never experienced the kind of behaviour described in the article, I have exprienced a shift in behaviour when the other side of the debate realized I was a man.
The most extreme example of this, was in the comments to the Eight Skeptic's Circle, where some Men's Rights Activists showed up to debate (and got soundly beaten - don't try to bluff your way out of citing sources when debating science geeks). One of them addressed some points I'd made, but never addressed me by name - until the moment when he found out that I was male, at which point he started addressing me by name. Weird, and profoundly telling about how he, and many other people on the internet, consider women beneath notice. And this kind of behaviour is certainly less bad than the type of behaviour the article describes.

So how do we stop such behaviour? There have been some suggestions out there, including a code of conduct for bloggers, which has won little approval. I don't think that such measures will make a difference on the whole, but they can help creating safe spaces for women on the internet [as an aside, I should perhaps mention that I would expect that it would go without saying that any comments with the kind of content described in the article would lead to the comment being deleted and the commenter IP-banned (at the very least)].
Until there is a fundamental change in how society, and men especially, view women, there will be no way to stop these things from happening. We can help out by speaking out against it when we experience/see it, and support those being targeted, but until the fundamental changes happens, there will continue to be articles like this.

This is why feminism is still important. Or rather, this is yet another reason why feminism is still important.

Note: The picture is one I took on the streets of Copenhagen. I aim to include it in any post with a subject relevant to feminism.

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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Dobson Vs. Doonesbury

Via Andrew Sullivan I became aware of Dobson's recent campaign against Doonesbury.

Dobson summons the Righteous

Aparently Dobson took issue with this Doonesbury strip, and issued an Action Alert 12 days after it was printed.

Maybe it's time that progressives (both liberals and conservatives) took similar actions every time Dobson is quoted in the newspapers. He is supposed to be from a political neutral organization (hence it's tax-free status), yet he only seems to support one politcal party - and only the more religiously fundamentalist part of it. I know that his critique of the Edwards Campaign, and their hiring of bloggers, have made people complain to the IRS about the organization's tax-free status, but maybe it should happen every time he (or someone else in the organization) makes blatantly political remarks and/or endorsements.

The Action Alert won't have any real effect - the newspapers that bring Doonesbury have receive many complaints in the past, and will receive many complaints in the future (see here for some past examples). That's something that comes along with printing a comic strip focusing on current events, and which is unappologetic about it's biases. For example Garry Trudeau has never made any bones about his intense dislike of George W. Bush and his adminstration. Yet, that doesn't make him just a political hack - something even the Pentagon has recognized, as has Vietnam Veterans of America.
Where is Dobson's similar track record? He is just a pure political hack, hiding behind his religion.

To gain a better view of the man behind the Doonesbury strip, I can only recommend this profile from the Washington Post (October 22, 2006).

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Prehistoric camel found at Wal-Mart site

When I had this story pointed out to me by a friend, I could help asking if it had passed it's sell-by date.

Prehistoric camel discovered at Wal-Mart

The bones of a pre-historic camel were dsicovered[sic] Friday at the site of a future Mesa Wal-Mart.

Arizona State University geology museum curator Brad Archer hurried out to the site near Lindsay and McKellips roads Friday when he got the news that John Babiarz, owner of Greenfield Citrus Nursery, was carefully excavating bones found at the bottom of a hole being dug for a new ornamental citrus tree.

The found bones are estimated to be about 10,000 years old.

I must admit that I didn't really know anything about the history of camels in North America, but apparently (at least according to Wikipedia), the Camelidae family originated in the late Eocene, in present-day North America.


If anyone know more about either the findings at the Wal-Mart site, or the evulution of Camelids, please feel free to comment on it.


Dean of M.I.T. resigning because of false credentials

A rather noteworthy story of false credentials.

Dean at M.I.T. Resigns, Ending a 28-Year Lie

Marilee Jones, the dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, became well known for urging stressed-out students competing for elite colleges to calm down and stop trying to be perfect. Yesterday she admitted that she had fabricated her own educational credentials, and resigned after nearly three decades at M.I.T. Officials of the institute said she did not have even an undergraduate degree.

“I misrepresented my academic degrees when I first applied to M.I.T. 28 years ago and did not have the courage to correct my résumé when I applied for my current job or at any time since,” Ms. Jones said in a statement posted on the institute’s Web site. “I am deeply sorry for this and for disappointing so many in the M.I.T. community and beyond who supported me, believed in me, and who have given me extraordinary opportunities.”

Ms. Jones said that she would not make any other public comment “at this personally difficult time” and that she hoped her privacy would be respected.

Ms. Jones, 55, originally from Albany, had on various occasions represented herself as having degrees from three upstate New York institutions: Albany Medical College, Union College and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. In fact, she had no degrees from any of those places, or anywhere else, M.I.T. officials said.

First of all, it's of course completely unacceptable for anyone to present false credentials, especially in an educational settings, where there is so much focus on plagiarism and cheating among students.

Having said that, by all accounts it seems that Ms. Jones did a splendid job in her position, and it's tragic that she had to lie to get her job. I can't say that I can think of any sollutions to the problem of getting such well-qualified people into the right jobs, without requiring a certain level of education.
Not that this necessarily would have helped in this case - she did lie about her level of education when applying for her first job, which apparently didn't require any college level education.

And the prize for most irony, goes to this part of her book (quoted in the article)

“Holding integrity is sometimes very hard to do because the temptation may be to cheat or cut corners,” it says. “But just remember that ‘what goes around comes around,’ meaning that life has a funny way of giving back what you put out.”


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Friday, April 27, 2007

Lazy linking - who needs philosophy? edition

The New Stateman has an article about the difference in the perception of Gandhi in the West and in India. The lives of saints by Salil Tripathi

Gandhi is idealised in the west, but in Indian culture he is emerging as a complex figure.

Slate has a special brains issue, with articles about neuroscience and psychology.

For the more philosophically inclined: Online Papers in Philosophy and People with online papers in philosophy

Via the Philosopher's Magazine Online, I came across this psot by Stephen Law.
The dependence of morality on religion

Is religious belief indispensable to a healthy and prosperous society? That morality cannot survive without religion is a perennial worry. Even the Enlightenment thinker Voltaire (1694-1778) would not allow his friends to discuss atheism in front of his servants, saying,

I want my lawyer, tailor, valets, even my wife to believe in God. I think that if they do I shall be robbed less and cheated less.

Here, too, is Democrat senator Joseph Lieberman echoing George Washington:

As a people we need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God's purpose… George Washington warned us never to 'indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.

Even Adolf Hitler insisted that "[s]ecular schools can never be tolerated” because a morality that is not founded on religion is built “on thin air”.

But of course the claim that morality is causally dependent on religious belief - that it will not (or at least is unlikely to) survive without it - is an empirical hypothesis. It’s not enough just to make this claim. We are owed some grounds for believing that it is true. What’s the evidence?

Does anyone know the source for the Hitler quote? It should once and for all put to rest the idea of some kind of connection between Nazism and atheism.

At Washington Post there is a story about Stephen Hawking's zero-gravity flight.
A Long-Awaited Taste of Outer Space

It might not seem like a brilliant idea, allowing a frail 65-year-old paralytic to float free from gravity aboard a rising and plunging roller-coaster stunt flight.

But who's to argue with Stephen Hawking?

Of course, there was more to it than a joy-ride. Hawkings wants to call attention to his bleak view of humanity's survival without space-flights.

Finalists shortlisted for the Royal Society's annual science book prize announced
A couple of them looks quite interesting to me - especially the book about Lonesome George

The Guardian has an article with an example of how environment can affect the behaviour of animals.

Robins forced to sing at night to beat traffic noise

And on a more personal note, if people haven't noticed it, I've added a link to my flickr page on the right side of the page. So far, it's mostly pictures I've taken of stuff in Copenhagen, so it might be of limited interest. There is also a link to my Myspace profile. I don't really participate in myspace, but if you have a profile there, feel free to add me as a friend.

Via Feministe a post on WIMN’s Voices about terrorism towards abortion clinics
Silence is Complicity

They’re at it again: A week since the SCOTUS began dismembering Roe anti-choice lunatics are terrorizing women’s clinics, as reported by the Associated Press in a very brief piece headlined, “Explosive found at Austin women’s clinic.”

The “they” in question, however, is not the domestic terrorists responsible. It is the media that systematically ignores these stories, as Jennifer Pozner has pointed out in the past. This particular story — in which “A package left at a women’s clinic that performs abortions contained an explosive device capable of inflicting serious injury or death” took place in Austin, TX yesterday. I wouldn’t have known myself unless I had a friend down there, where it was covered with all the fanfare of a traffic accident.

Also make sure to read the post at Feministe

Lauren writes about why people like Linda Hirshman are around
One-Note Hirshman Will Be Around So Long As Shitting On Women Is So Normal We Don’t Notice

I've seen this Rolling Stones obit described as "the meanest obituary article I can remember"
THE LOW POST: Death of a Drunk
It's about Boris Yeltsin, whose death I wrote about here

And finally - the 59th Skeptic's Circle is up at Pooflingers Anonymous


Thursday, April 26, 2007

Dawkins honored for his science writing

Richard Dawkins accepts 2006 Lewis Thomas Prize

The 2006 Rockefeller University Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science has been awarded to British ethologist, evolutionary biologist and popular science writer Richard Dawkins. Rockefeller’s president, Paul Nurse, presented the award to Dawkins yesterday at a ceremony in Caspary Auditorium, where Dawkins gave a lecture titled “Queerer than We Can Suppose: The Strangeness of Science.”

Given that the newsrelease was written on the 25th, I presume that "yesterday" would have been April 24th.

I like the argument for why he received the prize:

“In eloquent, evocative prose, Richard Dawkins conveys the certainty that, rather than diminishing the myriad beauties of the universe and extinguishing wonderment at its mysteries, science reveals truths that are yet more awe-inspiring than the mysteries they solve,” President Nurse said at the award ceremony. “As such he has achieved the ideal of the Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science.”

Also note the long list of other awards that the article mentions that Dawkins has received.

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Author profile: H.P. Lovecraft

Note: In the Readerville forum, I've written a few profiles of science fiction authors, some of which might also be of interest to others. Once in a while I'll post one of them here.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890 - 1937)

The Name of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, obscure during his lifetime except to a select circle of devotees, has acquired a measure of posthumous fame.

Thus began J. Vernion Shea his, or her, article "H.P. Lovecraft: The House and the Shadows" (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction - May, 1966). What held true four decades ago, certainly holds true today, perhaps largely due to August Derleth (1909 - 1971), founder of the Arkham Press, of which Shea says:

August Derleth refers to [Lovecraft] as "The late great H.P. Lovecraft" ... Derleth's viewpoint is perhaps partisan, for he was a friend and correspondent of Lovecraft for many years, and is now the executioner of his estate.

H. P. Lovecraft do appear to split his readers into two bipolar groups - Damon Knight (1922 - 2002) referred to him as "a neurasthenic recluse, scholarly, fastidious, and prim".

Perhaps surprisingly, I fall in neither camp. I like Lovecraft's works, and I think he shows flashed of brilliance, but I won't go out of my way to read his works. On the other hand, Lovecraft has become such a part of the sf/fantasy/horror pantheon, that you nearly have to read him; at least to understand all the references to The Great Old Ones and Cthulhu.

H.P. Lovecraft had a very unusual childhood. His mother treated him like a girl until he was at least six, and his father went mad when Lovecraft was two, and died five years later. Unsurprisingly Lovecraft had many problems throughout his life. He started at school when he was eight, but was withdrawn after a year for medical reasons. This didn't happen before he discovered Edgar Allan Poe (1809 - 1849) though.

In high school, Lovecraft had a nervous collapse after 2½ years, and was again withdrawn. Following this, he more or less spent his life at home writing stories, most of which (perhaps luckily) weren't published. He stayed living with his mother until she died when he was 31. A couple of years after her death, in 1924, Lovecraft married Sonia Greene, 7 years his senior, but the marriage broke up in 1926. As The Encyclopedia of Fantasy puts it: "the fact that she was Jewish and he was prone to antisemitic rants cannot have helped".

In 1924 Lovecraft rewrote a story by one C.M. Eddy, "The Loved Dead", for Weird Tales (a magazine founded because of the founder's love of Edgar Allan Poe, and which Lovecraft apparently declined to become editor of). It was a story about a necrophiliac who becomes a sex murderer, and it caused an uproar, forcing Weird Tales to withdraw the issue from the newsstands. Human nature being what it is, the next issue of Weird Tales sold out within hours, inadvertently saving Weird Tales from bankruptcy, which the magazine had been close to, even before the lost sales from the Lovecraft issue.

In his, now famous, short story, "The Call of Cthulhu" (1928), Lovecraft created his now well known myths about the powerful, but evil, beings called The Great Old Ones (or alternatively The Ancient Old Ones) - not to be confused with the two other Lovecraftian groups of beings: The Old Ones and The Great Ones, which I guess proves that whatever Lovecraft's merits, naming ancient powerful races in distinctive ways is not one of them.

Gradually as he grew older, Lovecraft's stories turned less grim, though I doubt anyone would call them light-hearted. This change took away much of the drive behind his stories, and he seemed to be heading towards less spectacular mainstream fantasy, until his early death of cancer March 15, 1937, put an end to that.

After Lovecraft's death, August Derleth published his works under the Arkham house imprint, gradually making Lovecraft a household name in the fantasy/horror genre.

Lovecraft was in many ways typical of many of the authors in the genres at his time. Compare his story with Robert E. Howard (1906 - 1936), and you'll find many similarities, though Lovecraft's upbringing was certainly more weird than mosts'. Not surprisingly many of the authors of the time wrote together, and I've heard and read that Lovecraft's letters (which has been collected) should be well worth the effort reading.

There are several different Lovecraft collections out there, and if you cannot get hold of any containing his complete works, I'd suggest focusing on collections of his stories about The Great Old Ones.

The Encyclopedia of Fantasy by John Clute and John Grant.
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction - May, 1966

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Fair use and science blogging

Most of you are probably aware that Shelley from Retrospectacle got into some trouble because she used a figure from a science journal in one of her posts.

I am not a lawyer, and I don't even play one on the internet, so I can't say if her use of the figure fell within fair use or not. However, I can say how I feel about it. Given the fact that Shelley didn't misrepresent the data, take credit for it, or in any other way used the figure in a negative way (except for using it to prove a point), I can't see what John Wiley & Sons hoped to achive by sending the mail. The only result they've reached seems to be a load of negative goodwill in response to a minimum gain (the figure was replaced by Shelley's own).

As a person who lives of my intellectual property (computer code), I am firmly on the side on defending such. This wasn't such a case.

As an aside, Orac actually got a comment based upon the same premise to this post.

At the risk of seeming unappreciative: Scientific American's lawyers do usually frown on the use of its graphics without permission--strictly speaking, it isn't a violation of our rights so much as it is of the artist's. I don't think she'd mind in this case, but can I offer a shout of appreciation to the terrific Jen Christiansen, who drew that illustration?

There was a difference though - in Orac's case it was about a drawing (where the artist's rights are infringed), while in Shelley's place, it was a figure. There is a difference (and the reaction was much smarter).

There is no doubt that intellectual property and science blogging can be at odds some times, but I am sure that these issues can be solved in a way satisfactory to all parts - that's, however, not done by treatening legal action without any dialogue.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Shocking misogyny in Norway

Amnesty International in Norway has just released a survey that shows some shocking stats.

* Nearly half of all Norwegian men (44%) think that women at least partly responsible for sexual assaults, if they have flirted openly.
* One in five Norwegian men thinks that women are at least partly responsible for sexual assaults if they are known to have had several partners.
* One in three men thinks that women are at least partly responsible for sexual assaults if they are drunk or dress sexy.

The survey also looked into violence towards women, and while a large group of men (a third) consider violence towards women something that affects them, one out of ten consider it a private affair. 42% of all Norwegian men knows someone who has been violent towards women - 14% of these were at the scene when it last happened.
40% of all Norwegian men think that a women is responsible for violence towards her, if she doesn't break out of a violent relationship.

And what makes it even worse, it seems like older men are less misogynist than younger men.
* 50% of all men between 45-60 consider violence towards women an important social issue, while only 23% of all men between 18-29 do that.
* 79% of all men between 45-60 consider restricting social activites as a type of violence, while only 50% of all men between 18-29 do that.

The survey can be found here (.pdf), but it's in Norwegian.

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Why don't people learn from their mistakes?

Newsweek has an interesting piece by Wray Herbert, who has the blog We're Only Human ...

Oops, I Did It Again

Benjamin Franklin was no brain scientist. He was a keen observer of human behavior, and of the natural world, but he was a couple centuries too early to explore the intricate neuronal interplay of physics and biochemistry that makes us the people we are: healthy, wise, quirky, self-destructive. So, when he famously defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results," this 18th-century polymath was really being more intuitive than rigorously scientific.

Yet it looks like he got it right. New neuropsychological research is now suggesting that the inability to learn from one's mistakes may indeed be at the root of a broad range of human problems, ranging from childhood bullying and truancy to aggressive acts like road rage to all manner of substance abuse. And this cognitive aberration, deep-wired into the neurons and genes, may even underlie the vagaries of normal human behavior and personality. (It's important in the wake of the tragic events at Virginia Tech to emphasize that this column is not about such deeply disturbed psychology.)

I'm glad that he pointed out that inability to learn from mistakes are only related to milder types of problems, and not the stronger type of problems with causes the headlines in the newspapers.

Now, for the background for the research.

The research starts with electricity, appropriately enough. A while back, psychologists discovered a new and very faint electrical signal coming from the brain, specifically from a region of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex. This particular conglomeration of neurons is important, because it appears to light up when we are faced with especially demanding mental tasks. Moreover, the recently discovered brain signal appears to peak just milliseconds after we have made a mistake, suggesting that in the normal brain it plays a role in anticipating, spotting and correcting errors. In other words, it's the neurological engine that let us learn from our mistakes.

Psychologists call this electrical pulse ERN, for "error related negativity," but the neurological jargon is not all that important. What's important is that an abnormal pulsation may be the neurobiological underpinning for a serious cognitive deficit, which in turn may lead to a host of pathologies related to lack of impulse control.

I wasn't aware of this feature in our brain, but that's hardly surprising, since I don't follow neuro-science that closely.

The study that Herbert is writing about, found that people who showed signs of having the highest impulsivity and antisocial behavior, had the least activity in the ERN.

I always find it great when newsmagazines like Newsweek brings a good article about science, that actually explains the theory and thinking behind it.


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Lazy linking - mostly politics edition

A few links to stuff that might interest people.

Tara C. Smith at Aetiology has written a post about the newest reaserch on a link between cancer and abortions: Yet another study shows no link between abortion and breast cancer

Mike Dunford (whose wife just came home from Iraq) over at The Questionable Authority has a good post up: Good Morning, Mr. President, You've Got a Message.

Reality called. He's wondering if you're ever going to get back in touch.

Over at Counterpunch, Stephen Lendman has written A Short History of the Christian Right

Via Pharyngula (who got it via Majikthise): My Views on Abortion.
If you choose to just follow one link from this post - this is the one you should read.

David Neiwert (I think) at Orcinus writes about one of the heroes from the Virginia Tech shooting.
We have met the enemy ...

Hey everyone. You heroic right-wing bloggers especially. I want you to meet a real hero.

This man's name is Waleed Shaalan, and he was one of the 32 victims of Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech gunman who seems to have provoked so much "well I woulda given him the ol' kung-foo fighting cuz these hands are fast as lightning" fantasizing on the parts of so many arnchair critics of the victims' response to the rampage. Not to mention, of course, the ongoing speculation that Cho might secretly be a Muslim engaging in that jihad that Michelle Malkin swears is gonna swoop down on us any day now.

The case of Waleed Shaalan offers them a little bit of a reality check. There weren't many heroes that day, but he was one of them. And oh yes: He's Muslim.

He was gunned down on Monday while he was studying in Norris Hall, but witnesses say he died a hero.

People like Waleed Shaalan and Liviu Librescu should fill people like the ones that Dave is addressing with humility. And Dave makes a very good point.

Yes, it is possible to be a hero in these situations, but the greatest likelihood is that if you do, you will die. Everyone who acted heroically at Virginia Tech died, including Mr. Shaalan. We have to honor them for their sacrifice and their bravery. But don't ask me to second-guess the people who chose to try to find a way to stay alive first.


Kryptonite found in Serbian mine

Ok, some headlines write themselves, and I see that ScienceDaily couldn't resist.

Superman Beware: Scientists Uncover Kryptonite

Superman’s nemesis, kryptonite, is no longer the stuff of fiction. A new mineral matching its unique chemistry – as described in the film Superman Returns – has been identified by scientists at the Natural History Museum and Canada’s National Research Council.

What are the odds? (no, don't answer that one)
Quite amusing, isn't it? Unfortunately there are some disappointing aspects.

Kryptonite’s devastating power is the bane of Superman stories, where exposure to its large green crystals causes the superhero to weaken dramatically. Unlike its famous counterpart however, the new mineral is white, powdery and not radioactive. And, rather than coming from outer space, the real kryptonite was found in Serbia.

According to the article, the mineral will be formally named Jadarite when it is described in the European Journal of Mineralogy later this year.

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A step further towards religious tolerance?

While debatin religion in the US, many of us forget that while atheists are considered second-rate citizens by some, they are not the only group of people who encounter religious bigotry. Wiccans regularly face relgious intolerance and discrimination. Now, there is one less such discrimination happening.

Use of Wiccan Symbol on Veterans’ Headstones Is Approved

To settle a lawsuit, the Department of Veterans Affairs has agreed to add the Wiccan pentacle to a list of approved religious symbols that it will engrave on veterans’ headstones.

The settlement, which was reached on Friday, was announced on Monday by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which represented the plaintiffs in the case.

Though it has many forms, Wicca is a type of pre-Christian belief that reveres nature and its cycles. Its symbol is the pentacle, a five-pointed star, inside a circle.

Until now, the Veterans Affairs department had approved 38 symbols to indicate the faith of deceased service members on memorials. It normally takes a few months for a petition by a faith group to win the department’s approval, but the effort on behalf of the Wiccan symbol took about 10 years and a lawsuit, said Richard B. Katskee, assistant legal director for Americans United.

The group attributed the delay to religious discrimination. Many Americans do not consider Wicca a religion, or hold the mistaken belief that Wiccans are devil worshipers.

As the article shows, it appears that President George Bush follows in the steps of his father when it comes to relgious bigotry - just look at these remarks.

“I don’t think witchcraft is a religion,” Mr. Bush said at the time, according to a transcript. “I would hope the military officials would take a second look at the decision they made.”

This is from an interview with “Good Morning America” in 1999.

I am of the opinion that if people self-identify as religious, and define their belief in a way that can be considered a religion, then who are we to say otherwise? Here I should perhaps add, that it's quite reasonable to point out that someone's self-definition contradicts common usage among other people self-identifying as belonging to that religion (e.g. lack of belief in God and Jesus when considering yourself a Christian), but that's certainly not the case with the Wiccans.

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Another strike against McCain

I am not, and have never been, a fan of McCain. I don't consider him a moderate, and his stance on such important issues as torture, abortion, and the Iraq War makes him very much someone I wouldn't want to see in the highest US office. Another reason is that he seems to surround himself with some pretty bad advisors - it has actually gotten so bad that I half expect Rumsfeld to become his security advisor any day now.

A data point.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) delivered a major policy speech today focusing attention on the threat posed by global climate change. McCain said, “The world is already feeling the powerful effects of global warming, and far more dire consequences are predicted if we let the growing deluge of greenhouse gas emissions continue, and wreak havoc with Gods creation.”

Also today, McCain released a statement proudly announcing that former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger has “endorsed John McCain for President and will advise his campaign on energy and national security issues.”

Chris Mooney has covered James Schlesinger in the past.

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Oh, come on Kansas!

As we all know, Intelligent Design has been stopped for now in Kansas, since the majority of the Kansas State Board of Education is pro-science. Aparently, that might not be enough.

As the Kansas State Board of Education swung back and forth on how evolution would be treated in the state's science standards, local schools pretty much did what they wanted. And they still can.

At Monday's meeting of the Southeast of Saline School Board, board members, several of the school's science teachers, and others began a local version of a discussion on the teaching of evolution and alternatives, such as intelligent design.

As I see it, there are two alternatives to evolution. Stagnation or dying out. Certain species haven't changed for hundred of thousands of years, since they fit their niche pretty well. Many more have of course died out, since more fit species have take over their niche. All of this should be covered in a good class on evolutionary biology.

Oh, he didn't mean that kind of alternatives? Well, in that case, there really isn't any, is there?
Not any scientific ones at least.

Board member Jerry Knopf started the discussion by asking junior/senior high school principal Monte Couchman to bring information on what was being taught regarding evolution.

I actually think it is a good idea for the board members to know what is being taught, since they are supposed to ensure the quality of the teaching. Unfortunately I don't think quality if what Knopf wants to focus on.

And, Knopf wondered, what would be wrong with exposing students to other ideas, especially intelligent design -- the idea that life is so complex it couldn't have arisen on its own. He also noted that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution dates to the mid-1800s.

What's wrong with it?
a) It's not science, nor is it philosophy.
b) There is no "theory" of Intelligent Design to present. The article's description of the idea behing ID is actually all we have to go.
c) It's illegal
But Knopf shouldn't worry, most, if not all, of the students have probably heard about the alternative ideas while in church.

And yes, Darwin's theory of evolution dates to the mid-1800s, but hopefully the teachers teaches a more modern version of evolutionary biology. And anyway, that's one of the more stupid arguments against teaching something. Do he also obejct to teaching Ohm's law or Newton's law of universal gravitation due to their ages?

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Boris Yeltsin 1931-2007

Former Russian president Boris Yeltsin has died, 76 years old. He was the first president of the Russian Federation from 1991 to 1999, and was prime minister of Russia as well from november 1991 to june 1992.

What he is mostly remembered for by many people was his drunkness while in office. There are countless examples of his eratic behaviour while drunk, often causing diplomatic incidents.

His finest hour was in defying the military coup in 1991, which was a last effort by the hard-line Communists to regain power. Here he defined the military leadership, and got the lower ranks of the military to join his side, this leading the way for th defeat of the coup. Ironically Yeltsin used the military to bomb the Russian parliament just two years later, nearly creating a civil war.

Living in a small country fairly close to the border of then-Soviet Union, both incidents were rather frightening, and something we paid close attention to in Europe.

Overall, it can be said that Yeltsin was one of the major players in the collapse of the Soviet Union, and as such should be honored. Unfortunately he, his family and his friends, were also the cause of many of the problems that Russia now have, especially on the economical front (the wholesale guttering of public companies for personal profit being a major cause).

Maybe Gorbachev sums up Yeltsin the best when he said that he "had major deeds for the good of the country as well as serious mistakes behind him", though he and I probably have different reasons to believe so (Gorbachev is still a Communist, who wanted to save the Soviet Union till the end).

A noteworthy, and some times great, person has died. May history be kind to him.

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Jessica Valenti interview in Salon

Jessica who runs Feministing is being interviewed in Salon about feminism and her new book Full Frontal Feminism

As far as explosive signifiers go, there are few more combustible than the word "feminism." It was forged through suffrage and the ERA and Roe v. Wade, and has survived through first and second and third waves to the tunes of Helen Reddy and Ani DiFranco. Dogged by the image of a spectral harpy with hairy legs and an apocryphal burned bra in her hand, it has been declared dead, then resurrected, then declared dead again. But god bless it, there's life in feminism yet.

Salon readers may recognize the name Jessica Valenti; she has been an oft-quoted source and a contributor to this magazine. The 28-year-old New York native is the founder of 3-year-old, and arguably the most prominent young feminist online today. Her combination of brains, charisma and a willingness to mix it up with critics has already brought her attentions both flattering and horrifying.

This week brings Valenti's first book, the energetic "Full Frontal Feminism" (Seal Press), a scrappy ode to the movement to which she's dedicated herself, designed to win over young women she fervently believes are feminists but just don't know it yet.

"Full Frontal Feminism" is not your mother's "Our Bodies, Ourselves," unless your mom's copy was annotated with phrases like "I shit you not" and "Tell me that's not royally fucked up." (Which it might reasonably have been.) Valenti's message is very much of its time: She is trying to win over a population of women she believes might think to themselves, "I'm not a feminist, but it is total bullshit that Wal-Mart won't fill my birth control prescription."

It's a pretty good interview, and I will certainly get hold of that book. Don't read the comments though, unless you have a high tolerance towards anti-feminist retorics. One of the themes of the comments is that there is not real gender gap, to which I replied with this comment, which is a c&p of th relevant part of this post. I don't think that the fact that I site actual studies will make any difference to the anti-feminist trolls though.

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Number of mountain gorillas in Uganda on the rise

Via ScienceDaily, some good news out of Uganda.

Uganda's Mountain Gorillas Increase In Number

The most recent census of mountain gorillas in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park--one of only two places in the world where the rare gorillas exist--has found that the population has increased by 6 percent since the last census in 2002, according to the Uganda Wildlife Authority, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Max Planck Institute of Anthropology and other groups that participated in the effort.

"This is great news for all of the organizations that have worked to protect Bwindi and its gorilla population," said Wildlife Conservation Society researcher Dr. Alastair McNeilage, who is also the director of the Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation in Bwindi. "There are very few cases in this world where a small population of a endangered primates is actually increasing."

Of course, we are talking relatively small numbers of individuals.

According to the census, which also successfully used for the first time genetic samples from fecal specimens, Bwindi's gorilla population now numbers 340 individual gorillas, up from 320 in 2002, and 300 in 1997.

The increase in the numbers is very important, since mountain gorillas are only found in two locations.

The other mountain gorilla stronghold is located just south of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in the Virunga Volcanoes on the borders of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The last census of the Virunga gorilla population in 2003 revealed 380 gorillas, up from 324 individuals counted in the previous census in 1989. In spite of incursions by farmers and rebels into the parks, and a few recent poaching events, Virungas' mountain gorillas are persisting as well, thanks to sustained conservation efforts by the guards and staff members within that landscape. The current total of mountain gorillas at both locations brings the worldwide tally to approximately 720 individual animals.

We are 720 individuals from loosing one of our closest cousins. Let's work for this not happening, and help support conservation work in those two areas.

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Is breaking up by e-mail acceptable?

The Boston Globe has an article about the trend of breaking up through a text message or email.

To end a romance, just press 'send'

The use of e-mail and instant-messaging to end intimate relationships is gaining popularity because instantaneous communication makes it easy -- some say too easy -- to just call the whole thing off. Want to avoid one of those squirmy, awkward breakup scenes? Want to control the dialogue while removing facial expressions, vocal inflections, and body language from the equation? A solution is as near as your keyboard or cellphone.

It would be nice if the article actually provided any evidence of it gaining popularity, but it only provides some annecdotes.

Also, is this really any different from breaking up by phone or by letter? Both of which has been common through the ages. I can't really see that's the case, and while the phone break-up might seem more personal, due to the fact that you hear the other person's voice, it's still done from a distance. And here we are not even considering the break-up on the answering machine.

I always get a little annoyed when newspapers bring stories about "problems" with new technology, which are only old "problems" transfered to a new media.

And as the article makes clear, there can be very good reasons for not wanting to break up in person.

Sometimes there is a legitimate reason for wanting to avoid personal contact. Tara, a 32-year-old woman who lives near Boston, says her ex-husband was intimidating and emotionally abusive during their marriage.

So when she wanted to end the marriage several years ago, she felt more comfortable doing so by sending a text message.

But again, who gets to decide what reasons are legitimate? If a relationship is not working, but the person who feel that way can't bring themselves to say it to the person's face, it's quite legitimate to do it by a different media.

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Poll on global warming shows greater US awareness

Edit: Due to some problems with tables in the template (which didn't show up in the preview), I've changed the layout of the post a little, but the information is still the same.

A new Washinton Post/ABC News/Stanford University poll on global warming shows that there has been an increase in the number of Americans who believe in global warming, and who thinks it is an important issue.

Growing Number of Americans See Warming as Leading Threat (Washington Post)

A third of Americans say global warming ranks as the world's single largest environmental problem, double the number who gave it top ranking last year, a nationwide poll shows.

In the new poll, conducted jointly by The Washington Post, ABC News and Stanford University, most of those surveyed said that climate change is real and that they want the federal government to do more about it. But the survey also shows there is little public agreement about the policies the United States should adopt to address it.

The Washington Post article is somewhat misleading, but I'll get more into that later.

ABC News also covers the story:
Concern Soars About Global Warming as World's Top Environmental Threat

After a year of increasing scientific alarms, public concern about global warming has risen dramatically. The number of Americans identifying it as the world's single biggest environmental problem is double what it was a year ago.

Climate change now places far ahead of any other environmental problem in the public's mind; 33 percent now cite it as the world's top environmental issue, a very high level of agreement on an open-ended question. That's soared from 16 percent a year ago. The related issue of air pollution ranks a distant second, cited by 13 percent, with all other mentions in the single digits.

As you might have noticed, there is quite a difference in the tone of the two articles. Something that Rob over at climatespin has a take on it.

Now, back to the Washington Post article, and how it is misleading. The poll data can be found here, and I decided to take a look on what people said in response to what policies should be adopted in the US.

From the data it is clear that an overwhelming majority is opposed to increasing taxes on electricity and gasoline (79% and 67% respectively). On other suggested policies, more people are positive.
When asked if certain policies should be required by law, encouraged by tax breaks or if the government should stay out, the following results came out.

a. Building cars that use less gasoline
Require: 42%
Encourage: 44%
Stay out: 14%
No op.: 1%

b. Building air conditioners, refrigerators and other appliances that use less electricity
Require: 36%
Encourage: 43%
Stay out: 19%
No op.: 1%

c. Building new homes and offices that use less energy for heating and cooling
Require: 30%
Encourage: 51%
Stay out: 17%
No op.: 9%

d. Lowering the amount of greenhouse gases that power plants are allowed to release into the air
Require: 62%
Encourage: 26%
Stay out: 10%
No op.: 3%

Notice something? There is an overwhelming majority on all issues that the government should either require or encourage all those policies. On question (d) there is even a majority for requiring it.

Other questions about policies were also asked on the form Would you support or oppose a law in your area (READ ITEM)? How about a law (NEXT ITEM)?

a. (IF ONLY RECYCLE SOME ITEMS OR NONE AT ALL) requiring household trash recycling
Support: 74%
Oppose: 25%
No op.: 1%

b. requiring low-flow showerheads?
Support: 59%
Oppose: 36%
Already required: 1%
No op.: 4%

c. requiring all newly installed toilets to be low-volume toilets
Support: 71%
Oppose: 24%
Already required: 3%
No op.: 2%

d. requiring the use of compact fluorescent light bulbs
Support: 56%
Oppose: 41%
No op.: 3%

e. requiring supermarkets to use shopping bags made of paper or other material that can be recycled
Support: 82%
Oppose: 16%
No op.: 2%

Except for requiring the use of compact fluorescent light bulbs there is a significant majority supporting each of the laws asked about.

So, no, there is the survey doesn't show that there is "little public agreement about the policies the United States should adopt to address it". US citizens oppose taxation on fuel and power, but they are overwhelming positive towards all other suggested policies.


Scientific American defends Duesberg article

Or rather the choice to bring the article.

When Pariahs Have Good Ideas

Even mentioning the name Peter Duesberg inflames strong feelings, both pro and con. After gaining fame in 1970 as the virologist who first identified a cancer-causing gene, in the 1980s he became the leading scientific torchbearer for the so-called AIDS dissidents who dispute that HIV causes the immunodeficiency disorder. To the dissidents, Duesberg is Galileo, oppressed for proclaiming scientific truth against biomedical dogma. A far larger number of AIDS activists, physicians and researchers, however, think Duesberg has become a crank who refuses to accept abundant proof that he is wrong. To them, he is at best a nuisance and at worst a source of dangerous disinformation on public health.

I think this can be said to be a fairly reasonable summary, except the don't mention the fact that Duesberg's claims flies in the face of all evidence. It could also have been good if the Scientific Amercian had explained why Duesberg is competely and utterly wrong.

Readers may therefore be shocked to see Duesberg as an author in this month's issue. He is not here because we have misgivings about the HIV-AIDS link. Rather Duesberg has also developed a novel theory about the origins of cancer, one that supposes a derangement of the chromosomes, rather than of individual genes, is the spark that ignites malignant changes in cells. That concept is still on the fringe of cancer research, but laboratories are investigating it seriously. Thus, as wrong as Duesberg surely is about HIV, there is at least a chance that he is significantly right about cancer. We consider the case worthy of bringing to your attention, with the article beginning on page 52.

Wouldn't Medical Hypothesis be a more suitable place for Duesberg's article than Scientific American? At least until there is some evidence of his hypothesis?

Thousands of scientific papers appear in technical journals every month; why do some rate more fame and journalistic attention? It helps for science news to have dramatic relevance to human affairs: Is there strong new hope for curing a disease, transforming the economy, building a better mousetrap? Alternatively, reporters and editors may gravitate toward new science that easily inspires the public's sense of wonder, as so many astronomy stories do. And reports that appear in certain major scientific journals tend to get more play because those publications have a self-fulfilling reputation for releasing the most noteworthy papers. (It doesn't hurt that those journals have particularly strong public relations departments, too.)

When we look at submitted manuscripts from scientists, we consider it a reassuring sign when the authors forthrightly acknowledge both their collaborators and their competitors and note potential conflicts of interest before we ask. If we see that they are describing the science of their rivals fairly, we can have more confidence that they are being similarly candid about their own work. (Still, the old nuclear disarmament treaty maxim applies: trust, but verify.) We typically steer away from controversial ideas too new to have much supporting evidence. Those that have lasted for years and accumulated some substantiation have earned consideration. Our judgments are imperfect, but they tend to mirror those of the scientific community.

Since there doesn't seem to be any evidence yet for Duesberg's ideas, I fail to see why they then included the article. And what in Duesberg's recent track record shows that he has any ability to evaluate scientific work done by others? Or by himself for that matter?

Blots on a researcher's history often should bear on regard for his or her new work. Scientists who have intentionally published fraudulent papers, as the stem cell researcher Woo Suk Hwang so notoriously did two years ago, may be irredeemably tainted. But to dismiss a scientist solely for holding some wrong or controversial views risks sweeping away valuable nuggets of truth. We respect the opinions of any readers who may criticize our choice to publish Duesberg in this case but hope they will nonetheless evaluate his ideas about cancer on their own merits.

It's not the fact that Duesberg holds wrong or controversial views that should keep him away from the journal's pages, but the fact that he demonstrately cannot recognize flaws in his own science. His "research" on HIV/AIDS has been shown to be wrong numerous times, and yet he persists in insisting on it, and even try to affect African policy on the issue. Something which not only endangers people, but which my surely have resulted in unnecessary deaths.

By bringing an article by Duesberg, Scientific American lends credibility to Duesberg - not only on the hypothesis discussed in the article, but also on his other dangerous ideas. That's why the article should not have been brought, unless there is some evidence of his ideas being right.

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Infant Deaths on the rise in the US

As I have mentioned before, the US have the highest infant mortality in the Western World. Now, there is some distrubing news in the NY Times - In Turnabout, Infant Deaths Climb in South

For decades, Mississippi and neighboring states with large black populations and expanses of enduring poverty made steady progress in reducing infant death. But, in what health experts call an ominous portent, progress has stalled and in recent years the death rate has risen in Mississippi and several other states.

The setbacks have raised questions about the impact of cuts in welfare and Medicaid and of poor access to doctors, and, many doctors say, the growing epidemics of obesity, diabetes and hypertension among potential mothers, some of whom tip the scales here at 300 to 400 pounds.

“I don’t think the rise is a fluke, and it’s a disturbing trend, not only in Mississippi but throughout the Southeast,” said Dr. Christina Glick, a neonatologist in Jackson, Miss., and past president of the National Perinatal Association.

To the shock of Mississippi officials, who in 2004 had seen the infant mortality rate — defined as deaths by the age of 1 year per thousand live births — fall to 9.7, the rate jumped sharply in 2005, to 11.4. The national average in 2003, the last year for which data have been compiled, was 6.9. Smaller rises also occurred in 2005 in Alabama, North Carolina and Tennessee. Louisiana and South Carolina saw rises in 2004 and have not yet reported on 2005.

As the article states, the rise seems to correlate with race.

Most striking, here and throughout the country, is the large racial disparity. In Mississippi, infant deaths among blacks rose to 17 per thousand births in 2005 from 14.2 per thousand in 2004, while those among whites rose to 6.6 per thousand from 6.1. (The national average in 2003 was 5.7 for whites and 14.0 for blacks.)

Given how socio-economical factors and race correlates, I think it can be said that infant mortality correlates with socio-economical factors (the poorer the mother is, the higher the infant mortality).

Some of this might tie in to the lack of health care for the women involved, though poor women generally can get free prenatal care. As Dr. Bouldin Marley says

“I don’t think there’s a lack of providers or facilities,” he said. “Some women just don’t have the get up and go.”

Dr. Marley doesn't seem to understand that poor people don't always have the opportunity to take time off "to go". As Barbara Ehrenreich described in Nickel and Dimed, many poor people have to work several jobs just to get by.

And there are other factors involved. One of people interviewed in the article makes clear that availability of health care is not enough, if it there is no way for the people to go there.

But social workers say that the motivation of poor women is not so simply described, and it can be affected by cuts in social programs and a dearth of transportation as well as low self esteem.

“If you didn’t have a car and had to go 60 miles to see a doctor, would you go very often?” said Ramona Beardain, director of Delta Health Partners. The group runs a federally financed program, Healthy Start, that sends social workers and nurses to counsel pregnant teenagers and new mothers in seven counties of the Delta. “If they’re in school they miss the day; if they’re working they don’t get paid,” Ms. Berdain said.

While I keep talking about universal health care as a solution, it cannot stand alone. There must be some kind of safety net that can protect people from proverty if they need health care or if they use preventive health care. The later is probably a pretty good investment for society, as it reduces costs in the long run.

Now, will the so-called pro-life politicans do something about this?

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Saturday, April 21, 2007

The disparity between coverage on school shootings and health care deaths

Over at Huffington Post, Richard Eskow talks about the disparity between the coverage of tragedies like the shooting at Virginia Tech and the average deaths of between 40 or 50 people due to lack of proper health care.

The Unseen Dead: Virginia Tech and Health Policy

My heart breaks for the 33 people who died Monday. It also breaks for the estimated 50 Americans who died on the same day as a result of inadequate health coverage. Most of them had families who loved them, too. Where is their candlelight vigil? Where are their Presidential eulogies, or their exhaustive television coverage?

Instead of receiving their moment of silence, these invisible dead face an eternity of silence.

Lack of health insurance results in the deaths of 18,000 Americans each year, according to studies compiled by the National Academies' Institute of Medicine. That equates to 49 or 50 deaths every day. As the Institute has documented, deaths result from late identification of curable cancer and other conditions, and from inadequate treatment for a range of illnesses that include renal disease and other chronic conditions.

Many of those who die as a result of inadequate health care are older, in contrast to the young lives so full of promise that were cut down this week. But not all. The United States has the worst infant mortality of any industrialized country in the world except Latvia. The shadow of death falls disproportionately on African-Americans, whose infant mortality rate is 2.5 times that of non-hispanic whites.
While I agree with Eskow that there should be more coverage on the issue of the many uninsured and the many unnecessary deaths, I think it is important to notice that grief and compassion is not a zero-sum game. Also, it is a common instinct to react more strongly to sudden spetacular losses, like those resulting from a catastrophe or terrorist act, than to
the more silent long-drawn ones. Just look at the reaction to the Tsunami, where aid poured in, while the many health and food crises around the world were ignored for the nth year. And there is also the fact that people feel more strongly about things affecting people they can (and want to) identify with.

Is it fair that this happens? No, of course not, but unfortunately it's human nature. Still, it's good to have people like Eskow there to draw our attention to the other, more silent, tragedies that can be prevented.

California is going in the right direction towards this, though there is a long way yet. Sheila Kuehl's SB 840 passed the Californian Senate Health Committee, as did it's companion bill SB 1014 (which describes the funding). Both were passed on a 6-4 vote.
The bill has a way to go, but have widespread support from many itnerest groups, including some not traditionally on the side of universal health care.

Note: For those who feel that Eskow is wrong in using the Virginia Tech shooting to draw attention to other issues, I recommend reading this piece by Lindsay Beyerstein

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Are chimps more advanced than humans?

Well, yes, if you are talking about which species that has gone through most positive selection on genes, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and reported on by ScienceDaily.

Put a human and a chimpanzee side by side, and it seems obvious which lineage has changed the most since the two diverged from a common ancestor millions of years ago. Such apparent physical differences, along with human speech, language and brainpower, have led many people to believe that natural selection has acted in a positive manner on more genes in humans than in chimps.

But new research at the University of Michigan challenges that human-centered view. "We often think that we're unique and superior to other species, so there must be a lot of Darwinian selection behind our origin," said Jianzhi (George) Zhang, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. "However, we found that more genes have undergone positive selection in chimpanzee evolution than in human evolution."

When looking at species and their development, it is natural to hold an anthropocentric view, where you regard your own species as the pinnacle of evolution. However, this view is unfounded, since you cannot consider any evolutionary process better than the other, as long as it result in the survival of a species. The is no doubt that Homo sapiens is among the most adaptive and succesful species on our planet, but so you could say about Rattus rattus (the black rat) or cockroaches.

This research shows that humankind can be considered less advanced, evolution wise, than chimpanzees. Something that quite a few people will probably have some problems accepting, even if they accept evolution. Such problems doesn't not change the facts though, and it might lead to a more healthy understanding of our species' role in the greater scheme of things. A more humble view on ourselves if you will.

An abstract of the study can be found here.

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Democrats fight for choice

Abortion Ban Spurs 'Free Choice' Move in Congress

The day after the Supreme Court upheld a controversial abortion ban, pro-choice politicians mounted a counteroffensive from the legislative branch of government across the street.

Democrats Sen. Barbara Boxer of California and Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York--two leading supporters of abortion rights in the U.S. Congress--reintroduced the Freedom of Choice Act, which would codify in federal law the rights established in Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that found abortion was part of a woman's constitutional right to privacy.

"We can no longer rely on the Supreme Court to protect a woman's constitutional right to choose," said Nadler, who chairs the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. "This Supreme Court may have gone out of the business of protecting women's rights; it is time that Congress stand up to the challenge."

I think Democrats should make this a core issue. There is no doubt that the average American supports free choice, especially when the woman's health and life might be in danger.

If passed, the Freedom of Choice Act would likely lead to court challenges that could overturn the ban upheld Wednesday. The federal ban okayed by the high court Wednesday does not include an exception to protect the health of the woman, a precedent laid out in Roe v. Wade.

The Democrat's bill would also bar government at any level from passing laws that outlaw abortion before the fetus is viable or after viability if the woman's health or life is endangered. It is unclear how the law would apply to future or past restrictions on access to abortion.

Supporters say the legislation will help inoculate women from a wave of new restrictions to abortion that is expected to follow Wednesday's court decision. Advocates on both sides of the issue agree that the court's ruling gives a green light to further chip away at reproductive rights and could even embolden efforts to ban abortion altogether.

I think that every Democratic member of the senate should be held accoutable for their vote on this issue. Harry Reid is going to vote against, and in a perfect world, he would get kicked out at the next election. On top of that, people should try to influence moderate Republicans. Use words like "murder" when talking about what happens to the women who can't get a medically needed abortion. Get personal stories into the press. Put a constant firm pressure on the politicans to make up for their past faults.

This is literately an issue of life and death for women.

Edit: more on the issue of the abortion ban can be found at Truthdig

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Why health care is a feminist issue

This is why health care in general, and a move towards universal health care, is a feminist issue.

U.S. women with health insurance are more likely than men to go without needed care because of higher premiums and related costs, a study said. A larger percentage of women also have trouble paying their medical bills.

More women didn't fill prescriptions, skipped recommended visits with specialists, failed to get tests, or just didn't seek treatment when they had a medical problem, according to a national survey by the Commonwealth Fund, a private, New York- based group that supports research on health and social issues.

Other studies have suggested that women often pay more for care because they need more routine exams, such as those related to pregnancy. These issues should be part of the national debate as employers switch to plans with higher deductibles and policy makers seek flexible, lower-cost options for 44 million uninsured and 16 million ``underinsured'' adults, the report said.

So, due to the fact that health care is more expensive for women, they are less likely to be insured. Combine this with the fact that women are less likely to have a job which includes health care than men, and we have a real problem.

Of course, there is also the problem that women earn less than men.

More than 4,000 adults ages 19 and older participated in the survey, researchers said. Of that number, 33 percent of insured women and 68 percent of uninsured didn't get the health care they needed because they couldn't afford it, compared with 23 percent of insured men and 49 percent of uninsured men who went without care.

Among full-time workers, women earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn, according to the most recent Labor Department figures.

``The combination of lower incomes and higher out-of-pocket spending means that many women are more likely to spend greater than 10 percent of their income on health-care expenditures and premiums,'' Patchias and Waxman wrote in the report.

Almost 38 percent of all women surveyed reported difficulty paying medical bills, compared with 29 percent of men, the report said. Among the insured, 31 percent of women had trouble with bills compared with 22 percent of men. About a quarter of the women said they weren't able to pay their bills at all, and about the same percentage said they're paying them off over time.

Some people might argue that the real wage difference between men and women is lower than the article indicates. This is correct, but it is still lower, even if we take other factors into account. And it's really irrelevant since we are talking about medical costs compared to total income, which is higher (medical costs) and lower (total income) for women compared to men.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. The US health care system is broken, and needs to be fixed. One good solution would be to introduce universal health care of some kind in the US.

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Happy birthday Abbie

Yesterday, SA Smith (Abbie) of ERV told us that her birthday was today, and demanded birthday wishes. Since she will probably create some kind of trageted genetically engineered disease if we don't, I thought I'd better do as I was told.

Tillykke med fødselsdagen Abbie!

Enjoy the day, and keep up the good fight.


The future of peer review

The European Science Foundation held a conference about peer review last year, and debated how to make the process better. This was not something I was aware of, until I saw this ScienceDaily article - Quality On Peer Review Must Be Raised With Co-operation, Says Report

Scientists are questioning whether peer review, the internationally accepted form of scientific critique, is able to meet the challenges posed by the rapid changes in the research landscape. A report published by the European Science Foundation (ESF) has showcased a number of options that could lead to a greater openness to innovative research.

The report “Peer review: its present and future states”, which draws on ideas from an international conference in Prague in October 2006, reflects some concern on the shortcomings of peer review while outlines some possible measures to cope with them.


A central theme of the report is that the current peer review system might not adequately assess the most pioneering research proposals, as they may be viewed as too risky. John O’Reilly, former Chief Executive of the U.K.’s engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), now Vice Chancellor of Cranfield University, said traditional peer review might be too risk averse. He suggested the need to encourage pioneering research that is high risk in the proposal, but high impact if successful.

The conference called for new approaches, enabling the assessment of innovative research, to be embedded in the peer review system. An example of a new approach to overcome the perceived risk-averse funding culture was given by Dr. He Minghong from the National Natural Science Foundation China. His Foundation encourages reviewers and programme managers to spot risky project proposals which are then funded under stricter conditions. Their duration is shorter, their budget smaller and they are more closely monitored.

I am on two mind on this. There is no doubt that they are right that pioneering research has a hard time in traditional peer reviewed journals, but I can't help worry about the number of bad papers that will be published if there is a less critical review of such papers than there is now. The Chinese approach does sound good, but it can only be applied to studies funded by public grants.

Hopefully the focus on the issue can bring new ideas to the table, which will allow the peer review system to continue, while allowing more room for pioneering works. Peer reviews are critical for proper science.

ScienceDaily unfurtunately don't link to the papers (or even press releases) that they are covering, so I haven't been able to locate the report, “Peer review: its present and future states”. The conference in Prague have a website though, which has the presentations from the conference.

Edited to add: I found both the press release, and a link to the report (.pdf).

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Friday, April 20, 2007

The status of 'Limbo' is uncertain

At least according to the Pope.

Chicago Tribute article copied in full, since it is so short.

Pope Revises 'Limbo' for Babies

Pope Benedict XVI has revised traditional Roman Catholic teaching on so-called "limbo," approving a church report released Friday that said there was reason to hope that babies who die without baptism can go to heaven.

Benedict approved the findings of the International Theological Commission, which issued its long-awaited document on limbo on Origins, the documentary service of Catholic News Service, the news agency of the American Bishop's Conference.

"We can say we have many reasons to hope that there is salvation for these babies," the Rev. Luis Ladaria, a Jesuit who is the commission's secretary-general, told The Associated Press.

Although Catholics have long believed that children who die without being baptized are with original sin and thus excluded from heaven, the church has no formal doctrine on the matter. Theologians have long taught, however, that such children enjoy an eternal state of perfect natural happiness, a state commonly called limbo, but without being in communion with God.

Pope John Paul II and Benedict had urged further study on limbo, in part because of "the pressing pastoral needs" sparked by the increase in abortion and the growing number of children who die without being baptized, the report said.

In the document, the commission said there were "serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptized infants who die will be saved and brought into eternal happiness."

It stressed, however, that "these are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge."

Ladaria said no one could know for certain what becomes of unbaptized babies since Scripture is largely silent on the matter.

Catholic parents should still baptize their children, as that sacrament is the way salvation is revealed, the document said.

The International Theological Commission is a body of Vatican-appointed theologians who advise the pope and the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Benedict headed the Congregation for two decades before becoming pope in 2005.

There is no sure knowledge about Limbo? Wonder why.
And the description of Limbo as "an eternal state of perfect natural happiness" goes against everything I've ever heard about Limbo (and I am not only refering to the word 'natural' used in this context).

Frankly, this is an attempt by the Catholic Church to appease the moderates, who don't buy into all the fire and brimstone. And I can't help wonder about the timing of making the annoucement just after the supreme court decision.

Link gotten via Readerville.

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Linking to linkposts.

There are two link-posts that might interest people.

Ampersand of Alas, A Blog has a round-up of blogpost about Gonzales v Carhart

Coturnix of A Blog Around the Clock has collected the huge number of posts written about science framing into one post. It might just be the link-post to end all link-posts.

Looking at the two link-posts, it is somewhat sad that a meta-debate among science bloggers can generate so many more posts than a court ruling having a direct impact on the life and choice of women.
Since I haven't written about the court ruling myself, and have participated in the science framing debate, I can only admit to be guilty of this myself. I must admit that I haven't quite understod all the ramifications of the court decision yet, so I'll try to educate myself more before writing on the subject.

Since I am making links anyway, I thought I'd also include this.

In the NY Times Paul Krugman has an op-ed about medicare. Unfortunately it's behind a pay wall, but Truthout has a copy of it. The Plot Against Medicare


The impact of atheistic books

Via James Hrynyshyn of the Island of Doubt, I became aware of this article in Canada's Maclean's magazine.

Is God poison?

A new movement blames God for every social problem from Darfur to child abuse

A bad start, since most atheists, including those mentioned in that particular article, are well aware that atheists can cause problems as well. What we are just saying, is that there is nothing inheritly moral about religion.

God is a delusion, if his enemies are to be believed: nothing more than the creation of a species with prefrontal lobes too small, and aggressive instincts too strong, for its own good. His worship is poison: his adherents commit child abuse -- metaphoric and actual -- on a daily basis; and the murderous clashes of rival gangs of his followers are the greatest single threat to humanity's future. Whatever else God may be, he is most assuredly not dead. You can take his critics' word, and the depth of their passion, for that.

Does the last two sentences make sense to anyone? I think it might be a way of saying that religion is not irrelevant, even if you don't believe in a god, but I don't think anyone has made that claim. Rather, I think that's what many people find problematic. But it's true that God is not dead, just like Thinkerbell is not dead.

Next month sees the publication of Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, a coruscating moral denunciation by the polemicist tutti polemicists. It will join the steady stream of atheist texts that began five years ago, after 9/11 so brutally demonstrated that religious fanaticism is still a force to be reckoned with. So too is atheism, at least as far as book sales go. Oxford scientist Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, which combines merciless schoolboy-level mockery of religion with the lessons of evolutionary biology, has been a fixture on bestseller lists since the fall. Letter to a Christian Nation, in which American Sam Harris casually states that raising children to believe they are members of a religious group is a "ludicrous obscenity," nevertheless became a Book-of-the-Month club selection last year. And Michel Onfray's In Defense of Atheism, which drips with Gallic scorn for the feeble-minded faithful, and praises the French Revolution for turning all the churches into hospitals, was a bestseller across Europe and, in translation, now on this side of the Atlantic as well.

I hadn't heard about Onfray's book before. Might need to get hold of that. And neither had I heard about Harris' book becoming a Book-of-the-Month club selection. That's great, since it brings his message out to a wider audience than many would have expected.

"The argument between faith and non-faith is cresting again, in a way that's not been seen since the Scopes monkey trial," Hitchens says over the phone from his Washington home. "Whether we're arguing about intervening in Darfur or about the recognition of gay marriage, underneath we're always arguing about religion." He could easily have added from an endless series of other topics across Europe and North America: hot-button issues in a debate many thought was long over.

Today, 82 years after Scopes, the never-ending struggle between supporters and opponents over inserting Intelligent Design, creationism's latest incarnation, into the nation's schools is a religious fight. (It's one that invokes fierce passions: judges who have ruled ID unconstitutional have received death threats.) Angry debates over the permissibility of abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research, and the public display of religious symbols and icons are all essentially faith-based. In America many of the devout not only wish to maintain the customary display of Christmas imagery in public places, but add to it, in particular by posting the Ten Commandments in courthouses.

In more secular Canada the now-settled issue of gay marriage rights was fought over scriptural grounds; so is the residual matter of whether marriage commissioners can opt out of officiating gay weddings. As with pursuing conscientious objector status in wartime, only a religious justification will receive even a hearing. A tiny Quebec town's adoption of "standards" for its (non-existent) immigrants is now internationally infamous. Across the country there have been fights over practices associated with the stricter forms of various religions -- wearing facial veils (Islam), carrying even symbolic weapons (Sikhism), gender segregation (Judaism) and the less-than-scientific biology taught in some religious schools (Christianity).

No surprise, then, that what Hitchens calls "the oldest argument in human history" is increasingly engaging the public. In London's Westminster Central Hall on March 27, some 2,000 people turned out to hear Hitchens, Dawkins and philosopher A.C. Grayling debate a trio of religious authorities on the question "We'd be better off without Religion." (The motion carried, 1,205 to 778.) Hitchens is pleased to see the interest. He thinks it's a sign of hope. "We atheists never thought religion would die out," he continues, "because it comes from fear of death, but we did think theocracy would die. Instead, those of us who used to think we'd just live a life free from religion are fed up with insults and threats from believers, with Danish cartoonists who can't work and murdered Dutch filmmakers, with saying getting AIDS is better, more godly, than using condoms. You know who's a neighbour of mine now? Ayaan Hirsi Ali -- America's first refugee from western Europe in living memory."

Hitchen is playing fast and loose with the truth about Hirsi Ali - she left the Netherlands, because she lost her citizenship, when it was found out that she had lied to obtain it. This is not to say that there were not credible threaths on her life, but those were not the reason for her leaving Europe - a job at the AEI might have a lot more to do with it.
Other than that, he is to a large degree right, even if he tries to put it in the most brutal way possible.

As Hitchens suggests, atheists were already uneasy with trends in their own Western societies when they awoke to the rude shock of Islamic terrorism -- the attacks in New York, London and Madrid, the murderous Sunni-Shia civil war in Iraq. The events galvanized them, but not only against militant Islam, as one might expect. The atheist authors all agree a clash of civilizations is under way, but it's not between East and West, or Muslims and Christians, but between rationality and superstition. Onfray, who despises equally what he calls "the fascism of the lion" (the Western side) and the "fascism of the fox" (the Muslim world), refuses to take sides, while Dawkins and Harris are primarily devoted to battling American Christianity.

I think that if the author had done his research a little deeper, he would have found that Dawkins is devoted to fight against all irrational beliefs, though he is primary focused on Christianity right now, since it has the greatest direct influence on his daily life in Britain. So, no he is not "primarily devoted to battling American Christianity" - he is primarily devoted to battling the brand of Christianity that affects his life the most - this would be the fundamentalist brand, that has won some influence through PM Tony Blair, and which affects the world through US foreign policy.

The Oxford professor, in particular, seems genuinely worried over the possible emergence of the ultimate rogue state, a nuclear-armed American Christian fundamentalist theocracy. (Dawkins' anti-religious beliefs are tightly grafted to his anti-Americanism. Especially his anti-Bushism: "I just can't stand the man's style," he told the Times of London, "the way he swaggers and struts and smirks and the way he looks sly and deceitful and the way Americans can't see it.") Like Harris, Dawkins thinks something can and should be done about this -- oddly enough, through ridicule of "dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads."

Dawkins is no more anti-American than I am. I thought we had reached a point where you could be anti-Bush without being considered anti-American. Apparently that is not the case in Canada.
Oh, and laughter has always been the biggest enemy of fear.

Hitchens, on the other hand, is virtually the last leftist supporter remaining for George W. Bush's war in Iraq, and finds himself rather in the position of Churchill making common cause with Stalin. ("If Hitler had invaded hell," the wartime British prime minister remarked, he, Churchill, would at least have made "a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.") As a British expat and an admirer of Hirsi Ali, who was driven from Holland by Islamic death threats, Hitchens is not inclined to see Europe as the font of all secular virtues, or America as its antithesis. (Not like Harris, an American who constantly exudes the impression his overtly religious countrymen are embarrassing him in front of the Europeans.) And he allows himself to have been a "guarded admirer" of Pope John Paul II's moral and physical courage.

Hitchens is a leftist????? Man, they most smoke some impressive weed in Canada.

From now on, I am leaving out some paragraphs here and there, since it's a quite long article. Instead I am going to c&p those parts of the article that I have comments to. Obviously, I recommend reading the article in full.

Religion kills, Hitchens says, because it is tribal and totalitarian, the most extreme form of in-group/out-group marker ever known. Although some faiths are more pacific than others, that has more to do with their relative powerlessness -- were the Amish, say, to rise to supreme authority over other faiths, they would soon begin to resemble the medieval Catholic Church. Power corrupts religion uniquely; because it considers its doctrines uniquely right, it necessarily seeks to interfere in the lives of non-believers. Thus religion offers a constantly available licence for ordinary people to behave cruelly, sometimes "in ways that would make a brothel-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eyebrow." The entire history of Christian anti-Semitism -- not to mention its racial offspring, the Nazis' Final Solution -- is a case in point. And the cruelty and irrationality is still enacted regularly in less violent ways in the present day.

I find it problematic that Hitchens wants to put the sins of Hitler at the feet of religion. While it is quite true that Nazism was not the atheist ideology that many religious people think it is, the crimes commited by the Nazis were due to the personality cult surrounding Hitler and the national glorification expressed through ideas of racial purity (among other things).
I think it could be more correctly be claimed that Nazism, Communism and fundamentalist religion share certain traits (claims about absolute truths and predefined rights and destinies).

The polemicists' total rejection of faith makes the very existence of religious moderates a puzzle to them. (Dawkins, in particular, seems spiritually deaf to everything from the sense of wonder to the pull of family and community.) Except, perhaps, for Hitchens, who seems to be the only one who admits to having religious friends, the atheists' own dirty little secret -- their contempt for moderates -- is never far from the surface of their books. They assert that moderates enable fanatics by allowing religious arguments a privileged place -- it was a liberal Catholic debating partner who told Hitchens that religious liberty demanded that mohels be allowed to carry out their ancient rite as they saw fit. "In a funny way," Dawkins said in an interview last fall in reference to one devout scientist, "I have more respect for a young creationist," referring to someone who proclaims that life on earth is only 6,000 years old.

Anyone who had read anything that Dawkins have written could not possible write anything like "Dawkins, in particular, seems spiritually deaf to everything from the sense of wonder to the pull of family and community". His books are a constant testimony to his sense of wonder. And why should atheists not feel the pull of family and community? We are all part of both.

That contempt, along with the stridency and a totalitarian disdain for everything to do with religion, is rooted in fear and failure. They think they're losing. The triumph of atheism, so confidently proclaimed by its prophets more than a century ago, now seems as far off as the Second Coming. In 1867, in his landmark poem "Dover Beach," Matthew Arnold could only hear the "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" of the sea of faith, but the religious tide has turned with a vengeance. "This Letter," Harris concludes his book, "is the product of failure -- the failure of many brilliant attacks upon religion that preceded it, the failure of our schools to announce the death of God in a way that each generation can understand, failures great and small that have kept almost every society on this earth muddling over God and despising those who muddle differently."

No, they don't think they are losing. They think that they are not winning. There is quite a big difference between those two stances. The religious fundamentalists have a great influence, but they have always had that. Now is the first time that atheists are actually being heard in the US, largely due to people like Harris and Dawkins.

The mock humility of this may be worthy of a televangelist -- can't Harris see a single positive reason for religion's ongoing vigour? -- but it is the atheist perspective encapsulated. That makes it an enigma for Christians, particularly those outside robustly religious America. Aren't the ungodly in charge now, the churches empty on Sunday, religious leaders and religious viewpoints shouted out of the political arena? Are not contraception, abortion and, very soon, homosexual marriage the norm across the Western world? Who's winning this war anyway?

Since the rest of the article is mainly dealing with the US, this is a non sequitur. However, let's deal with it anyway - a number of countries, Poland among them, have gone towards a more restrictive abortion policy. In Denmark, a right-winged memeber of Parliament, who happens to be a priest, stated yesterday that the scarf worn by Muslims are equivalent to the swastica worn by Nazis, during a debate in Parliament. Does that sound like religious viewpoints are shouted out of the political arena? And to keep it more local to the author of the article, it's just a couple of weeks ago that I wrote about how religious-based bad science teaching was on the march in Canada.

There is more that I could comment on, but this post is getting overly long anyway. I can't really say that I am too impressed by the article, but at least there are now articles about atheism, and the arguments against the presumed morality of religion, out there. Hopefully they will be better written, and better researched, next time.

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