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37 posts categorized "Social issues "

June 17, 2008

Cops and parents hoax drunk driving deaths to scare teens

Last month, police officers visited 20 classrooms at El Camino High School to inform teens that several of their classmates had been killed in drunk driving crashes over the weekend. Not surprisingly, the students were devastated by the news.

Several hours later, the adults revealed that it was all a hoax: Nobody died. There was no accident. Trusted authority figures cooked up the whole story to teach the kids a lesson. A guidance counselor literally told the AP reporter that the object of the exercise was to traumatize the kids so that they'd get the message.

Unfortunately, the lesson these unfortunate California high schoolers learned is that adults have to lie to convince them that drinking and driving is dangerous. So, this cruel stunt precisely backfired. The take home message became: Don't trust adults who warn you about drinking and driving.

Great public health outreach, folks.

[HT: Ellen of The D'Alliance]

August 26, 2007

Sue Scheff "child advocate" exposed

Maia Szalavitz has an excellent expose of self-proclaimed child advocate Sue Scheff.

July 13, 2007

More on what we get for our healthcare dollar

Business Week, that bastion of leftist reportage has an article which compares the healthcare of various nations.

Here's a quotation:

Of the countries surveyed, 81% of patients in New Zealand got a same or next-day appointment for a nonroutine visit, 71% in Britain, 69% in Germany, 66% in Australia, 47% in the U.S., and 36% in Canada. Those lengthy wait times in the U.S. explain why 26% of Americans reported going to an emergency room for a condition that could have been treated by a regular doctor if available, higher than every other country surveyed.

No. 1 in Foregone Care

The Commonwealth survey did find that patients in the U.S. had shorter wait times than every country except Germany when it came to getting an appointment with a specialist for nonemergency elective surgery, such as hip replacements, cataract surgery, or knee repair. But Gerard Anderson, a health-policy expert at Johns Hopkins University, says most doctors know how to "game the system" in those countries where there are queues for elective surgery, by putting at-risk patients on the list long before their need is critical. "Their wait might be uncomfortable, but it makes very little clinical difference."

The Commonwealth survey found one area in which the U.S. assumed first place—by a wide margin: 51% of U.S. adults surveyed did not visit a doctor, get a needed test, or fill a prescription within the past two years because of cost. No other country came close to that percentage...

In the UCSF study published last year, the researchers set out to determine how long it would take to get an appointment in 12 cities to examine a face mole that had changed color, a common warning sign of skin cancer. They found a range of mean wait times according to geography, from 20 days in Little Rock to 73 days in Boston. The researchers pointed out that the wait in rural areas, where dermatologists are scarcer, are likely much longer.

Yep, those extra couple of grand the citizens of Tennesee get to keep sure looks worth it.

February 13, 2007

AP finally picks up Amero story

The Associated Press has finally covered the Julie Amero story! Reporter John Christoffersen did a good job, too.

Amero is a substitute teacher in Connecticut who was convicted of four felonies earlier this month because a malware-infected computer in her classroom got locked in an irreversible cascade of pornographic popup ads in 2004.

Amero had been forbidden to turn off the computer by the teacher who signed her into the system using his password. The computer had no content filter because the responsible IT staff had forgotten to pay the vendor who supplied this protection. Forensic experts ascertained that the computer was infected with multiple adware and spyware programs, one of which automatically redirected the browser to a porn site on the morning in question.

I reported on the Amero story for AlterNet in late January. I'm thrilled to see that the news of this miscarriage of justice is getting more traction.

[HT: Raw Story.]

July 13, 2006

Conferdate kitsch epidemic sweeps NJ town

I regret to inform you that Wildwood, New Jersey has been engulfed by an epidemic of Confederate kitsch.

The lunacy even impinges on innocent hermit crabs, as shown below.


Okay, I admit, I haven't lived in the U.S. all that long. When I first got to New York, I was freaked out because I thought all the Puerto Rican flag bumper stickers were some kind of oblique reference to the Stars and Bars. I remember coming home from my first walk in our new neighborhood and yelling at Thad for enticing me to this alien world full of Confederate iconography. That was four years ago, and I've learned a lot in the interim. To be honest, since I've been in New York, I've only seen Confederate flags tattooed on tourists, or on the bumpers of out-of-state cars.

So, I have to ask: Is this Confederate flag fetish confined to certain gift shops in Wildwood? Is it new to New Jersey?

April 27, 2006

Plan B and mythical teen sex cults

Goddess Tuptim Shrine, Bangkok, originally uploaded by S-E-B.

Why can't American women have the emergency contraceptive Plan B over-the-counter? Three words: "Teen sex cults." Actually, four words: "Mythical teen sex cults."

A group of New York women is suing the FDA for Plan B, OTC. Here's one of the documents that came up in discovery:

In the memo released by the FDA, Dr. Curtis Rosebraugh, an agency medical officer, wrote: “As an example, she [deputy operations commissioner Woodcock] stated that we could not anticipate, or prevent extreme promiscuous behaviors such as the medication taking on an ‘urban legend’ status that would lead adolescents to form sex-based cults centered around the use of Plan B.” [Newsweek]

The FDA says that urban legends cause adolescent sex cults centered around emergency contraception. Interesting theory.

February 21, 2006

The Mad Biologist Receives Odd Emails

I received this email:

I live in Monterey, California. I would love to share this story with your readers. My children went to a school in which pseudoscience was taught to them. However, it was something more insidious than "intelligent design." It was Qigong taught as science. One of my daughter's classmates fell unconscious while she was performing these exercises. Then the Qigong instructor ran to the victim and began moving his hands over her body, telling the students that he was healing her by moving his hands over her which was manipulating body energy or "Chi."

There's a petition too:

Over the past three years, the International School of Monterey, California, a public charter school, has had two "doctors of medical qigong" from the International Institute of Medical Qigong instruct their student body in "medical" qigong exercises. This was done without parental consent or notification. These "doctors" are not licensed by the State of California. In fact, to become a doctor of medical qigong, one has to learn among other things how to project energy balls, how to treat Spirit or Demon Possession, how to use hand seals and incantations to paralyze spirit entities, Faith Projection and Incantations, and finally how to understand psychic and sorcery attacks. The basis for these beliefs is the belief in a universal life force called "chi." This was also taught to the children.

In fact, one exercise that the children performed had them hold out their arms to the side and raise them over their heads. At this point, they were told that they were pulling energy ("Chi") out of the earth and it was populating their body organs, then as they lowered their arms they were told that they were returning the excess "Chi" to the earth.

The school has stopped the practice, but has refused to inform parents that their children were exposed to these pseudoscientific and occult beliefs. The school's charter is now up for renewal with both the State and the County. We the undersigned are requesting that both the State and the County refuse to renew the school's charter and withhold state and federal funding until the following steps are taken:

1. The School fully discloses to parents what the children were taught, including all lesson plans, tapes, and other relevant materials.

2. The school fully discloses all internal documentation about "qigong" and how "medical qigong" became part of its curriculum.

3. The school presents to all students the scientific view of Qigong and the non-existence of "Chi."

If these steps are not taken, then we the undersigned are requesting that the school’s charter and public funding be halted immediately.

Additionally, we the undersigned are asking that the state adopt a policy for schools that mirrors the 1998 federal law that states that employers cannot force their employees to perform these “exercises” without written consent from the employee because these activities could conflict with employees' religious beliefs or lack thereof. If employees cannot be required to engage in these, surely children should not be required to engage in similar practices in school that offend the beliefs of the children and their parents?

Are schools really teaching kids that they can pull energy out of the ground? Is there a cultural or political agenda here that I'm unaware of? And why didn't someone tell Bush that you can pull energy out of the ground by flapping your arms? It beats the hell out of switchgrass.

Update: figuring out what specific behaviors infringe on others' religious beliefs sometimes is quite tricky (e.g., sex ed). But teaching kids that they are sucking energy out of the ground is just daffy. That's as ridiculous as intelligent design.

(crossposted at Mike the Mad Biologist)

February 18, 2006

Books: "Evolution's Rainbow" by Joan Roughgarden

I see that Joan Roughgarden has a new paper in Science this week: Reproductive Social Behavior: Cooperative Games to Replace Sexual Selection

Theories about sexual selection can be traced back to Darwin in 1871. He proposed that males fertilize as many females as possible with inexpensive sperm, whereas females, with a limited supply of large eggs, select the genetically highest quality males to endow their offspring with superior capabilities. Since its proposal, problems with this narrative have continued to accumulate, and it is our view that sexual selection theory needs to be replaced. We suggest an approach that relies on the exchange of direct ecological benefits among cooperating animals without reference to genetic benefits. This approach can be expressed mathematically in a branch of game theory that pertains to bargaining and side payments.

This is bound to provoke strong responses in the evolutionary community, just as her last book did.  A few years ago I read Evolution's Rainbow and it sure is controversial.  The trick is not to accept or reject her book 100%.  There is too much stuff in there, some clearly correct, some pretty clearly wrong (or at least far too exagerated), some thought-provoking even if the jury is still out, to just dismiss the book wholesale.

The strongest parts are in the beginning - first six chapters or so - where she describes a lot of examples (and I mean a LOT!) of alternative sex-roles in the animal kingdom and I really like her re-definition of 'gender' as it pertains to non-human animals: "Gender is the appearance, behavior, and life history of a sexed body".  In other words, it is not true that all animals have sexes, but only humans have genders.  This also means that "gender, unlike gamete size, is not limited to two".

Next three chapters are the most provocative, as she strongly dismisses the whole edifice of sexual selection.  Proceed with care.

Chapters 10 through 14 are, again, masterful explanations of basic biology, the role of genes in development, sex determination and differentiation, and the ontogeny of sex, gender, and sexual orientation.  I see nothing controversial there, and these chapters provide a great resource - all the stuff in one place - for people interested in this topic.  As a transgender herself, she clearly studied this issue with passion for years, and as much that means she has an axe to grind, it is a good axe and her scholarship on this is impeccable.

Afterwards she dives into topics she is not such an expert on - psychology, biotechnology and sociology and she makes one cringe on many occasions.  Chapter 20 is a dissection of all the places in the Bible that are used by Regressives to argue against gay marriage.  While Biblical scholars are certain not to like her interpretations, in my opinion she skillfully debunks the myth that Bible says anything at all about homosexuality.  Progressives should read this chapter in order to get the ammunition neccessary to debunk the anti-gay Bible-thumpers.

But, back to sexual selection.  Last summer she published an article - The Myth of Sexual Selection - that succinctly reviews her stance against the theory of sexual selection.  I strongly suggest you click on that link and read the whole thing and I would like to hear your reactions to it. Among else, she writes:

"Clearly, the idea that males and females conform to rigid gender profiles still dominates sex role discussions. According to this model, passionate males with cheap sperm pursue coy females with expensive eggs. Females look for males with the best genes, whereas males want to fertilize as many females as possible. Genetically superior males distinguish themselves as the winners of male-male combat, as with jousting elk, or by having the most expensive and beautiful ornaments, as among peacocks. These male and female profiles, together with the cheap sperm/expensive egg rationale, comprise what biologists call "sexual-selection theory." Throughout nature, it would seem, delicate discerning damsels welcome horny handsome warriors to bed. This is rubbish."

This is Evolutionary Psychology she is debunking, not evolutionary biology.  Straw-man! This is interesting:

"Sexual selection theory also teaches that because eggs are larger and more expensive to produce, females must conserve this resource by playing hard to get. Conversely, because sperm are small and easy to manufacture, males can spread them around with little loss on investment. But in fact, sperm are not cheap. The relevant comparison is not between individual sperm and egg, but between ejaculate and egg. An ejaculate often has a million sperm whereas an individual egg is often a million times as large as an individual sperm, making the mating investment of both male and female about the same. As a result, in many species a mating for a male may be just as costly as for a female, even when there is no male investment in raising the offspring."

Now the alternative she proposes:

"Sexual selection views mating as solely for conception. But the point of mating is not usually to make babies; it usually serves a social function. Mating occurs too often relative to number of offspring produced to be solely for conception. The intimacy of sex strengthens relationships between adults, defuses social tensions, and helps keep groups together, as in our closest living relative the bonobo. Strong social bonds help ensure males and females will work well as a team to protect and raise young. Same-gender sex can promote friendships as well, helping to explain why homosexual sex has been observed in more than 300 species of vertebrates as a regular component of social interactions."

I actually like this.  I just don't think it is an alternative to anything.

"I suggest that we replace sexual-selection theory with a new approach that I call social selection theory. I argue that reproductive social behavior, including mate choice and family organization, can be completely explained by focusing solely on the direct ecological benefits each individual obtains from the interactions it has with others. Indirect genetic benefits can be ignored; they don't realistically factor into mating decisions at all. Social selection theory proposes that every animal has a time budget for its social interactions. Each animal interacts with others in ways that improve the number of offspring he or she can successfully rear. Animals may pursue their most beneficial course by acting independently or by acting together in teams, but usually in teams. From a group's many instantaneous decisions as to whom to associate with and what actions to perform with one another, a unique social system emerges for each species in each ecological situation."

Good.  But, I do not see the two ideas as mutually exclusive at all.  One can certainly have both sexual selection and social selection operating, even in the same species.  Why not?

Now comes the axe she grinds:

"To a naturalist, the failure of sexual- selection to describe and explain animal behavior is reason enough to reject it at this time. But the stakes are even higher. Sexual selection is not innocent. It promotes a view of nature as violent and deceitful, emphasizing male-male combat and war between the sexes. It licenses male promiscuity. It views female choice of mates as a broom to clean the gene pool of males with bad genes. It persecutes diverse expressions of gender identity and sexuality. Social scientists and the popular media uncritically reproduce its myths."

Again, that is an attack on Evolutionary Psychology, not on sexual selection theory per se.  Also, see how she rejects it for its social implications, then goes on to argue the opposite:

"To be clear, the scientific truth, or lack of it, of sexual selection is logically independent of its social implications. Yet, the ethical wrongs issuing from sexual selection's narrative require holding it to the highest standards of scientific rigor. It fails. After 130 years, sexual selection is still not confirmed and I suggest it never will be. Once scientists start looking through the lens of social-selection, animal behaviors become much easier to understand, and many of the apparent contradictions fall away. Instead of trying to shore up Darwin's sinking theory of sexual selection, we should be improving our understanding of gender and sexuality, because friendship, love, and sex are important."

So, yes.  Simplistic gender roles as espoused by Evolutionary Psychology are bunk.  Social selection theory is just fine - Frans de Waal probably likes the idea.  But I do not see any reason to ditch sexual selection as an explanation for a lot of what is going on in nature.  I do not agree that sexual selection is not confirmed.  Even the first arguments, those of Darwin in Descent of Man are pretty strong, not to mention all of the research that followed from it over the last century and a half.

A few years ago I did an almost exactly same experiment in two very different species: the Japanese quail and the crayfish.  The results from the crayfish experiment were consistent with sexual selection and not with social selection theory.  The data from quail were not consistent with sexual selection but were nicely explained by Roughgarden's social selection theory (sorry, no details, both studies are unpublished yet).

So, do not dismiss sexual selection yet, but don't dismiss Joan Roughgarden's ideas, either.  Read the book  - it will make you think in some very different ways. While you should keep your skeptical antennae on alert while reading it, it will also set your thinking free to go in directions you may not have anticipated before.

(Cross-posted on Science And Politics)

February 17, 2006

Friday Panda Pimpin'

We're falling behind in stem cell research.



(Yes, I'm pimpin' the panda.  But it's for a just cause).

(crossposted at Mike the Mad Biologist)

July 13, 2005

Not the poles!


New York City firefighters are losing their poles:

In New York City's firehouses, veterans have a deep affection, even a zealous sense of protection, for their poles. But now, the department has begun shrinking their number sharply as it builds new firehouses and remodels old ones to bring them up to current building codes. In many cases, ventilation systems have been installed where the poles and their surrounding holes used to be. [NYT]

But not without a fight.

For a department intensely loyal to tradition, even a gentle weaning - away from, say, four poles, positioned alongside the engine and truck, to one centrally situated pole - can seem like a seismic shift to veterans, who say they must recalibrate their well-honed exit maneuvers to include a more time-consuming jaunt down a flight or two of stairs. "It's the first thing I do when I work somewhere else: find out where the pole is," said Lt. Jeff Monsen of Engine Company 23 on West 58th Street in Manhattan.

It's the end of a grand era.

Lieutenant Monsen said he had had to train every new firefighter at the house the proper way to slide: legs crossed at the ankles with the pole resting between the outer ankle joints, chin tucked to chest, and hands firm, not clenched.

As a New York City taxpayer, I feel somehow cheated.