Radio Freethinker

Vancouver's Number 1 Skeptical Podcast and Radio Show

Posts Tagged ‘budget cuts’

It’s a Bad Time to be a Scientist in Canada

Posted by Ethan Clow on May 24, 2012

My ability to stay politically neutral when it comes to skepticism is getting very difficult. It’s made worse when horrible decisions like this happen, if you’re a  a marine biologist in Canada, you might want to look for work elsewhere. That’s because a program called the Experimental Lakes Area, a world renown research facility in Northern Ontario is being shut down by budget cuts from the Government of Canada.

The Experimental Lakes Area, a region of 58 lakes near Kenora, Ont., that scientists have used for groundbreaking experiments and it will be shut down as a result of budget cuts by March 2013, in addition there will be about 400 layoffs in Winnipeg’s regional Fisheries and Oceans Canada office.

The closure of the ELA has provoked some harsh criticism for the government.

To quote Harvard University aquatic sciences Prof. Elsie Sunderland:

“I was pretty shocked, This is one of the foremost research projects and places to do research in the world. To have it shut down is just appalling. It’s just embarrassing.”

To quote Cynthia Gilmour, a senior scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Maryland:

“I was stunned, The ELA has contributed to environmental policy for 40 years, and the long-term records alone on temperature and ice cover are absolutely invaluable.”

At the ELA scientists test a verity of different environmental focused research issues. They monitor long term ecological impact of various pollutants, human impact on fresh water, and how to develop successful strategies for dealing with these dangers to fresh water and the ecosystem. The big difference between what was happening at the ELA compared to other research facilities is that the ELA is doing long running experiments, in some cases, decade long research. There isn’t another place like that in the world.

The effect that research at the ELA has had is far reaching. Before moving to Harvard, Sunderland, originally from Nova Scotia, worked for years creating policy at the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Research done at the experimental lakes on the effects of mercury on fish and waterways was discussed at the highest levels of the EPA and helped form the basis of new regulations on coal-fired power plant emissions. Those new rules became official in December.

Work on the lakes has also led to continent-wide policy shifts on acid rain, changes to the way hydro dams are built, a ban on phosphorus in detergents and huge advancements in the battle against the green algae that fouls Lake Winnipeg beaches every summer.

This summer, ELA staff and researchers from Trent University were slated to begin a new long-term project on the effects of nanoparticles, an emerging multi-billion-dollar technology, on waterways and fish.

Federal officials say the ELA no longer “aligned with the department’s mandate and is not responding to our research priorities.” Ottawa hopes a university or the provinces will take over funding the project.

“It makes more sense to allow it to be owned and operated by those who will benefit from this unique research facility,” said Erin Filliter, spokeswoman for federal Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield.

In reality this sort of project is well out of the reach of a university.  For one, this is decade-long research, and based on how research is done at the ELA – where scientists will deliberately pollute an area and run tests on the ecosystem, would not be feasible for a university which would have to cut through a lot of bureaucratic red tape to do something like that.

Unfortunately this has fallen on deaf ears. The MP for Kenora, Conservative Greg Rickford claims he used to “brag” about the ELA but apparently the affection he once felt is gone now. He also echoed the sentiment that a university should take over the research at the ELA.

But even university departments are reacting with skepticism at this idea that a massive project like the ELA could be realistically continued by a university.

“The federal government is expecting universities to step up… It’s a very different kind of commitment to do the work that Experimental Lakes has done and continues to do. I’m not sure how we’re going to fill that void.” – John Gunn,  Director of the Vale Living with Lakes Centre at Laurentian University in Sudbury. (empathasis mine)

Okay, so this all sounds fine but I bet your saying “listen, I’m all for science but we need to be careful with money right now right? We can’t afford to go spending billions on lake science.” The annual budget for the ELA is 2 million.

To compare, the cost per year of the Harper governments new fleet of fighter jets is about 1.2 billion.

Note, the ELA apparently does tours of their facility. If you’re in the area I suggest you give them a shout and see about seeing what they do there first hand while you still can.

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Radio Freethinker Episode 167 – Global Austerity Edition

Posted by Don McLenaghen on May 22, 2012

This week:

– Space X launch,
– Dangers of overselling vaccination ,
– Canada’s endangered scientist,
– Austerity: does it work (Part 1 of 3 interview with Seth Klein).

Download the episode here!

Space X Launch

Space X successfully launched the Falcon 1 rocket carrying the Dragon cargo capsule to restock the International Space Station. 

Find out more:

Dangers of overselling vaccination

New research shows that overselling vaccination causes people to be less likely to get their children vaccinated.

Find out more:

Canada’s endangered scientist

We discuss the Harper governments budget cuts and the extreme harm they are having on Canada’s scientific community and research. We focus on the Experimental Lakes Area.

Find out more:

Austerity: does it work

Don’s sits down with Seth Klein in the Radio Free Thinker virtual studio and discusses austerity: what it is, does it work and is our governments following the austerity bandwagon.

Seth Klein is director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives for BC.

Find out more:

Skeptical Highlights:

2012 Best Illusion of the Year Contest

The contest is a celebration of the ingenuity and creativity of the world’s premier visual illusion research community. Visual illusions are those perceptual experiences that do not match the physical reality. Our perception of the outside world is generated indirectly by brain mechanisms, and so all visual perception is illusory to some extent. The study of visual illusions is therefore of critical importance to the understanding of the basic mechanisms of sensory perception, as well as to cure many diseases of the visual system. The visual illusion community includes visual scientists, ophthalmologists, neurologists, and visual artists that use a variety of methods to help discover the neural underpinnings of visual illusory perception.

Illusions of note:

Floating Star – Where when you look at a static image of a ‘blotty’ star on a blotty background, the star appears to be moving.

TBA – When you look at two moving dots directly they move in straight lines but when you look at them with your peripheral vision, they appear to be moving an arch.

The Flashed Face Distortion Effect – When you are looking at two images of faces with a small space between them. You are to focus on the central point while the images on each side are exchanged with other faces. All the images are normal people…however the effect is ‘horrific’.

2012 Best Illusion of the Year Contest

In Search of a Better World: The Utopian Imagination

Another Philosphers’ Cafe forum where Tiffany Werth of SFU asks if what we imagine can shape what is possible.

When: May 23 at 7pm

Where: Waves coffee shop at 900 Howe

Cost: Free

Canadian Copyright Law for Composers

MusicBC’s Bob D’Eith will give a workshop on navigating Canadian copyright laws.

When: May 25 from 2-4pm

Where: CMC BC Creative Hub – 837 Davie

Cost: Free

E-volving Democracy: Online Voting Public Dialogue

This is the first in the “E-volving Democracy” dialogue series highlighting current issues related to technology, democracy, and the theory and practice of collective decision-making.  This event is designed for anyone who wants to make change happen – including democracy and social justice activists, open source coders and hackers, philosophers and academics, facilitators, convenors and skeptics.

The session will include a panel discussion featuring Andrew MacLeod (legislative reporter, The Tyee); Steve Wolfman (Computer Science, SFU) and Fathima Cadre (UBC Law and anti-online voting advocate). In small group discussions, participants will identify and prioritize conditions they believe a proposed online voting system would have to satisfy before it could be used in good conscience in a public election.

When: May 26 from 2-5pm

Where: The Hive Vancouver – 128 W. Hastings

Cost: by donation

slutTALK: The (Un)Conference

In-depth conversations about rape culture, victim-blaming, and sexual stigma. Speakers will include representatives from Women Against Violence Against Women, the B.C. Coalition of People with Disabilities, and the F Word Media Collective.

When: May 26 from 1-4pm

Where: WISE Hall – 1882 Adanac

Cost: by donation

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Imaging RFT

Posted by Don McLenaghen on May 18, 2012

We always appreciate feedback from our listeners. Equally we appreciate feedback from our blog however occasionally not all of that is praise and acknowledgement of our greatness.

We received a comment from one such person who took umbrage with one of our images in the last episodes show notes. The image was related to the budget cuts to food inspection agents and enforcement of labeling regulations. The images showed a person in a grocery store looking at products on the shelf with labels reading “zero nutrition puffs”, “colon cancer dogs”, etc. It had the caption “If food products where honestly labeled”.

It was pointed out the that the author of this and other graphics was CounterThink, a site/individual who promotes a lot of ‘woo’ and bad thinking regarding food (if it’s not organic its poison), medicine (if it’s not natural it will kill you), and the whole ‘conspiracy’ of corporations and government to either steal your money, make you sick or just turn you into pliant zombies. He is also the main contributor to “NaturalNews” which is a hodgepodge of alarmist articles on science, health, medicine and politics.

So, let’s start with a mea culpa. I should have done better vetting before having this image on our site.

When we put images on the site they tend to fall into four groups.

1)      Directly educational; that is they provide a graph, diagram or image that represents actual research or data. This is always well vetted.

2)      Candy images; an image that doesn’t say anything or have any meaning besides being somehow related to the article. For example an image of a cartoon bird eating a worm, on a post about worms.

3)      Explanatory humour; those cartoons that are both funny but also make a point about the subject matter. For example, an image about the police state relating to the implications of the G20.

4)      Ironic or mocking humour; those cartoons, often from “bad sources” that are intended to show the farcical nature of their arguments.

Because of our ambiguous views on copyright and the non-profit nature of our enterprise; images are usually sourced out of context and without page attribution (unless it is important to the impact of the image). Images are selected based on our opinion on their impact on our reader, often under time constraints and without regard to their source. We never take credit for the creation of any images on the site that are not ours, nor do we ‘Photoshop’ any attribution embedded in the image.

However, occasionally this can lead us into unintentionally promoting a site that is antithetical to our project. CounterThink, whose attribution has been on a couple of our images, is not something we wish to promote even indirectly. At the time the images seemed okay and made a point. The lack/absence of enforcement of food safety (and other) regulation could make this ‘hypothetical’ possible (if not already).

None of the claims in the image itself were “out there” but in hindsight, I have changed my mind and the images are being removed. Although I don’t think the image itself was bad-thinking, the author promoted bad thinking. Because I do not wish to have images that have been intentionally ‘unattributed’ (i.e. Photoshopped); this source seems inappropriate for Radio Free Thinker. In the future, I hope we will better vet images before inclusion in our site.

That said, CounterThink and NaturalNews sites only re-enforce my message that without proper ENFORCED regulation, sites like these will have more credibility, not because their claims are true but it will be difficult /impossible to honestly say they are wrong…an unaccountable corporation will always put profits ahead of safety if the math works out. The budget cuts (the focus of the segment) also encourages people to be distrustful of ‘official sources’ and rely on ‘alternative’ sources.


In the absence of reliable empirical data, how can a person be a good skeptic?

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A taxing issue

Posted by Don McLenaghen on November 17, 2010

In the shadow of the elections victories of the Tea Party in the US election and the recent announcement of our own Campbell government here in BC to both cut income taxes while implementing a user fee for hospital stays, I thought it would be educational to take a sceptical look at taxes and in particular tax breaks.

Taxes have been a widely used tool by governments to punish ‘sin’ (in the form of alcohol and tobacco taxes) and to promote investment (in the form of tax holidays or credits like the capital gains tax). I am not going to get too partisan here. There are valid arguments on all sides about what are appropriate taxes and at what level those taxes should be – that is a discussion for a different day and perhaps a different show. What I would like to investigate here are two things: first that cutting taxes increases tax revenue (this was called Voodoo economics by G. Bush Sr., trickle-down economics by others but economist refer to this broadly as supply-side economics) and second that tax cuts are always good.

I shall address the former first. For those of us who had access to an US media source (or those who can remember any recent political campaign) every politician was promising to cut taxes; when asked how they would pay for these tax cuts, they would either respond by saying tax cuts cost nothing or they said they will reduce spending…when asked what spending, they would say something like “that fat in the system” or “improved efficiencies” – IE they would not cut anything. For example they often say they will cut “ear-marks’, but this only accounts for $3 billion out of a budget of $3.6+ trillion (with a deficit of $1.7 trillion)…or 0.08% of budget (0.17%  of deficit).

It seems popular among voters across the political spectrum. However, the recent dual announcements of our local government show the reality of the situation. Campbell announces a popular across the board tax cut of 15%. This applies to rich and poor alike (although not equally, but again that’s a different show*). This equates to a loss of over half a billion dollars a year. That is money the government will not have to provide services…like hospital beds. The government also recently announced a user fee on hospital rooms amounting to over $200 a week. Who is going to make up for the loss in tax revenues? The sick.

Environics Poll 2007

Now don’t get me wrong, maybe we are all happy with that, but most people when asked the question do they want to cut public spending (especially healthcare), they say no…in fact it is one of the few areas people show an innate socialist tendency.

Just to put the two into perspective, the median family will save about $350 a year in taxes.  The average hospital stay for an individual is 3-10 days (depending largely on age)…that’s a fee cost of $87 to $290 (and for those of you who say “well most people will not be in hospital that long” just remember that makes the fee even more onerous because it WILL effect most those who are suffering most and likely least like to afford it).

Okay, my math may be a little dodgy (mainly due to the lack of accurate numbers for ‘average hospital’ stay or the myriad of different income/fee/taxes an individual will pay) but the point should still be obvious. The hospital fee was not to pay for the tax cut but add in the added cost of medical insurance premiums[1], camping fees[2], transit fees[3], licence fees[4], tuition[5] and so on you will get there. (for those of us old enough, we remember when ‘user fee’ was a dirty word and the fees that did exist were token…not any more).

Cost of Bush's tax cuts

The point I am getting at, is if we want social services we have to pay for them as a society. That means when someone yells “tax cuts” remember they are also saying “cut services”. Maybe something you are comfortable with…maybe not but that is the reality of it. I was going to go on to talk about the wisdom of providing robust social services but that would be straying perhaps outside the bound of a sceptic podcast so we shall stop here and address the second point.

Many have claimed, largely Republicans and Monetarists, that cutting taxes increases tax revenue. On the surface this sounds paradoxical; however there is a shred of logic to be found. The idea, goes that if you cut taxes, those who have more money will invest in the economy, the economy grows, from this larger tax base you collect more absolute dollars even though the rate is lower. The idea works in reverse as well; increasing the tax rate will cause a contraction of the economy and a reduction in absolute dollars.

Often the example of the Reagan Revolution is used to prove this point…i.e. that it works in practice. However this is a flawed claim. As many modern economists have shown[6], including noble prize winner Paul Klugmen, the Reagan tax cuts did not improve the US economy and actually made government finances worse.

It is true the US economy grew fast from 1983-89 however this is in contrast to the miasma of the severe recession of 81-2. Capitalist markets are cyclical, and this was not an unusual recovery. Private savings, something supply-side economics assumes from the masses to provide the capital for investment, continues to decline throughout the decade (7.8->4.8%). Meaning, the money for the recovery, as it was, came from spending savings and increasing personal debt. Finally, this trend is echoed in the US budget; when Reagan came to office the US debt as a % of GDP was 32.5%, when Bush Sr. left it was 66.1%. Clinton, who raised taxes, brought the rate down to 56.4%. The same happened in Canada, when we increased taxes in the 90’s and went from the ‘basket-case’ nation to arguably the country with the most stable finances.

Lastly, the multiplier effect. Not all tax cuts are equal. Tax cuts cost money; those who claim that it is not should ‘not’ collect their next pay-check and see if it costs them money. So, the current desire of governments everywhere is stimulus. When the government (or anyone really) spends money it has what is called, a multiplier effect on the economy; that is for every “Y” dollars spent it generates Y*x (or Y’) in the economy. So, if I give you a dollar and you burn it, which generates no activity in the economy, in fact it removes the dollar from circulation so has a negative multiplier effect. Now most people will spend it or ‘invest’ it (be it real investments or just in your bank account) and they have a positive effect; that is they generate more than a dollars worth of economic activity. The best way to think about this is if you spend the dollar, the merchant sells more, can now hire a new employee, and we will in turn make more dollars and spend them; the new employee generates the new value. An economist could spin a better story, but I think you get the gist of it – the one dollar generates more than a dollar of economic activity.

Relative stimulus effect

Having given the background, how do tax cuts fair as stimulus[7]? In general, every dollar of tax cuts generates $1.30 of economic activity compared to a dollar spent on increasing UI benefits would generate $1.62 or increasing food stamps generates $1.74. There is also the issue of WHO to give the cut to. Lower income people spend (out of necessity) every penny they make so a cut in their taxes (thanks to HST we ALL pay taxes even the poorest) will generate the most activity but they latterly also have the least money (the bottom 50% of household control about 3% of Canadian wealth). As you move to the other extreme, the very wealthy often ‘invest’ most of their tax cuts (earning more than they need), so less activity generated but because they make more money a big bang (the top 10% own around 58.2% of the nation’s wealth[8] in the USA its 1% owning 35%). However, in a global world, it is most likely their investments will be ‘trans-national’ or outside ‘our’ economy and thus lost completely to the system – complete fizzle.

Society, of course, is not only extremes but a lopsided slope of ‘everything-in-between’ (note percentages of wealth ownership mentioned earlier) otherwise it would be easy to define tax policy; the trick is to determine both purpose (stimulate consumption, promote manufacturing, decrease inflation) and effectiveness. History has given us lessons to learn from and one a sceptical economist should be able to apply.

<From Episode #88 of Radio Free Thinker>

[1]British Columbia Medical Services Plan Premium Increase Notice
[2]BC April fee increases
[4]BC Gov 2010 fee increase
[5]BC Gov tuition increases
[6]Supply-Side Economics Debunked – TYT
[7] Recovery Ac
[8] Inequality in Canada

* By this i mean 15% of $100k = $18k while 15% of roughly the median income, $50k = $7.5k. So, the tax applies the same but the benefit is very unequal.

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