Radio Freethinker

Vancouver's Number 1 Skeptical Podcast and Radio Show

Posts Tagged ‘Canada’

Radio Freethinker Episode 181 – Science Strikes Back Edition

Posted by Don McLenaghen on September 11, 2012

This week:

– Canada Cuts Diplomatic Ties to Iran
– Organic Shmorganic

– Korean Science strikes back, and
-Interview with Desiree Schell from Sceptically Speaking

Download the episode here!

Canada Cuts Diplomatic Ties to Iran

Syrian Blood Bath

Why did we cut diplomatic ties? What are the issues involved: Nuclear power, human rights, embassy security in the face of ‘western’ sections or protest against Iran’s support for Syria?Why treat Iran different than Russia?Is this a better response to Syrian atrocities than what was done to Libya?

Find out more:

Organic Shmorganic

Another study shows Organic not better than ‘regular’ food; although some important ‘non-health’ issues were left out (ie. environmental, health of farmers….). We discuss yet another blow to the cult-of-organics while acknowledging organic is not all pseudo-science.

Find out more:

Korean Science strikes back

After reporting on the science ‘fail’ of South Korea when attempts by South Korean evangelicals, the Society for Textbook Revise, to have evolution removed from science textbooks looked like they were about to succeed; it seem science has struck back!

This sparked outrage among scientists and the population in general. The resulting furore led the government to set up an 11-member panel, led by the Korean Academy of Science and Technology  and including five experts on evolution and fossils, to oversee science-textbook revisions

We reported the fail, we now report that win!

Find out more:

Interview with Desiree Schell from Sceptically Speaking

Desiree Schell is the host of the live Canadian call-in radio talk show and podcast “Skeptically Speaking”.[1] A Skeptic, Desiree is a strong advocate for critical thinking and is strongly interested in the promotion of skepticism publicly. In her work as a labour organizer, Desiree creates curricula and teaches courses on effective activism.

Find out more:

Skeptical Highlights:

Out of the Blogs and On To the Streets: What Skepticism Can Learn from Social Movements

Organized skepticism is currently at a crossroads – we’re making more public progress than ever before, but there are internal and external challenges that could prevent us from affecting real change. Many social movements have been down this road, and many of them have come through it stronger, more united, and more effective. If social movements are the experts at affecting change, what can we learn from them to apply to our own community?

When:  Friday, September 14th 2012 at 7:00 pm
Where: Room 1700 of SFU Harbour Centre, 555 West Hastings Street, Vancouver
Who: Desiree Schell
Cost: Suggested donation of $2 to $10

Effective Skeptical Activism

A number of politicians have had their careers prematurely cut short because of perceived or actual issues regarding their personal lives. If the issue does not directly relate to their job, is this fair? Does, and should, one’s personal morals or religion reflect upon their professional conduct?

When:  September 15th 2012 at 2:00 pm
Where: Room 2245 SFU Harbour Centre, 555 West Hastings Street, Vancouver
Who: Desiree Schell
Cost: Admission is $20 and includes a copy of Desiree’s guidebook ‘Skeptical Activism’

Video: To the Bat Cave!

Bat biologist Nickolay Hristov, of UNC’s Center for Design Innovation and Winston-Salem State University, develops new techniques for filming and visualizing bats and the caves they occupy. Some of the tools in his kit include a long-range laser scanner–for modelling bat cave morphology–and portable thermal cameras–to capture bat-life when the lights are off.

Wonderful to watch!

lrg-batcave2-090712.mp4

NPR’s Science Friday September Book Club Winner Is…FlatLand

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions is an 1884 satirical novella by the English schoolmaster Edwin Abbott Abbott. Writing pseudonymously as “a Square”,[1] Abbott used the fictional two-dimensional world of Flatland to offer pointed observations on the social hierarchy of Victorian culture. However, the novella’s more enduring contribution is its examination of dimensions, for which the novella is still popular amongst mathematics, physics, and computer science students.

Free Download: Flatland (illustrated version)

Taking a Scientific approach to public policy…for real!

Government should be more evidence based, and that wherever possible, they should do randomised trials to find out which policy intervention works best. They often have no idea whether the things they do in government actually work or not, and achieve their stated goals.

Ben Goldacre got together with come of his government co-workers and science heads to wrote a  Cabinet Office paper on randomised trials of government policies to explain why randomised trials of policy are so powerful; we explain exactly how to do them; and we explain how to identify a meaningful policy question that can be explored cheaply in a good quality trial.

The paper is not perfect, but a good move in the right direction.

Download: Test, Learn, Adapt: Developing Public Policy with Randomised Controlled Trials

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Departing privacy

Posted by Don McLenaghen on July 4, 2012

The Canada Border Services Agency is in the process of deploying new hi-rez cameras in customs-controlled areas of airports across the country.  What makes these cameras different is that they will also be equipped with a microphone so that not only will security agents be keeping a watchful eye on actions but will also be able to listen in on your conversation; that seems one intrusion too many.

Now, as a society we have given up a lot in the name of ‘security’ from terrorism. However at a some point you have to ask, what is the point of being secure in a country that has eliminated the meaning of freedom? Okay, that may be slightly overstating the situation but there is a great need for a cost benefit analysis on what we have given up for what gain in security. The money spent globally on enhanced security could have literally wiped out hunger, the climate change with enough left over to put a manned station on Mars.

We have been told by our current government that we need to cut back on luxuries like health care for refugees, the environments, and retirement because there is just not enough money to go around and yet the Harper government found enough to deploy this Orwellian security enhancement.

Now on the surface, this may not sound such a big deal. However it takes an ominous turn when you hear that the first airport to have this new invasive surveillance is Ottawa’s MacDonald Cartier Airport. If you are attempting to avert terrorist type attacks you would have chosen Vancouver or Toronto airports, the nation’s busiest. Ottawa’s is Canada’s 6th busiest…but only 6th…at least for people, for politicians it is our busiest.

We have seen that politics in this country have taken a dramatic and worrying turn since our last election. So much so that what I am about to say would have sounded like a crazy conspirator’s theory at one time but not so much now.

I don’t think I would be wrong if I said every MP at one time or another has taken a flight out of Ottawa Airport and likely more often than less. Now that government security forces have the ability to listen in on these conversations, it leaves open the possibilities at least for sensitive information being leaked to the public or perhaps to foreign nationals. And at worst, provides the overseer of the border agency, the Minister of Public Safety, with a channel to listen in on opposition MP’s conversations at the airport…perhaps to help in their election campaigns? Not that the Conservatives have ever been accused of breaking the rules to win an election.

As a skeptic, I would normally not give in to such theories and if this was an isolated event I would have dismissed it…well as a conspiracy, but this is yet another piece of data and one must go where the evidence leads them.  Now, maybe this is just an attempt to ensure Canadians remain fearful of the terrorist bogeyman…maybe it is simply graft to one of the many corporations the Conservatives “owe a favour too”…maybe it is someone in the agency who truly believes a terrorist strike is imminent…but you can no longer rule out the thought that Harper is pulling a Nixon at the airport.

Reference:

Border agency to eavesdrop on travellers’ conversations

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Who Killed the Avro Arrow?

Posted by Ethan Clow on July 4, 2012

Have you heard of the Avro Arrow?

The Avro Arrow was a fighter jet created by Avro Aircraft for the use of the Canadian air force. However it was a plan that never took off. Get it? Planes? Take off? Baw ha ha. Anyway.

More accurately called the CF-105 Arrow, and also more accurately referred to as an interceptor aircraft, designed specifically to prevent missions of enemy aircraft. However this role is largely obsolete these days as modern jets are already fast enough and other weaponry like surface-to-air missiles provide better defence.

But the big question is the fate of the Arrow. Not long after the 1958 start of its flight test program, the development of the Arrow (including its Orenda Iroquois jet engines) was abruptly and controversially halted before the project review had taken place, sparking a long and bitter political debate and many conspiracy theories.

We should provide some context as to why this particular jet was so important in the first place. The Arrow was one of the fastest jets ever built. During the 1950’s the Arrow was achieving speeds of mach 2, which for the time, made the Arrow one of the fastest jets ever.

Aviation experts were pretty amazed by the Arrow, and rightly so, it was sleek, fast, and a technological marvel. Obviously with all the excitement going around about the Arrow, Canadians were feeling a lot of pride at this new creation.

Why did Canada need such fast weapons? Well, keep in mind this was during the cold war and the USSR was right across the North Pole from Canada. Also in 1954 the USSR unveiled their long range Tupolev bombers, which worried a lot of Canadians. Back in those days the big concern was nuclear war. And part of the arms race was not just about building new and more powerful nuclear bombs but also developing a delivery system for those bombs.

Consider how far apart Russia and the US were. Launching missiles back and forth over the oceans and continents wasn’t exactly pragmatic. So of course they would need jets and boats and everything in between to get those bombs to their targets. Building jets that had the ability to fly higher and faster and farther meant that a nation had a much greater ability to deliver its nuclear weapons. And when the USSR developed long range bombers, something needed to be done.

The Royal Canadian Air Force believed they needed 600 fast jets to defend the north from the Soviets. Thus, the Arrow was built.

The Arrow also had some pretty cutting edge design, notably the delta-wings which allowed for more room for fuel and weapons while at the same time providing the same quality of speed and altitude.

The downside was that the Arrow was enormously expensive. The initial cost which was green lit by the St. Laurent Liberals was 190 million for 29 Arrows. Of course as Avro started to improve the design the cost went up, by the time Diefenbaker and the Conservatives took office, the Arrow was looking to cost about $12 million each. So if the government was going to purchase 600 Arrows, as the air force requested, the total price tag would have been around 7 billion and change.

Whereas purchasing an American jet that was comparable to the Arrow would have cost about 1/6th as much.

On February 20th 1959, the Arrow was canceled. The reasons being there was a recession and the cost of building the Arrow couldn’t be justified without foreign interest, so controversially, the program was scrapped. Nearly 30,000 employees of Avro were put out of work by the decision and the plans and blue prints were destroyed.

And that was the end of the story.

Or was it?

Enter the conspiracies.

There seems to be about 3 main conspiracies out there:

  1. Diefenbaker was in cahoots with the American Military complex and cancelled the Arrow because the jet threatened American dominance of jets or something.
  2. American politicians put pressure on Diefenbaker to cancel the Arrow and he caved to their pressure.
  3. Diefenbaker had a personal vendetta against the Arrow and those who made it and canceled it out of spite.

You’ll notice something similar about the conspiracies:

They all seem to focus on Diefenbaker – notice how he’s either a schemer, a push over, or petty. We should keep this in mind as we know that Diefenbaker was a rather unpopular Prime Minister, and he had just defeated the Liberals in an election and was under the microscope from a skeptical public.

But moving on, could any of these theories be true? They could, it’s not like they involve aliens or bigfoot or something. But are any of these likely? Well, not really. Let’s take a close look at the conspiracies.

1) Diefenbaker was in cahoots with the American military – part of this theory comes from the idea that after canceling the Arrow, Dief allowed the Americans to build Bomarc and SAGE (Semi-Automatic-Ground-Environment) installations in Canada. And this also led to Canada getting (more permanent) Nuclear weapons. And of course NORAD.

The idea of Dief in cahoots with Americans is rather silly. He was known as being somewhat anti-American. He wanted to shift trade from America to Britain, which was one of his more contentious political ambitions. And while he did have a friendly relationship with American President Dwight Eisenhower, a deal of that was probably motivated by their similar farm boy upbringing. But there was very little to suggest that Dief would be a friend to American industry and business.

This theory also places all the blame on Dief and ignores some serious facts of the world. During this time, the superpowers were racing to develop ICBM’s (Inter-Continental-Ballistic-Missiles) which would make bombers obsolete. As well as interceptors since the missiles were too small and fast for jets to catch them. Thus, NORAD and such military alliances were mostly reasonable things for Dief to consider.

2)  American politicians put pressure on Diefenbaker to cancel the Arrow? The Americans were also developing interceptors like the Arrow. The idea being that the Arrow was a threat to the American built jets and if developed would put pressure on the American control of the industry.

This ignores the fact that the Americans considered purchasing the Arrow but a simple cost-benefit analysis showed that they could build their own jets for less money. And this wasn’t unique to America. Britain and France both came to this conclusion independently. Combined with the change of technology mentioned earlier, the Americans probably realized that Interceptors weren’t worth the time and resources.

This also seems to imply that the Americans wanted Canada to be less militarily developed. However the Americans gained very little from such a scenario. With NORAD they would basically be defending two countries instead of one, how does that benefit America?

It also seems to place a lot guilt on the military industrial complex, which at this point in history was actually just beginning. There really wasn’t a complex in place yet for American politicians to protect.

3) Diefenbaker had a personal vendetta against the Arrow? Dief was known to be a rather grumpy person and difficult to get along with. There are reports of him having heated meetings with Crawford Gordon, the head of Avro. Could this be true?

It’s certainly possible that Dief didn’t like Avro. But to suggest that the reason he canceled the Arrow was because of this also ignores some important facts. First, it was actually the Liberals who first considered canceling the Arrow, however before they could there was an election which they lost. Also the cancelation wasn’t a surprise. The Conservatives sent several warnings to Avro that the program would be scrapped.

When the Arrow was canceled, Avro fired its workers the same day. Avro blamed Diefenbaker for the firings and then re-hired about 2500 employees to finish other projects.

It was Avro who fired employees, not the government, putting the blame on Dief isn’t really accurate, especially when the Arrow as already considered a cost over-run by the previous government and had been issued warnings before cancelation. It’s also fair game to put more the blame on Avro as well. Prior to gaining the military contract to build the Arrows, Avro had been heavily involved in civilian and commercial industry, but they switched all their focus to military and when they lost the Arrow they had nothing as a company to fall back on.

There are some bonus conspiracies to go along with ones I mentioned: After the Arrow as cancelled, all the plans and blue prints were destroyed. This has led some to infer that the conspiracies about Dief were true, why destroy the plans unless there was some conspiracy with America to snuff the Arrow?

The most reasonable conclusion was that they were worried about Soviet espionage. This may seem rather “extraordinary” to us now, but given the historic context, the cold war and fear of spies, it made a lot of sense.

Were all the Arrows destroyed? One theory suggests that one of the Arrows was kept hidden.  The rumours that an Arrow got away started the day of the cancellation. Some people reported hearing the Arrow with its Iroquois engine taking off. Others said that one night Avro was cordoned off and several covered flatbed trucks were seen leaving the plant. One source of the rumors has to do with the photos of the destruction. In one overhead shots of the Avro building, one can see five Arrows with one partially disassembled. In the side view, you see the same partially disassembled Arrow in the foreground but one Arrow is missing from the photo. Did it escape or was it simply in the hangar?

In Dec of 2011 an ejection seat was discovered in the UK and confirmed to have belonged to an Arrow. How did it get there? There is speculation that Air Marshal W.A. Curtis spirited away in an Arrow before it could be destroyed. Whether this is true or not remains to be seen. He did imply in an interview with the Toronto Star in 1968 that if he had stolen one, he wouldn’t admit to it, stating when asked “I don’t want to talk about that.”

Perhaps adding insult to injury, when the Arrow was canceled, a blow was struck to the Canadian aerospace industry that it never recovered from. Many of the engineers and scientists who were fired by Avro were immediately hired by NASA. This has led many to believe that the team of Avro scientists were also anticipating a Canadian Space Program and building a ship to go to the moon. However there is no evidence for such plans and the idea can probably be attributed to a fictional movie about the Arrow produced by the CBC.

The loss of the Arrow was an unfortunate turn of events for Canadian military pride, and the media of the time ran with it all the way to the bank. The outcry was so out of proportion and especially when you consider that given the circumstances, the Arrow as destined to be canceled, it just so happened that the government who did was Diefenbaker and the Conservatives.

Sources:

http://www.avroarrow.org/AvroArrow/asktheexpert2.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Diefenbaker#Foreign_policy

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lockheed_U-2

http://www.ctv.ca/CTVNews/TopStories/20111217/avro-arrow-ejection-seat-mystery-deepens-with-uk-discovery-111218/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avro_arrow

Canada: From Empire to Umpire, Hillmer and Granatstein.

 

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The act of access to information

Posted by Don McLenaghen on July 2, 2012

Canada languishes in world rankings for government openness. As the 30th anniversary of the Federal Access to Information Act approaches, Canada finds itself tied for 51st in the world on a list of freedom-of-information rankings, languishing behind Angola, Colombia and Niger. This is out of a list of 89 nations. This confirms a previous study done in 2010 by Government Information Quarterly out of the UK that ranked Canada last compared to similar commonwealth nations with regards to freedom of information.

This is sad because when our access to information act was originally passed in 1983 we were seen as a global leader. However since then no changes to the law have occurred to correct issues with the bill, like the fact requests which are supposed to be provided within 30 days but often take months to years and then the information is incomplete. Also, as we are all aware, technology has changed allowing the government to, if it wished, make all its documents available to the public at next to no cost…viva la internet, viva la computer revolution!

Currently the information is not provided in a timely manner, there are departments with a blanket exemption and there is a growing fee for such information. Even simple things like allowing for electronic requests, are not allowed, all filings must be on paper forms and accompanied by the appropriate fee before anything will happen.

It should be a concern to Canadians that our government, current and previous, are not being open with the public and thus accountable. To sound like a broken record, for democracy to work there must be an informed electorate. Now, I am not alleging that Top Secret documents should be available to whoever requests them but it seems baffling that the vast majority of government documents are not available for free online. Even those things that may be questionable should be available under an appropriate process. Now this is not Harper’s doing, so I will not lie this at his feet but it has helped the Conservative’s government attempts to “control” the message with regards to…well everything as we have already talked about censoring science.

Yet, another piece of evidence that things are not “all right” on parliament hill.

Reference:
Canada languishes in world rankings for government openness

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Divided Loyalty

Posted by Don McLenaghen on June 30, 2012

If a government employee falls in the forest, does he make a sound? Well, with a new directive, they had better not.

We have often talked on the show about the ‘apparent’ trend of the Harper government to silence scientist. Now, some could argue that it’s not ‘silencing’ but attempting to ensure a ‘consistent’ message. I think we pretty much exposed in a previous show that was NOT how science should be done or reported. This is also not a gag that applied to employees only at work but extends to their private life as well.

Part of the Parks agency’s code of ethics states that “All Parks Canada employees shall…arrange their private affairs so that their impartiality is conserved and enhanced.” Thus, making possible as Eddie Kennedy, national executive vice-president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, said “If you’re in a coffee shop and you’re criticizing the Harper government and there’s someone sitting beside you and they know you work for a government department, technically you’re in violation of the code of ethics,”

Recent action by our government has provided evidence that there really is a deliberate attempt to muzzle government employees even on their own time. The action in question was a ‘reminder’ to Parks Canada employees about their “Duty of Loyalty”.

In a letter sent to park employees by their supervisors, they were warned not to speak against the government. The letter states that ‘Workers are not supposed to speak about the cuts, whether at meetings, forums or through social media. Only designated people are allowed to deal with journalists.’

The letter informed that “as employees of the public sector, our duty is to support the elected government” that seems to mean the Harper government not Canada itself.

Now, one might argue that this is only Parks Canada, seems harmless but such loyalty documents and amendments are being made in several agencies and departments. When this ‘silencing’ extends to health, environment or science as we skeptics are concerned about… harm will happen. For rational and reasoned debate to exist there must be the free flowing of information. If someone in a government department says that, for example, cuts to Parks Canada will result in higher fees and fewer parks; this is not disloyalty…well not disloyalty to Canada although Harper may disagree. This is the information required by the public to make reasoned decisions. If all we get from our government employees is “Whatever Harper said is true…and if it’s not I could not tell you because that would be disloyal and may get me fired”, reasoned decisions are not possible.

Ironically, there is a contradiction in the Parks Canada Code of Ethics, after warning employees not to be honest to the public but to only tout the party line; it states that “All Parks Canada employees must be open and honest in their dealings with the public, stakeholders and other organizations.”

Yet, another piece of evidence that things are not “all right” on parliament hill.

Reference:

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Are Canadian scientists for sale?

Posted by Don McLenaghen on March 28, 2012

This blog is about both an unexpected win as well as a possible warning.

First it turns out in raw science Canada punched well above its weight class. Although only producing about 1/10 the papers in science as the USA or UK, our papers are cited more. We have the most influential scientist in the world based on citations…and that is everything in the world of academia.

Now you may ask what a ‘citation’ is and why is it so important. Well, simply put a citation is a footnote. When I write an article and I make some factual claim, it should be supported by some research…I use a footnote pointing to the proof of my claim.

In our context, when a researcher publishes a paper, it depends on the work of others to provide a starting point for their ‘advancement’. It also depends on the work of others to re-enforce their interpretation of their claims and results.

It is here that Canada seems to, at the moment at least, be riding high. We can claim that our research is the most important because if seems to be the foundations of so much other work…that if it was not done, all other research would not exist or at least be on weakened ground.

 

On the list of “things to keep our eyes on”, word has come out of Ottawa about an ongoing effort to transform the National Research Council’s directions. The NRC is a government agency that funds the majority of research in Canada.

Cha-ching

The Harper government would like to see the agency focus less on “blue sky” projects and develop a ‘concierge’ or “1-800 number” service for businesses. The aim of this more ‘business friendly’ initiative is to encourage technological innovation in Canada with, I will assume, the aim of increasing industry in Canada.

On the positive side, it seems that the current government does not intend on reducing the investment we make into blue-sky research but hopes to make our top-notch scientist available to industry to help them move projects forward.

It also seems, I think, that they hope to make this a bi-lateral relationship; that is as businesses make requests for our scientific expertise they will be obligated to kick in at least a percentage of the funding. In this way, the ‘seed money’ of the NRC will be amplified by the investment by the private corporations

On the neutral side, I am not sure that the win-fall that government may expect will come. Industry already employs a large number of scientists and don’t see why they would ‘out-source’ the very patents they rely upon for their livelihood (as we all know now, making things is not where the money is but the royalties you get others to pay when they make things…usually in China).

In the old days, Industry would have private think-tanks where research; both technological and deep science would be done. However, less and less money is being spent by business, who prefer to use government funded universities to do the expensive ‘blue sky’ research and then ‘appropriate’ the research just prior to patent-ability.

This leads to the negative side; first it seems fair and appropriate that if 90% of the funding and work of research into discovery “X” was public sources, then 90% of the ensuing patents should also be held by the public (i.e. the state or state institution…like a university). But this could be me just quibbling over details…and my usual pro-society bias.

The other, and I think the biggest concern by scientists, is the time loss. I should explain that there are really two kinds of research – scientific and technological. Scientific research, or blue sky research, is done to discover something about the universe; be that the properties of anti-hydrogen, the genetics of stem-cells or how small a motor can be. They progress our understanding of the universe but don’t, in themselves, result in THINGS.

Things are what technological research is all about. It often, builds upon the scientific research and asks the question “I know the world works this way, what can I do with that?” This research creates the iPad, the new power cell, the new drug to treat impotency. This is where the money is; however this would not be possible without the first part.

In fact, one of the growing problems (most notable in the antibiotics) is that much technological research is based or re-working previous technology, resulting in an absents of ‘new things coming down the pike’.

Now, the negative is first, there are only so many hours in a day. If our scientists are directed to perform the ‘concierge’ service, that is time working on (mainly) technological issues at the expense of scientific research.

Another related issue scientists have proffered is that these ‘joint’ projects or ‘services’ the NRC will provide will be contract based. That means the research scientist will not be able to pursue unexpected avenues of research if they arise.

An example I heard about is one researcher was doing transplant study on mice, during their work they noticed some unusual nodules. They dropped their current research and investigated these nodules that turned out to be Nobel Prize winning research into stem cells.

This could not have happened if they were under contract to some company to develop a mechanism for bone-marrow transplantation; they would be contractually obligated to continue on the transplant research while the ‘unexpected’ discovery may be left on some shelf to be forgotten.

Along with this possible loss of academic freedom, they will also be losing research time because the work most likely to be requisitioned will be technological and thus less time for science research. Some fear that if we do less science research, we will lose our high standing in the science community.

Okay, to be fair, this is still more an idea…a future plan, than anything specific the Harper government is doing. The NRC has already done advertising to promote this new role as can be seen in this promotional video.

 

I also question the assumption that if we provide services and funding to private corporations they will first spend more research money here and second it will improve our economy. It seems if we already have top-rated scientists, they should be spending here already and if they are not it is for other geo-economic issues. Also, even if discoveries are made here, the companies benefiting will more than likely be trans-nationals who will take the research and run…probably to China for production and the Cayman Islands for profits.

It is something that may not be a negative…maybe it will be; regardless it is something we should keep our eyes on so as to ensure our science remains top-notch.

Learn more:
Biblio-metric evaluation and international benchmarking of the UK’s physics research
The Current – National Research Council changes driven by business needs
Public science takes another hit at the NRC when will the cuts end?

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Saturday Stub: CBC Marketplace What FX?

Posted by Ethan Clow on January 14, 2012

How is your Saturday going? Ready for some quick skeptical input? Great, because do I have a great Saturday Stub for you!

Remember that time we were on CBC Marketplace? Heh heh, of course you do! But our friends at Marketplace have kept up the good skeptical outreach of tackling bogus health products.

Recently CBC Marketplace did an episode exposing the product, Cold FX!

You can watch the whole episode here on Marketplace’s website.

It’s a pretty great episode and good skeptical review. They address some very key points when it comes to Cold FX, which for those of you who haven’t heard about it, is a Canadian product that claims to decrease the length and severity of the cold and flu.

Not surprisingly, with such claims being made, people were going to be skeptical that Cold FX could do what it actually claimed to do.

Marketplace investigated a number of scientific studies that were done on the drug, talked with several experts and tried to figure out why and Cold FX is allowed to put strong claims like that on their packaging. Doesn’t Health Canada have regulations about that sort of thing?

Of some of the shocking realities unearthed is that Cold FX isn’t manufactured in Canada, rather, its produced in China and then put in capsules in Canada. The factory in China where its produced has been questioned by authorities as being a poor choice for the production of medical supplies.

This might have led to the other revelation Marketplace uncovered, that Cold FX was contaminated with bacteria and then was sold regardless! Not great company ethics there.

A great moment was when host of Marketplace Erica Johnson interviewed Cold FX’s spokesperson Don Cherry:

Overall I was very impressed with the episode and I really hope that skeptics in Canada check it out and let the producers know that they love to see this kind of critical thinking on the air in Canada. The only thing I would have liked them to include was a mention about how and why people tend to think a product like Cold FX could work.

When you notice symptoms of a cold or flu, you might take some medication, but most people don’t take medication until the worst symptoms show up. After all, it’s when the symptoms are at their worst that you need relief from them. But it’s important to keep in mind that cold and flu’s have a predictable progression, right after you hit the worst symptoms, the cold and flu generally go down in severity and you get better. So what happens is that people take medication right when things are at their worst, they get better and attribute it to the medication and not the natural progression of the disease.

It’s hard to explain without a graph or something so I can understand why Marketplace didn’t go into it. Nevertheless, another great skeptical win!

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Canada’s Nuclear Highway

Posted by Don McLenaghen on December 30, 2011

Recently there has been much buzz in the media about the ‘revelation’ that Canada is sending its nuclear waste to the USA and NOT informing the public about the when-&-where of it all. Now, as most know by now I am no fan of the current  Harper government. One of my biggest issues with government (any government) is its secrecy and inability to enforce basic regulations on industry. You would think then I would have a problem with this news; well surprisingly I don’t really. Why? Let me explain.

Currently we do nothing (but store) the ‘waste’. Our storage, like most of the plants in the world is ‘temporary’; temporary storage…a cooling off period of about a decade (i.e. the point where when exposed to air it would not spontaneously combust), then placed in various forms of concrete like boxes where it awaits a final home. Currently there is no real long term storage plans for our waste. In fact one of the larger expenses of a power plant is to maintain these storage facilities indefinitely with their costs to protect the environment, maintaining infrastructure and providing anti-terrorist security.

We could develop reactors that use this material in breeder reactors which would effectively reduce the waste to nothing (yes, I mean nothing relatively still there will be waste). This is done in France, Japan, Russia and the US. It is also done in India and Pakistan but largely to produce nuclear weapons not to reduce nuclear waste; so this is not a perfect solution globally but would work here. However, thanks to Fukushima, it is unlikely a nuclear power plant, breeder or otherwise, will be built in Canada this century.

As implied above, our waste could be used to make nuclear weapons via reprocessing. Thus, some could argue we are helping the US make nuclear bombs…of course this is a straw man of sorts because the USA has more nuclear waste of its own creation that it needs not more from us. They want our waste for fears that “terrorist” will attack Chalk River and carry off a kilo or so for a dirty bomb or worse.

Now, it does make sense from a Canadian perspective to let the Americans worry about what to do with all that waste. They DID (although currently don’t) have a plan to store all their waste at Yucca Mountain. In a cynical sense, it is better they spend their money trying to store it than we spend ours.

Of course things are never simple. As I mentioned the US does not currently have a plan for long term storage…well at least a place. We in Canada do have a plan; the Nuclear Waste Management Organization has a plan called Adaptive Phased Management to deal with our waste long term. However (from my research) our plan lacks a home as well.

Lastly, the secrecy around the transportation of the waste does warrant some comment. We live in a democracy where citizens are expected to be informed…especially about hazards that can have a life-threating impact on their life – I think this qualifies. That said, this is no ordinary risk like hazardous chemicals. There is the added risk of an ‘on purpose’ accident.  I don’t think “terrorism” is a credible threat at storage facilities; they seem to have adequate security features (arguable I agree, but so far so good).  I don’t think we needed to move it for fears of “al Qaeda” attacks regardless of how much the Americans lie awake at night worrying about that.

However, an attack en-route (more likely from environmentalist than ‘terrorist’) is very likely. It has happened in France and Germany (nothing worse than delays but could have been worse). So keeping the shipments a secret does not seem unreasonable in spite of the fact it does seem ‘undemocratic’ and more of ‘government keeping secrets from the public’. I do think that the details should be kept under wraps. We already knew (and should have known) beforehand the shipments would be made because they were part of a publicly available ‘trade’ agreement between the US and Canada. Our government should also inform us afterword about the shipment with a complete report about potential risks and the actual ‘outcome’ (i.e. were there any radioactive leaks) of the transportation.

Thoughts?

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Conservative Senator Nicole Eaton doesn’t like Beavers

Posted by Ethan Clow on October 31, 2011

In the category of “are they seriously talking about this?” is the news that for Conservative Senator Nicole Eaton, Canada’s national emblem the beaver, simply doesn’t cut it and should be replaced by with the Polar Bear.

And yes, just so everyone is aware, I realize that the term beaver is sometimes used as immature euphemism for the female genital area. We at Radio Freethinker are far to mature for such slang and there will be no such jokes along those lines. Let’s move on.

We are serious about the news story. The Globe and Mail reports that Senator Eaton, who was appointed by Stephen Harper in 2009 doesn’t consider the beaver a worthy emblem. She is quoted in the article as saying:

“Many accuse the dentally defective rat of being a nuisance that wreaks havoc on farmlands, roads, lakes, streams and tree plantations,”

Apparently she’s a fan of the north and believes that the polar bear is a more potent symbol of Canada, quoted in the same article:

“A country’s symbols are not constant and can change over time as long as they reflect the ethos of the people and the spirit of the nation.”

The senator said the polar bear is more noble and rugged.

“The polar bear is the world’s largest terrestrial carnivore and Canada’s most majestic and splendid mammal,” she said, noting it “survives in the harshest climate and terrain in the world.”

The irony of course is that polar bear may not survive much longer to be an emblem of Canada if the threat of climate change continues to go unheeded. According to the World Wildlife Foundation  polar bears face a number of major challenges thanks to the changing climate. Further:

In the southern range of polar bears, the shorter sea ice season has decreased the amount of time bears can hunt for their prey. Sea ice break-up keeps these bears on shore. This forces them to spend the summer without significant feeding, relying on their fat stores from the previous summer to survive.

Many polar bears now suffer from malnutrition and others face starvation, especially females with cubs. Polar bear populations in Canada’s Hudson Bay have declined by 22 percent since the 1990s and researchers predict up to 73 percent of pregnant females in this population could fail to bring their cubs to term, given current and anticipated sea ice conditions.

Perhaps if Senator Eaton is so impressed with polar bears she would endorse some significant climate change legislation to help improve their lot in life. Not only did the Harper government dump the 1998 Kyoto Accord (we’re 31% above target on reducing green house gases) but Canada is in danger of failing to live up to the most recent climate change accord, the Copenhagen Accord, which calls for a 17 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

Senator Eaton may think this is a cute way to get some press (I’m just guessing about that, I don’t know her true motives) but at the very least I’d recommend a thorough history lesson on the role beavers played in Canada’s history and since she loves polar bears so much, an ecological lesson on what’s going to happen to them if we don’t do something about climate change in Canada.

Here’s her email address.

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Saturday Stub: Things have finally gotten better for Female Royalty

Posted by Ethan Clow on October 29, 2011

For today’s Saturday Stub, I submit to you that it has finally gotten better for women in the British Royal Family. I guess there was an Occupy Buckingham Palace.  This story is pretty straight forward. Basically, the nations that still accept the monarchy have scrapped the law of primogeniture from the rule book. What that means is that a girl is now eligible to be considered “first in line” for Queen. Prior to this, if the current royals had a girl had been first, she would not be the immediate heir, rather a younger brother would have been the heir (despite being born second or third or however many times it took)

So whew. It’s nice to see that will all the other issues going on in the world, we’ve finally sorted out the monarchy.

I actually rather like the opening line of the New York Times piece linked to above.

“The 16 countries that recognize the British monarch as head of state struck a historic blow for women’s rights on Friday, abolishing male precedence in the order of succession to the throne.” – New York Times

Seriously? A blow for women’s rights? Are you allowed to say that about the monarchy? A system so out dated and opposed to “rights” as any other political organization. Okay, okay, its a little less discriminating against girls… girls who have to be born into the monarchy in the first place. Calling this a blow for women’s rights is something of a massive overstatement.

In addition to changing the rules of succession, the British monarch will no longer be forbidden to marry a Catholic. Yes, prior to this, British monarchs were not allowed to marry Catholics. This goes back to when Henry the VIII broke from Rome and took control of the Church in England. So now that the Royals are free to marry Catholic royals and their daughters can become queen, I suppose that means everything about the monarchy is now fair and just. Not so fast!

A British royal can marry a Catholic and their daughter can become queen, but there is no way she can become queen if she’s Catholic! That’s right! The head of the Anglican Church is British monarch. And how can a Catholic be the head of the Anglican church??

I very much look forward to Canada having a revolution.

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