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This week, one of my patrons requested some good news. It’s true, basically all of my videos recently have been super depressing. The reason is simple: we live in the worst timeline. There is no good news.

Just kidding, there are some happy stories out there, but they’re not very interesting. To me, I mean. Because I’m a horrible person who feeds on sadness and hopelessness.

Okay, that’s a joke, too. I like happy things! Really! It’s just that most happy things don’t really require my hot take. I want to produce videos for you guys that offer an alternative look at science news or political news that you won’t necessarily find in other places, but today I’m going to set that aside and just talk about a fun little bit of science that is very sweet and as a bonus it’s about love, and what with today being half-price candy day, well, what could be more appropriate?

A new study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology found that falling in love is good for your immune system. Awww.

There have previously been studies showing that being in a committed relationship is good for your health, mostly because it’s just nice having another person who is constantly watching your back — it’s especially good for men, who when single are much worse than women at things like going to the doctor for an annual physical, or having that weird lump checked out. Spending a lot of time with someone who cares about you means catching problems before they become deadly, and also nursing you back to health when you’re sick. It’s just good for you.

But this new study looks at things from a slightly different perspective: does the mere act of falling in love have health benefits, independent of the benefit of having a partner looking out for you? Researchers at UCLA and Tulane collaborated on this neat study that spanned three years and involved about 50 women. They spent ages finding the perfect women to study: they had to have just entered a new relationship but not fallen in love yet. Half the women who contacted them had already fallen in love within a month of their new relationship. Big mood. I may be bisexual but I fall in love like that joke lesbians tell — I show up to the second date with a U-Haul.

Once they had their women, they drew their blood and then had them keep coming back for surveys every two weeks asking about various things, including whether or not they were in love yet. Once they reported that they were in love, they had their blood drawn again.

The researchers found that when women fell in love, genes associated with their immune system showed increased activity, making the women more defensive against viruses.

That’s a really cool finding! The research doesn’t tell us a few things, like why this happens — the researchers guess that it may be a way for the women’s bodies to prepare for close intimate contact (which is how viruses spread), or it could be their bodies getting ready for pregnancy. Or, hey, it could just be a coincidence. It’s only 47 women, after all. The next step is to see if this happens to men, too, and if it happens in long-term relationships as well.

The researchers said they were inspired to do this study after hearing of other research that found that loneliness was a big predictor for mortality, so they wanted to see if “the opposite of loneliness” would boost health, and they figured the opposite of loneliness was new romantic love. Interestingly enough, they found that the women’s self-reported loneliness didn’t actually change when they fell in love, so the original thing they were looking at didn’t actually have an impact on health.

So there you have it: a cool little study with a happy result. Go out and fall in love! Do it for your immune system. And while you’re waiting for that to happen, go to the drug store and get that half-price candy. We’ve got a few months until Easter half-price candy day.

The post Falling in Love Makes You Healthier appeared first on Skepchick.

By the Associated Press NAMPA, Idaho — An Idaho woman who refused to report her husband’s yearslong sexual abuse of young relatives and instead prayed for “the demon” to leave him was ordered Thursday to spend a year in a prison treatment program. Judge Christopher Nye said that if Sarah Kester, 51, fails to successfully …

David Leppert

I’m browsing, as one does, and reading a bit of labor history, and the name of my hometown, Kent, Washington, comes up. I had to look, because I knew that town well — I’m familiar with the streets, the major buildings, my father’s family lived there for generations, and it always seemed like a dead quiet small town that was never going to come up in history. There’s nothing there! Banks and gas stations, a five-and-dime, a sporting goods store, lots of little business and residences, and when I was growing up, it was mainly a farming community. They grew a lot of lettuce and cauliflower.

So what do I find? The mayor of Kent in the 1920s (before my time, before my parents’ time, but my grandparents would have been kicking around then) was an Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan. This wasn’t Mississippi, but Washington state, and apparently the KKK had a surge of popularity in the 20s, to the point where a KKK member could be elected to office and I guess we were known as a “100% Klan town”.

Notable Klan members elected to public office in Washington State include the Mayor of Kent, David Leppert, and Bellingham City Attorney Charles B. Sampley. Politicians who were likely members of the Klan include the Mayor of Blaine, Alan Keyes, and Wapato’s Director of Schools, Frank Sutton. Given that the Klan was a secret society, it is hard to differentiate Klan allies from Klan members, and it is likely that many other local elected officials in Washington state were Klan members.

Fortunately, their tenure was short and the Klan faded away fairly quickly, in part thanks to people who stood up against them.

Klan activity in the Valley reached its high point in mid-July of 1923. On July 14, the Klan held its first “Konvention” in the state of Washington near Renton Junction and initiated some 500 to 1,000 new members. A rally for the general public, complete with fireworks and multiple cross-burnings, was held that evening at Wilson’s Station four miles south of the park. The Kent Advertiser-Journal described “a monster crowd of thousands of people who came in between 2500 and 3000 automobiles to participate and witness the ceremony.” The Washington Co-Operator estimated that between 10,000 and 20,000 attended. The Globe-Republican, however, indicated that attendees were “attracted chiefly by curiosity and by the lingering suspician [sic] that an exciting clash might occur between Klansmen and representatives of Sheriff Matt Starwich’s office.” The state had a law forbidding public gatherings of masked persons except for masquerades and similar events. Before the rally, the Klan openly dared Starwich to enforce the law, and he insisted he would. The Klan backed down, however, and only wore the masks briefly. Seemingly, the dare was simply a publicity stunt and, if so, it worked. Starwich retaliated a month later by firing a deputy working on the Northern Pacific Railroad for taking part, commenting, “I won’t stand for any Klansmen being connected with my office.” Afterwards, reporting on the Klan dropped off sharply and activity quieted.

While they weren’t parading about in robes, though, they reflected a real problem in that community. People might have chastised the Klan, but at the same time, they’d later applaud internment of our Japanese compatriots.

Traditionally, the Klan has been portrayed as a violent, backwards-looking, and extremist organization that was part of the conservative mood that followed World War One. Recent works, however, emphasize that, for better or worse, the Klan was rooted in the mainstream of society, often attracted leading citizens in communities throughout the country, and championed popular causes. This was the case with the White River Klan. While it is difficult to discern why people in the Valley joined the Klan from newspaper accounts that we have available, Klan ideology clearly spoke to fairly common sentiments. For example, Prohibition enforcement was a major issue in Auburn politics and the Klan’s call for rigorous enforcement was not out of the ordinary at all. Similarly, there was substantial, mainstream, anti-Japanese sentiment. The state of Washington, not the Klan, passed Alien Land Laws to prevent Asian immigrants who, by law, could not become citizens from owning or renting land. When Klan organizers like Jeffries spoke out against Japanese immigrants, they found a receptive audience. Lastly, the sheer spectacle value of the Klan should not be overlooked. The Klan had a mystique surrounding it. People were curious about it and rallies provided entertainment. Most of those who attended meetings and rallies went because it was something to do and did not join, regardless of their feelings about Klan ideology.

Most of that lettuce and cauliflower was grown by Japanese families; my wife worked in those fields in the summer when she was growing up, and I worked in a nursery owned by a Japanese horticulturist throughout high school. They didn’t speak about it, but there was this poison soaking in our town from the time the Klan was thriving there.

I suddenly have a different perspective on my childhood home.

By David G. McAfee An anti-vaxxer who’s married to a top White House official said she wants to “bring back our childhood diseases,” like the measles. Darla Shine is the wife of White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications Bill Shine (a former FOX News executive). She was apparently responding to a CNN report on the measles …
By Lisa Needham A federal district court in Iowa ruled last week in favor of a religious student group that openly rejects LGBTQ individuals—a victory in the ongoing conservative battle to give religious organizations license to discriminate in the name of faith. The case stems from a conservative Christian student group at the University of Iowa that sought …
By Christian Davenport During the height of the Space Age, the United States and the Soviet Union bushwhacked a frantic path to the lunar surface, landing nearly 20 spacecraft softly on the moon between 1966 and 1976, including the six carrying NASA’s Apollo astronauts. But after the last of these missions, a robotic Soviet probe …

Warning: it’s boring, tedious, hard work. There’s nothing flashy about it.

First step: define a clear set of tested standards. For clinical trials, there’s something called Consolidated Standards of Reporting Trials (CONSORT) which was established by an international team of statisticians, clinicians, etc., and defines how you should carry out and publish the results of trials. For example, you are supposed to publish pre-specified expected outcomes: “I am testing whether an infusion of mashed spiders will cure all cancers”. When your results are done, you should clearly state how it addresses your hypothesis: “Spider mash failed to have any effect at all on the progression of cancer.” You are also expected to fully report all of your results, including secondary outcomes: “88% of subjects abandoned the trial as soon as they found out what it involved, and 12% vomited up the spider milkshake.” And you don’t get to reframe your hypothesis to put a positive spin on your results: “We have discovered that mashed-up spiders are an excellent purgative.”

It’s all very sensible stuff. If everyone did this, it would reduce the frequency of p-hacking and poor statistical validity of trial results. The catch is that if everyone did this, it would be harder to massage your data to extract a publishable result, because journals tend not to favor papers that say, “This protocol doesn’t work”.

So Ben Goldacre and others dug into this to see how well journals which had publicly accepted the CONSORT standards were enforcing those standards. Read the methods and you’ll see this was a thankless, dreary task in which a team met to go over published papers with a fine-toothed comb, comparing pre-specified expectations with published results, re-analyzing data, going over a checklist for every paper, and composing a summary of violations of the standard. They then sent off correction letters to the journals that published papers that didn’t meet the CONSORT standard, and measured their response.

I have to mention this here because this is the kind of hard, dirty work that needs to be done to maintain rigor in an important field (these are often tests of medicines you may rely on to save your life), and it isn’t the kind of splashy stuff that will get you noticed in Quillette or Slate. It should be noticed, because the results were disappointing.

Sixty-seven trials were assessed in total. Outcome reporting was poor overall and there was wide variation between journals on pre-specified primary outcomes (mean 76% correctly reported, journal range 25–96%), secondary outcomes (mean 55%, range 31–72%), and number of undeclared additional outcomes per trial (mean 5.4, range 2.9–8.3). Fifty-eight trials had discrepancies requiring a correction letter (87%, journal range 67–100%). Twenty-three letters were published (40%) with extensive variation between journals (range 0–100%). Where letters were published, there were delays (median 99 days, range 0–257 days). Twenty-nine studies had a pre-trial protocol publicly available (43%, range 0–86%). Qualitative analysis demonstrated extensive misunderstandings among journal editors about correct outcome reporting and CONSORT. Some journals did not engage positively when provided correspondence that identified misreporting; we identified possible breaches of ethics and publishing guidelines.

All five journals were listed as endorsing CONSORT, but all exhibited extensive breaches of this guidance, and most rejected correction letters documenting shortcomings. Readers are likely to be misled by this discrepancy. We discuss the advantages of prospective methodology research sharing all data openly and pro-actively in real time as feedback on critiqued studies. This is the first empirical study of major academic journals’ willingness to publish a cohort of comparable and objective correction letters on misreported high-impact studies. Suggested improvements include changes to correspondence processes at journals, alternatives for indexed post-publication peer review, changes to CONSORT’s mechanisms for enforcement, and novel strategies for research on methods and reporting.

People. You’ve got a clear set of standards for proper statistical analysis. You’ve got a million dollars from NIH for a trial. You should at least sit down and study the appropriate methodology for analyzing your results and make sure you follow them. This sounds like an important ethical obligation to me.

Don’t. I stumbled across this on Quora, a site that seems to specialize in collecting uninformed questions from ignorant people, and allowing other ignorant people to provide misinformation.

You may notice that it has 513 views. It also had about 40 upvotes, meaning 40 people read this and came away thinking they’d learned something.

It’s very confusing. So, if I’m planning a cannibal meal, and a right-handed person eats my left-handed victim, does everything just pass through (great if you’re trying to lose weight!), or does it turn all my dinner guests left-handed?

Because I started drooling and making strange guttural noises when I read this story of a remote-controlled 3-D printed snowblower. I was having these mind-blowing fantasies of sitting in my home office with a joystick, clearing my driveway while sitting in warmth and comfort.

(Turn the volume down, you don’t need to hear the awful cacophony of the soundtrack to this clip)

I don’t have a 3D printer, and I probably couldn’t afford the kind of model that would suffice for that thing, so why doesn’t someone come out with a pre-assembled version for sale? I’m not sure this one has enough oomph to handle the mountain ranges of snow that the snowplows drop across our driveway, but it could probably handle our sidewalks.

On second thought, maybe it would be nice to have one where I could just print up damaged parts as I need them. Our existing manual snowblower is currently laid up with a cracked gas tank, and having one I could fix on the spot would be so handy.

Michael Behe has a problem: he uses polar bears as an example of how “damaging” a gene can have an advantageous effect. As Nathan Lents explains:

Behe offers them as an example of how harming genes can help an organism and lead to adaptive evolution. Imagine an ancestor bear population that looked pretty much like brown bears. Then came some random mutations that reduced the production or deposition of pigment into the fur of the bears. This made the bears white and – voilà! – the bears acquired natural camouflage in snowy climates so as to better sneak up on their prey.

This seems like a pretty straightforward example and most people will simply take it at face value. Behe jumps from this example to his claim that this is all that unguided mutations can do. However, even in this apparently “pro-Darwinism” example, Behe exaggerates his claims and misrepresents what science has actually revealed. The evolution of polar bears was not only a matter of harmful mutations.

The first part is fine: there are all kinds of ways a genetic change can produce an adaptive phenotype, and downregulating a gene is one of them. It’s the second part that’s the problem. Behe leaps from a few examples to an assertion that this is a universal rule, which is not the case. Lents shows another example in polar bears.

Look at those polar bears, slurping down all those sugary soft drinks. It’s a little known fact that they’re using Coca-Cola to wash down their diet of fatty, blubbery seals, and they pretty much eat nothing but meat and fat, which, if any of us tried the Polar Bear Diet, we’d be dead of coronary disease in short order. It would be interesting to know how these animals cope with a diet high in cholesterol and fats, so Lents cites a paper that looked at the molecular sequence of apolipoprotein B (APOB), a protein that is important in the transport of fats in the blood, and compared it to that of brown bears. Surprise — the form found in polar bears is better at clearing fats from the bloodstream.

Substantial work has been done on the functional significance of APOB mutations in other mammals. In humans and mice, genetic APOB variants associated with increased levels of apoB are also associated with unusually high plasma concentrations of cholesterol and LDL, which in turn contribute to hypercholesterolemia and heart disease in humans (Benn, 2009; Hegele, 2009). In contrast with brown bear, which has no fixed APOB mutations compared to the giant panda genome, we find nine fixed missense mutations in the polar bear (Figure 5A). Five of the nine cluster within the N-terminal ba1 domain of the APOB gene, although the region comprises only 22% of the protein (binomial test p value = 0.029). This domain encodes the surface region and contains the majority of functional domains for lipid transport. We suggest that the shift to a diet consisting predominantly of fatty acids in polar bears induced adaptive changes in APOB, which enabled the species to cope with high fatty acid intake by contributing to the effective clearance of cholesterol from the blood.

Clearly, the authors do not expect the polar bear APOB to be “broken.” Rather, a bare majority of the amino acid changes are in the most important region for the clearing of cholesterol from the blood. In other words, these mutations likely enhance the function of apoB, at least when it comes to surviving on a diet high in saturated fats.

So APOB in polar bears isn’t broken at all. It does carry mutations relative to brown bears, but they haven’t resulted in reduced functionality at all — quite the opposite, actually.

By Matthew Warren The destruction of a single kind of insulin-producing cell in the pancreas can lead to diabetes — but a study suggests that other cells could be modified to take its place and help to control blood sugar levels. The results raise hopes that ‘reprogrammed’ insulin-producing cells could be used as treatment for diabetes, …

This article appears in the Witness section of the Spring 2019 issue of the New Humanist. Subscribe today.

Aasia Bibi is a Christian farm labourer who has spent eight years on death row in Pakistan for blasphemy. Even by the blasphemy law’s own incredibly low standards, the case against her fell apart and in October, the Supreme Court overturned her conviction. Despite this, Bibi was not freed. Violent protests led by extremist groups erupted around the country. Prime minister Imran Khan struck a deal to end the disruption, allowing extremist leaders to seek an appeal against the Supreme Court’s judgment. In February, the court upheld its decision, and Bibi is now expected to leave Pakistan and seek asylum overseas.

Bibi has become the face of Pakistan’s blasphemy law. The mother of five had been accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad after an argument with her neighbours. The case illustrated everything wrong with the law, beyond the absurdity of making blasphemy a crime in the first place: the low burden of proof, the extraordinarily harsh sentences, the way in which it is often used to target minorities, and the inflammatory reaction it prompts. Since 1990, more than 60 people have been killed by mobs after blasphemy accusations, while lower court judges – such as those who condemned Bibi to eight years on death row – are often afraid to acquit.

To outsiders, as well as to liberals and secularists in Pakistan, this law is brutal, disproportionate and inhumane. To Islamists and conservatives, however, it is a symbol of Pakistan’s status as a Muslim state, a statute that must be defended at all costs. While the blasphemy law has been a political flashpoint for years, a specific movement coalesced around it in the years after Bibi’s arrest. As is often the case in Pakistan, these extreme elements have been pandered to by mainstream politicians, which provides the space for them to flourish and grow. When Khan agreed to allow those leading the street protests to appeal the Supreme Court’s verdict, it was another example of Pakistan’s leaders making concessions to those who undermine the rule of law.

While it is a victory that, despite pressure, the Supreme Court has held steady in its decision to free Bibi, the injustice of the law itself remains. There are no serious attempts to reform it. In 2011, two politicians who advocated Bibi’s release and sought to reform the blasphemy law were assassinated. In our Summer 2018 issue, Rahila Gupta interviewed Bibi’s lawyer, Saif ul-Malook. Even he stopped short of criticising the law itself, saying only: “It is not the law but its application that is abhorrent and unjust.”

The Islamist groups baying for Bibi’s execution were protesting about more than the blasphemy law: they are defending an intolerant, inward-looking iteration of Pakistan that rejects secularism and rides roughshod over the rights of religious minorities. Sadly, successive governments have failed to take decisive action. Despite Bibi’s freedom, the injustice lives on.

This article appears in the Witness section of the Spring 2019 issue of the New Humanist. Subscribe today.

The Hindu Kush Himalaya region runs from Afghanistan to Myanmar. The planet’s “third pole”, it is home to the world’s highest mountains, topped by Mount Everest and K2. There is more ice here than anywhere outside the Arctic and Antarctica but it is, of course, far more populous than either of these places. Around 250 million people live in the region, while 1.65 billion rely on the great rivers that flow from its peaks into India, Pakistan, China and other countries. These rivers include the Yangtze, Mekong, Indus and Ganges. Across these areas, farmers rely on glacier melt water in the dry season to irrigate crops. Despite its importance, the Hindu Kush Himalaya range has received less attention than the Arctic, Antarctica or other places that are highly vulnerable to global warming, such as low-lying islands.

Now, a landmark report led by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development has laid bare the devastating impact that climate change will have on these crucially important mountains and the two billion people who depend on their water supply. The report makes sobering reading. Researchers found that even in a best-case scenario, where carbon emissions are dramatically and rapidly cut and succeed in limiting global warming to 1.5°C, 36 per cent of the glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalaya range will have disappeared by 2100. If emissions are not cut, the loss will soar to two thirds.
The region stretches 3,500 km across Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan. Published in February, the research was conducted at the request of these eight countries. It was scientifically rigorous: more than 200 scientists worked on it over five years, with peer review by a further 125 scientists.

Perhaps one of the most striking aspects of their findings is the devastating loss predicted even in the best-case scenario. Limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels would require cutting emissions to zero by 2050, which many experts see as extremely optimistic, particularly at a time when major powers such as the US are withdrawing from international climate accords. Even in this ideal situation, where emissions are cut to zero within 31 years, a third of the ice will be lost. If temperatures globally rise by 2°C, half of the glaciers are projected to melt by 2100.

It is difficult to overstate the impact that melting glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalaya region will have. Fresh water from the region’s glaciers flows into ten major river basins, contributing to the drinking water, irrigation and energy needs of approximately 1.9 billion people, or about a quarter of the world’s population. If they were to melt entirely, global sea levels would rise by 1.5 metres.

Climate change is not an abstract problem for the future, but a tangible reality that we are experiencing now. Glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalaya region have already been thinning and retreating since the 1970s, the report says, but there has been an acceleration since then. This has already caused floods, landslides and epidemics.

Even if we succeed in a goal that currently looks unattainable – slashing carbon emissions to zero by 2050 – there will still be devastating changes to the world around us. As Will McCallum wrote in the Spring 2018 New Humanist, this does not mean that we should collectively abandon campaigns to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels or to limit polluting industrial activity. He wrote: “The challenge, then, is to do both – to adapt to an already changed world and to take action against it getting worse. Collectively, we have some difficult decisions to make about what we choose to save and what we should accept we are going to lose. We need to reflect on what the changed world we are facing is going to look like.”

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You know, I’m tired of talking about divisive, hot-button political issues. Let’s talk about something that’s just pure, uncontroversial science. Let’s see, let’s just crack open Preventative Medicine and here we are: “The temporal associations between gun violence and mental health.” Ah, shit.

So yeah, this is that age old question: with 30 mass shootings so far this year (and it’s the first week of February), does the US have a gun problem, or a mental illness problem? Are these just “crazy” people who would be out in the world trying to murder regardless of what weapon they have, or these perfectly sane people who wouldn’t have tried to kill anyone if they didn’t have access to guns? Or is the truth somewhere in between?

And that “mass shooting” statistic is only one fun fact about the US and guns. I could also point out that Americans own more guns per capita than anywhere else in the world — yes, even more than Switzerland, ignorant Reddit commenter I happened to see the other day. Switzerland comes in 19th with 28 guns for every 100 citizens. Meanwhile, the US has (are you ready for this?) 121 guns for every 100 citizens. 1.2 guns per person! Holy shit, and I don’t have any, so somewhere there are people just opening a junk drawer to find a paper clip and there’s just guns jammed in there. Maybe you think that that’s just because of a few Americans who stockpile guns (which there are — 3% own 50% of the guns) but even if you subtract them from the equation, that’s still 170 million guns for 317 million people, so more than half a gun per person and more than twice Switzerland’s rate.

Here are some more stats. 64% of all homicides in the US happen with a gun, compared to under 5% in England, that guns killed nearly 40,000 people in the US in 2017, or that that was the most people killed by guns in the US in the previous 20 years — until 2018, when we topped that number by 1,000, which became the highest number in 50 years. It’s absolutely a problem, and it would be nice to get to the bottom of it which is why it’s quite sad that the US government has refused to fund its study for the past 20 years, which has led to even private industry dialing back all study of it.

Luckily, we still have little pockets of scientific rebels out there, so we get research like this. Unfortunately, I have to be honest, it’s not that much.

Yes, their conclusions were that there is no connection between mental illness and gun violence, but it’s actually much narrower than that. This research involved surveys of 663 young adults in Texas, who were asked about their history of mental illness along with their history of gun ownership and usage. They found that gun owners were 18 times more likely than non-gun owners to threaten someone with gun violence. They didn’t find that people with mental illnesses were more likely to threaten people, except for those people who had “high hostility,” who were 3.5 times more likely to threaten someone.

From this, the researchers’ university came up with the press release headline of “Mental illness not to blame for gun violence study finds”. Which…come on guys.

I get just as annoyed as any other evidence-loving progressive when the media touts “mental illness” as the sole cause of gun violence in the US, which happens after every mass shooting (with enough mass to even make a blip on the national news). But this study does not prove that mental illness isn’t to blame for gun violence, in the least. It didn’t even examine actual gun violence — it only looked at people’s self-reported tendency to threaten someone with violence.

That’s not to say the research is useless — it’s definitely an interesting piece of the puzzle, and deserves follow-up. It’s just not what the University of Texas public relations team would have you believe.

Because in fact, mental illness is to blame for gun violence, in part. It absolutely cannot be denied in any reasonable way that the two aren’t related. Everyone is quick to equate “gun violence” with “mass shootings,” but there are other forms — for instance, suicide. Half of all suicides in the US involve a gun.The majority of all gun deaths in the US are suicides — two thirds. Suicide by gun is 8 times more frequent in the US compared to all other industrialized nations. It’s a huge fucking problem, and I guarantee that a huge percentage of the people committing suicide have a mental illness. They’re not all 90-year old patients with painful, incurable cancer. They’re severely, dangerously depressed people.

Does that mean that this is wholly a problem of mental illness, and not guns? No! It’s both, obviously. People try to commit suicide in other ways, and less than 5% of them succeed. The people who use a gun succeed 85% of the time. If those severely mentally ill people didn’t have access to guns, we’d save about 21,000 American lives each year, just from suicide alone.

That’s one of the main reasons I don’t personally own a gun. I’ve talked about this before, because a few years ago I was regularly getting serious death threats and I was very concerned with my safety. But I know I have very bad depression, and I know that owning a gun would make it 3x more likely for me to kill myself (and 2x more likely to be killed by someone else).

So yeah, in one survey of some 20-somethings in Texas, people were more likely to threaten someone with a gun if they own a gun, and not more likely to do so if they have a mental illness. But that doesn’t mean there’s no connection between the two, and acknowledging that we have several interconnected problems doesn’t make it any less urgent for us to control the Great American Gun Problem.

The post The ACTUAL SCIENCE Linking Mental Illness and Gun Violence appeared first on Skepchick.

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Lesbians! Where do they come from? How did they get here? What do they want from us? VAGINAS?? Well, thanks to some “scientists” at the University of Nicosia in Cyprus, we can answer at least one of those questions: lesbians exist because straight men want them to. Ah, the warm glow of curiosity satisfied. Thank you, science.

Okay, so I saw this flying around Twitter this week and figured I should talk a little bit about it. “Lesbian relationships only exist because men find it a turn-on, claims study,” as reported by The Independent. It is a real article and it based on a real study, but just as a heads up it was published back in 2017 so this is not the first time Twitter has been upset at this particular news item. And let’s face it, it won’t be the last — next year, someone else will find it, Tweet it, and we’ll all be up in arms again.

Menelaos Apostolou is, of course, an evolutionary psychologist. For those of you just joining me, evolutionary psychology is a field that is rife with pseudoscience, racism, sexism, and just utter bullshit, and this particular “study” happens to check at least three of those boxes. To be clear, as bad as the “study” was, the article about it in the Independent is maybe just as bad, so we’ll get to that in a second.

The paper itself simply involved a survey of about 1,500 heteros — yes, this scholarly look into the origins of lesbianism didn’t require the input of any — who answered questions about how much the gays turned them on. They found that hetero women weren’t that into dudes who had sexual contact with other dudes, but that hetero men were into women who had sexual contact with other women. That’s…basically it. Those were their findings. From these findings, the researchers developed “a new theory for the evolution of female same-sex attraction.” Love a scientist who has no fucking clue what “theory” means, don’t you? I definitely have a lot of trust in them to produce good, interesting research.

Their weak-ass “theory” (actually a hypothesis that remains untested) is this: “A considerable proportion of men desire same-sex attractions in women, and this is one possible reason why many women have such attractions.” It’s the “drunk chicks in college trying to impress the frat brothers” hypothesis, in other words. This really brings up a LOT of questions, like are women really going down on each other in the privacy of their homes every night because maybe a man might be watching through the window? Are women out there settling down and raising children together on the off-chance that some man’s kink includes her changing dirty diapers?

Also, if that’s their conclusion from their survey, what about gay men? Gay men…exist, but the hetero women interviewed weren’t that into them. So why do gay men exist? Are straight men also into them? Are straight men the reason why everything exists??

The researchers also throw out some hypotheses for why men are more interested in women who are attracted to women. They say that it’s not threatening to the man, because if his partner cheats on him with another woman, she can’t get pregnant. That, again, makes perfect sense with their data. Clearly the opposite wouldn’t be true for women — if their male partners were also attracted to other men and they had an affair, they could definitely get pregnant. Wait. Can they? Hold on, that doesn’t seem right.

Essentially, nothing about this paper makes any sense at all, and it’s frankly humiliating for the journal Personality and Individual Differences to have published it at all. But I guess when you have a giant pool of evo psych nonsense to sort through, picking one that’s more publishable than another is a hopeless task. It’s like going to the pet store and picking a fish to run a marathon for you. You’re not going to find any winners, I assure you.

A lot of this bullshit boils down to the wrong idea that everything we see must be adaptive — everything we humans do, and how we look, must have evolved with us because it was helpful in some way. If you have that kind of low-level, idiotic view of the world and of evolution, it’s easy to see how things like “GAY PEOPLE” might scare you. After all, if every major aspect of humanity is here because it inspired more people to fuck, and to have more babies, and to raise those babies to adulthood so they can fuck, then how can gay people exist? They can’t even have kids!

The answer, as always, is “I think that you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.” Some genetic traits are adaptive, and others are coincidental. And not everything about humans can be found in our genetics, especially when it comes to larger societal behaviors. So remember, the next time you see a “scientist” or journalist claiming to have found evidence of how a certain human characteristic adapted, ask to see the genes and the evidence. Otherwise, more often than not it’s a story that person made up because it happened to fit into his pre-conceived biases, like “lesbians only exist because they know I want to fuck them.”

The post Evolutionary Psychologist: Lesbians Exist Because Straight Men Want Them To appeared first on Skepchick.

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The best show on television right now is The Good Place and I will hear absolutely no argument against it. It’s hilarious, heartwarming, and so fucking smart that it makes me want to pick up my old college philosophy books. Almost. I mean, if I hadn’t sold them for ramen money immediately after classes ended.

It’s all about philosophy, and goes into many of the different philosophies that humans have tried to come up with to make sense of the world and our place in it, and particularly the way we treat one another. I enjoy it for the same reason I kind of hated my college philosophy classes: because it’s so damn confusing sometimes to figure out what’s right once you start examining why you think some action is good or bad, morally speaking.

I turn your attention to the news that Wendy Rogers, Professor of Clinical Ethics at Macquerie University in Australia, has published a report demanding that more than 400 scientific studies be retracted because they may have been based on organs that had been harvested nonconsensually from Chinese prisoners. I already don’t know what to think and we haven’t even made it past the headline yet.

For several years now, human rights activists, world leaders, and scientific journals have called on China to stop harvesting the organs of their prisoners without consent, and China claims that they’ve mostly stopped it although there still is no such law on the books. But the numbers don’t look good for them, seeing as they claim they’re transplanting a fraction of the organs they actually are. It’s obviously still happening, and it appears to be more frequent than volunteered organ donation, so Rogers examined hundreds of studies from the past decade and found that 99% of them didn’t prove they got consent in their research on transplanted organs.

As an example of the type of research we’re talking about, the Guardian points out that in 2017 a prestigious journal retracted one study looking at the outcomes for liver transplants over the course of four years in one Chinese hospital. Important data, but they counted more than 500 livers in that time period, a number that would have been absolutely impossible with the number of known organ donation volunteers in China at that time.

Immediately, I have an ethical dilemma. Several, in fact! The first is this: should we throw away good science that was done via unethical practices? Do the ends justify the means? Let’s quickly look at one of the biggest examples of this in science: there are about 30 known Nazi experimentation projects performed on human prisoners, and we have the data from these experiments today. They’re applicable to those studying hypothermia, chemical weapons, fertility, and other fields. If you take an extremely simplified view of it, you could say that the experiments have already been done and if the data can help human lives in the future, it would be unethical to not use it. But things are always more complicated: what if using that data inspires other people to perform unethical experimentation on humans, because again, maybe the result will justify it? Then the ethics become a bit more muddled.

Philosophy aside, there’s a scientific reason to discard it: unethical research is often badly done research. In 1990, Dr. Robert L. Berger published a detailed investigation of the Dachau hypothermia experiments in the New England Journal of Medicine, finding that they were “riddled with inconsistencies” and showed clear evidence of data falsification and fabrication. And when you step back to think of it, it becomes pretty obvious: the Nazis may have had a few smart guys working for them, but overall it was a an evil, fucked up regime that believed absolute fairytales like, well, the idea of Ultima Thule being a magical place full of giant ubermensch. A “scientist” who has no problem putting hundreds of innocent people in cold vats of water until they froze to death also probably wasn’t big on things like double blinding and statistical significance. And when his bosses are super pleased with doing things like that to someone simply because of their ethnicity or religion, you know he’s going to want to keep them happy with his results, even if it means fudging some numbers here and there. He’s not going to be keen to be the next experimental subject, after all.

So there, I’ve deftly avoided making a philosophical opinion by showing that there’s an empirical reason to discard science that is done with unethical practices. Whew!

To get back to the Chinese transplant case, I still had some other ethical concerns, though, specifically related to the point of these studies: organ donation. Is it unethical to take a dead person’s organs without their consent?

I know this may not win me many fans, but my gut has always said “no.” The ethical thing, in all cases, is to take every last bit of a dead body that might be useful to living humans and put it to use. Eyes, heart, liver, kidneys, whatever someone else needs — the dead don’t need it anymore and even if you have some superstitious idea of what should be done to a body after death, that shouldn’t supercede someone else’s right to live. Once you’re dead, you no longer deserve bodily autonomy. It’s like “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” but instead it’s more like “the needs of the many outweigh the desires of the none.” None, because you’re dead.

So in that case, with that philosophical outlook, does it make it unethical that these studies involve organs that were harvested without permission? Again, in that simplified world, no. Easy call. If it’s always ethical to harvest organs, it’s ethical to study them.

But again, it’s not that simple. I know, it’s annoying, isn’t it? Here’s the problem: those organs aren’t just going to sick people who need them. They’re going to tourists, who can pay for them. This has resulted in an entire capitalist industry being built around the harvesting of organs. Combine that with an industry built around the imprisonment and subsequent execution of political adversaries, and now you have people who are in prison for disagreeing with the Chinese government, who are then executed at a specific date and time primarily because a new person has shown up looking to pay good money for their kidneys, or what have you. And now you have a government that is being rewarded for executing its critics, and boom, there goes your perfectly ethical solution.

And it actually gets worse, if you can believe it. Generally you harvest organs from dead people, but Amnesty International claims that China’s definition of “dead” doesn’t match the rest of the world’s, and so they are frequently pulling organs out of people while they’re still alive, simply to fill the demand.

And that is the mental journey I went down after reading this news — from thinking there’s no way prominent journals should retract 400 scientific papers to realizing that they absolutely, 100% should as a scientific, moral, and ethical necessity.

The post Science, Ethics, and Removing Organs from Those Who’d Rather Keep Them appeared first on Skepchick.

book cover

The 1400-year-old schism between the Sunnis and Shia branches of Islam his often blamed for fuelling wars and communal strife in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and many other countries,as well as a regional cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran . In his new book, "A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi‘is" (Saqi), John McHugo argues that the sectarian conflicts now seen in many Muslim-majority countries were far from inevitable. Here, McHugo, an international lawyer and historian, with over 40 years’ experience of the Arab world, discusses his central arguments.

Why did you decide to write this book?

I was appalled at the facile way in which the Sunni - Shi'i divide has been latched onto by much of the media (and by people who should know better) as the root cause of instability in the Middle East. I knew this was a gross distortion, and felt it was necessary to tell people why.

How would you define the Sunni-Shi'i divide?

The split goes back to the question of who should have led the Muslim community after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD. Who should have guided the believers on the teachings and practice of their faith, now that the Prophet was no longer present? Should Muslims have looked to the companions of the Prophet for this guidance, or should they have turned to his son-in-law and cousin Ali and his descendants who carried the Prophet's blood line?

The Sunni view is that Muslims should look to the Prophet's teachings and example as passed on by his companions, while Shi'is feel that Muslims should follow the interpretation of Islam expounded by Ali and his descendants, the Imams, who of course are also directly descended from the Prophet through his daughter Fatima. This is the essence of the Sunni-Shi'i divide.

Where did it originate, and how significant is the theological history of the split?

Civil wars broke out in the Muslim community in 656 AD, 24 years after the Prophet's death. These wars pitted Ali, the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law, against most of the Prophet's surviving companions. Each side believed the other had betrayed the Prophet's legacy and, therefore, his religion. By now the Muslim community was governing an empire which covered the whole of the Arabian peninsula and stretched from Egypt to the Iranian plateau. Most of the fighting took place in Iraq, where Ali's support was concentrated, and in the Euphrates valley extending up into Syria.

It took some two centuries for the differences between Sunnis and Shi'is to crystallise into separate sects, but scholars from each tradition have frequently borrowed from the other ever since, sometimes acknowledging their sources when they have done so. The differences between Sunnis and Shi'is are not major in terms of doctrine or practice except over the question of authority, and it should be stressed that the two traditions have much, much more in common than divides them.

One group of Shi'is, the Ismaili followers of the Agha Khan, still look to him as an Imam who is a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad and Ali. But most Shi'is believe that the twelfth Imam disappeared from view in the 9th/10th centuries but is still mysteriously and secretly present in the world, and will remain so until the End Times. He is often referred to as "the Hidden Imam". Sunni Muslims find the Twelver Shi'i doctrine of the Hidden Imam very strange and alien. Today, in the absence of the Hidden Imam, most Shi'is follow the opinions on questions of the faith and practice of Islam handed down by learned and pious religious scholars, the greatest of whom are described as "sources of emulation".

In practical terms, this is not so different from the Sunnis who also follow their own scholars but without the concept of "source of emulation". However, at the time of the Iranian revolution Ayatollah Khomeini arrogated to himself a much higher status (velayat-e faqih or "the trusteeship of the religious jurist") which effectively gave him control over the new Islamic republic. It should be stressed that this is not only rejected by Sunnis but is extremely controversial among Shi'is. For instance, Ayatollah Sistani, the highest Shi'i religious authority in Iraq, is flatly opposed to it.

In what ways is the Sunni-Shi'i divide often misunderstood in the West?

Try and forget all the analogies that are presented, such as one sect being a bit like Catholics and the other rather like Protestants. Such comparisons only confuse. Words taken from Christian theology such as "sect" and "heresy" should also be used as little as possible, although sometimes it becomes unavoidable. You have to try to look at Sunnism and Shi'ism, as well as at Islam itself, on their own terms and using their own concepts.

It is only in recent decades that non-specialists in the West have become aware of the divide. It used to have much less political significance. Remember that in 1947, predominantly Sunni-Pakistan was founded by a Shi'i, Muhammad Ali Jinnah - and hardly anybody seemed to notice. The divide has become toxic today because it has been manipulated by powerful states interfering in the affairs of other countries and weak leaders have tolerated bigotry and prejudice in order to shore up their own political support.

What has happened in the West is that people have often latched on to simplistic explanations to explain the Middle East and the Islamic world. A narrative that "they have always hated each other" is very appealing to many who would like to distract attention from the West's own mistakes and self-seeking policies. The Sunni-Shi'i divide seems to fit the bill perfectly, but this commonly held Western perception is actually profoundly misguided.

How is the Sunni-Shi'i relationship viewed in Muslim majority countries? Do the same simplifications exist?

The same simplifications do not exist in Muslim communities, but there is often a dangerous ignorance about the other side. This is probably getting worse at the moment in many countries, aided and abetted by the historical narratives taught in schools and propagated in the media. These reflect the ethos that the government would like to inculcate in the population. In many majority Sunni countries, the way in which the early history of Islam and the Arab conquests is taught deliberately excludes the Shi'i narrative, while the reverse would be the case in Iran.

Historically, Sunnis and Shi'is have often lived in harmony side-by-side, although this would frequently have been tempered by disdain for the other. The Ottomans, for instance, just taxed and conscripted Shi'is into their armies like other Muslims (except on those occasions when they posed a political threat). Where there has been communal strife on a sectarian basis, as in Iraq since 2003, divisions have become far worse than at any time in, perhaps, the last thousand years.

What role has the rise of nationalism played in deepening this divide?

On balance, I would say that nationalism has softened, rather than deepened, the divide but the picture is not clear-cut.

Arab nationalists in particular have tried to reach out to minority religious communities as part of the wider Arab nation. In Iraq, for instance, Sunnis and Shi'is came together at the end of the First World War to oppose direct British rule. Saddam Hussein's greatest nightmare was that the grandchildren of those same Sunnis and Shi'is might one day present a common front against him. In the same way, many of Syria's Alawis and other Shi'i minorities became passionate pan-Arabists.

On the other hand, the fact that Iran is the major Twelver Shi'i power while the majority of Arabs are Sunni has led to a certain "othering" of Arab Shi'is by some Sunni Arab nationalists as potential Iranian fifth columnists. Before 2003, the Iraqi Arab nationalist elites running the country had been disproportionately Sunni, and many of them looked down contemptuously on Shi'is - alienating some Shi'is from Arab nationalsim.

What part has reaction against the West and its military interventions played?

The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 shattered Iraqi society, which was already under extreme strain. This opened the way to a nightmarish sectarian conflict - a terrible demon that is still with us. This consequence was unintended, although it should have been foreseen. It has had a terrible effect by de-stabilising Iraq and souring relations between Sunnis and Shi'is in many other countries.

But there is another, earlier story that should also be remembered. During the colonial era there were many examples of imperial powers using religious differences to divide and rule. However, it is interesting to see in Arab countries how often Sunnis and Shi'is combined to struggle against imperial occupation - in French mandated Syria, for instance - while in Iraq the British established an Arab monarchy that genuinely tried to unite Iraq (although this proved beyond its capabilities).

Do you see the Sunni-Shi'i divide becoming more or less politically important in the near future?

In the long term I am a cautious optimist. I see sectarian politics as a cul-de-sac and this will become increasingly apparent. In the short to medium term, on the other hand, the difficulty is the Middle Eastern equivalent of pork barrel politics. Governments and political parties use their power of patronage to benefit their supporters. When this leads to favouring one religious (or ethnic) group over another, as it often does, it inevitably means that the rest lose out. This is the curse of democratic politics in today's Iraq, as well as in monarchical systems such as Saudi Arabia.

Yet there are a few straws in the wind that indicate things could go in a more positive direction. Secularist parties still attract large numbers of votes in Iraq, where there are signs that the Shi'i cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is trying to reach out across the sectarian divide. We shall see. Remember also that much pavement politics tends to be cross-sectarian, as when Iraqis demonstrate against corruption and the kind of pork barrel politics to which I have referred. This can also be seen in the "You stink" movement in Lebanon in 2015 (when demonstrators from across the sectarian divides called for efficient garbage collection and an end to corruption) and, perhaps, most of all in Iran's so-called Green Revolution which deterred the Mullahs from rigging the election results in 2009. So I am not without hope.

"A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi’is" by John McHugo (Saqi Books, 2019) is now available in paperback, RRP £10.99


This article is a preview from the Winter 2018 edition of New Humanist

I keep my conversations with young people to a minimum. Not because I lack interest in what they have to say but because I can no longer hear any one of them talk for more than a few minutes about their future life without being overcome by guilt.

Only a month ago I had to escape to the bathroom after learning from a bright young woman that unless her work contract was renewed, she would have to give up her rented flat and look for work outside London. If I’d stayed in the room, a moment would have arrived when I’d have felt compelled to admit my personal responsibility. I’d have had no option but to issue a fulsome apology for the Iraq war, the gig economy, global warming, austerity and Brexit.

Sometimes, though, I miss my cue. Only recently at my partner’s 70th birthday party, one of the guests, the 22-year-old grandson of an old university friend, started talking about the problems of still living in the family home.

“You can’t take a woman back to your place when your place is so clearly still your father’s place,” he said.

I might have made my usual escape at this point if Matt’s face had not suddenly brightened.

“But there is one thing,” he said. “I may not have a place of my own but I have found the woman of my dreams.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

“It’s all down to progress. The Internet. In the last five years I’ve been out with over 50 young women, all selected for me by a nice middle-class dating site. Every one of them more or less met my online criteria. They were left-wing, agnostic, fond of indie bands and Stewart Lee. Before dating sites I’d have been lucky to have met any one of them. But as it was I could choose the very best. Lisa. The woman of my dreams.”

“Isn’t that a bit mechanical?” I said. “One series of Internet ticks gets together with another series of Internet ticks? No room there for the different or the unexpected.”

Matt was unmoved. “How much choice did you have at my age? The girl next door or that friend of your sister’s or the blonde from the youth club. Hardly a galaxy of talent. More a gene pond than a gene pool.”

I joined in the laughter but later that night I found I was busily compiling an inventory of my teenage choices. My first love, Bernadette O’Leary, had indeed been close friends with my sister, Madeleine. And it was also uncomfortably true that I’d only discovered the appeal of my second love, Pamela Wilson, when we’d ended up facing each in a Paul Jones dance at the Brownmoor Youth Club.

But Bernadette and Pamela were wonderfully different, nowhere near to meeting any exacting criteria I might now lay down on the Internet. Bernadette was a devout Roman Catholic who regarded French kissing as a mortal sin, thought Hilaire Belloc was a major poet, and had a framed picture of Frank Ifield on her bedside table.

And what about the four years of my young life I’d lavished on Pamela? Her only pleasure in life was dancing the quickstep every Saturday night to the rhythms of Bill Gregson and his Broadcasting Orchestra in the Tower Ballroom, New Brighton. As I all too clearly remembered, my sole reason for putting up with so many evenings shuffling miserably around that sweaty dance floor was the thought that one day soon, on the sofa in her living room after her mother had gone to bed, she might at last let me put my hand up her top.

I couldn’t evade the truth. I’d spent years and years of my youth not so much pursuing difference as desperately trying to ignore it while I sought to assuage my adolescent lust. And it had been hell.

Perhaps Matt was right. Extreme similarity was the new romantic ideal. In this sad modern world we could only find true happiness by being with someone exactly like ourselves. Was it too late to try? I spent my last waking moments mentally composing a hypothetical entry for a dating site.

“Elderly but still active ex-academic who supports Liverpool through thick and thin, revels in the music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, relishes the writing of Howard Jacobson and Julian Barnes, delights in the humour of Cheers and Seinfeld and Frasier, seeks similar.” But I couldn’t stop the adolescent in me from adding: “big breasts an asset.”

This article is a preview from the Winter 2018 edition of New Humanist

Physics – Ceri Brenner

On Tuesday 2 October I jumped up from my desk and cheered. The Nobel Prize for Physics had just been announced for “ground-breaking inventions in the field of laser physics”. This year’s prize is a triple whammy of celebration for me, my colleagues at the Central Laser Facility and my research community.

First, half of the prize was awarded to Arthur Ashkin for developing the technique of optical tweezers, in recognition of the impact this has had on studies of biological systems. He discovered that at the focus of a laser beam, the light has delicate up and down pushing forces which can trap tiny objects like viruses, bacteria and even parts inside living cells, so that they can be held in place and studied up close. This technique is now widely used all around the world, including by my colleagues, and is a key technique for biology and biomedical science.

Second, the other half of the prize was awarded equally to Donna Strickland and Gerard Mourou for developing high intensity and very short pulses of laser light, in recognition of the impact this has had on medicine, industry and physics research. Intensity is a measure of how fast and over what area a given amount of energy is delivered. Since the invention of the laser in 1960, the intensity of lasers had steadily been increasing as improvements were made. However, by the early 1980s progress stalled because the laser light being generated was so intense that it was burning and fracturing the components of the laser system itself. Strickland and Mourou’s breakthrough was in developing a technique to overcome this issue to give ultrashort laser flashes and ever-increasing intensity. Their mechanism, called chirped pulse amplification, is what enabled lasers to be designed for eye surgery, for example, and is also why we have the super-intense lasers that I use in my research.

Third, this is the first time in 55 years that a woman has been recognised with a Nobel Physics Prize – ending a long period of women being wrongly overlooked for the important contributions they have made to Nobel-worthy physics breakthroughs. So three cheers for that.

Ceri Brenner is a physicist who works for the Science and Technology Facilities Council

Chemistry – Mark Lorch

Chemical engineering processes, used to manufacture everything from pharmaceuticals to plastics, generally require extreme conditions such as high temperatures, pressures and unpleasant chemical solvents. Meanwhile, natural protein molecules – enzymes – manage to control equally complicated chemical reactions within living things. They work under far more pleasant conditions. Protein engineers tinker with enzymes to make them catalyse different reactions. The obvious approach is via rational design, and is much like the way that a car mechanic might alter a piece here and there until the engine works more efficiently. Similarly, a protein engineer might tweak an atom here or there until the desired function is achieved. But rational design depends on detailed knowledge. What if you have no idea what the protein looks like or how it works?

Frances Arnold, one of the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry, solved that problem. She developed techniques that harness the power of evolution to engineer enzymes. Evolution occurs through three steps. First, there must be a series of variations (such as mutations). Second, the variations must cause differences in organism that lead to selection of the fittest. Last, the variations must be passed on to the next generation, when the cycle can be repeated. In nature, mutations may occur slowly and randomly and fitness is defined by how well an organism survives in the environment.

In direct evolution, a gene might be selected that produces a particular protein of interest. Maybe the enzyme speeds up a useful chemical reaction but it is unstable and only works for a few minutes. So a whole series of mutations are deliberately introduced. The genes producing a protein that works for longer than the natural enzyme get selected. These are then subjected to another round of mutations, and so on. Eventually, an enzyme emerges that fits the protein engineer’s criteria.
Due to Arnold’s work, we now have environmentally friendly processes that harness artificially evolved enzymes which can produce everything from pharmaceuticals to bio-fuels.

Mark Lorch is a chemist at the University of Hull

Biology – Lydia Leon

Measles is highly contagious. Before the first measles vaccine was introduced in 1963, and the subsequent Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine in the early 1970s, epidemics caused around 2.6 million deaths a year, mostly children. In the decades since, global vaccination has been hugely effective: from 2000 to 2016 there was an 84 per cent drop in measles deaths globally – preventing 20 million deaths.

However, measles still kills many people each year – and 2018 has seen one of the worst outbreaks across Europe in recent history. Tens of thousands of new cases across the continent have resulted in dozens of deaths, many in countries that had previously eradicated or curbed the virus. The largest outbreak has been in Ukraine where over 30,000 cases had been reported by the start of October. In 2016 the World Health Organisation said that the UK had eradicated measles – but by early September this year, almost 900 cases were confirmed in the UK. According to Public Health England, inefction was most likely amongst unvaccinated teenagers and young people who missed out on MMR during a period of mistrust in the vaccine in the late 1990s.

This mistrust can largely be blamed on a debunked piece of research published in 1998 in the Lancet, purporting to link the MMR vaccine to autism and other disorders. The paper was later retracted and its primary author, Andrew Wakefield, struck off the medical register. Subsequent research has conclusively shown the vaccine to be safe and highly effective. But in the years following its publication, up to one million children in the UK may have missed out on MMR jabs, leaving them vulnerable to infection. Significant numbers of parents across the world still choose not to give their children the MMR vaccine. The WHO cites gaps in immunisation coverage as a key factor in the recent European outbreaks and setbacks to the ongoing global campaign to eliminate measles. The damage that Wakefield’s fraudulent paper has done to trust in the vaccine has reverberated across continents, and means that much remains to be done to eradicate measles.

Lydia Leon has a PhD in women’s health from University College London

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I’ve made a few videos about genetic testing, most of which involve me sort of defending it being open to the general public. To sum up, I think that companies like 23 and Me are generally good in that it allows nerds like me to learn more about our genetic data, and about genetics in general. But we need to be really careful in a number of respects: first, we have to be careful about what these companies are doing with our data, especially here in the US where we have a truly predatory pharmaceutical industry combined with a privatized healthcare system in which companies are just begging for reasons to deny people coverage, like “pre-existing conditions” that they might claim existed in your genes when you were born.

The other way we need to be careful is in how these companies inform people about their genetic information. Statistics can be really tricky, and it can be hard for people to understand how their genes might increase their risk of certain diseases. Like, what does it mean for you if you have a gene that, say, raises your risk of contracting Alzheimer’s by 50%? Obviously that’s not good, but is it something to lose sleep over? What’s your baseline risk? What are your lifestyle factors that might play in?

You don’t want to spring that kind of information on people without putting it into the right context, because you don’t want people freaking out or even doing something drastic, like getting a double mastectomy as soon as they learn they carry the BRCA1 gene mutation that increases risk of breast cancer.

Now there’s new research published in Nature Human Behavior that suggests a related danger we might need to think more about, and which has as much chance of being beneficial to people as detrimental. Psychologists at Stanford found that telling people about their genes was enough to activate what we colloquially know as the placebo effect. Basically, genes became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

They first had two groups of 100 subjects each run on a treadmill until they couldn’t anymore. They then waited a week and brought them back and told one group that they possessed a gene mutation that made it more likely that they would get winded during physical exercise, and that they would be more likely to overheat. They told the other group that they had the protective form of the gene where they wouldn’t get easily winded. Then they had all of them run on the treadmill again.

The groupings were random, and while this gene does exist, the people in each group didn’t actually necessarily have the mutation. Despite that, the group that was told they would be more likely to be winded couldn’t run nearly as long as the people in the other group. Just telling them their genes made them likely to get winded, got winded.

They followed this up by repeating the experiment but with a gene found to make people feel fuller faster, protecting them against obesity. The people who were told they had that gene mutation ate less in a meal compared to people who were told they did not have that mutation.

It’s a pretty impressive effect, considering that it didn’t even require giving anyone a sugar pill, and it really underlines how important it is for genetics companies to frame their results if it’s that easy for people to take their genetics as destiny.

Just so it’s clear, this isn’t a finding that shows that learning you have genes associated with cancer will lead you to developing cancer as a placebo effect. But the researchers point out that if it’s a gene for lung cancer that comes along with reduced respiration ability, you might find it hard to catch your breath.

Of course, even if it does that we don’t know how long it would last. This study, for purely ethical concerns, had to be very short-term — the subjects thought they had the gene for less than a day before the researchers sat down with them and explained that it was all a big fat lie. Because really, you can’t just sent people out into the world believing they have certain genetic risk factors that they don’t have.

The tricky thing with placebos is that sometimes they work even if you know they’re placebos, so there’s no easy solution to this. All we can do is keep studying it and hope that companies like 23 and Me take extra precautions to make sure they’re not sending people out into the world believing things that aren’t true about their genetic destiny.

The post The Weird Way That Learning About Your Genes Can Change You appeared first on Skepchick.

My latest book, Shoot For The Moon, has just been published, and presents a radically new look at the science of success.

In July 1969, Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, one of humanity’s greatest achievements. A few years ago I was chatting to comedian and space enthusiast Helen Keen about the Apollo landings. I knew that the technology used during the missions has been extremely well documented, and asked whether anyone had explored the psychology behind this remarkable achievement. Helen didn’t think that it had, and kindly put me in touch with her friend, Craig Scott. Craig is another space enthusiast and, over the years, has become friends with many of the people who populated NASA’s Mission Control during the Apollo era. He kindly put me in touch with this remarkable bunch and they were kind enough to agreed to be interviewed them about their historic work.

I discovered that most of the controllers came from modest, working-class, backgrounds, and that they were often the first in their families to go to college. Perhaps most surprising of all, they were astonishingly young. When Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, the average age of the mission controllers was just twenty-six years old.

After extensive interviewing and research, I eventually identified the eight principles that I believe make-up the Apollo mindset. ‘Shoot For The Moon’ describes these principles, including how the seeds of success were sewn in the President Kenndy’s charismatic speeches, how pessimism was crucial to progress, and how fear and tragedy were transformed into hope and optimism. The book also describes techniques that allow you to incorporate these principles into your own life. Whether you want to start a new business venture, change careers, get promoted, escape the rat race or pursue a lifelong passion, these techniques will help you to reach your own Moon.

Books on success usually focus on genetically gifted Olympians, hardheaded CEOs and risk taking entrepreneurs. This book presents a radically different perspective on how to achieve your aims and ambitions. It tells the inspirational story of a group of ordinary people who did something extraordinary. Perhaps most important of all, once you understand how they did what they did, you can follow in their footsteps and achieve the extraordinary in your own life.

Shoot For The Moon is available in the UK here, and in the US here.

As many of you know, the Day of Reflection conference, scheduled for November 17 in NYC, has been cancelled, and some hundreds of ticket holders are now left seeking refunds.

I was forced to pull out of this event nearly two months ago and have said very little about it since. Now that Travis Pangburn has officially announced that he will be “folding” his touring company, Pangburn Philosophy, I can give a brief account of what happened.

  1. I participated in 10 events organized by Pangburn Philosophy between September 2017 and July 2018. I didn’t always approve of the way those events were staged or marketed, but all of them appeared to be successful.
  1. However, after the cancellation of an August 2018 conference in Auckland, Pangburn seemed intent on running his business off a cliff. He owed a lot of money to several speakers at that point, in the form of unpaid fees and reimbursements. Most egregiously, he seemed less than fully committed to refunding ticket holders for the cancelled Auckland conference.
  1. At this point, I had two more dates on the calendar with Pangburn in 2018: a dialogue with Brian Greene in Toronto (September 5) and the Day of Reflection conference in New York (November 17). I kept my appointment in Toronto because I was contractually obligated to do so. I also didn’t want to do anything that would harm Pangburn’s ability to pay his mounting debts.
  1. After Toronto, however, it became clear that Pangburn could not be trusted to put his house in order. Facing a total lack of transparency, and realizing that Pangburn was using my ongoing association with him to book future speakers, I withdrew from the NYC conference on September 21 (as well as from a Vancouver conference scheduled for March 2019). Legally, I was able to do this because Pangburn was in breach of my speaking contract. Ethically, I had a far more compelling reason to back out: I couldn’t promote or participate in an event for which I believed other speakers were unlikely to get paid; nor could I continue to work with someone who still hadn’t given refunds to ticket holders for a conference that had been canceled more than a month before.
  1. After I withdrew from the NYC conference, my management team asked Pangburn to give us the email addresses of all ticket holders so that we could notify them that I was no longer involved with the event. Pangburn refused to provide this information. However, he assured us that he would notify everyone himself. (I do not know whether he ever did.) He then stopped responding to our emails.
  1. At the time I pulled out of the NYC conference, I assumed that the revenue from ticket sales was still safely in the box office and that Pangburn would be obliged to issue refunds should the conference fail. That’s how things normally work, especially at a reputable venue like Lincoln Center. It hadn’t occurred to me that New York ticketholders might suffer the same fate as those in Auckland.
  1. I was left with a legal and ethical puzzle that I could not solve. Again, I had no way to communicate with ticket holders directly, and discussing the chaos surrounding Pangburn on my podcast never seemed like an option. Several friends and colleagues still had events on the calendar with him, and I didn’t want to do anything to derail them. In addition, many speakers who were aware of my reasons for pulling out of the NYC conference were still signed on and seemed intent on making it work. I couldn’t see anything to do that wouldn’t risk creating further harms.

Although Pangburn still owes several speakers (including me) an extraordinary amount of money, we were willing to participate in the NYC conference for free as recently as a few days ago, if he would have handed it over to us and stepped away. I have been told that this offer was made, and he declined it.

I find it appalling that so many people were needlessly harmed by the implosion of Pangburn Philosophy. I can assure you that every speaker associated with the NYC event will be much wiser when working with promoters in the future.

Sam Harris





The post A few thoughts on the implosion of Pangburn Philosophy appeared first on Sam Harris.

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve recently gone back to school for an M.Ed in Higher Education. Regular readers may know that I already have a humanities PhD, which raises a pretty obvious question: “What the hell Dan? Aren’t you done with school? Why collect yet another degree? Seriously what is wrong with you?”

There are a few reasons I decided to go back to school. but most of them ultimately boil down to one thing: the academic job market. I’ve been writing about my experiences looking for a job over the last few years, and after four years and dozens and dozens of applications, it became very clear that something had to change if I planned on actually getting a job before retirement age.

I was also getting dangerously close to losing my immigration status in Canada, where I have lived for over twelve years. My three-year postgraduate work visa was set to expire this past summer, and with no employment on the horizon that would satisfy CIC requirements for renewal, going back to school was essentially the only way for me to stay in the country short of marriage (which an immigration lawyer actually suggested).

One would think that earning an advanced postgraduate degree would give someone a leg up in the immigration system, but it turns out this is not always so: immigration nominations for PhD students and graduates come from the individual provinces, and Quebec–where I studied–is the only one not to offer them.* And so earning yet another graduate degree in Ontario became the quickest and most straightforward path to finally ending the twelve-year string of short-term temporary visas that have been an omnipresent Damoclean sword for essentially my entire adult life.

But why Higher Ed?

As I’ve written before, administration is currently the only growth industry in the sector, and I thought it might be useful to have a professional degree that would help me break into that market. I also do honestly believe that schools would benefit from having more administrators who have first-hand experience with teaching and research, and with actual lived experience as graduate students and academic contract workers. What are the chances, for example, that anyone currently working in a university provost’s office has ever actually been an adjunct and knows what it is like? Or has even been a graduate student any time after the 1980s?

Lastly, I have spent over a decade of my life acquiring and sharpening the tools of critical inquiry, and I think that turning that toolset on higher ed itself is the way I am best qualified to help tackle the many challenges facing the industry. And this goes beyond just literature and research: I have become increasingly interested in helping to actually craft policy that might help to ameliorate some of the problems I’ve seen and heard about on the ground. This degree is a first step in that direction.

*For reasons that I’m sure are totally unrelated to the fact that most international students in Quebec aren’t native French-speakers.


The post Why I went back to school in Higher Ed appeared first on School of Doubt.

Hello everyone! Many apologies for my long absence, but things got a little busy for me when I went back to school (yes, again) to actually officially study Higher Education!

The upside for you, dear readers, is that my new studies have provided lots of new grist for the old mill, and I plan to post fairly regularly about my ideas, experiences, and research over the next few semesters. This will include everything from day-to-day experiences in the programme itself to discussions of the existing literature on higher ed to summaries of my own research in the field (and possibly links to full papers for the true masochists among you).

Here’s a list of the topics I plan to address in the next few weeks, most of which derive from seminar papers I will be writing:


Is the Human Capital Model a Myth? Signalling, Credentialism, and Rent-Seeking in Higher Ed

The Idea of a Stoic University (Or: How to Un-coddle the American Mind)

Transnational Mobility in the Academic Labour Market for the Humanities

Graduate School as the Structural Model for the Theory of Emerging Adulthood


I’m looking forward to bringing you all along with me on this new journey!

The post SoD is back in business! appeared first on School of Doubt.

ToS1Recently, a few people on Twitter were kind enough to mention ‘Theatre of Science’ – a joint project between best-selling science writer (and pal) Simon Singh and I from many years ago. I thought it might be fun to turn back the hands of time and share some more information and photos about the project……

In 2001 Simon suggested that the two of us create, and present, a live science-based show at a West End theatre. I knew that this type of entertainment had been popular around the turn of the last century, but was initially sceptical about it working for a modern-day audience. However, Simon won me over and I agreed to give it a go. Simon then persuaded The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts to fund the project and The Soho Theatre to stage the show.

In the first half, Simon used mathematics to ‘prove’ that the Teletubbies are evil, undermined The Bible Code, and illustrated probability theory via gambling scams and bets. After the interval, I explored the psychology of deception with the help of magic tricks, optical illusions and a live lie detector. It was all decidedly low-tech and mostly depended on an overhead projector, a few acetates, and some marker pens!  We opened in March 2002 and quickly sold-out. The reviewers were very kind, with The Evening Standard describing the show as ‘… a unique masterclass on the mind’ and What’s On saying that it was “…uplifting, thought-provoking and frequently hilarious.” In 2002 we also took the show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

 In 2005 we staged a far more ambitious version of the show at the Soho Theatre.

tos4A few years before, I had been involved in a project exploring the science of anatomy, and had arranged for top contortionist Delia Du Sol to go into an MRI scanner and perform extreme back-bends. During Theatre of Science, we showed these scans to the audience as Delia bent her body into seemingly impossible shapes and then squeezed into a tiny perspex box.

In addition, musician Sarah Angliss demonstrated the science behind various weird electronic instruments, and performed songs on a saw and a theremin!

We wanted to end the show on a genuinely dangerous, science-based, stunt. HVFX – a company that makes high voltage electricity equipment – kindly supplied two huge Tesla coils capable of generating six-foot bolts of million-volt lightning across the stage. At the end of each show, either Simon or I entered a coffin-shaped cage and hoped that it would protect us against the force of the million-volt strikes. The stunt attracted lots of media attention and once again we quickly sold out.

ToS2In 2006 we staged it at an arts and science festival in New York (co-sponsored by the Centre for Inquiry).

Nowadays we are used to people enjoying an evening of science and comedy in the theatre, but back then lots of people were deeply skeptical about the idea. If we proved anything, it was that it’s possible attract a mainstream audience to a show about science.

Anyway, I hoped you enjoyed reading about it all and huge thanks to everyone who worked so hard to make the project a success, including: Portia Smith, Delia Du Sol, Sarah Angliss, Stephen Wolf, Tracy King, Nick Field, HVFX, Austin Dacey, Jessica Brenner and Caroline Watt (who came up with the title for the show) and, of course…..Simon Singh!

Theatre of Science Show - Soho Theatre




I have teamed up with the folks at Business Insider to make this short video containing science-based tips on how to be more productive and a better leader. Enjoy!

coverMy new book on how to remember everything is out today!

I have a terrible memory and so went in search of all of the quick and easy mind tricks that will allow you to remember names, faces, your PIN, and other important information.  It even has a super magic trick built into it.

You can buy the book here and I have created this new Quirkology video with 10 amazing memory hacks…


Here are some things that you will hear when you sit down to dinner with the vanguard of the Intellectual Dark Web: There are fundamental biological differences between men and women. Free speech is under siege. Identity politics is a toxic ideology that is tearing American society apart. And we’re in a dangerous place if these ideas are considered “dark.”

I was meeting with Sam Harris, a neuroscientist; Eric Weinstein, a mathematician and managing director of Thiel Capital; the commentator and comedian Dave Rubin; and their spouses in a Los Angeles restaurant to talk about how they were turned into heretics. A decade ago, they argued, when Donald Trump was still hosting “The Apprentice,” none of these observations would have been considered taboo.

Read the rest at The New York Times

The post Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web appeared first on Sam Harris.

In October last year I was invited to CSICON in Las Vegas to interview Professor Richard Dawkins.  The video has just been posted on Youtube, and here’s the two of us chatting about evolution, The God Delusion, and my aunty Jean.

[Update to the update: SIU has posted a statement on the programme here. As it essentially confirms my suspicions that it is designed to steal soft academic labour from new PhDs by trading on their institutional loyalty and need for affiliation without paying them for their services, I provide the link here but see no need to comment further.]

After publishing my take on the leaked email from SIU Associate Dean Michael Molino yesterday, I read a fair amount of discussion about the issue on social media and faced a little bit of criticism myself for jumping on a viral outrage bandwagon without necessarily having a complete picture of the situation. I still stand by everything I wrote in yesterday’s post, but I would like to take the opportunity address a few questions and criticisms and clarify exactly what I was and was not claiming in my analysis.

Is this email even real? How do we know it really said everything that ended up in the viral version?

Okay, fair enough. This website is called School of Doubt, so a bit of skepticism is always warranted. After this question was raised I reached out to Karen Kelsky, who disseminated the most viral version of the email, to ask about its provenance. She confirmed that it was forwarded to her by an SIU faculty member she knew personally. Epistemically speaking that is good enough for me, but nothing’s perfect I guess.

Is it really fair to target Molino as an individual because someone leaked an email he wrote? Isn’t this just doxxing that invites harassment?

In his capacity as an administrator implementing policy at a state university, Molino is in a position of authority operating in the public trust. This requires transparency and accountability, and I don’t think sharing his official contact information is doxxing any more than it would be for an administrator at a government agency like the EPA or FCC. Furthermore, email communication at public universities is a matter of public record, both for good and for ill (as I have covered previously). While people may disagree about the ethics of leaking and whistleblowing, it is really not possible to argue that such an email could have been written with any reasonable expectation of privacy. But yes, he’s probably going to have a bad time and that sucks.

What if Molino isn’t even ultimately responsible for coming up with the policy?

Well, bluntly, who cares? He is clearly working to implement it. Not to get all Godwinny, but we’ve heard that one before. You can write to the Provost instead if you want. I won’t provide his email but I bet you can find it.

Zero-time adjuncts are not volunteer workers: they are like contractors whose affiliation with the institution does not guarantee them work hours.

First off there is a terminology problem here. Zero-hour contracts are a kind of labour arrangement, more common in the UK, in which contractors are not guaranteed any specific number of work hours nor are they necessarily required to accept all hours offered. Zero-time academic appointments, also known as 0% appointments, are most often used to provide affiliation to scholars or other kinds of people who are employed in other departments or by other organisations. For example, an economist might be tenured faculty at a business school but also have a zero-time appointment in the economics department of the arts faculty of the same school. This person might advise students or otherwise participate in research and service in both departments, but it is understood that the work in their 0% appointment is covered by the pay from their full-time appointment. Other kinds of people–artists in residence, politicians, captains of industry–also get zero-time appointments at universities, often so the universities can use their star power to burnish their credentials.

Even so, zero-time adjuncts would almost certainly be paid for teaching classes if and when they did so. Not to do so would probably be illegal, right?

Okay, here is the crux of the issue. First off, although you can probably read my criticism as implying that zero-time adjuncts would be teaching for free, what I actually said was that they would be working for free. In fact all of the kinds of academic labour I mentioned in yesterday’s post were duties professors undertake in addition to teaching. Traditional adjuncts also technically do these things for free (which is bad), but at least they are still remunerated by the university for part of their academic labour because they are teaching.

So what does it mean when they also don’t get teaching?

Does anyone seriously believe that they will be compensated at a specific and fair hourly rate for time they spend at departmental meetings, on thesis committees, advising and communicating with students, collaborating on research projects, or having other “intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units”? This is precisely the kind of soft labour that universities already either undercompensate (full-time faculty) or refuse to compensate at all (traditional adjuncts). Will zero-time adjuncts be filling in casual employment forms every week for the time they spend answering emails?

Like it or not, “professor” is still a word with a meaning. Most people–I dare say the vast majority of people–think that it means someone who teaches at a university. Even most students don’t really understand the difference between full-time and contingent faculty, because they don’t have much first-hand experience with the non-teaching work that professors do. Or when they do (e.g. academic advising, mentorship, etc.), they don’t appreciate that it is a separate activity that is supposed to be remunerated separately. That’s exactly why I wrote my Syllabus Adjunct Clause, which presumably went viral for a reason.

This lack of awareness is why it is so dangerous to allow this precedent. Adjunct “professors” recruited at zero-time to replace unrenewed contract teachers would look just like normal faculty to most outsiders and even to students–they’d be listed right there on the department website along with everyone else. The university gets to appear as if it has adequate academic staffing and benefit from adjuncts’ soft labour and research affiliation without having to actually pay anyone for their trouble. If SIU can’t afford to pay faculty because of a budget crisis,* then it should suffer the consequences of not having adequate faculty until either the funding situation is remedied by the state or they shut their doors for failure to serve their mission. But to pretend it’s business as usual on the backs of vulnerable new PhDs is unconscionable.

*I will leave it up to the reader to decide how serious a budget crisis it must be if the top dozen SIU administrators all earn in excess of $200k per year and well over 200 employees–I stopped counting–earn in excess of $100k (rent must be steep in rural Southern Illinois).

The post SIU Zero-time Adjunct Follow-up appeared first on School of Doubt.

Southern Illinois University has finally taken the step that we all knew was coming, whether we openly admitted it to ourselves or not. The progression was too obvious, the market forces in question too powerful, for this result to have been anything but inevitable. The question was never if, but when, and it turns out that when is today.

Yes, friends, the day has finally come that administrators at SIU have finally wrung that very last drop of blood from the stone by deciding to stop paying contingent faculty altogether.

Courtesy of The Professor Is In on Facebook (emphasis mine):

Dear Chairs,

I know you are swamped right now with various requests and annual duties. I apologize for adding to that, but I am here to advocate for something that merits your attention. The Alumni Association has initiated a pilot program involving the College of Science, College of Liberal Arts, and the College of Applied Sciences and Arts, seeking qualified alumni to join the SIU Graduate Faculty in a zero-time (adjunct) status.

Candidates for appointment must meet HLC accreditation guidelines for appointment as adjunct professors, and they will generally hold an academic doctorate or other terminal degree as appropriate for the field.

These blanket zero-time adjunct graduate faculty appointments are for 3-year periods, and can be renewed. While specific duties of alumni adjuncts will likely vary across academic units, examples include service on graduate student thesis committees, teaching specific graduate or undergraduate lectures in one’s area of expertise, service on departmental or university committees, and collaborations on grant proposals and research projects. Moreover, participating alumni can benefit from intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units, as well as through collegial networking opportunities with other alumni adjuncts who will come together regularly (either in-person or via the web) to discuss best practices across campus.

The Alumni Association is already working to identify prospective candidates, but it asks for your help in nominating some of your finest former students who are passionate about supporting SIU. Please reach out to your faculty to see if they might nominate a former student who would meet HLC accreditation guidelines for adjunct faculty appointment, which is someone holding a Ph.D., MFA, or other terminal degree. One of the short-comings with our current approach to the doctoral alumni is that the database only includes those with a Ph.D. earned at SIU, but often doesn’t capture SIU graduates with earned doctorates from other institutions. Here are the recommended steps to follow:

· Chairs in collaboration with faculty should consider specific needs/desires of their particular department, and ask how they could best utilize adjunct faculty. For example, many departments are always looking for additional highly qualified members to serve on thesis committees, and to provide individual lectures, seminars, and mentorship activities for both graduate and undergraduate students.

· Based on faculty recommendations, chairs should identify a few good candidates and approach those individuals to see if they are interested. The interested candidate should provide his/her CV (along with a brief letter of interest outlining areas in which they are willing to participate) to the department chair, who can then approach the Graduate Dean for final vetting and approval.

The University hasn’t yet attempted its first alumni adjunct appointment, but this is the general mechanism already in place. Meera would like CoLA to establish a critical mass of nominees before the end of the summer. A goal of at least one (1) nominee per department would get us going.



Associate Dean for Budget, Personnel, and Research

P: 618/453-2466
F: 618/453-3253

In case you don’t speak adminstratese, “zero-time” means “unpaid.” Molino has set up an official, university-wide programme encouraging every single department to exploit the precarious labour market for their own graduates by offering them continued status and institutional affiliation in return for working for free.

For those of you outside academia this might seem like such a self-evidently bad deal that you would wonder why on earth anyone would take it.

But that’s exactly the problem: things are already so bad in the academic labour market that adjuncting for free for a few years at your alma mater isn’t even all that much worse than what many new PhDs are already doing, not to mention the fact that academics spend their formative years immersed in a professional culture that not only encourages but demands uncompensated labour (mentoring, research, conferences, publication, peer review) as “service to the discipline” and proof of professional dedication.

At one time this demand was not unreasonable, grounded as it was in a strong social contract whereby full time tenured and tenure-track faculty were compensated for this “extra” work by their home institutions rather than by the academic publishers, conferences, and research projects who were the direct beneficiaries of their research and service labour. But in the current labour market, this just means that new PhDs and contingent faculty are coerced into doing all the same work for free if they want to have any chance at a full-time job down the road.

Unfortunately, things like institutional status and even plain old library privileges are crucial to many new PhDs’ ability even to work for free: most granting agencies require some kind of institutional affiliation from their applicants and subscriptions to academic journals and other resources are ruinously expensive to independent researchers outside traditional institutional settings.

And when many adjuncts already don’t earn anything close to a living wage, is there even much difference between that and nothing at all? In the end, it’s just a few more deliveries for Uber Eats.

[Ed. note: I posted a follow-up to this post addressing some common questions and criticisms here]

The post And so It Has Come to This appeared first on School of Doubt.

Suppose we had robots perfectly identical to men, women and children and we were permitted by law to interact with them in any way we pleased. How would you treat them?

That is the premise of “Westworld,” the popular HBO series that opened its second season Sunday night. And, plot twists of Season 2 aside, it raises a fundamental ethical question we humans in the not-so-distant future are likely to face.

Read the rest at The New York Times

The post It's Westworld. What's Wrong With Cruelty to Robots? appeared first on Sam Harris.


Thank you for writing me with your question about [COURSE]. I am currently out of the office because I am contingent faculty and do not have an office.

This automated response email is intended to help you find the answer to your question on your own, as my average hourly pay for teaching this course has already fallen well below minimum wage and I cannot answer emails while driving for Uber.

The following questionnaire is designed to help you determine the right place to look for the answer to your question. Please go through it in order until you find the answer to your query. IF and ONLY IF you go through the entire list without finding the answer to your question, please follow the instructions at the end as to where to send your question in order to receive an answer directly.

Let’s begin, shall we?

1. Am I your professor, and are you currently enrolled in my class?

If the answer is NO, please consult your course schedule online to determine which professor you are supposed to be bothering with your inane question.

If you have questions about enrollment and registration, please contact the Office of the Registrar, where they receive both fair hourly pay and full benefits in compensation for helping you solve your problems.

2. Is the answer to your question on the course syllabus, which we went over in detail on the first day of class and which is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?

Questions answered on the syllabus include but are not limited to:

When and where does our class meet?

What assignments do we have and when are they due?

When are exams and what will be on them?

How many points are deducted from our final grade when we email you questions that are clearly answered on the syllabus?

3. If your question is about a specific assignment, is it answered on the assignment sheet, which we went over in detail in class and which is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?

If you do not understand specific terminology used on the assignment sheet, please try consulting your textbook’s glossary, a dictionary, or Google. You may also want to try coming to class, where I teach you what these words mean.

4. Is your question answered on our course FAQ page, which currently lists 127 commonly asked questions and is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?

You may find it easier to use Ctrl+F and search for specific keywords to navigate this very long document.

5. Is your question unrelated to our class, inappropriate, or just plain unanswerable?

Such questions might include but are not limited to:

How much wood a woodchuck can chuck

The sound of one hand clapping, trees falling in the woods, or other Zen koans (try this book instead)

Whether or not Bernie would have won

6. If you have reached the end of this questionnaire without finding the answer you need, you probably have a valid question. Congratulations!

Please contact your TA for assistance.

The post *Out of Office Response* Re: quick question? appeared first on School of Doubt.

Sorry not to be in regular blogging mode at the moment. Here’s a video of our evidence session to parliament, where they are running an inquiry into research integrity. I think clinical trials are the best possible way to approach this issue. Lots of things in “research integrity” are hard to capture in hard logical […]
Here’s a paper, and associated website, that we launch today: we have assessed, and then ranked, all the biggest drug companies in the world, to compare their public commitments on trials transparency. Regular readers will be familiar with this ongoing battle. In medicine we use the results of clinical trials to make informed treatments about […]
By now I hope you all know about the ongoing global scandal of clinical trial results being left unpublished, and of course our AllTrials campaign. Doctors, researchers, and patients cannot make truly informed choices about which treatments work best if they don’t have access to all the trial results. Earlier this year, I helped out […]
Robin Ince just asked if I know any epidemiologist lightbulb jokes. I wrote this for him. How many epidemiologists does it take to change a lightbulb? We’ve found 12,000 switches hidden around the house. Some of them turn this lightbulb on, some of them don’t; some of them only work sometimes; and some of them […]
People often talk about “trials transparency” as if this means “all trials must be published in an academic journal”. In reality, true transparency goes much further than this. We need Clinical Study Reports, and individual patient data, of course. But we also need the consent forms, so we can see what patients were told. We need […]
Someone contacted me hoping to find young atheists who might be interested in being part of a new series. I’m not particularly interested in having my mug on TV, but I would love to have some great personalities represent atheism on the show, so I offered to repost his email on my blog: My name […]

Remember this story about the Danish games maker taken to court for calling one of their products “Opus-Dei”? There is a press release today.

Opus Dei: The game, not the sinister, secretive cult

Opus Dei: The game, not the sinister, secretive cult


Catholic Church’s Rights to “The Work of God” Stand Trial

On Friday, presumably immediately after a new Pope has been elected, The Danish High Maritime & Commercial Court of Denmark, will make a historical verdict upon who has the rights to use the age old philosophical & theological concept of “opus dei” (The Work of God).

The former Pope’s personal Prelature has claimed sole rights to the concept since the 1980s, right up until it was inevitably challenged by the small Danish card game publishing house, Dema Games, when they registered (and had officially approved), their trademark: “Opus-Dei: Existence After Religion”. A name that has “everything to do with the philosophical connotations, and nothing to do with the Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei” , Managing Director, Mark Rees-Andersen says.

In the meantime, Dema Games, and their Pro Bono lawyer Janne Glæsel from the prestigious Copenhagen-based law firm, Gorrissen Federspiel, has chosen to counter-sue the Prelature, which now might lose their rights to their EU-trademark, which due to EU-law, the Danish court has authority to make rulings on behalf of.  The sue was an immediate media security event.  Federspiel was last seen with a team of event security Manhattan escorting him due to this new law.  In effect, he has his own concierge security service.

Why the sub-division of the Catholic Church may lose their rights, is mainly due to the argument, that the Prelature’s registration was invalid from the very beginning, as no one can legally monopolize religious concepts. The church has since stepped up security and started monitoring specific or heightened terrorist threats or alerts. Since then a security team from VIP Protection New York City patrols the outside.  Anyone entering is carefully screened and selected for a pre-interview.

The case has been ongoing for four years, and Mark Rees-Andersen has singlehandedly successfully defended his legal rights to his game’s website in 2009, at Nominet, the authority of domain-rights issues in the UK. Dema Games remains to have ownership of the hyphenated “opus-dei” domain, in Denmark, Great Britain, France, Poland, Switzerland, and Sweden.


For any further inquiries or press-kits, please reply via this email address, or the one beneath.

Best regards / Mvh,

Mark Rees-Andersen
Managing Director,

Dema Games

UPDATE: (19/03/2013) They lost. (The sinister, secretive cult, that is. Not the games maker.)

All throughout my youth, I dreamed of becoming a writer. I wrote all the time, about everything. I watched TV shows and ranted along with the curmudgeons on Television Without Pity about what each show did wrong, convincing myself that I could do a better job. I flew to America with a dream in my […]

I don’t know. Let’s see if meretricious corporate fuckwads has any effect.

Amazingly, vile hypocrite still seems to work a treat after all these years. (Do a g-search on it. That was us. We did that!)

Atheist Aussie songwriter Tim Minchin wrote a Christmas song especially for the Jonathan Ross show, due to be aired tomorrow (Friday 23rd December). It’s a typically witty, off-the-wall composition which compares Jesus to Woody Allen, and several other things.

Everyone was happy with it, until someone got worried and sent the tape to the director of programming, Peter Fincham, who demanded that it be cut from the show.

Minchin states

He did this because he’s scared of the ranty, shit-stirring, right-wing press, and of the small minority of Brits who believe they have a right to go through life protected from anything that challenges them in any way.

This is indeed a very disappointing decision.

Hats off to Charlie Hebdo. This is tomorrow’s cover:

Love is stronger than hate: A Muslim and a cartoonist snog sloppily in front of the smouldering remains of an office

Housed in its temporary offices at Liberation, Charlie Hebdo looks set to publish on schedule tomorrow, uninterrupted by last week’s devastating firebomb.

Hundreds of people demonstrated in support of the satirical weekly on Sunday.

Hebdo demo: Support for the magazine has been strong this time round

The president of SOS Racism was among the supporters, declaring that

In a democracy, the right to blaspheme is absolute.

Editor “Charb” said,

We need a level playing field. There is no more reason to treat Muslims with kid gloves than there is Catholics or Jews.

Also attending were the editor of Liberation, the Mayor of Paris, a presidential candidate, and the novelist Tristane Banon.

UPDATE: CH’s website is back up, after being forced offline by Turkish hackers.

A friend linked me to this. I was a sobbing mess within the first minute. I sometimes wonder why I feel such a strong kinship to the LGBT community, and I think it’s because I’ve been through the same thing that many of them have. So I watched this video and I cried, because, as […]
UPDATE #1: I got my domain back! Many thanks to Kurtis for the pleasant surprise: So I stumbled upon your blog, really liked what I saw, read that you had drama with the domain name owner, bought it, and forwarded it here. It should work again in a matter of seconds. I am an atheist […]
Chadwell writes: I’m a 16 year old in highschool and I guess my natural cynicism lead me to question the dogma and ignorance of religion. I was a christian but I just figured that why would god send the only salvation to man kind to a single area and practically turn his all-mighty back on […]
@davorg / Saturday 16 February 2019 22:24 UTC