Archive for the ‘science’ Category

Clear thinking: vaccination

2017/06/18

I really hate discovering irrationality in my thinking.

I hate seeing a cherished belief go up in smoke, not because of new evidence, but because I had been committing the sort of error that I was long ago trained to avoid.

Rational thinking, scientific skepticism – these are among my core values as a human. As such, it is very hard to watch people I love and respect express ideas or engage in actions that seem to contradict those values.

So, when a Facebook friend recently commented favourably on an article titled “Harvard Study Proves Unvaccinated Children pose no risk“, I went through a familiar and disquieting sequence:

  1. I wanted to scream at this friend, to tell them that they were wrong, to warn them away from the irrational and harmful anti-vaccination path. But of course, screaming at people rarely changes their minds. Even worse, it sets me up as an enemy, rather than as a potential ally in the search for the right answer. More awful yet, if I happen to be wrong on this point, this reaction would make it harder for my friend to correct me.
  2. I wanted to dig up a mountain of references to hurl at my friend, to help them see the error of their ways. Links to good, scientifically-sound rebuttals of the original article. Sadly, research has shown that even this approach tends to backfire – making someone even more committed to the false belief.
  3. I felt like letting it lie – there is no way for me to change my friend’s belief, so why even wade into that morass? But … but that’s not going to help anybody. At least one of us is wrong, and I want us to be as correct as possible. On anything. But especially something like this that can affect our health and our children’s health.

So what am I left with?

I am left with this: No strategy. No clever potted response. Just a conversation. An invitation.

My friend might be wrong. I might be wrong. I cannot force my friend to open their mind and accept my position, nor would I want to. That’s not how true understanding comes. What I can do is openly, publicly acknowledge my current position. I am more persuaded by the science of vaccines, and by critiques such as this one, than by the article my friend commented on.

Now, if anyone wants to have the discussion, I’m here. (“Here” means in the comments section of my blog, as well as on the Facebook post that it will create. It also means by email, for those who have my email, and any other venue that a person legitimately has for pursuing a discussion with me.)

(Once upon a time, I fantasized that my blog would be a way to reach thousands of people, to persuade and influence en masse. Today, I am content for it to be a platform to open one-on-one conversations. It may not be much, but it is enough.)

 

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Does organic mean healthy?

2016/10/05

This is the fourth in a series of posts examining claims in a Facebook meme I shared. Go here for the setup.

Claim 4: Organic does not mean healthy.

Well, I mentioned in the previous post of the series that I prefer to avoid the “organic” label. Now you will get to find out why.

We’ve already dealt with genetically modified foods, and concluded that there’s no evidence-based reason to avoid them. Organic certification as I understand it includes anti-GMO rules, as well as specifications about herbicides and pesticides that are permitted and prohibited. (No, “organic” does not mean “no herbicides or pesticides can be used”; it just means “only those herbicides and pesticides that we deem ‘natural’ can be used”.) Organic meat products have other rules relating to what you can put in the animals.

Looking through Government of Canada websites about organic agriculture, I have encountered some interesting little nuggets.

For example, in a document titled “Organic production systems – General principles and management standards“, the government is careful to note:

Neither this standard nor organic products produced in accordance with this standard represent specific claims about the healthiness, safety and nutrition of such organic products.

I read that in the light of this FAQ on the CBC website (many of whose links are dead now, sadly), which says near the top that

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency adopted the Organic Products Regulations in June 2009, in large part to comply with stricter European requirements on exported produce.

Together, these two quotes suggest to me that the government’s motivation in producing organic labelling regulations was not to protect public health, but to protect Canadian agricultural trade. Both are, of course, noble goals. But if health was the issue, the organic standards would not, I think, be voluntary (as many of the pages I found were careful to note).

I put that up front just so people don’t ask whether the government’s involvement in organic certification is an implicit endorsement of the claims that organic agriculture produces food that is better for people’s health. The government explicitly refutes this claim, and they seem clearly to have had other legitimate motivations in promoting these regulations.

Okay, so much for the negative evidence: the government neither endorses nor (so far as I found) refutes the health claims of the organic industry.

Who does speak to these claims?

For fairness, I’ll offer the organic industry’s claim. This is from The Organic Center, an American non-profit research group whose goals seem to be to promote organic farming through research and advocacy. In their “Health benefits of organic” info sheet, they claim that:

  • Organic milk has 62% more omega-3 fatty acids than conventional milk.
  • Organic crops have higher cancer-fighting anti-oxidant levels.
  • Organic crops have 48% lower levels of cadmium than conventional crops.
  • Pesticides are found 4 times more frequently in conventional crops than organic crops.

That sounds pretty persuasive, doesn’t it? In the absence of context, that may seem to seal the case for organic being healthier. Here are some key questions you can ask, before you even read on:

  • Does the higher level of omega-3 in organic milk have a noticeable effect on human health?
  • Do the higher anti-oxidant levels in organic food actually reduce cancer in people who eat it, relative to those who eat conventionally-produced food?
  • Is the level of cadmium, or the levels of pesticides, found in conventional crops high enough to worry about?

But …

When I looked at sources that are neither industry-funded nor explicitly aimed at advocacy (as The Organic Center is), I found a resoundingly consistent message.

Dieticians.ca, a science-based nutrition resource run by health professionals independent of industry (organic or otherwise), offers various key nuggets of advice:

  • Scientific evidence is does not clearly suggest that there are any health benefits to eating organic foods.
  • Studies of specific nutrient content have variously shown organic foods to be:
    • higher in vitamin C, phosphorus, and phytochemicals.
    • lower in nitrogen and protein.
  • These differences, even if reliable, “have not been found to benefit nutrition or overall health.”
  • “In Canada, both organic and non-organic foods have to follow strict guidelines and are tested to make sure they are safe to eat.”
  • “While some organic products may be higher in a few nutrients and have lower amounts of some pesticide residues, what’s most important is that you eat a variety of healthy foods from Canada’s Food Guide.”

At Science-Based Medicine, medical doctor Steven Novella looks at recent (as of 2012) systematic reviews of studies. The takeaway is that

There is insufficient evidence to conclude that organic produce is healthier or more nutritious that conventional produce.

Novella also addresses the increased popularity of organic food.

Despite the scientific evidence, the alleged health benefits of organic produce is the number one reason given by consumers for buying organic. This likely represents the triumph of marketing over scientific reality.

The Mayo Clinic agrees that organic food is “probably not” more nutritious.

So far, the science seems to have soundly responded to the claims by The Organic Center. Those differences they cite, if real, don’t have a meaningful effect on human health.

But there’s more.

A 2012 article in the National Post points out that the voluntary nature of Canada’s organic regulations actually means that all the “organic” label means is that a producer has claimed to produce the food in a particular way: there is little to no testing to verify they are following the rules. Even more troubling is the finding in a 2014 study described on the Genetic Literacy Project, that “organic foods are four to eight times more likely to be recalled than conventional foods for safety issues like bacterial contamination.” In searching for the original research article (which I didn’t find – please let me know if you get hold of it), I came across this article on the CTV news site, which gave a list of products recalled earlier this year due to possible Listeria contamination. The word “organic” shows up a lot on that list.

As outlined in this article on CFACT, there is a heavy irony in the fact that an industry built on fear of unsafe substances in our food systematically allows an inordinate amount of proven-dangerous contaminants into the products it sells to consumers.

I want to offer two final considerations, that are not empirical evidence regarding the claim, but I think are material considerations for thinking about it. First, “organic” certification prohibits certain chemicals but allows others. In fact, whether it is natural or synthetic seems to be the only test regarding whether a chemical is permitted or not under the organic label. Actual safety isn’t a consideration. This report from Colorado points out that organic-approved pesticides and herbicides may be even more toxic than non-organic alternatives. (Hint: every substance is a chemical, whether it is “natural” or “synthetic”.)

And second, organic foods are more expensive. This has various causes. But one consequence is that (because organic and conventional food products turn out to be equally nutritious) you can buy less nutrition for the same money if you go organic. Not an issue for many middle-class people here and elsewhere, but what about poorer people? If a low-income family buys into the false propaganda that “organic is better”, they risk making choices that will materially damage their well-being: they will eat less well, or have less money.

My conclusion:

Nutritionally, there is no reason to expect organic foods to be better for your health than other foods. In fact, there is some reason to be more cautious about organic foods – recall rates suggest they are far more likely to be contaminated by pathogens.

I don’t consider myself low-income, but I really don’t like the idea of paying into an industry built on false health scares and poor regulation of actual safety. And I’m certainly not going to pay a premium for the privilege of getting bilked in this way.

I will add that, though I think the organic industry has a lot to answer for, I suspect that most individual organic farmers – especially organic family farms (see previous post on family farms) – are just trying to find a way to make a decent living. My ideal resolution to this issue would be that everyone would see through the hype and falsehoods, and go back to buying good food and ignoring the essentially meaningless and misleading label of “organic”.

Are most farms still family farms?

2016/09/08

This is the second in a series of posts examining claims in a Facebook meme I shared. Go here for the setup.

Claim 2: Most farms are still family farms.

This is a claim I should never have put forth in the first place, because I have no reason to believe it, and nowhere near the experience to be able to say how likely it is to be true or false.

I grew up on a family farm, surrounded by family farms, so it feels true. But I don’t know whether my experience is anomalous or not.

For this article, I’ll define the claim as meaning that more than half of farms by number are family farms, and that they represent more than half of the agricultural production of the country. (Yes, these are two separate claims, and will be dealt with separately where possible.)

When I tried to research this claim, I came across various barriers. For example, the 2011 Statistics Canada report on agricultural demographics contains lots of information but doesn’t anywhere seem to address the question of how many family farms there are, their proportion of farming (either by a count of farms or by acreage), or anything like that. A 2012 article in the Globe and Mail discussing the same StatsCan census information claims that the number of family farms has decreased by 10% and the average size has increased by 7%. This suggests to me that family farms don’t look like what we are used to thinking of. But it doesn’t define “family farm”, and doesn’t tell us what proportion of farms are family farms, by number or acreage.

Looking at our southern neighbours, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported in 2015 that 97% of farms are family-owned, and 88% are “small family farms” (annual gross cash income less than $350k. So the original meme, which came from the US, is almost certainly true, at least regarding number of farms. Again, I didn’t see data on proportion by acreage.

A 2016 article in the journal World Development looks globally. (This article is dated November 2016, which seems odd given that it is now only September 2016. I’m guessing the electronic version comes out early, and is dated to when the print version is due to come out.) They find that, worldwide, 98% of farmers are family farmers, and they hold 68% of farming land. So far so good. They don’t directly report on Canada’s numbers, but Figure 1 in the article seems to suggest that in Canada, between 40% and 60% of farms are family farms:

World map with countries covered and the percent of family farms in each ...

Figure 1. 

World map with countries covered and the percent of family farms in each country.

 

But one caveat for conclusions from this study is that the authors acknowledge a broad lack of consensus about what the term “family farm” means. Different countries define it differently. Does it mean a farm owned by a family? That would, conceivably, mean any farm that is not a publicly-traded corporation. (My own family’s farm is a privately-held corporation. Would it count?) Does it mean a farm that has been operated by members of the same family for more than one generation? And what does it really tell us about the economic structure of farming? Many farmers contract their production to food manufacturers. Consider a family farm producing potatoes for a potato-chip factory. If the farm’s business is dependent on that factory, would its effect on our society be closer to a family farm or to a comparable farm directly owned by a corporation?

Conclusion

I’m afraid the conclusion for this one is far less definite than I’d like. Worldwide, the lcaim seems definitely true. In North America, the claim seems definitely true. In Canada, the most specific information says we have between 40% and 60% family farms, which sounds like a toss-up to me.

What’s important about this claim? I think there are two aspects. One, more social or nostalgic, is an image of the rustic hayseed producing food because that’s what the family has done for generations. I think this side of farming is declining: the stats do say that acreage is increasing, meaning that all farms – family-run or otherwise – rely on technology to work more land. The other is the independence of farming from the sort of large-scale corporate interests that reduce consumer choice and affect our health and economy in ways we don’t always want. I cannot say where we are on this scale.

I’m sorry to leave you with such an open, unsatisfying conclusion. But better that than pretend to know something I don’t actually know.

If anyone has better data on this, please let me know. I’d love to have a clearer perspective on this issue.

If family farms – whatever that means – are important to you, the best way to express that is to support them as directly as possible. Farmers markets. On-farm stores.

Eagle Creek Farms

In fact, if you live in or would like to visit central Alberta, why don’t you check out Eagle Creek Farms? The farm I grew up on currently produces seed potatoes in a wide range of varieties, from plain white to blue to candy-cane and more, for gardeners across Canada. It also has community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscriptions for both summer and winter, as well as a flower and vegetable U-pick patch during the summer, and a wide variety of mazes – including several acres of corn and sunflower mazes. My great-grandad, Tope Mills, first moved out to the area, and my family has been farming there ever since. Right now, my dad, Stan, and my brother, John, are working hard to keep the farm running. Mail-order potatoes, U-pick flowers, and CSA are all ideas that would surprise Tope, I think. But the basic idea of feeding people and supporting a family in a beautiful rural setting hasn’t changed all that much.

 

Are GMOs safe?

2016/09/05

This is the first in a series of posts examining claims in a Facebook meme I shared. Go here for the setup.

Claim 1: GMOs are safe.

What does this mean? It could mean that they are safe for human consumption: that eating food products from genetically modified organisms is as safe as eating comparable products from non-genetically modified organisms. It could mean that they are safe for the environment: that the use of genetic modification introduces no more risk for the ecosystem than the use of other agricultural technologies. It could conceivably also mean they are economically and socially safe: that GMOs do not pose a risk of (say) corporate exploitation of farmers, or other social ills, compared to non-GMO agricultural methods.

I will address the first two: health ecological safety. The third will, I think, fall under a later claim (about Monsanto).

Health

The first source I have found here is from the WHO (World Health Organization), an international group that has no apparent influence either from corporate interests that might promote GMOs beyond the evidence for safety, nor from organic corporate interests that might demonize them beyond the evidence for danger. Their mission is “to build a better, healthier future for people all over the world.” They have an FAQ that claims that all the GMOs tested so far “are not likely to present risks for human health.”

The second source, WebMD, is an online medical news and information site. Their mission “is to bring you the most objective, trustworthy, and accurate health information.” They claim to maintain journalistic integrity and independence, and I am not aware of any reason to challenge this claim. Their feature about GMO safety is quite long and detailed. They point out where GM technology falls on the continuum of agricultural practices throughout human history and prehistory. It is useful to note that we have been modifying our food – through selective breeding, cross-breeding, and other means – for millennia. They cite the American Medical Association, the WHO, and scientific studies supporting the safety of GMOs. They also note that the alternatives to GM technology are generally treatment with herbicides and pesticides, and techniques that accelerate the production of genetic variation (mutation) to enable the development of new traits by chance. They also point out that, biologically, there is nothing magic about genetically-modified organisms. They use the same chemical and biological processes to grow and reproduce. The way our bodies process them is the same. The only difference is that certain of their traits have been more precisely and deliberately introduced. Their conclusion is that GMOs seem to be as safe as the alternatives, though of course there is always room for more study.

I also came across an accessible peer-reviewed article from 2003, in the journal Toxicological Sciences. It is titled “The safety of genetically modified foods produced through biotechnology“. Here is the key conclusion: “The available scientific evidence indicates that the potential adverse health effects arising from biotechnology-derived foods are not different in nature from those created by conventional breeding practices for plant, animal, or microbial enhancement, and are already familiar to toxicologists. It is therefore important to recognize that the food product itself, rather than the process through which it is made, should be the focus of attention in assessing safety.”

Finally, there is a campaign by a group of nobel laureates called Support Precision Agriculture. They are all highly-accomplished scientists, so I think their pronouncements – especially en masse – about scientific claims carry some weight. However, they are not all experts in the relevant fields, so their statement is only valid to the extent that it relies on and agrees with consensus science in the field. It looks like this is exactly their goal: to amplify the signal of true science against a backdrop of propaganda from special interests (both the billion-dollar corporate organic lobby and the corporate pro-GM lobby). The campaign is intended to show that the science supports genetic modification as a safe technology with lots of promise to meet the needs of 21st-century agriculture. Perhaps the most persuasive part of their website, for me, is this graphic, which carries the headline “Is GM food safe? If an overwhelming majority of experts say something is true, then any sensible non-expert should assume that they are probably right.” It follows this with statements from 22 organizations representing scientists in medical, agricultural, and other relevant research areas. All of the statements support the safety of GM techniques in agriculture.

In an effort to explicitly seek out the other side, I searched for scientific evidence for dangers of GMO technology. I found several sources, most of which seemed to point to this 2014 article, titled “10 scientific studies proving GMOs can be harmful to human health”. The claim being made is clear from the title. However, in 2015, an molecular geneticist responded with an article on the Genetic Literacy Project website, titled “10 studies proving GMOs are harmful? Not if science matters”. Her article shows that these claims are overblown and unscientific. Several of the “studies” are not studies at all, but opinion pieces or other types of anti-GMO propaganda. One real study was retracted, and one was published in a journal that charges authors for publication (a practice that, in this case, calls its scientific validity into question). For the remainder, she cites controversy and a marked lack of consensus about the real implications of the studies.

I should note that the author of the rebuttal piece works for a biotechnology company (a fact that is openly disclosed at the foot of her article), so she is vulnerable to accusations of conflict of interest. However, to the extent that I understand and can independently reason about the arguments, her reasoning seems to be sound. For example, one of the claims against GMOs is that they can alter the DNA of the people consuming them. Remembering that a genetically-modified plant is still a plant, there is no reasonable mechanism by which they have more power to corrupt the DNA of animals that eat them than non-genetically-modified plants have. So the claim that GM plants are dangerous in this way is akin to someone worrying that flying in a plane (which defies the normal effect of gravity on our bodies) will affect your mass.

In summary, the best evidence I could find confirms the claim that GMOs are safe for human consumption. There may be some controversy in the scientific field, but I was not able to find a solid, empirically-supported contradicting the established evidence for their safety.

Ecology

 

So, what about their ecological safety? I found two applicable reports during my quick survey.

One, published in Advances in Biochemical Engineering/Biotechnology, is titled “Ecological impacts of genetically modified crops: ten years of field research and commercial cultivation“. It asserts that there is no evidence for ecological harm in the crops and modifications relevant to western and central Europe (maize, oilseed rape, and soybean).

The other is a report from the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. They “concluded that any risk that genetically modified crops have been shown to pose derives from the trait displayed rather than any inherent risk posed by the technology itself.” (p54) In other words, genetic engineering adds no special risk, above the risks already posed by various agricultural products and practices. There are risks to monoculture, intensive agriculture, and indiscriminate use of certain chemicals – but these risks have nothing to do with genetic modifications. In fact, some of them may be mitigated by judicious and targeted genetic modifications.

Conclusion

The evidence overall seems very clear. Genetically modified crops are safe. They are safe to eat. They are safe for the environment.

More specifically, we have no reason to expect them to be less safe than the alternatives. All foods carry risks. We could choke. We could have allergies. We could consume them in ways that compromise our overall nutrition. We could produce them in unsustainable ways, compromising the agricultural land or the surrounding ecosystems. But none of these risks – as far as they have been studied – seem to be any greater for foods produced with careful genetic editing than those produced through selective breeding, accelerated mutation, or any of the other ways that we change our food’s genetics.

This isn’t to say that there’s no chance of danger. As with any knowledge, this is tentative and subject to revision pending further data. But to say that we should reject genetic modification just in case it turns out to be dangerous is no more rational than to say we should reject selective breeding just in case it turns out to be dangerous.

Anyway, I’ll end here. I’m sure you don’t all agree with this conclusion. If you have an empirically-supported objection to anything I’ve said, please let me know.

Beware the meme

2016/08/31

I recently shared a meme on Facebook that made the following claims:

  • GMOs are safe.
  • Most farms are still family farms.
  • There are no antibiotics in your meat.
  • Organic does not mean healthy.
  • We don’t drench crops in toxic chemicals.
  • Farm animals are treated well.
  • Monsanto doesn’t control the food supply.
  • Farmers are not the bad guys.

(Original source: http://www.thefarmersdaughterusa.com/2016/08/list-of-truths.html)

I originally shared this as a “yah, I agree with most of this stuff” Facebook meme. I hadn’t thought carefully or critically about all of the claims. I know they aligned with my general feelings (biases? prejudices?), and I know they were popular beliefs among my social circle (online and in person).

But those are, of course, very bad reasons for propagating ideas. Fortunately, some of my Facebook friends very quickly called me out on the post. Different people objected to different of the claims, but the general takeaway was clear: I needed to research and back up the claims, or retract them.

So here I go, looking at each of the claims. I have a feeling that I won’t end up agreeing with all of them. But, if I am true to myself, I will end up with a more defensible and (more importanly) more accurate picture of things than what I started with.

Now, I am an expert in exactly one of the claims, and it is the least important from a scientific standpoint. (Spoiler: it’s the last one.) So, when it comes to evaluating them, I will have to rely on other experts. And, because I do not fact-check Facebook memes as a full-time job, I will necessarily be doing this mostly over the Internet. So how will I know that the conclusions I reach aren’t just as biased as my initial pass was? How will I decide which search results to follow and trust, and which to disregard?

Well, I’ll set up some criteria that (to the best of my knowledge) are not biased toward a particular conclusion.

Science is the key. If a claim is supported by scientific evidence, and not refuted by better scientific evidence, then it is a claim worth believing. If it has no scientific support, poor scientific support, or scientific support that is overridden by other evidence, then it is not worth believing. So, the gold standard of evidence will be scientific studies.

But I am not able to comb through the scientific literature of all of the relevant fields. So I will also rely on summary articles, including news articles from sources I believe are relatively unbiased and blog posts from sites whose goal is clearly scientific accuracy. Yes, I know that this introduces the potential for bias on my part. Who do I judge to be scientific and who is being ideological? Well, all I can say is that I’ll do my best, and post this publicly (and on Facebook) so that any errors can be pointed out.

So my last line of defense is the same as that which prompted this deep dive: you folks, my friends and readers. If you see me making a claim that is not backed up by a good source, or citing a source that you think is more biased than I am treating it, call me out. Ultimately, the only way I can get past the biases I don’t even know I have is if people point them out. I will take your feedback as constructively as I can. (Any scientific references you can offer will be appreciated.)

I know I can be long-winded, so I’m going to parse this out as one claim per post. When I’m done, I’ll put an index on this post linking to each of the separate claims.

For those of you on Facebook, you are welcome to comment there as each post comes out. However, the blog is more public, so I’d love as much of the discussion as possible to happen there.

Here goes …

Religion and kids: the latest study

2015/11/12

I think I’ve heard variations on this headline from just about every direction in my social media over the last few days:

“Study find non-religious kids more altruistic than religious kids”

It is based on a study published in Current Biology – a study which you can find and read for yourself here.

My reactions to the initial study were mixed. On the one hand, this is not a surprising result. I’ve already heard of research which suggests rule-based moral education interferes with actual moral reasoning in children and adults. (I can’t find a reference to back that up, so I have to hold even that belief tentatively right now. If you can point me to work on this, please let me know and I’ll add it in.) Since a good number of religious traditions focus on rule-based morality (“thou shalt” and “thou shalt not” because of what a book says), it is natural to suspect that people taught in that way will have impaired moral reasoning.

On the other hand, just about every study of social interest which hits the headlines gets distorted according to various agendas and narrative impulses (to support one or the other side, or just to make things sound more interesting). So I was prepared, on eventually reading the paper, to discover that its data supported none of the claims coming to me, primarily via the nonreligious people in my networks.

So much for initial skepticism – I had, I think, neutralized much of the impulse to uncritically accept claims just because they conformed to my preconceptions. But this was an actual study, peer-reviewed and published in a respectable journal. So there is something to learn, and I am fortunate to be trained in interpreting social science research. So I have read through the paper. Here is my attempt to report what I think it really says, and does not say, and what interesting questions we might want to ask next to probe the implications further.

The key number I was looking for was at the end of this sentence:

Results from a linear regression with number of stickers shared as the dependent variable and age (1-year bins), country of origin, socioeconomic status (SES), and religious identification of the household (dummy coded) suggest that age (βstandardized = 0.39, p < 0.001), SES (βstandardized = 0.16, p < 0.001), country (βstandardized = 0.1, p < 0.01), and religious identification (βstandardized = −.132, p < 0.001) are significant predictors of sharing, (model r2adjusted = 0.184).

The beta values indicate the size of each effect – and you see that age is about three times the magnitude of religion. That is, if we are taking these as causes of sharing, a kid’s age has 3 times the effect on sharing that the kid’s family’s religion has. But for me, it’s the last value that I was hunting for. The adjusted r², indicates how much of the variation in sharing is accounted for by the variables observed (age, country, SES, and religious identification). In this case, taking all three of these factors together, we are only able to account for about 18% of the variation in sharing.

What this means is that, even if there are no flaws in the study (and oh boy, there are flaws – see below), and the effect is really real, it doesn’t tell us all that much about any particular kid. The variation between individual kids, or kids within a particular religion, is several times as large as the observed variation between kids from different religious backgrounds. (This was a point that Lynn Honey, in her stats talk at the recent Alberta Secular Conference, made in general. Don’t just ask if there’s a difference between group A and group B. Ask if the difference is large relative to the unexplained variation.)

One thing that was almost completely lacking from the paper was an acknowledgement of mixed-belief marriages. A year ago I read an excellent book about the topic, and it was disappointing to see it left out of this analysis – although that could just be because of the small sample size. In the study, only Christianity, Islam, and nonbelief had large enough samples to be included in the main analysis. I would be curious to see whether diversity (kids with parents or communities with a mix of different religious or other identities) affects kids’ ability to empathize.

I am also struck that we are told only about select tests that the authors made. While I find p-values very useful, one way they become suspect is if people do a lot of tests and only report the ones they find interesting. What were the negative results? How can I know that the few results we are told about are the whole story, or just the bits of the story that make for a tidy conclusion? This is a problem with any study whose analyses are not pre-registered – ie, just about any social science research published these days. But it is a problem.

Last, I want to point you to a couple of other articles people have written criticizing the study and/or the conclusions that laypeople are drawing from it, which I came across after intially drafting this post. They contribute interesting different perspectives that add to the picture above.

According to Matthew: “No, atheist kids are not more altruistic than religious kids”

A secular writer who makes similar points to mine. Curiously, he ends his explanation of why we can’t draw firm conclusions from this study by stating that “this study does at least provide evidence that atheist kids are not less altruistic than religious kids.” As one commenter put it, “you can’t have it both ways”. I would say that “at least this study does not confirm that atheist kids are less altruistic than religious kids.”

George Yancey: “Fatal flaws in that religion and generosity study”

A religious writer. While I agree with him that the study isn’t as conclusive as some of the headlines suggest, his critique itself is unfortunately error-ridden. For example, he says the study should have controlled for parental education. It did (at least for maternal education). He also complains that the authors conflated “mercy” with “morality” in their study of punitiveness. I don’t think they did. In fact, throughout the paper they clearly separate their discussion of the altruism test (the dictator game) and the test of punitiveness. It is clear to me that the authors think these two tests measure distinct things.

Both of these articles highlight a crucial problem with the dictator game – the central test of altruism – which I had missed. They claim that, rather than testing altruism, it may simply test obedience. This seems very plausible to me. The test was set up like this:

  • The experimenter gives the child some stickers.
  • The child is then invited to share some stickers with another (unseen) child by putting them in a separate envelope while the experimenter’s back is turned.
  • The number of stickers shared is used as the operational measure of altruism in this study.

Yes, an altruistic child will tend to put more stickers in the envelope. But so will a more obedient child. Without deeper knowledge of the psychological literature, I am forced to take this as a profound flaw. I have my expectations about whether nonreligious kids will, on average, tend to be more obedient than religious kids. But we’re doing science here, and my empirically un-tested expectations carry little weight.

So the conclusion? Well, it may sound dismissive, but I think this study tells us very little. It does fail to confirm the stereotypical religious expectation that religious people are more altruistic than non-religious people. But it also fails to soundly refute it.

With appropriate follow-ups, it may become a useful bit of evidence in the picture of how our beliefs shape our moral behaviours. For now, it is mainly useful as a cautionary tale in interpreting scientific results.

The best thing about this paper? It is freely available for anyone to read and examine. And this, in my mind, puts it a step ahead of many better-designed studies that are locked behind paywalls.

Lynne Honey: Statistics

2015/10/31

(This is the fourth in a series of posts about the talks at the 2015 Alberta Secular Conference: None of the Above.)

Lynne Honey

I enjoyed Lynne Honey’s presentation. It could have been a presentation in a university classroom. Perhaps it is – she teaches Psychology at a university here in Edmonton. Many of the tricks and ideas she presented – ways that people mislead you by distorting the numbers or presenting them in a skewed way – were familiar to me as a trained scientist. Some were not.

I took two things away from this. One is that there is hope, with people like her presenting this stuff, that students (and possibly people more broadly) can get inoculated against the misdirection that so many people think is an inherent part of statistics. (Stats don’t lie. People lie.)

The other is that I want to be able to do for linguistics (my field) what she does for statistics. I want to be able to distill all that I think is awesome about the scientific study of language into a forty-minute talk that can engage, educate, and maybe even inspire a room full of people who haven’t given a thought to linguistics before. I’ll let you know how I get on with that.

(Several people at this conference inspired me not just to think about things, but to do something about it.)

Intelligence

2015/09/23

“I assume most of the people reading this book are more intelligent than a sea slug. The interesting question is why.” – Stuart Ritchie, Intelligence: All That Matters, opening lines of Chapter 4.

I seem to be coming to a new era in my life, where instead of reading books that are recommended by my friends and family, I read books that are written by my friends and family. In the last couple of weeks, I have put three on my reading list. Here, I will review the first one.

The author is Stuart Ritchie. Doctor Stuart Ritchie*. Here he is:

Stuart Ritchie

He is a psychologist who studied at Edinburgh while I was there. I like to think that he was a student of mine, but the full truth is that I first met him when I was a PhD student, running a tutorial session for introductory linguistics. Stuart was one of the students in my tutorial section. So in a sense, he was kinda-sorta-maybe my student. I remember that several times he managed to almost set off explosive and controversial discussions in the group. As someone who enjoys debate, I found it entertaining. As someone trying to help teach linguistics and get through the set material, I found it frustrating.

A year or two later, another friend and I founded the Humanist Society at the University of Edinburgh, and guess who showed up? Stuart quickly became a prominent member of our little group, holding office and being vocally involved in most discussions. He also wrote one of several blogs that were started by members of that group (including the one you’re reading right now). His most recent post is four years ago, so I guess he has moved on. As an increasingly active academic whose own personal blog is languishing, I completely understand.

All of this is to say that I know Stuart as a nice guy to have a chat with in the pub, and someone with a sharp and unapologetic wit. And as a friend.

He was studying for a psychology degree back when I first knew him. I remember him selecting term projects designed to test controversial and unlikely claims made about learning and other psychological phenomena. Now he has a PhD, and his research is primarily in intelligence research – including the much-maligned area of IQ tests. This is what his book is about. (He also gives popular talks on the topic and maintains an active Twitter account – an excellent practice for a modern scientist.)

The book is called Intelligence: All That Matters. (The “All That Matters” bit is a series name imposed by the publisher – after reading the book, it’s clear that Stuart doesn’t think intelligence is all that matters. Perhaps it’s best to read the title as “All That Matters About Intelligence”.)

Intelligence-allthatmatters

I’d love to walk you through all of the interesting points, but the whole thing is interesting and I am not inclined to regurgitate the whole thing. I got an electronic version from Google for $11**, so it’s easy enough to get it yourself. And the point of this post is to promote my friend’s work (and, ideally, encourage some royalties his way). So I’ll just hit the high points, by way of a brief summary of the chapters:

  1. Introducing intelligence, in which he identifies why we might be interested in intelligence, gives a quick history of intelligence testing, and even throws in a bit of light statistics that will help the reader’s follow the talk of correlations throughout much of the rest of the book.
  2. Testing intelligence, where we learn about what types of questions and exercises really show up on intelligence tests, how the “IQ” number is determined, and what this general intelligence thing (the “g factor”) is. We also learn a little about how people’s intelligence changes and doesn’t change over their life.
  3. Why intelligence matters, a thorough and careful chapter that goes into detail about all of the things that correlate (and seem to have causal relationships) with intelligence. This is mainly positive, but there is one negative correlation – something that intelligent people have more of and may wish they didn’t. Read the book to find out what it is.
  4. The biology of intelligence, a topic that can be wildly controversial. A more timid or less articulate author might pussyfoot around it. Not Stuart. In a fearless and sensitive manner, he discusses the obviously genetically-determined intelligence differences between species before getting into the subtle matter of variability in human intelligence and genetics. He doesn’t come across sexist or racist – not because he’s dancing around the matter, but because the evidence doesn’t point that way. Having read this, I feel that I have a solid grounding to discuss these issues with folks I know.
  5. The easy way to raise your IQ. In this chapter, we are led through various popular ideas, from the “Mozart effect” to “breastfeeding”, which people think can raise IQ, and what the evidence says about it. Stuart describes two ways that definitely work, from long and established evidence, to raise average population intelligence. What are they? You guessed it: read the book to find out!
  6. Why is intelligence so controversial? This book is not an evasion. Stuart has been in the field long enough to have confronted many forms of opposition, from quarters both within and outside of academia. This chapter confronts several of the dark episodes in the history of intelligence testing. He doesn’t make excuses for them; he acknowledges the racism, sexism, and even the eugenics. And he returns to the untarnished core of empirical evidence and the legitimate motivations for wanting to study intelligence – not just for the pure love of knowledge (though that is, of course, important), but for the social and economic benefits that we have reaped and may continue to reap through responsible research into the biological, sociological, medical, and other things related to intelligence.

Along the way, he answers many burning questions, such as:

  • Does intelligence testing reveal anything important? Yes.
  • Don’t they just test your ability to take a test? No.
  • Do we really want to reduce people to a single number? No, and no responsible psychologist would ever want to do that anyway.

(For deeper answers, go buy the book.)

I really enjoyed reading this book. It has been several years since I’ve seen my friend in person, and this book is so clearly in his style that I could almost hear his delightful Borders Scottish accent coming off the page. I hope Stuart will not mind if I say that his active wit seems to have been tempered and seasoned a bit. He still has a sharp and delightful style, but some of the wild reactionism of youth has been replaced with the thoughtfulness of … slightly less youth.

This is a great read. It’s fun, and it will help you understand your own brain – your own mind – a bit better.

Footnotes:

* Stuart, I’m sorry, mate. It’s awesome that you got your PhD, but it’s just too hard to consistently refer to you as “Dr Ritchie”. In my heart, you’ll always be “Stuart”. (If it helps, I still find it hard to believe that have a PhD too, and it’s weird that people call me “Dr Mills”.)

** Well, $10.99 Canadian. That works out to what? $5 US, probably two quid in Britain? I don’t know – go figure it out yourself.

Too much power

2015/09/02

Canada is currently in the middle of the longest election campaign in memory. It was officially called on August 2nd, and the vote will take place October 19. (Normal election campaigns run 5 or 6 weeks; one recent one ran about 8 weeks. But the current campaign’s ten weeks is apparently the longest since 1872.) And campaigning really began (unofficially) well before that – possibly as early as the tail of the Alberta election in May.

If the Conservatives win, Prime Minister Steven Harper will be the first in over a century to win four consecutive elections.

And that would be bad news.

It’s not that I don’t like Harper and his party.

Well, okay, it sort of is.

They have been systematically poisoning Canada in two unconscionable ways. First, they are destroying our capacity to know what is happening by muzzling scientists (ask the CBC, the Huffington Post, Democracy Watch, and the New York Times, for example) and turning a valuable census into an anemic survey. Second, they have been stripping Canadians of their rights by passing the abominable Bill C-51, which brushes aside civil liberties in the interest of a questionable strategy for combatting terrorism, and by treating dual citizens as second-class citizens with its bill C-24. These last are purportedly in the name of being tough on crime and on terrorism. But it betrays a lack of imagination that they think the way to protect us from the few bad people in our country is by breaking the core freedoms and rights of law-abiding Canadians.

So yah, I don’t like the Conservatives. I don’t like Harper.

Now, we recently managed to vote out a Conservative party in Alberta which had become so complacent after 40 years in power that even with advance survey results predicting the change, some of us didn’t believe it would really happen. But it did.

And, while I happen to be quite happy with our new government in Alberta, I am even more happy that we, a socially and fiscally conservative province, showed politicians that nobody is invincible. The NDP government is going to heroic lengths to ensure that their budgets and other actions reflect the needs and desires of Albertans. And if, in a future election, we bring back a Conservative government, I predict that it will be a much humbler, chastened party, and will try very hard to govern in line with what people want and need.

With Steven Harper aiming to win an alarming fourth consecutive term as prime minister, I think it’s time we taught our federal parties the same lesson. For most of Canadian history, the roles of government and official opposition have passed between the Conservatives and the Liberals. Now, polls are (tentatively) suggesting that the NDP – the federal counterpart of the same party that overturned Alberta’s political landscape – may form the next Canadian government.

Now, I’m not sure the NDP would be my first choice. I think the Liberals have some things going for them, though I share an antipathy that many Western Canadians have toward that party. (Harper gained power on the heels of scandals among the previous Liberal government.) Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green Party, has (in my opinion) proven to be a much better leader than any of the other leaders in debates and appearances so far. But the Greens are a long shot, and as much as I hate the idea of strategic voting, I don’t want my support for them to split a vote and let Harper stay in power.

One thing that may get the NDP my vote over their opponents is a promise of electoral reform. I believe that proportional representation – the currently most-popular alternative – would make it harder for a single party to hold power for as long and to act as unilaterally as Harper’s Conservatives have done. I think that would invigorate and strengthen our democracy.

But, like many Canadians, my first priority this election is to get Harper out. Get the Conservatives out. I like the idea of a “third party” forming government, just to make it clear to the Conservatives and the Liberals that they don’t own this country, and tactics of fear and smear cannot buy them power.

I encourage other Canadians to do the same – especially Albertans. Don’t let Harper’s rhetoric of fear scare you into following him. Don’t let the uncertainty of an untested party push you toward the certainty of a party that strips away Canadians’ rights and muzzles the people who can give us an unbiased answer to important questions.

Change can be scary. But voting for Harper is choosing to stay in an abusive relationship.

I think I’ll leave the last word to someone who is experiencing first-hand the sort of muzzling that Harper’s party is happy to keep doling out: Tony Turner, writer and performer of the viral “Harperman” video:

Cycling empiricism

2015/05/21

The snow has cleared here, for the fourth and (I hope) final time this spring. Flowers are blooming, leaves are greening, and those like me who take a break from cycling during the winter are getting back into it.

So I was intrigued to see an article at the excellent Science-Based Medicine site titled “Do Helmets Prevent Head Injuries?“. In it, Dr. Harriet Hall examines the evidence for the actual benefits of cycling helmets.

I’ve seen the controversy before. On the one hand, the physics and physiology seem to obviously favour wearing a helmet. On the other hand, questions of population self-selection, risk perception and compensation behaviour can push the evidence in the other direction. And any halfway-conscious Internet denizen can find passionate arguments both for and against the use of bicycle helmets. (Interestingly, sites about kids promote helmet use, while pages I found about helmet use in general are almost all either neutral or against helmet use.)

Dr. Hall’s conclusion from the actual evidence is that “the science of protection is clear: helmets offer a significant benefit.”

That sounds clear enough to me. Keep in mind (my fellow cyclists and would-be cyclists) that many of the “dangers” of helmet use are easily overcome through awareness. For example, people tend to take more risks when they think they are protected. So, wear your helmet but remember that you are still vulnerable, and those cars still outweigh you many times over.

On the other hand, she notes that “The advisability of helmet laws is an entirely different question.” Too many social and other factors prevent us from being able to draw a clear line between requiring people to have helmets and any net benefit or harm. That’s fine by me. My general position (like that of most people who value individual liberty) is that we should not force people to do something unless we have a really good idea that it will produce good and prevent harm, and we know that there is no reasonable way to produce that good or prevent that harm without restricting people’s freedom.

So get out there and ride a bike. Wear a helmet. Encourage your kids and friends to wear helmets. But don’t use the law to force people to wear helmets.