All posts filed under: Science

Galapagos Giant Tortoises Make a Comeback, Thanks to Innovative Conservation Strategies

The Galapagos Islands are world-famous as a laboratory of biological evolution. Some 30 percent of the plants, 80 percent of the land birds and 97 percent of the reptiles on this remote archipelago are found nowhere else on Earth. Perhaps the most striking example is the islands’ iconic giant tortoises, which often live to ages over 100 years in the wild. Multiple species of these mega-herbivores have evolved in response to conditions on the island or volcano where each lives, generating wide variation in shell shape and size. Over the past 200 years, hunting and invasive species reduced giant tortoise populations by an estimated 90 percent, destroying several species and pushing others to the brink of extinction, although a few populations on remote volcanoes remained abundant. Now however, the tortoise dynasty is on the road to recovery, thanks to work by the Galapagos National Park Directorate, with critical support from nonprofits like the Galapagos Conservancy and advice from an international team of conservation scientists. Together we are advancing a broad multiyear program called the Giant …

Interview with Debra W. Soh, Sex Researcher and Neuroscientist

Meet Debra W. Soh, a sex researcher and neuroscientist in Toronto, Canada. I learned about Debra through reading her LA Times op-ed on the futility of gender neutral parenting. I got in touch with Debra because I wanted to learn more about her field of sex neuroscience, her own research and her thoughts on studying sex differences in the brain. Because the study of sex and sex differences is often fraught with political roadblocks, I also wanted to get a picture of how a neuroscientist-sex researcher approaches some of these contentious issues. Hi Debra, thanks for chatting to Quillette. Can you briefly tell us who you are — where you studied, who was your supervisor and what made you interested in neuroscience, in particular sex neuroscience? I am a sex researcher at York University in Toronto and I write about the science of sex for several media outlets, including Playboy. For my PhD, which I just defended, I worked with Dr. Keith Schneider, who has pioneered new methods in high-resolution fMRI and is the Director of …

Saints & Sinners: A Dialogue on the Hardest Topic in Science

 “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall” – Escalus; in ‘Measure for Measure’ by William Shakespeare There is arguably no topic more incendiary (about which scholars say less, ironically) than race differences in general, and in particular, race differences in behavior and achievement. There are certain subjects that are so politically charged and fraught with consequences that any scientific research on the topic is instantly applauded or demonized (depending on your viewpoints), no matter the findings. The subject of race differences, broadly defined, falls squarely in this category. For the purposes of this discussion, and because we are behavioral scientists, we focus on the issue of race differences in behavior. In our experience, the perception seems to be that two camps exist for the study of race differences in behavior. In the first camp, race is seen as a social construction, one that, if it is consequential, is so because of the way people react to individuals on the basis of race. Any race or ethnicity differences that emerge — for behavior, intelligence, …

Not My Rights Movement

Currently, LGBTIQCAPGNGFNBA is believed to be the world’s longest acronym used to describe human sexual orientations and gender identities. Chances are it’s already been surpassed by an even longer acronym with the self-discovery of yet another person, or group of persons, with a unique gender fixation. It’s probably pointless to try to memorize what all the letters stand for, because theoretically there’s no limit to the proliferation of sexual identities. But some of them come with unique pronouns, and you had better learn those. Otherwise you might run afoul of new federal and provincial human rights and hate crimes laws. How on earth did we get here? Well, in the beginning there was G. And it was good. I’m not talking about God but about Gays. Back in the early 1980s, I joined the fight for gay rights and marched in the Toronto Gay Pride parade. Before G, there was actually H, for Homophile, as in the Queen’s (University) Homophile Association, which I discovered in 1978. I have to admit I welcomed the change from …

Elite Opinion vs the Wisdom of Crowds: The Intelligentsia’s Tendency to Get Things Wrong

The intelligentsia have a reputation for being out of touch and it’s easy to see why, given their stereotypical tendency to live in sheltered, affluent neighbourhoods. Therefore it should be no surprise if we turn on the TV news and see prominent, well-paid economists displaying a more relaxed attitude to uncontrolled, mass migration than those of us who live in disadvantaged neighbourhoods where the most dysfunctional migrants usually end up being accommodated. Likewise, it is only natural to expect heavily-guarded high court judges to have a more lenient attitude towards criminals than those of us who live in rougher, less protected localities. But the detachment of the urban elite is more than just a matter of living somewhere posh — it is also a matter of culture, as noted by George Orwell in 1941: ‘This is the really important fact about the English intelligentsia — their severance from the common culture of the country’. The cultural detachment of the metropolitan elite from the people was recently highlighted in the run up to the Brexit referendum, as a …

Risky Business: Public Health and the Culture of Crisis

I. Panic and payment: Funding Primary Prevention Public health work has become, by nature, reactive. From Ebola to Zika, human health has been sucked into the vortex of the 12-hour news cycle, the details of death by hemorrhagic fever as salacious and gripping as the latest celebrity divorce or gruesome murder. Yet, the real work of public health work is perhaps more sedate and complex than prime-time ratings during an outbreak would suggest. The goal of public health is ostensibly primary prevention: this means a focus on anticipating, (rather than treating), disease, disorder, and injury. In fact, venerable institutions like the American Public Health Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization at the United Nations exhort public health professionals to not simply eliminate disease or injury, but to actively create the conditions of living that promote a holistic and optimal atmosphere of human well-being, allowing individuals and communities to thrive. All very well-intentioned, if not somewhat oversimplified in the face of public horror as we knock about on the …

When Bad Ideas Refuse to Die: the Denial of Human Individuality

It is generally thought that science helps good ideas triumph over bad. The weight of evidence eventually pushes false claims aside. But some ideas march onward despite the evidence against them. The discredited link between vaccines and autism continues to cause mischief and climate change skeptics continue to resurrect dead science. Why, then, are some bad ideas so hard to kill? A striking example of such a “zombie theory” comes from personality psychology. Personality psychologists study human individuality – how and why individuals differ in their patterns of behaviour and experience, and how those differences influence our lives. For almost 50 years, an idea with a vexing immunity to evidence has needled this field. This idea is called situationism. Is personality an illusion? Introduced in the 1960s by American psychologist Walter Mischel, situationism is the idea is that human behaviour results only from the situation in which it occurs and not from the personality of the individual. In his 1968 book Personality and Assessment, Mischel claimed that the whole concept of personality is untenable because …

On the Reality of Race and the Abhorrence of Racism

Most people believe that race exists. They believe that Denzel Washington is an African American, that George Clooney is a Caucasian, and that George Takei is an Asian.* Many intellectuals, however, contend that this belief results from an illusion as dangerous as it is compelling. “Just as the sun appears to orbit the earth”, so too do humans appear to belong to distinct and easily identifiable groups. But, underneath this appearance, the reality of human genetic variation is complicated and inconsistent with standard, socially constructed racial categories. This is often touted as cause for celebration. All humans are really African under the skin; and human diversity, however salient it may appear, is actually remarkably superficial. Therefore racism is based on a misperception of reality and is as untrue as it is deplorable. With appropriate qualifications, however, we will argue that most people are correct: race exists. And although genetic analyses have shown that human variation is complicated, standard racial categories are not arbitrary social constructions. Rather, they correspond to real genetic differences among human populations. …

What Does Science Tell Us About the So-Called Ferguson Effect?

American policing is in the midst of a challenge to its legitimacy. The police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO in the summer of 2014 led to a firestorm of social media attention focused on police use of force against minority citizens. Social media and cell phone video fueled the viral spread of similar incidents across the United States in months to come, making police shootings a national (and international) conversation rather than one constrained locally to the jurisdictions where specific incidents occurred. Rather than speculate about the impact of so important an issue, solid research should guide our understanding and policy responses. Ferguson and related incidents resulted in civil unrest, microscopic scrutiny of police behavior, lawsuits, and officer terminations. Websites where citizens could post cell phone video of police-citizen interactions gained popularity, such as Cop Block and Reddit’s Bad Cop No Donut. This led some commentators, law enforcement officials, including the FBI Director, and politicians  to warn the American public of an impending crime wave. More crime was argued to be the result of …

Taking the Wonder Out of Science Education

A couple of years ago, the London Science Museum produced its own travelling act for children called “The Energy Show”. It was reported enthusiastically on the BBC, with loud film-clips of zany, steampunk characters shrieking and leaping about the stage, conjuring up the mandatory balls of flame and obligatory explosions that – we’re endlessly told – will encourage our children to get into science. The madcap performers and their virtual lab assistant i-nstein (sigh) took an audience of excited young theatre-goers through a range of whacky demonstrations. The hope was that they would be inspired enough to take their study of chemical reactions further, even after they returned to the classroom and were reminded that they didn’t know or even care what a mole was. One voice (I’ll confess to having several) in my head told me that I should be happy about this sort of stuff; that anything aimed at “Getting Kids Into Science” has unquestionably got to be A Good Thing. But as I watched the pyrotechnics, I had a familiar sinking feeling. …