All posts filed under: Science / Tech

Preventable Deaths and the Need for Data-Driven Journalism

In the wake of the recent mass shootings in Texas and Ohio that claimed the lives of more than 30 people, Neil deGrasse Tyson drew significant controversy by posting a tweet which compared the death toll from the shootings to the (larger) numbers of people who died from other preventable causes over a 48-hour time period. Dr. Tyson concluded his message with a warning: “Often our emotions respond more to spectacle than to data.” In the past 48hrs, the USA horrifically lost 34 people to mass shootings. On average, across any 48hrs, we also lose… 500 to Medical errors300 to the Flu250 to Suicide200 to Car Accidents40 to Homicide via Handgun Often our emotions respond more to spectacle than to data. — Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) August 4, 2019 The negative responses to his tweet were swift and numerous, with many users voicing outrage, disappointment, and disgust. The next morning, he issued an apology on his Facebook page and acknowledged that he “got this one wrong.” But did he? I don’t disagree that his timing …

In Celebration of Errors

Making mistakes is out of fashion. To utter the wrong phrase or entertain an uncomfortable hypothesis is to risk both personal and professional ostracism. You might express an idea that is false, such as that the Earth is flat. Or you might say something that is true but nonetheless violates some taboo. A historical example is the assertion that the Earth revolves around the Sun, which once upon a time would have landed a person in hot water with the Catholic Church, as scientist Galileo Galilei learned the hard way in the 1600s. The content of what is unspeakable ebbs and flows over time as culture evolves and our understanding of reality improves. While defending Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection would once have elicited mockery, today, the opposite is (mostly) true. It is irrelevant whether or not someone is correct when he initially expresses an idea. What matters is how others respond to an idea that they find unpalatable, as solving problems always requires correcting errors. Civilization has been in the game of …

Socialization Isn’t Responsible for Greater Male Violence

Earlier this year, Dr. Julia Shaw wrote an article for Psychology Today entitled, “Why Are We Not Outraged that Prisons Are Filled with Men?” in which she argues that there is something “pernicious” and deeply wrong with a system that incarcerates men at far higher rates than women. “Prison,” she explains, “has always been an almost entirely male structure. It’s hard. It’s cold. It’s unempathetic. It’s punitive. Practically every descriptor we use for prison prides itself in its masculinity.” Shaw says the heavily disproportionate incarceration reflects a lack of faith in men, who are then adversely affected by the experience of prison and the social stigma they are forced to carry upon release. And “what leads us to blindly accept that our prisons are full of men?” she asks. I think it’s because we accept as dogma that men are naturally more criminal—particularly more violent—than women, thus they deserve to be incarcerated at higher rates. It’s about time we question this assumption. As Shaw points out, men are overrepresented in prisons because they commit more …

Why White Privilege Is Wrong—Part 1

“White privilege” is a term often invoked as a causal explanation for the success of whites relative to other groups. But the problem with white privilege isn’t its assumptions about racial discrimination, but its causal disposition. White privilege suffers from a bad case of mono-causality, or “one-thingism” as Jonah Goldberg puts it. Rarely does a single explanatory variable account for a complex phenomenon. Instead, complex outcomes are best explained by a confluence of factors. In the case of white privilege, there are a number of variables which, together, better explain differences in group outcomes. Moreover, there is a bevy of countervailing evidence that calls its validity into question. This is not to suggest that racial discrimination cannot or does not play a role in differential outcomes. Nor is it to suggest that privileges do not exist in some form or another. Where you live and who your parents are can be privileges. But to posit white privilege as the only or a predominant explanation for differences in group outcomes is, based on the empirical evidence, …

Facebook Already Controls Our Information. Don’t Let It Control Our Commerce

In recent years, not a month has gone by without yet another unsettling exposé of Facebook’s content-moderation policies and corporate machinations. One report from February explained how Facebook moderators can end up believing the conspiracies they’re hired to weed out. In another case, Facebook’s top executives hired lobbyists to present some of its critics as extremists. Facebook’s platform and subsidiaries have even been linked to the incitement of genocide in Myanmar and deadly lynch mobs in India. Not so long ago, in the days when using proto-social media meant dialing up to a CompuServe or AOL chat room, we never could have imagined (those of us old enough to remember that time, at least) that the name of a company like Facebook would appear in the headlines of breaking stories about geopolitics. But in 2019, it’s an everyday occurrence. Facebook runs the world’s biggest social media platform. It also runs Instagram, the world’s second biggest social media platform, and several large messaging platforms, including WhatsApp. It has become perhaps the most important de-facto news-delivery platform …

I’m a Feminist Mother. But I Don’t Need a ‘Feminist Birth’

When my first was born—a bit early, just shy of 36 weeks—he couldn’t breathe. He let out a brief, warbled cry, then fell silent. He was taken from my grasp in seconds, before it felt like he had ever really been with me at all. He required resuscitation. I held him again, for a few seconds, when he was stable and wearing a continuous positive airway pressure mask. Then he was taken to another floor of the hospital. There were a lot of things for a mother to be upset about. My labour included medical interventions, including intravenous medications, that I had no say about. I was confined to bed to allow continuous fetal monitoring, making labour—which took place without analgesics—more painful. I didn’t see my son for over two hours after he was taken to the neonatal intensive care unit. He never breastfed well in the months that followed, possibly because he was given a soother and feeding tube without my consultation or knowledge. “Mommy” blogs and other online fora are rife with similar …

The Bigotry of Environmental Pessimism

Democratic Presidential candidates and the New York Times rightly condemned the use of inflammatory words like “invasion” by President Donald Trump and Fox News hosts to describe the desperate people coming from Latin America to seek a better life in the U.S. Such language is irresponsible and may very well have contributed to the motivation of a man suspected to have killed 13 Americans, eight Mexicans, and one German in El Paso last week. In a manifesto he posted online before the attack, the suspect also used the word “invasion.” While they are at it, they should condemn the inflammatory rhetoric used by environmentalists, which also may have contributed to the motivations of the El Paso shooting suspect. The suspect justified his mass shooting of people in a Walmart by arguing that “our lifestyle is destroying the environment of our country.” The suspect writes, “y’all are just too stubborn to change your lifestyle. So the next logical step is to decrease the number of people in America using resources. If we can get rid of …

Rationalizing Modern Drug Prejudices

Congressman Jared Polis: Is crack worse for a person than marijuana? DEA Agent Michele Leonhart: I believe all illegal drugs are bad for you. Congressman Jared Polis: Is methamphetamine worse for somebody’s health than marijuana? DEA Agent Michele Leonhart: I don’t think any illegal drug is good for you. Congressman Jared Polis: Is heroin worse for someone’s health than marijuana? DEA Agent Michele Leonhart: Again, all drugs. Congressman Jared Polis:  I mean either ‘yes’, ‘no’, or ‘I don’t know.’ I mean if you don’t know you can look at this up. You should know this as the Chief Administrator of the DEA. I’m asking you a straightforward question, is heroin worse for someone’s health than marijuana? DEA Agent Michele Leonhart: All illegal drugs are bad. *   *   * How dangerous are different substances compared with each other, and do the laws get it right in banning some substances but not others? This question is not as immediately answerable as it might seem. For a start, no final and absolute answer can ever be given to …

The Rise of ‘Drag Kids’—and the Death of Gay Culture

Last month, the CBC—Canada’s public television network—ran a lavishly publicized documentary about “four kid drag queens as they prepare to slay on Montreal stage.” This was marketed as child-friendly content. Indeed, the CBC promoted the documentary, titled Drag Kids, on its “CBC Kids News” channel as a fun look at children who “sashay their way into the spotlight.” For me, as a gay man, watching the documentary was traumatic. The interviewed parents defend themselves against accusations they are abusing their children by encouraging them to dress up in drag. But to do so, the parents must purport to separate drag from sex and sexuality, which is simply ahistorical. They define drag as “a way of expression,” and assure everyone that “there’s nothing sexual to it” (a premise that the CBC clearly embedded in the marketing around the documentary). The kids themselves are very much on message. One remarks, “I was called gay-boy, but I did nothing but dress up.” That last remark actually brought tears to my eyes—though not for the reasons you might think. …

Jeffrey Epstein and All the Others: An Explainer

Jeffrey Epstein is the model villain for this cultural moment. He stands at the nexus of three of our hottest flashpoints: male sexual assault, capitalism’s oligarchs’ greed, and corruption, and the vulnerability of children horribly mistreated in Manhattan townhouses and private Caribbean islands as well as along our Southern borders. So it’s understandable that a lot of people have looked at Epstein’s venality primarily through the lens of these contemporary themes—understandable, but myopic. Epstein’s crimes present an opportunity to consider larger historical, anthropological, cultural lessons about the seemingly endless, whack-a-mole reappearance of men with his obsessions. The truth is the attraction of older males to young females on the cusp of maturity is not so much the story of rich capitalist scumbags exercising droight du seigneur, as it is a universal urge for reproductive success likely grounded deep in our primitive brains. This is in by no means to excuse or forgive any grown men who seek sex with young girls. On the contrary. They violate one of the modern world’s key moral principles. And …