Climate-change denial is not about science

The minds of climate-change deniers won’t be changed with scientific facts. For them, the real issue isn’t science.

image: @politicaltribe

There’s a temptation to think that if all the facts were presented to deniers, that suddenly they would see the light. Professor Katharine Hayhoe says that doesn’t work:

“The number-one question I get from people is, ‘Could you just talk to my father-in-law, my congressman, my colleague? If you could just explain the facts to them, I’m sure it will change their mind.’ This is a trap. . . It almost never works. The only constructive dialogue with a dismissive person in on the level at which he or she really has the issue,” she told Scientific American (October 2017.) The Canadian political scientist teaches at Texas Tech University.

The real issue isn’t science. Sure, deniers like to couch arguments in science-y terms like –it’s just a natural cycle, scientists aren’t sure, actually its global cooling, volcanoes are the cause.  They use the language of science because they understand, or they have heard, that the scientific method tests theories in an irrefutable way.

The implications of reducing carbon emissions are scary for deniers. There are two. Entire economies have been built around the burning of fossil fuels. Therefore, the reasoning goes, if we stop burning fossils fuels our modern lifestyle will cease to exist. Economies will collapse. People will lose their jobs. Big Oil fuels these fears –it’s an existential issue for them.

Another implication has to with betrayal of your tribe. Although it wasn’t always the case, climate change has become politicized. I believe in climate change, not just because it can be scientifically proven but because it’s part of a set of values held by my tribe; along with pro-choice, fair wages, unionization, and environmental protection.

Climate change wasn’t always tribal. A few decades ago, the relationship between carbon dioxide and global warming was uncontroversial –it’s been known since the 1890’s. The trapping of heat with some sort of “blanket” is not only scientifically true, it’s observable: When clouds cover Kamloops at night, it stays warmer than when it’s clear.

However, once climate change moved from being a fact on the shelf to an actionable truth, Big Oil began to lobby politicians to fight against cutbacks in carbon emission. The prospect of reversing the fossil-fuel industry strikes fear in the corporate boardroom.

Climate change is the biggest issue facing humanity. We know the cause and we know the solution. Prof. Hayhoe has some tips. Shouting down the other tribe will not mobilize humanity to action. Avoid scientific arguments –they are not the real problem. Don’t use the words “climate” and “change” sequentially.

“With libertarians, we talk about free-market strategies,” says Prof. Hayhoe, “With mom’s groups, we talk about pollution affecting our kids’ health. With farmers, I say, ‘Hey, you’re the backbone of our food system, how have drought patterns changed?’ I don’t validate that there is a left and right side to climate change. And neither should the media.”

What’s the point in being right, in erecting tribal walls, when the future of our planet is at stake?

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Doctors beware: this opioid is not listed

Doctors rely on Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act as a guide in prescribing drugs. Tramadol is not listed there but that could change soon.

image: Tramadol dropshipper

Tramadol is a sneaky drug, as Dr. David Juurlink discovered when a patient with a shoulder injury was prescribed tramadol. On the positive side, tramadol relieved the shoulder pain. Then problems starting showing up says Dr. Juurlink:

“The first sign of trouble arose three months later. His shoulder pain gone, the patient assumed he no longer needed tramadol. He was wrong. Shortly after stopping it, he developed debilitating insomnia, shakes and back pain – something he’d never experienced before. Irritable, exhausted and functioning poorly at work, he soon found the solution: All he needed to do was keep taking tramadol, and these problems went away (Globe and Mail, November 27, 2017).”

There are two outcomes of being hooked on drugs. One is a physically dependence, such as exhibited by the above patient. The other is addiction in which a patient’s health deteriorates and their behaviour is transformed –what we usually think of as addiction. This patient needed the drug for no other reason than to avoid the debilitating effects of not taking the drug.

The reasons why tramadol is not listed are complex. First, the way that it affects patients depends on their genetics. Tramadol acts as if it were two drugs. It relieves pain using the same mechanism as aspirin does but for some with a particular enzyme, it converts to an opioid. Only 6 per cent of Caucasians have the enzyme, whereas 30 per cent of those of East African or Middle Eastern decent will experience opioid conversion.

Tailor-made drugs, specific to a patient’s genetics, hold future promise. That would allow doctors would know in advance whether a patient has the enzyme or not. For now doctors roll the dice in prescribing tramadol.

Second, when Health Canada last reviewed tramadol in 2007, during the era of the Harper government, a libertarian regime affected policy. Manufacturers of tramadol lobbied Health Canada directly and indirectly to keep the drug off the list. Manufacturers peddled the “dual mechanism of action” of tramadol without disclosing just what that meant. Indirect lobbying came in form of financial support to at least one patient advocacy group who wanted to keep the drug freely available.

The Holy Grail of pain-killers would be one as effective as opioids without the side effect of addiction. Researchers have been looking or more than a century. The German drug company, Bayer, marketed a cough suppressant derived from morphine under the trademark Heroin in 1895. It was marketed as being non-addictive.

More recently, OxyContin was marketed as a pain-relief drug “without unacceptable side effects.” Doctors believed that they were prescribing a safe drug but OxyContin proved otherwise. Patients who took it for pain relief got hooked and when prescriptions ran out, they went to the streets in search of substitutes.

Under the Trudeau government, Health Canada is considering placement of tramadol under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act –where it belongs. Whether it is listed or not will be a test of a government’s resolve to put the health of Canadians above commercial interests.

No going back on abuse of women

What was once a trickle has become a torrent of reports from women of how they were groped, fondled, molested, assaulted, raped, and verbally abused; how they fought off the unwanted sexual advances of men.

   Sergeant Vicky-Lynn Cox. Photo: CBC

High-profile reports have come out of the entertainment industry. Actress Daryl Hannah told the New Yorker about the consequences of rejecting film director Harvey Weinstein’s advances: “We are more than not believed – we are berated and criticized and blamed.”

Harassment and assault on women takes a toll. Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti talked to dozens of women:

“Some of the women I heard from are in their 60s, 70s and 80s. The pain they carried through the years is palpable. In many cases, they knew what was happening to them was wrong, even if the culture at the time was more accepting of predatory behaviour. Often they told no one. They felt shame for not speaking up or acting. Sometimes that shame has been corrosive though the years and, in other cases, women have pushed it aside (November 18, 2017).”

It’s not just the world of entertainment. Women from many walks of life are speaking up. Sergeant Vicky-Lynn Cox of the Canadian Armed Forces told CBC Radio’s The Current:

“My first incident, without going into detail about my first incident, happened three weeks into the military. From that point on I didn’t really sleep soundly for the next 20 years. I’m approaching on 21 years of service. So I’m recovering from that. For years and years, I didn’t say a thing and for years and years I tolerated the environment around me because of the love of my country and the love of my work.”

Three Canadian comediennes spoke to The Current about the problems they faced. Michelle Shaughnessy said that male comedians think bad behaviour can be excused by saying that it’s just a joke:

“I know there was one incident where a colleague who was a friend, like I think it was kind of like the equivalent of like a drunk dial type thing. Actually sent me like a picture of their penis like the middle of the night, when obviously they had been drinking too much . . . you can mention it to these guys and their first defence is ‘were all comics. It’s a joke.’”

Women who were once afraid that they wouldn’t be believed, who were told “that’s the way it is,” are now speaking up.

It’s no joke. A shift in culture is happening. The more women who come forward, the more that others will be encouraged to do so. And as more women move into positions of power in corporations, government, police, clergy, and the military, the more they will be believed. “The tide is turning,” said Leeann Tweeden, the former model who has accused Al Franken: the high-profile writer, comedian and senator. It’s not enough that Franken “feels terribly” about the accusations.

I have a selfish reason to see the end of bad behaviour by men. I want to live in a society where women don’t have to suspect and fear men. The predatory and toxic actions of men are a burden on us all.

The mysterious Beothuk of Newfoundland

Recent DNA tests have only deepened the mystery the Beothuk people of Newfoundland.

   Beothuk. Image from Mysteries of Canada

The Beothuk were reclusive compared to other Indigenous Newfoundland people like the Mi’kmaq. Their solitary nature may have contributed to their extinction.

Like all Indigenous people, the Beothuk had good reasons to avoid the settlers. The last Beothuk, Shanawdithit, died on June 6, 1829. Shanawdithit’s aunt died in captivity nine years earlier. Her aunt was captured by settlers in a raid on a Beothuk camp in which the aunt’s husband and infant child were killed.

The Beothuk thrived on marine mammals and other coastal resources but they were driven inland when the coast was occupied by Europeans. One thing that the DNA record reveals is the relatively poor land-based diet that resulted compared to the nutritional coastal marine food.

I first wrote of the Beothuk in 2014. After I wrote my column, I received an email from a man I’ll call George. He had lived in Newfoundland and thought that I might be interested in some things he had learned while living there. I was. We exchanged a number of emails and we had lengthy phone conversations.

George moved to Fogo Island years ago -it’s a small island off the coast of Newfoundland.  He got to talking with the great grandson of John Soper Holmes, a settler on Fogo Island at the time of the Beothuk. The great grandson told George that Holmes had killed and buried twelve Indians. As the story went, the Beothuk had stolen gear from his ocean-side camp. Holmes buried behind Indians behind his house. The mayor of Fogo told George that, as a child, he was told not to play up in the hills behind Homes house because Indians were buried there. George thought that these allegations should be investigated, and if true would contribute to the account of the Beothuk.

I thought so, too. I wrote up the story and sent it to George to look over before it was published. To my dismay, he recanted the story completely and I never published it. I suspect that George feared retributions from the close-knit Fogo community. I’m revealing details of the story for the first time but changed his name.

DNA analysis of the three distinct Indigenous groups of Newfoundland people deepens the mystery. Here’s what we know so far:

The last common ancestor of the three groups lived 10,000 years ago. The first group, the Maritime Archaic people, moved into Labrador and Newfoundland about 8,000 years ago and lived there until 3,200 years ago. Researchers speculate that a cooling climate made Newfoundland less hospitable to the Maritime Archaic people who were living off marine resources.

For the next 2,000 years, Paleo-Eskimo groups moved southward from the Arctic. They may have been the “skraelings” described by Norse explorers who tried to settle on the northwestern tip of Newfoundland around 1,000 A.D.

Then came the Beothuk. But from where they came is not clear. They are not related to any of the others. “I didn’t expect that,” said Vaughan Grimes, an archaeologist at Memorial University and a team member on the study. “I thought there would be more biological relationship between the groups (Globe and Mail, October 12, 2017)”

I have a feeling that there are many more stories of the Beothuk to be told. Maybe Beothuk are not extinct but survive in the lineages of Newfoundland people walking around today? Stay tuned.

My beef with Canada’s new food guide

Canada’s new food guide is being influenced by agencies whose chief focus is the consumption of their products, not our health. Food industries and a branch of government, Agri-food Canada, are resisting proposed changes by Health Canada.

     Proposed food label. Image : Globe and Mail

Health Canada wants the new food guide to “shift towards more plant-based foods,” less red meats, and to limit “some meats and many cheeses” high in saturated fats.

These are sensible recommendations but not what Agri-food Canada wants. They are in the business of promoting the sale of red meat and dairy industries. AAFC officials wrote a memo marked “secret” in which they worried:

“Messages that encourage a shift toward plant-based sources of protein would have negative implications for the meat and dairy industries (Globe and Mail).”

Yes they would have negative implications but the health of Canadians trumps the meat and dairy industries.

Canada’s food guide is widely respected. Seventy-five years after its first launch, it’s the second most requested government document after income-tax forms. It’s distributed to dieticians and doctors for patient advice, and to schools and hospitals for creating meal plans. The new guide will be around for a long time, so it’s important to get it right.

The current guide, revised in 2007, had a number of flaws. It recommends juice as a serving of vegetables and fruit. It recommends two servings of “milk and alternatives” and two servings of “meat and alternative.” Juice is not a substitute for whole fruit and vegetables. Too much red meat and saturated fats are unhealthy.

There are problems with the “Nutrition Facts” label as well. The serving size is not standard so that breakfast cereals, for example, may appear to have similar calorie content but, in fact, differ because the serving sizes vary.

Health advocates recommend that the new Nutrition facts label be moved from the back to the front of the package, and that foods which are high in salt, sugar, or saturated fats have a “stop” or “yield” sign. At a meeting with Health Canada in September, food and beverage industry reps were furious. They called the warning a “big, scary stop sign,” and that the signs were overly simplistic. They prefer detailed labels on the back rather than blunt symbols on the front. A lawyer for the food industry argued that Health Canada was not giving Canadians the respect they deserve: “They’re not idiots.”

Canadians are not idiots but they’re not nutrition specialists either. The food industry would rather have detailed specifications on the back because many shoppers find them hard to interpret.

The food industry complains that plain symbols like stop and yield signs would make consumers think they are “like a chemical warning sign.”

But warning symbols are appropriate because some foods are unhealthy. More than one-fifth of Canadians are obese. Diet-related chronic illness costs our health care system $7 billion a year. Heart disease and stroke are the leading cause of death.

Under the Harper government, the AAFC held sway. When Health Canada wanted to revise the guide back then to “choose local or regional foods when available,” the AAFC vetoed it. We’ll see how determined the Trudeau government is in shaping a healthy food guide. Will the government defend the health of Canadians or the food industry?

Facebook tests honest ads in Canada

Facebook hasn’t been completely honest. They haven’t made it clear how we pay for the service.

Facebook is the world’s largest social network with 2 billion active users –I’m one of them. What I get from Facebook is the opportunity to connect with friends and family. What Facebook gets is $52 billion a year in advertising, an average of $80 per North American user annually. I get a valuable service and Facebook gets $80. But what’s troubling me is: just who is trying to influence me? Who have I sold myself to?

The answer hasn’t been clear because the true source of postings isn’t always obvious.  An investigation by the U.S. Senate revealed that Russians anonymously influenced the outcome of the last presidential election. Facebook told the Senate that Russian agents placed 80,000 posts that were seen by 150 million Americans.

Earlier this year, Facebook’s Chief Security Officer, Alex Stamos said that Russians bought 3,000 ads amounting to $100,000 between June 2015 and May of 2017. In violation to Facebook’s policy, 470 were connected to inauthentic accounts. Not all the ads were overtly political.

“Rather,” says Stamos, “the ads and accounts appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.”

Such propaganda sneaks by our defences unnoticed because of the homey feel of Facebook; you don’t expect disinformation to be bundled with posts from friends.

Other Russian accounts weren’t subtle at all. One Facebook posting was from a fake group called “United Muslims of America.” It targeted actual Muslims. The group claimed that Hillary Clinton admitted that the U.S. “created, funded and armed” al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Another Russian Facebook group, “Army of Jesus,” featured Jesus arm-wrestling Satan in which Clinton is Satan. Trump is “an honest man who cares deeply for his country,” the group added.

Facebook knows you well. They know where you live, what you like and what you share, where you travel, what you do for a living, when you are online and for how long. Facebook knows you in unimaginable detail. There are more than 52,000 Facebook categories used to microtarget ads to your interests and desires according ProPublica: subtleties of your character that that even you may not even be aware of.

In an attempt to clear the fog of deception, Facebook Canada has announced that they are going to pull the curtain back and reveal more about advertisers. Ads will now have to be associated with a Facebook page –that’s already standard with brand-name products. And ads will reveal how you have been targeted.

The U.S. Senate wants Facebook to go further with their proposed Honest Ads Act. The act would require disclosure of the rate charged for the ad, the name of candidates in the case of political ads, and contact information of the purchaser.

In the past CEO Mark Zuckerberg has resisted, claiming that Facebook is just a technology company. Now it’s becoming abundantly clear that Facebook is not just a sharing platform but a publisher, and as such must be responsible for its content.

B.C. Government offers help to opposition in drafting bills

There’s more than practicality and clever politics behind the government’s offer to help the opposition to draft winning bills.

B.C. Attorney General David Eby (right). Photo: CBC

As a practical matter, it’s inevitable that opposition parties will get together and propose legislation that the government disagrees with. Since the Green and BC Liberal members outnumber the NDP, the proposed legislation would pass.

If they’re going to pass, the bills should be well-written. Attorney-General David Eby says:

“It’s an art to draft effective legislation, and we want to make sure the other parties have access to the professionals, if they are putting forward amendments that might actually pass (Globe and Mail, Oct. 18, 2017).”

The offer is politically clever because even well-drafted bills may never make it because the government has the power to call the bill to be debated or not. It could simply expire at the end of the current sitting. In fact, that’s what happens to most private-members bills –the government ignores them and they go away.

If the bill passes, it’s because the government wants, or will allow, it to pass. BC Green Leader Andrew Weaver’s private-member bill is a good example. It would allow ride-hailing companies such as Lyft and Uber into the provincial market. The BC Liberals are in favour of Weaver’s private-member bill. The NDP want to “study” it further because some supporters are not in favour of the gig economy.

If Weaver’s bill is allowed to pass, the NDP can have it both ways: constituents who like Lyft and Uber will be pleased, and to those who are opposed the NDP can say “the opposition made us do it.”

Andrew Wilkinson, the BC Liberal critic for the Attorney-General, is suspicious:

“It’s a trap,” he said. “It’s designed to make the Greens feel they are involved in the legislative process. BC Liberals recognize this as a false promise.”

Beyond practicality and clever politics, there is electoral reform to consider. The NDP and Greens are committed to electoral reform through proportional representation (PR).

The advantage to Greens is obvious.  They won only three per cent of the seats with 17 per cent of the popular vote. They could have won 15 seats based on PR (the actual number dependent on the model of PR.)

The existing system of voting hasn’t worked that well for the BC NDP, either. Since its founding in 1933, the NDP has only formed government for 13 out of 84 years. Their chances are greater under PR. In the last election, 57 per cent of British Columbians voted Green or NDP. Proportional representation often results in minority governments and that would put the NDP in power.

The BC Liberals oppose PR because division of the progressive vote puts them in power.

Electoral reform is more likely to pass in the next referendum with support of the NDP government in educating the public –support that the BC Liberals didn’t provide in the first two referenda.

The offer of help to opposition parties demonstrates that minority governments can work. Sonia Furstenau, Green’s spokeswoman for electoral reform, is enthused:

“This is great. This is a step toward having a legislature where all 87 members have the capacity to contribute to policy making. This is what democracy should look like.”