Sunday, February 28, 2016

Think of the children

Frequently when groups oppose LGTB rights, they invoke the children as an argument. This is something we have seen in the US, where organizations like NOM (National Organization for Marriage), and something which could be seen during last year's referendum on same sex marriage in Ireland.

There are generally two types of arguments:

  1. That children that doesn't grow up in wholesome classic heterosexual families, will suffer one way or the other.
  2. That by granting rights to LGTBs, it teaches the children that it is alright to be LGTB.
The first argument is usually the most common, since many people since to have a idealized view of married heterosexual couples - especially in the US, where there still seems to be a taboo around the concept of unmarried people getting children. Elsewhere, like in my native Denmark, there isn't the same taboo about getting children without getting children, and I know many people who has lived together for many years, raising their children, without getting married.

Unsurprisingly, to anyone who has been paying attention, there is no evidence that children raised by a heterosexual married couple are any better of than children raised by a homosexual couple (see e.g. Children of same-sex couples are happier and healthier than peers, research shows) or even single parents. Rather it depends on how stable the household is, and other socio-economic factors.  

For a nice overview of the state of research on the area, including the flaws of the few studies that anti-LGTB groups tend to reference, I can recommend What does the scholarly research say about the wellbeing of children with gay or lesbian parents? on Columbia Law School's public policy research portal What We Know.

The second argument, that being accepting of LGTB means that children learn it is alright to be LGTB, is not often stated explicitly, as the groups opposed to LGTBs generally realize that this sounds bigoted. Of course, this only holds for groups that are trying to pretend that they aren't so - religious groups which uses religion as a foundation for their bigotry, doesn't seem to have the same resistance to demonstrate it.

I think it hardly goes without saying that such an attitude can be harmful towards children who fall within the LGTB spectrum. 

Acceptance of LGTB, both in general and in the specific case of a child being LGTB, is a much more healthy environment for LGTB youth to grow up in.

This has been demonstrated again and again, and latest through a study of the well-being of openly transgendered children: Study: Transgender children allowed to live openly fare well

The study looks into the well-being of children who are transgender, and whose parents have accepted them. The result is that these children fare about equally to other children.

There are some flaws in the study, which the researchers also acknowledge in the article, but it shows the benefits of parents accepting their children as they are, and that the psychological well-being of transgendered children can be as good as other children, which is not something that is part of the common discourse when it comes to these issues. As the article states:

The findings are “truly stunning,” given previous studies showing high rates of mental health problems including suicidal behavior in transgender children, Dr. Ilana Sherer, a Dublin, Calif., pediatrician, wrote in a Pediatrics editorial. Most previous research is in children who haven’t come out, Olson said.
So, when bigots try to use the well-being of children as their arguments, they are not only using an argument that has been shown to be untrue, they are also using an argument which has been shown to be harmful to children.

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Thursday, February 18, 2016

Gender bias when evaluating people

Wonkblog reports on a new study on gendered bias: The remarkably different answers men and women give when asked who’s the smartest in the class

Anthropologist Dan Grunspan was studying the habits of undergraduates when he noticed a persistent trend: Male students assumed their male classmates knew more about course material than female students — even if the young women earned better grades. 
“The pattern just screamed at me,” he said. 
So, Grunspan and his colleagues at the University of Washington and elsewhere decided to quantify the degree of this gender bias in the classroom. 
After surveying roughly 1,700 students across three biology courses, they found young men consistently gave each other more credit than they awarded to their just-as-savvy female classmates. 
Men over-ranked their peers by three-quarters of a GPA point, according to the study, published this month in the journal PLOS ONE. In other words, if Johnny and Susie both had A's, they’d receive equal applause from female students — but Susie would register as a B student in the eyes of her male peers, and Johnny would look like a rock star.
It is a pretty good article, and well worth the read - as is the actual paper in PLOS One

Males Under-Estimate Academic Performance of Their Female Peers in Undergraduate Biology Classrooms

Women who start college in one of the natural or physical sciences leave in greater proportions than their male peers. The reasons for this difference are complex, and one possible contributing factor is the social environment women experience in the classroom. Using social network analysis, we explore how gender influences the confidence that college-level biology students have in each other’s mastery of biology. Results reveal that males are more likely than females to be named by peers as being knowledgeable about the course content. This effect increases as the term progresses, and persists even after controlling for class performance and outspokenness. The bias in nominations is specifically due to males over-nominating their male peers relative to their performance. The over-nomination of male peers is commensurate with an overestimation of male grades by 0.57 points on a 4 point grade scale, indicating a strong male bias among males when assessing their classmates. Females, in contrast, nominated equitably based on student performance rather than gender, suggesting they lacked gender biases in filling out these surveys. These trends persist across eleven surveys taken in three different iterations of the same Biology course. In every class, the most renowned students are always male. This favoring of males by peers could influence student self-confidence, and thus persistence in this STEM discipline.
The paper doesn't really tell anything new - it is well documented that there is a gender-bias against women when evaluating performance and skills, especially in science - see e.g. Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students

Despite efforts to recruit and retain more women, a stark gender disparity persists within academic science. Abundant research has demonstrated gender bias in many demographic groups, but has yet to experimentally investigate whether science faculty exhibit a bias against female students that could contribute to the gender disparity in academic science. In a randomized double-blind study (n = 127), science faculty from research-intensive universities rated the application materials of a student—who was randomly assigned either a male or female name—for a laboratory manager position. Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant. The gender of the faculty participants did not affect responses, such that female and male faculty were equally likely to exhibit bias against the female student. Mediation analyses indicated that the female student was less likely to be hired because she was viewed as less competent. We also assessed faculty participants’ preexisting subtle bias against women using a standard instrument and found that preexisting subtle bias against women played a moderating role, such that subtle bias against women was associated with less support for the female student, but was unrelated to reactions to the male student. These results suggest that interventions addressing faculty gender bias might advance the goal of increasing the participation of women in science.
Or How stereotypes impair women’s careers in science
 Women outnumber men in undergraduate enrollments, but they are much less likely than men to major in mathematics or science or to choose a profession in these fields. This outcome often is attributed to the effects of negative sex-based stereotypes. We studied the effect of such stereotypes in an experimental market, where subjects were hired to perform an arithmetic task that, on average, both genders perform equally well. We find that without any information other than a candidate’s appearance (which makes sex clear), both male and female subjects are twice more likely to hire a man than a woman. The discrimination survives if performance on the arithmetic task is self-reported, because men tend to boast about their performance, whereas women generally underreport it. The discrimination is reduced, but not eliminated, by providing full information about previous performance on the task. By using the Implicit Association Test, we show that implicit stereotypes are responsible for the initial average bias in sex-related beliefs and for a bias in updating expectations when performance information is self-reported. That is, employers biased against women are less likely to take into account the fact that men, on average, boast more than women about their future performance, leading to suboptimal hiring choices that remain biased in favor of men.
What I find interesting with the newest study, however, is that it seems like it mostly affects men, while women tend to be better at giving a correct evaluation of the skills of their peers.

If this tendency continues after leaving the classroom (and other studies strongly indicate that this is so), this means that men are more likely to hire less qualified men than the more qualified women, while believing that they are hiring the most qualified person.

Women on the other hand, is more likely to hire the most qualified person, regardless of gender.

When people argue against quotas and other measures to create a level playing field on the job market, they usually argue that the most qualified person should be hired to a given job - well, this study clearly shows that in order for this to happen, there has to be more women involved in the hiring, since otherwise the less qualified men will get hired. 

In other words, in order for people to really get hired on the basis of their merits, we have to break the cycle of hiring based on biases.

So, maybe quotas and other measures are the real way of ensuring people getting hired on the basis of their merit?

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Saturday, May 23, 2015

Congratulations Ireland

Yesterday Ireland voted on whether or not homosexuals should have marriage equality.

It is the first vote on this subject anywhere in the world.

All the political parties were behind the Yes-side in the referendum, and only private organizations (mostly Catholic in nature) were driving the No-side.

The final count is not yet in, but it seems like everyone agrees that the Yes-side has won by a landslide in Ireland.

I am not a fan of voting on the rights of other people, but when it happens, it is wonderful when the side of equality and rights win.

Ireland only made homosexuality legal two decades ago, so it is amazing that it has progressed to this point already.


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Thursday, February 12, 2015

A lynching every week for 73 years

It has been long known that lynching was not the uncommon occurrences in the US post the Civil War, as some people try to paint it as, but now the Atlanta Blackstar has an article, that tells us that lynchings were even more widespread than we had realized.

New Report Compiles A Devastating Count of Nearly 4,000 Lynchings of Black People in the US, Showing This Form of White Terrorism Had Profound Impact on American History
There were 3,959 Black people lynched in the United States between 1877 and 1950—a number that is 700 more than previously known—and Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana had more lynchings than any other state in the country. These revelations are contained in an astounding new report by the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative that attempts to place this horrid form of American racial terrorism in its proper historical context as a tool of white supremacy that had a profound impact on the nation.
The report, called “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror,” ties lynching to a broader picture of white social control, showing how lynchings affected African-American migration patterns, effectively turning many Southern communities from predominantly Black to overwhelmingly white virtually overnight and sending millions of Black people to the cities of the North to escape this terrorism. It is a significantly more nuanced view of how whites used lynching to serve particular purposes—and how lynchings were a seldom-discussed driver of the Great Migration of Black people to the North.
A summary of the report can be found here (pdf).

So, after investigating lynchings, the report found that there had been 3,959 lynchings over 73 years. That is an average of more than 54 lynchings per year, or put differently, it means that there was, on average, one lynching per week for 73 years!

This is an horrifying thought.

After having posted about this on facebook, one of my facebook friends wrote:
When you hear about lynching now, it's cast as some sort of anomaly, somehow separate from the main stream of US experience. But Kristjan's average really puts it in perspective: anything that happens once a week for 70+ years is Normal with a capital N; it WAS the US experience. It barely rated news coverage, just as these days black deaths in the inner cities barely rate a mention on any but the local news.
That is a great way of putting it. When we are talking such numbers, we are not talking anomalies - we are talking routine. This was the daily life of people living back then.

Remember this, when people try to dismiss the concept of institutionalized racism or downplay how bad racism was in the past.

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Sunday, January 05, 2014

Fear and uncertainty in politics

The New York Times has a long and interesting article about one politicians truth seeking process, when trying to decide what to vote on the issue of a ban on genetically modified crops in Hawaii.

A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops

It is not unreasonable to have some concerns when discussing genetically modified crops, especially related to cross-pollination, patents, and the business practices of the companies providing such crops. All of these things are touched upon in the article, as the politician, Greggor Ilagan, tries to understand the issue, and the science relating to it.

Unfortunately, as Mr. Ilagan, also finds out, there is a lot of FUD (Fear-Uncertainty-Doubt) going on when it comes to G.M.O.s. None of it fact-based, but it sounds just plausible enough that people will believe it (especially when used in connection to phrases like "Frankencrops").

There have been some studies that indicates higher risks of cancer when eating G.M.O.s, but the scientists behind these studies appear to have been ideologically against G.M.O.s, and the studies have been found to flawed and has largely been retracted (including the much spoken about 2012 rat study from France). Indeed, the general consensus among scientists doing research into the subject, is that there is no difference in risks between conventional crops and modified crops - something which is hardly surprising, considering the biology behind it.

In 2010, the European Commission (hardly a strong proponent of G.M.O.s) released their research into the harms from G.M.O. In the press release it was described thus:
In order to help inform debate on genetically modified organisms, the European Commission is publishing today a compendium entitled "A decade of EU-funded GMO research". The book summarizes the results of 50 research projects addressing primarily the safety of GMOs for the environment and for animal and human health. Launched between 2001 and 2010, these projects received funding of €200 million from the EU and form part of a 25-year long research effort on GMOs.
As I said before, the EU and the European Commission can hardly be considered strong proponents of G.M.O.s. Indeed they put off allowing G.M.O.s for a long time, while researching the potential side-effects. This is part of the general principle of caution, under which the EU usually handles these things - in the EU it generally has to be demonstrated that there are no harmful side-effects, before it is allowed, while in the US, the tendency is to demand that a harmful side-effect be proven, before not allowing it.

The summarization of 25 years of research into the potential side-effects of G.M.O.s was summed up thus in the press release:
According to the projects' results, there is, as of today, no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.
I highly recommend downloading and reading the book (pdf).

Back to the NY Times article. Mr. Ilagan spent the time necessary, and talked to the people with the proper expertize, in order to get to understand the subject well enough to make an informed vote. He appears to have been alone, or nearly alone, in this, and instead the anti-science ignorance spread by anti-GMO advocates were allowed to carry the day. The ban was approved 6 votes to 3.

Many issues related to science are complex, and it is even harder to get to understand them when there are people actively promoting misinformation, no matter whether they are grassroots organizations or think-tanks.

When politicians face decision making relating to such an issue, they could much worse than try to follow in the footsteps of Mr. Ilagan. As the EC compendium correctly states:
Sound policy, while needing to take account of a wide range of views, must be based on sound science.
All to often, anti-science is allowed to carry the day.

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Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Acceptance of evolution in the US

There is a new Pew survey on the US Public’s Views on Human Evolution.

As these surveys tend to be, it is depressing reading for science-minded people.

According to the survey, 60% of the US public believes that humans have evolved over time, while 33% thinks that humans have existed in the present form since the beginning.

This means that 1/3 of the US population doesn't accept the evidence for human evolution.

While this number is lower than in other polls, it is still a depressingly high number of people who simply disregards what science shows us, and instead goes for something which there is not just no evidence for, but something which there is actual evidence against!

It probably comes as no surprise to you that the acceptance of evolution very much depends on peoples' religious view, with unaffiliated and white mainline protestants having the highest acceptance rates (76% and 78% respectively) and white evangelical protestants having the lowest (just 27%).

White evangelical protestants are quite influential on the Republican party, and help define their policies - also on scientific issues. This might explain why the acceptance of evolution among GOP voters have dropped from 54% in 2009 to just 43% now, and the belief that humans haven't changed over time, have gone up from 39% in 2009 to 48% now.

The survey clearly indicates just how damaging it would be to sound science if the GOP got into power.

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Spreading awareness and minimizing stigma

This blogpost is one I have wanted to write for a while, but also one which I haven't quite know how to write, so I appologize in advance for it probably being a bit incoherent.

It is no secret that there is a history of alcoholism in my family. Specifically, my father was an alcoholic, and died as a direct result of his alcoholism (he fell and broke his neck while drunk). This happened a long time after I moved away from home, and during my childhood, my father mostly managed to stay away from alcohol, though with several yearly drinking binges. In other words, growing up, I only suffered mildly from the consequences of my father's alcoholism.

This might be part of the reason why I have never been ashamed of the fact that my father was an alcoholic. Obviously, I didn't like the fact, especially not after he started drinking heavily around the time I was 25 or so, but it was nothing I felt I had to be ashamed of.

When talking with other people, and mentioned the fact that my father was an alcoholic, I have found out that I am not typical in this. Many people who have had, or have, an alcoholic parent or grandparent, feels ashamed of it, and don't mention it. Except they did, when I had told that my father was one, but then only in privacy.

I found out that a lot of people have experienced alcoholism pretty closely, yet have been afraid to open up to other people because of the social stigma associated with it. This has left them to try to cope on their own, often at great personal costs.

This is a problem.

A problem which we should try to do something about.

Social stigmas like this are destructive, and blocks people from seeking help and support when needed.

One great thing about the Internet is now we can use it to share our stories and spread awareness of something, trying to help others overcome their fear of a stigma, in order to help them in the long run, or even in the short run.

One example of someone who has done so is the YouTube vlogger HappiLeeErin, who usually talks about Manga, but who in June 2013 posted a deeply personal video about her struggles with bi-polar disorder.


Several people have posted in the comment section that the video has helped them seek the help that they needed.

Please don't use ad-block or scriptblocking when viewing the video, as it will ensure that HappiLeeErin doesn't get paid for the views, which in turn, makes it harder for her to do work helping other people.

Another YouTube vlogger who has posted about her disorders in order to help other people is Courtneypants, who in May 2013 posted about her eating disorders.


Before then, she had posted about her problems with trichotillomania.

Internet personality and actor Wil Wheaton has also opened up about his problems. In this case with depression.

When YouTube vloggers like HappiLeeErin and Courtneypants and personalities like Wil Wheaton open up about these problems, they are helping other people that they are not alone, and that it is OK to seek help if they feel they need it.

Given the current social stigmas that are connected to these issues, I don't think everybody can be as brave and open about their problems as the people I've mentioned above, but I think it is important that the people who are able to do, do it, so we can help remove the stigma, and help people who need help.

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Happy New Year

It is currently morning on January 1st in Denmark, so I guess it is appropriate to wish you all a happy new year and the best of luck in 2014.

2013 was in many ways a horrible year in the geopolitical sense, but from a personal perspective, 2013 was a quite good year, and I see no reason why 2014 should prove any different.

My personal goals for 2014 are the following:
  • Finish a book project I am working on with an ex-colleague. Hopefully get it published as well, but let's see how it turns out in the end.
  • Participate in a couple of work-related conferences.
  • Go to Skepticon.
  • Travel as much as I can get away with (probably some weekend trips in Europe rather than prolonged trips).
  • Read at least 52 books.
  • Watch at least 52 movies.
  • Discover one new band per month.
  • Loose some weight and get in better shape.
    • Related to this, stop drinking Coke. 
  • Write on average 1 hour per day on either my blogs or on the book project.
  • Start a new work-related blog on a new blogging network which is planned to start in 2014.
  • Be awesome at work.
  • See my friends as much as it is possible.
  • Organize some great events for Copenhagen Skeptics in the Pub together with my co-hosts.
I am also considering going to QED, but I simply don't know if I will be able to fit it into my schedule.

All in all, a fairly moderate list, which should be do-able. Being do-able has always seemed to me to be a good quality when you evaluate potential goals.

Do any of you have some interesting goals you want to share?

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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Lazy linking - gotta catch up

Here are a few links which has caught my attention the last few days (all links open in new windows).

Annals of the Malaria War: Legions of Health Workers Launch an Attack - an interesting blogpost on the fight against malaria going on in Africa.

These Nuclear Physicists Think David Suzuki Is Exaggerating about Fukushima - I don't generally link to Vice, which I think is generally a horrible magazine, but this article is actually pretty interesting. They interview other nuclear physicists about the claims made by David Suzuki about Fukushima. Good skeptical journalism.

Groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers
I can't remember if I've linked this one before, since it is a pretty old article, but it is well worth reading - it explains why diversity is a good thing. I will probably write a blogpost about this at some stage.

The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killers - not science related, just history related.

Rachel Maddow Nails How Utterly Nutty Wis GOP Has Become (Now With Even More Voter Suppression). I think it is safe to say that certain parts of the GOP is not exactly trying to ensure that they represent the interest of all the citizens, or even the majority.

In the Ivory Tower, Men Only. "For men, having children is a career advantage. For women, it’s a career killer."

Why insurance is the wrong model for health care. It cannot be repeated often enough.

Reducing the World's Most Powerful Woman to a Dress. As I wrote on facebook when posting this link:
  1. It is extremely US-centric. A candidate for heading the Federal Reserve is hardly the most powerful woman in a world where Angela Merkel is the chancellor of Germany.
  2. That being said, the greater point of the article still stand - why are there different standards for men and women?
Occupy Wall Street activists buy $15m of Americans' personal debt


Twisted justice in Texas

This is an interesting story - a group of people are breaking the law in order to kill other people. Only, they are not the usual sort of people doing this, but rather they are officials from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and the people they are trying to kill, is the people on Death Row.

Death penalty states scramble for lethal injection drugs

Texas, which declined to comment on the pending case, is among 32 death-penalty states scrambling to find new drug protocols after European-based manufacturers banned U.S. prisons from using their drugs in executions -- among them, Danish-based Lundbeck, which manufactures pentobarbital. 
"The states are scrambling to find the drugs," says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center. "They want to carry out these executions that they have scheduled, but they don't have the drugs and they're changing and trying new procedures never used before in the history of executions." 
States have been forced to try new drug combinations or go to loosely regulated compounding pharmacies that manufacturer variations of the drugs banned by the larger companies. The suit against Texas alleges the state corrections department falsified a prescription for pentobarbital, including the patient name as "James Jones," the warden of the Huntsville Unit "where executions take place," according to court documents. Additionally, the drugs were to be sent to "Huntsville Unit Hospital," which, the documents say, "has not existed since 1983."
In short, a number of US states don't have the drugs they use to execute people any longer, after European companies have banned the use of those drugs for that purpose - the companies in question are threatening to stop exporting the drugs to the US if they are used to kill people.

In response, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has, allegedly, tried to get the drugs in illegal ways.

Yes, you read that right: The Texas Department of Criminal Justice allegedly breaks the law in order to execute people.

I cannot even begin to understand the twisted priorities of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice - it is more important to them that people get executed than obeying the law they are supposed to help uphold!

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