Sunday, October 14, 2018

Why some people think women are inferior, and why they are wrong

I have been reading Angela Saini's new book, Inferior: How science got women wrong and the new research that's rewriting the story. It looks at all manner of preconceptions, received wisdom and scientific research around the general intersection of gender and science, from intelligence to emotion to behaviour to gender identity to education. It throws new light on old saws like "men are naturally more intelligent than women", "men's brains are bigger than women's", "men are analytical and women are empathetic", "nature is more important than nurture",  "men are promiscuous and undiscriminating, women are choosy and chaste", "the vast majority of science professors are male", etc.
En route, it throws up a bunch of interesting factoids:
  • Married mothers of young children in the USA are about a third less likely to get tenure-track academic jobs than married fathers of young children. BUT ... unmarried childless women are actually 4% MORE likely to get those jobs than unmarried childless men.
  • Although they typically get sicker more often, women are biologically better survivors than men, from their survival rates in childbirth early childhood (at least where equal healthcare is provided) to their significant advantage in longevity, and one reason may be their stronger autoimmune system, which in turn may be due to their need to host and nurture a foreign body during pregnancy and childbirth, and also the doubling up of many genes from the female XX chromosomes (as opposed the more heterogeneous male XY chromosomes).
  • Only a small minority (around one in five) of pharmacology and physiology studies look at both genders, with about eight out of ten showing a male bias, despite increasing evidence that women's bodies, and particularly their hormones, often reacts differently to drugs and treatments.
  • Although there is no statistical difference between the genders in "general intelligence (a measure taking into account intelligence, cognitive ability and mental ability), there is statistically more variability among men, meaning more men of extremely high intelligence and - to a much greater extent - more men of extremely low intelligence.
  • The male propensity for traditionally male pursuits like sports, cars, construction, etc, may not be innate, but merely a function of the amount of stereotyped reinforcement at an early age from well-meaning and unaware parents.
  • For decades it was maintained that, because women's brains were, on average, about five ounces lighter than the average man's (42ozs or 1,198g, as compared to 47ozs or 1,336g), women were that much less intelligent. It was only when it was revealed that the (male) founder of the Cornell Brain Collection himself had a brain about the size of the average woman, that it was admitted that brain weight and volume is actually proportionate to the size of the person, thus also explaining that elephants (which have brains weighing about 11lbs or 5kgs) are not more intelligent than humans.
  • Desperate to find other physiological differences between male and female brains, other researchers have turned to: the fact that women's brains have 15-20% higher blood flow than men's; that women have a higher percentage of grey matter in their brains, while man have more white matter or connective tissues; that men have more connections within the hemispheres, while women have more connections between the hemispheres; etc, etc. But other studies have shown how hard (or rather easy but unjustifiable)  it is to draw sweeping conclusions from the even most detailed brain scans, and the academic pressure to publish something eye-catching on a hot-button topic.
  • There is good evidence that biology and society are inextricably "entangled". For example, studies from the 1970s and 1980s showed that exceptional male mathematicians outnumbered females by as much as thirteen to one; more recent studies show this imbalance to be closer to four, three or even two to one, suggesting that this is not due to biological differences but to sociological and cultural differences that can change over time.
  • "Mate guarding" - forcing a female to be sexually subservient and monogamous, even to the detriment of the species or group or the physical wellbeing of the female - is a common behaviour among many animals. The human equivalent can be seen in practices like female genital mutilation, breast ironing, foot binding, the use of menstrual huts, etc.
Ms. Saini's conclusion is that the physical sex differences in the brain (as well as behavioural and psychological differences) are actually minimal, and mainly a function of the relative sizes of men and women (and consequently of their brains). Those differences that have been shown in various studies over the decades are overblown, exaggerated or misinterpreted, often the result of over-zealous researchers on a mission to make their names as pioneers of the theory of sexual dimorophism of the brain (the names Ruben Gur and Simon Baron-Cohen come up regularly in this context). Ms. Saini (often based on the work of others before her) skewers study after revered study, pointing out inconsistencies, errors and bias.
There is, however, still a vocal and influential (and mainly male) movement that insists that the differences are real and significant. Tempers can become very hot in this contentious area of neuroscience, and there are reports of offensive, even threatening, emails making the rounds. New words like "neurosexism" and "neurofeminism" have been coined. New research in the area gets covered in major national newspapers, unlike most scientific studies, because it is seen as subject that many people are very interested in and touches us closely (we all have brains, we all have genders, we all have sons or daughters or fathers or mothers).
The jury, as they say, is still out. But, you have to ask, is it important? What is the justification for all this research? And, for that matter, who is paying for it?

Saturday, October 13, 2018

What if we had invested in wind instead of the oil sands?

An interesting infographic in The Guardian gives a graphic analysis what might have been if Canada had spent the $200 billion it has invested in the Alberta oil sands since 1999 on windpower projects instead:

  • Almost twice as many electric cars could have been powered, compared to traditional ICE cars using the gasoline produced in the oil sands.
  • There would have been zero CO2 emissions from the operation of those vehicles, and zero emissions from the actual energy production, compared to 325 million tons and 66 million tons respectively from the use and production of energy from the oil sands.
  • The operations costs of the oil sands has been over 4 times what windpower would have cost.
  • The fuel cost for drivers of traditional gas-powered vehicles has been over 14 times as much as the cost of running electric cars powered by the wind.

It's kind of a sensationalistic, impractical and rather hokey comparison, but food for thought nevertheless.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Armenia is part of La Francophonie? Why?

I can't get too excited by the news that Canadian Michaƫlle Jean lost her bid to be re-elected as head of the Organisation Internationale de La Francophonie, the organization of French-speaking nations.
That honour, if such it be, went to Louise Mushikiwabo of Rwanda, who seemed to be the consensus candidate, despite the fact that Rwanda recently made English, and not French, as the country's official language and the language of reference for its education system. Yes, Rwanda has its problems, principally its long-time autocratic president Paul Kagame and his tendency to flout democratic rights and press freedoms. But Jean's last 4 years at La Francophonie have been far from controversial, what with her rather high-handed ways, and leadership of the organization tends to be something of an African fiefdom (the bulk of its 54 full voting states regions are in Africa).
What particularly surprised me, though, was the fact that the vote was taking place in Yerevan, Armenia. Armenia? French-speaking? A quick perusal of Armenia's Wikipedia page reveals the official language of Armenia to be ... Armenian, and the only other languages widely spoken by Armenians are Russian and English. And yet, (Wikipedia again) Armenia is in fact a paid-up member of La Francophonie, as indeed are several other unlikely countries such as Greece, Albania, Macedonia, Moldova, Egypt, Qatar and Vanuatu, none if which have French as an official language.
Also in today's news, Saudi Arabia was applying to join the organization,(yup, no French connection there either), an application that was only refused for that country's unfortunate tendency to assassinate dissident journalists, and nothing to do with the fact that they don't speak French. They were only applying for "observer status", but still..
So, what is the requirement for joining La Francophonie? Do they just take any old country that happens to apply? Well, supposedly it represents countries.or regions where French is the lingua franca (no ounce intended), where a significant proportion of the population are French-speaking, or where there is a notable affiliation with French culture. This last item is a particularly vague and woolly one, but even so, where do Armenia and Saudi Arabia fit into this? Probably the best Armenia can offer in its defence is that there is apparently a thriving Armenian diaspora living in France (as there is in several other countries), and, we are assured, French is taught in Armenian public schools (along with other languages).
I'm clearly not the first to wonder at the organization's membership policy. It is a strange beast, to be sure. To take another example, get this: Algeria, with one of the largest French-speaking populations in the world, is conspicuously absent from the membership list (but then France and Algeria don't exactly get along, and have some pretty bad history).
It's all a bit of a mystery.

Kanye West and Donald Trump - may you ride off into the sunset together

Kanye West's jaw-dropping love-in with Donald Trump at the White House yesterday was something to behold.
Now, the man says he has mental health problems (although he now says his bipolar diagnosis may have actually only been sleep deprivation after all), so we kind of have to pussyfoot around some of his rants. But his 10-minute bravura soliloquy left even Trump at a loss for words ("That was quite something!"), and outdid even The Donald for sheer stream-of-consciousness weirdness. Rolling Stone magazine called it "The Craziest Oval Office Performance of All Time", and that is probably fair.
I won't legitimize the spectacle by detailing it here, but suffice it to say that the two of them deserve each other.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Why do people hate carbon taxes, and why are they wrong?

Further to my last blog entry (The fight against climate change is going through a scary lull), I got to wondering just why there is such opposition to carbon taxes.
An Ipsos poll earlier this year suggests that, in my own province of Ontario, some 72% of people think that carbon taxes are just a tax grab, and 68% see them as merely a symbolic gesture and not truly effective as a means of reducing greenhouse gases. And it is not only traditional conservative voters who think this: although 85% of Conservatives believe carbon taxes to be a tax grab, 72% of NDP votes and 54% of Liberal voters do too.
So, why do so many people dislike (even hate) the idea of a carbon tax. Well, one study suggests that the main reasons are: a general objection to the more coercive aspect of taxes in general; the perception that carbon taxes are regressive and disproportionately impact low-income households; a belief that carbon taxes aren't actually effective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions; and a distrust of governments' motives and a belief that carbon taxes are just a backdoor way of filling governments' coffers.
The recent crop of populist politicians, from Donald Trump to Doug Ford to Jason Kenney and beyond, have made good, if somewhat cynical, use of these beliefs and used them to stolen the fires of opposition to carbon taxes in general. And yet all of these objections are either mistaken or can easily be addressed by a well-designed carbon tax.
There is a very good economic and environmental case to be made for carbon taxes, even under a conservative ideology. Most carbon tax plans are merely a redistribution of taxes rather than a tax grab, and recycle any tax deducted on carbon back to the people. This year's winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics back carbon taxes as the best solution to climate change without resorting to straight regulation. The OECD has concluded that carbon taxes are the fairest and most cost-effective method of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and economically preferable to other options such as feed-in tariffs, industry regulation or subsidies.
As the World Resources Institute points out, a carbon tax is is intrinsically neither progressive nor regressive, but can be designed to positively benefit the poor and middle class elements of society. Stephen Harper's former policy director argues that most people would actually get more back from tax redistribution than they would lose in carbon taxes, and that low-income families actually stand to benefit the most. Hell, carbon taxes were an integral part of the Ontario Conservative Party's platform before Doug Ford got hold of it!
So, notwithstanding the cynical and extremely effective manipulation of the issue by populists, what it comes down to is that carbon taxes have been poorly explained and publicized to the general public. But then I remember writing something very similar several years ago, so why have we not learned?

Saturday, October 06, 2018

The fight against climate change is going through a scary lull

I have the distinct feeling that the fight against climate change is going through a period of retrenchment. And this comes just as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issues their latest, and most dire, warning that much more needs to be done to reverse the effects of global warming and that time is running short, and as the Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to two professors working towards incorporating environmental impacts into economic decisions (including a proof that carbon taxes do in fact help to reduce climate change).
With Donald Trump in the White House, the USA is clearly not at all interested in any such fight, and is increasingly even in denial about the whole thing. (The Trump administration's latest ploy is not to deny climate change, but to admit it and merely claim that there is nothing that can be done about it.) Like it or not, the USA is still, one way or another, the leader of the free world, and its influence on the rest of the planet is palpable, even during a period where it is not an obvious role model. Any progressive advances that were made under the Obama administration - on climate change as in so many other areas - have been reversed, denied, ignored or otherwise frittered away by Trump and his cronies. The short-lived frisson of excitement and hopefulness that followed the Paris Agreement has all but dissipated. 
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Canada. After a decade in the environmental wilderness under Stephen Harper, the election of Justin Trudeau and a progressive Liberal government in 2015 promised great things. And, although.things have moved much slower than anticipated, the announcement of a national carbon tax to be levied on those provinces that do not have their own did suggest that they were at least serious about the issue. And some provinces - notably British Columbia, Quebec, Ontario, even one-time laggard Alberta - were already well ahead of the curve. Things seemed to be on a roll.
But then, gradually, and particularly over the last year or so, things seem to have been unravelling, and several provinces are starting to push back against the Feds on climate change. The grand-sounding Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change has never looked so rickety. A Conservative government in Ontario has replaced the willing but rather ineffectual Liberals, and Premier Doug Ford had made it his crusade to reverse out everything the previous Liberal administration ever did, including its ambitious but chaotic green energy plan, and it membership of a cap-and-trade system with Quebec and California. Ford is launching a legal challenge to the federal carbon tax plan, along with Saskatchewan (which was always against it) and Manitoba (which has suddenly jumped on the anti-carbon tax bandwagon, despite once supporting it).
Further west, Alberta's NDP government has slowed its carbon tax progression as a petty and angry response to the federal government's lukewarm support for an oil pipeline. And, if Jason Kenney's conservatives regain power in the next provincial election, as seems more than possible, the province's carbon tax will be the first thing to go. (Doug Ford is currently on a round-Canada royal tour, on the Ontario taxpayer's dollar, specifically aimed at corralling provincial sentiment against the federal carbon tax, including a rally in Alberta with ... Jason Kenney.) BC's relatively new NDP/Green government ought to be gung-ho on the climate change file, but they have still pandered to the industry/employment faction in greenlighting a huge new LNG project (they still insist that they will be able to meet their earlier ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets, but that single decision just made that goal substantially more difficult).
In the east, Quebec's new populist CAQ government is still notionally pro-carbon taxation, but I can't help but wonder how long for, and I can well imagine that, in any decision that puts the environment in direct competition with the economy, the economy will almost certainly win. The maritime province's are small potatoes, relatively speaking, but you can just see them eyeing up the burgeoning movement against the federal carbon tax, and reviewing their options.
All in all, it's a depressing and scary scene from the point of view of climate change. You could just blame it on Trump and the wave of populist sentiment he has triggered. But that may be disingenuous. It's really just a backlash, and an unfortunate slide in the political roller-coaster ride that a first-past-the-post creates. Maybe concern about climate change will resurface at a more propitious point on the ride, but whether that will be in time remains to be seen.

Friday, October 05, 2018

System of appointments to US top court riddled with political interference

After the US Senate voted 51-49 today to allow the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to go to a final vote (probably early next week some time), I was all set to write a corruscating entry about how broken and iniquitous the US Supreme Court nomination system is, and how it clearly has nothing to do with morals and everything to do with party politics. It seems, though, that the picture is slightly muddier than perhaps it first appeared, even if only slightly. The Senators did pretty much vote along party lines, and I'm sure that, for some of them (on both sides), the philosophical and moral implications did not even enter into the decision.
Before today's vote, there were a few hold-outs whose party-line vote was not absolutely assured. Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake is perhaps the best-known of them, largely because it was he who insisted on a week's extra deliberation before this vote, and because he was so clearly conflicted by the allegations against Kavanaugh. Morally, and given a free vote, I am pretty sure he would have voted "No". Politically, though, someone has obviously had words with him, and in the event he caved and voted "Yes" to allow Kavanaugh to proceed to a final vote, in which he will probably also vote "Yes". A clear case of political pragmatism winning out over ethical considerations. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine has likewise been swayed from her uncertain position to vote "Yes", despite the additional evidence of Kavanaugh's checkered past and his unstable character. These people are clearly beyond redemption.
The only Republican who did vote with her heart and not her political paymasters was the Republican Senator for Alaska Lisa Murkowski, and full credit to her. Let's see whether she will be allowed to do so again in the final vote. The only other hold-out was West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, who surprised everyone by voting "Yes" (to support Kavanaugh's nomination vote). In fact, his vote would not have swung the overall result, as the majority Republicans would have had the tie-breaking vote in the event of a 50-50 tie, and it seems likely that Manchin was "allowed" by his party to vote in a way that he thought might best help him with his re-election in notoriously reactionary West Virginia in the November mid-terms.
Whether you agree with the result thus far or not, this whole saga will surely be remembered for years to come as a landmark in the whole ongoing debate about sexual harrassment, entitlement in the legal profession, and the iniquitous system of political appointments. Hardly anyone in American politics or law has come out of it smelling of roses. And remember, it's not over yet: there is still a final vote to come.

Well, yes, it is now over. I didn't really expect a last minute reprieve, and in the event none was forthcoming. Kavanaugh was voted in to the US Supreme Court by a margin of 50-48. Jeff Flake, Susan Collins and Democrat Joe Manchin all voted for Kavanaugh as expected. It was, nevertheless, the most closely-fought Supreme Court nomination for 150 year, but the Republicans got their right-wing majority in the influential court for possibly decades to come. The noisy, angry protests that have accompanied the whole debate will almost certainly still continue and, come what may, American politics has reached an acrimonious new level of polarization and divisiveness such as it has not seen for many a year.
Of course, we Canadians are in no position to crow about it (although we do it anyway). The American system of Supreme Court nominations is actually substantially more transparent than the Canadian one, where new Justices are simply appointed by the Prime Minister of the day, with little or no debate and no democratic voting. That said, the Canadian Supreme Court appears, for whatever reason, to be significantly less partisan than the American one.
Still, personally, I don't understand how we have come to adopt either system. Shouldn't Supreme Court judges be voted in by other top level judges, based on their competence and record, not their politics?

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Biodegradable Nuatan could help wean us off our plastic addiction

At last, a viable, fully biodegradable alternative to plastic may be on the horizon (and God knows we need one).
Nuatan is an all-natural bio-plastic made from corn starch, sugar and cooking oil. It is completely biodegradable, and even edible
(by both humans and fish), and was developed by material scientists at the Slovak University of Technology in Bratislava. The material can last up to 15 years and withstand temperatures of over 100°C. It is suitable for 3D printing, injection molding and several other plastic manufacturing techniques. It requires less energy and resource consumption than traditional oil-based plastics, and could help improve both environmental sustainability and climate change.
Although it may not be suitable for some heavy duty situations like vehicle manufacture, it could realistically replace all plastic packaging and single-use plastic products like bags, straws, water bottles, plates, cutlery, etc. Currently, it suffers from a relatively high cost of production, like any new product, but widespread adoption and mass production would quickly bring costs down.
So, hey, here's a radical idea: let's divert some of the billions of dollars currently being used to subsidize and prop up the oil and coal industries and invest them in something like Nuatan, something that could actually improve the world.

Monday, October 01, 2018

BC's fledgling LNG industry should not count it's chickens

Although the Northern Gateway oil pipeline to the west coast has foundered, and the TransMountain pipeline has floundered even if not foundered, pretty much everyone seems to be on board for the LNG Canada-TransCanada Corp Coastal Gaslink pipeline, which is a mainstay of LNG Canada's huge $40 billion liquefied natural gas project.
LNG Canada is really nothing to do with Canada, being a consortium of overseas developers including Royal Dutch Shell, Personas, Mitsubishi, PetroChina and Kogas. But the project - to ship liquefied natural gas from northeastern BC to a processing plant in Kitimat on the BC coast, for export to the huge Asian market - seems stangely bereft of the kind of vociferous controversy that has dogged TransMountain and other major resource developments on the left coast. And it's not clear to me quite why.
Development of BC's huge LNG potential appear to be completely at odds with the province's stated carbon reduction goals, and it is still not clear how the NDP government, which is fixated on the potential employment and taxation opportunities of the project, is to get the Green Party (on which it relies for its minority government status) on side. For their part, the Greens say that they will vote against LNG development, but that they will not make it a no confidence issue that might bring the coalition and the government down, a peculiar piece of brinkmanship that seems destined to fail. BC's fledgling LNG sector is an environmental challenge it has yet to come to terms with, although an advisory council has been set up to address the issues. The province's main environmental justification for developing LNG is to wean overseas countries off even more damaging reliance on coal, although the argument seems a little contrived and disingenuous, and some studies have argued that it does not hold water anyway. A new environmental challenge to the project has just been brought, even as Kitimat seems to be gearing up for the development as a fait accompli.
This might be a case of "don't count your chickens". And that might not be a bad thing.

Canada escapes NAFTA - sorry, USMCA - negotiations relatively intact

After dramatic last-minute negotiations last night, Canada appears to have come out of Donald Trump's NAFTA renegotiation relatively unscathed. Justin Trudeau and the Liberal government can probably call this a "win", although don't tell Trump or he will probably start the painful process all over again. It's still just a "tentative" deal, whatever that means, but maybe Canadian (and America and Mexican) businesses can now get on with making money, after months of unnecessary uncertainty and stress.
Details are sparse as yet, but it looks like Canada has accepted a relaxation of its totally unjustifiable dairy supply management system and some unspecified quotas in the auto sector in return for hanging on to the Section 19 dispute resolution system and avoiding punitive tariffs on auto production. It's probably the best we could have hoped for, and kudos to Foreign Affairs Minster Chrystia Freeland for sticking to her guns and managing not to lose her temper throughout this whole sordid (and often quite nasty) affair.
Except... apparently we are not allowed to call it NAFTA any more. It is now to be called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or the unpronounceable USMC or USMCA. Did some marketing consultant earn millions of dollars for that? Is it because trade within the bloc is no longer free, but distinctly managed? Are we to read volumes into the fact that Canada's name comes third in the list, and are we to see it as a slap in the face for being so intractible in performing our part in advancing US so dominance? Is it - dare I suggest it - petty?

What depression and loneliness actually feel like

Like anxiety (which I have also written about recently), depression seems to be ubiquitous these days, especially among younger people and creative types, and it is another aspect of mental health that is widely misunderstood. My graduate daughter's experience has opened my eyes a little, but I still wouldn't claim to completely understand it. A Guardian article from a few years ago comes, at least for me, the closest to explaining what depression really feels like.
Clinical depression is not just sadness, unhappiness or loneliness; neither is it malingering or just bad behaviour. It can cause forgetfulness, confusion, disorientation, fear and panic, symptoms more usually associated with conditions like Alzheimer's. It creates a feeling of connecting only tenuously with reality. Every minute is suffused with feeling of self-pity, guilt, apathy, pessimism, shame, even narcissism - all thoroughly unpleasant, unsympathetic and entirely negative emotions. It can also have a very physical effect: clumsiness, accident-proneness, dog-tiredness, a feeling of walking through syrup. And, perhaps worst of all, the person experiencing a depressive interlude is usually completely aware of what is happening, and completely unable to do anything about it. Those on medications may be too depressed and apathetic to take the very meds that might help them through it.
From the outside, though, the person looks perfectly normal, of course, which makes it so much harder for people to relate to. Depressives may appear to be, and may actually be, for much of the time, well adjusted, open and friendly people, entirely unremarkable in most respects, except that that they carry around this dark secret, like a werewolf, but less predictable. Something like 2.5% (1 in 40) of people are prone to it, and these people are more likely to be young than old, even though in most people's perception it is a complaint of old age. The silver lining is that many, although by no means all, of these people will leave it behind them at some unspecified point.
Another more recent article on the BBC about loneliness, a common trigger of depression, and also most common among younger people in the 16-24 range, also does a good job of explaining to those who are not prone to it what it actually feels like. The article also gives some ideas, some more effective and practical than others, about how people deal with it.
I'm not writing a homily here, and I don't have any silver bullet solutions for anyone. But all I ask is that, if you hear that a friend or a relative is depressed, don't just roll your eyes and mutter something about getting over it. A bit of empathy goes a long way..