When we’re making decisions that may call for compromise and sacrifice, when we’re asking people and nations to change their habits, when we’re trying to wean ourselves off the dirty, unsustainable energy that fuels our consumer society, we want and need to know our leaders are committed to acting on the best information available.
In February Brian Dunning did a post “discussing” China’s so-called “ghost cities”. The media has been calling them “ghost cities”, but that sort of implies that someone used to live in it and they are now haunting an empty area. However, the cities have never actually been populated and can actually hold millions of people. If you’ve never heard of them I urge you to take a look at some satellite pictures taken of the cities.
The obvious questions are – why are they empty? Why did China build them if no one is going to live in them? Why is Shanghai is incredibly overcrowded when beautiful new cities sit empty?
Well, those questions are actually really easy to answer, but my point of this post isn’t really to talk (a lot) about these cities, but rather to criticise Brian Dunning’s post as being… a little unskeptical, especially for a “Skepticblog”.
This post warrants a few background pieces of information:
- I love Christmas to bits and pieces. The lights, the music (seriously, that’s the best christmas song/version ever), the family and the stories. Love love love.
- I’m a bit of a hippy. You can see how this might interfere with #1
- I just took a seminar course in my overly socialist faculty about consumerism and how horrible it is… you can see how that will jive with #2 but perhaps not so much with #1
4 years ago I “boycotted” Christmas. I was an atheist at the time and decided that I didn’t want to partake in a holiday that was a big ol’ sham. I didn’t buy anyone gifts, but since my residence closed down during the holidays I still had to go home to my mom’s. I watched, but didn’t help, my mom put up the tree, bake sugar cookies, decorate the house and wrap presents. It was so depressing.
On Christmas morning we got up and we made Christmas brunch. Jokingly, my two brothers told me I wasn’t allowed to eat it… That afternoon we started with the gifts. Everyone exchanged with everyone else, except for me. I felt horribly left out…
Gifts in my house aren’t about getting the biggest or most expensive thing for everyone else in the family. Our gifts are always really amazing and suit the personality of the receiver. A lot of thought goes into them, on everyone’s part. We are usually more excited to see people open what we got for them than we are to open our own gifts. So to simply watch as my family did this tradition together… all excited and thankful… I was pretty down-in-the-dumps.
Suffice today, that was the last Christmas I boycotted. Ever since then I’ve been the first one to haul out the tree, whip out the Christmas albums, bake the shortbread cookies and crack the peanut brittle.
This Christmas I am facing a new and interesting challenge. I’ve been concerned with the environment for quite a long time, since the middle of high school I guess (8..ish.. years ago, I think) but I’ve never really applied it to my life more than reducing meat intake, recycling, vowing to never have a license, shopping local when I can, devoting my graduate work to environmental stuff and around-the-house electricity use. My big fault has always always always been my shopping. Here are some disgusting facts about my shopping habits last year:
- I spent over $800 on make-up from Sephora alone. This is enough for me to earn a spot in their “Very Important Beauty Insider” club where I get free shit that makes me want to spend more money on make-up I don’t wear. That’s what *really* makes this one particularly disgusting – I only wear mascara on a day-to-day basis… and the mascara I wear the most is a free one I got from Sears…
- A quick tally reveals that I spent over $600 at the Gap. The horrifically disgusting thing about the Gap is that all their clothes are extremely plain. Their t-shirts are literally just plain t-shirts… and their sweaters are just plain v-neck sweaters… but they cost a lot of money.
- In the past year I owned three different cell phones – a Blackberry Curve, an iPhone and my current Samsung Galaxy. I go through cell phones like crazy… Every single person in my immediate family has either owned one of my cell phones or is currently on a contract that used to be mine that I convinced them to takeover so I could get a new phone for free.
- I won’t pain you with all of this but other things I am guilty for: hair color, shoes, jewelery I don’t wear, going to the movies, buying books and spur of the moment “big” purchases (“honey, i just bought a new laptop!”).
To give all this just one last kick – I break shit like it’s nobodies business. My brother used to tell me I should be a product tester… one of those people that is really rough with their stuff to see how long the product will last.
Anyway – after taking this consumption class at school (well midway through, actually) I decided I need to calm my shopping habits right down… down to like nothing. I’ve actually been doing quite well. I bought a new coat, but I really needed it and a new backpack because my old one broke (I’m being more gentle with the new one…). Besides buying what I have to buy I’ve been sticking the money away to pay off my student debt a bit faster. But then Christmas time came along… My solution? Ethical Christmas gifts for everyone! Turns out that isn’t quite as easy as it sounds, but I’ve managed to find some pretty good things. Here’s what I’ve come up with:
For my step dad: locally harvested honey from the farmer’s market, organic wine from a town nearby and locally made pottery
For my sister: (here’s hoping she doesn’t read my stuff) She is substantially worse than me when it comes to shopping, super fashionista and is totally oblivious to the negative aspects of shopping. So… I’m getting her The Story of Stuff (the book) and a donation to Beads for Life.
Other ideas: OXFAM unwrapped, most things off of the Treehugger gift guide, Las Nubas Coffee – this is a project run out of my school that is pretty awesome and Chocosol Chocolate is “zero energy”/fair trade/healthy chocolate. I’ll likely be doing donations to Canadian charities that help aboriginal people and children’s education, as well. I also like gifts of time – doing things together. Last night I took John to a David Usher concert for his birthday present, and it was nice to do something together that we both really really enjoyed, rather than just getting him something that we’d forget about in a month.
I know a better ‘stand against consumption’ would be to do a Buy Nothing Christmas – but I like giving gifts, and I think all of this can be bought with slightly less guilt.
Are there ideas out there I’m not thinking of? What do other people do for gifts each year??
I’m sure at least some of you sciency types have seen the recent movie: Splice. Its a horror show about science gone wrong, or taken too far. The movie, which I enjoyed, taps into that old Frankenstein fear, and mixes it with modern genetics, and plays on the quite real fear many have of things “Genetically Modified”.
Now the movie takes some liberties, but what good horror movie doesn’t.
I also recently saw The Last Exorcism, which does to skepticism, what Splice does to Biology. Skeptics and scientists are arrogant and misguided and pride goeth before the fall. (I also liked this movie by the way, it had some good scares)
And yet, I’m a big fan of science and skepticism. What is a horror fan to do?
Well recently I learned of a real life horror, even more like Frankenstein, where scientists took parts, not just genes, from one creature and surgically spliced them onto a creature of a different species. And then, to compound the horror, they used this abomination to produce a product sold worldwide and consumed by millions.
Even worse, they have been doing this for over a hundred years, and there is not even a legally mandated warning label.
This abomination’s scary scientific name is Vitis vinifera, and the product is what we so naively refer to as wine. Both red and white. If you drink it, you are almost certainly, part of the problem.
Now, how could this happen? Is it all about corporate profits, and controlling your mind? (Well, yeah, sorta, it is alcohol after all, and it ain’t free.)
Thing is, natural evolution can be a real bugger. And a very real bug that evolved in the Americas is as gluttonous as it is unstoppable when it comes to devouring the roots of Vitis vinifera which, being an immigrant, has no natural defenses.
Even a century after the bug almost put an end to European wine production, science still has no way of protecting Vitis vinifera roots from the bug plague.
But wait, we still have lots of wine. (I can personally attest to lots.) Well even back then there were plenty mad scientists. In this case, they took the roots from native American plants and grafted them onto the Vitis vinifera vine. Voila, as the french say, instant resistance. And this is how almost all wine grapes are grown to this day, Frankenwine IS wine.
I was originally planning to post this as filler material next week while I’m away, but the story is breaking too big and getting too embarrassing to leave it in the can.
My most recent story of stupidity has little to do with religion, but fits in with similar irrational thinking quite well.
A group of illiterate parents (at least they can’t spell explanations, behavioural, or intensity) in Barrie, Ontario has decided that scary, invisible Wi-Fi waves are making their kids sick after wireless internet routers were installed in their schools. Some of the parents are apparently ready to transfer their kids to alternate schools or (excuse the term) god-forbid home-school them.
One might expect that if parents can’t teach their kids about the world, then we ought to have scientifically literate teachers. Well, if you’re in the Niagara district of Ontario, you’d be wrong, as their local board is sending a resolution to the Elementary Teacher’s Federation of Ontario to ban all wireless technologies in school (good luck with that).
And this scientific ignorance apparently isn’t limited to parents and a few teachers in suburban Ontario, Lakehead University is also refusing to install Wi-Fi in its new campuses. Instead it will provide wired internet connections everywhere via fibre optics (of course students will now wonder why they have to carry an ethernet cable in 2010 to a university of 7000 students).
But I should be fair and analyze their claims rationally.
The kids claim to have upset tummies, headaches and are otherwise not feeling good.
This reminds me of when I was teaching a grade 1-2 science summer camp in Yellowknife and after we did an activity with acetone the fumes started to get 1 or 2 of the kids light-headed. Of course fairly soon half the class was feeling ill, and the ones who we had sitting in the hall to feel better were chatty and giggly at any point when they thought we weren’t looking.
I’m not saying that these Wi-Fi kids are faking it, or that their parents are making mountains out of molehills (actually I kind of am), but kids do exaggerate.
The claim is basically that people suffer from “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” – a diagnosis that was made up by who knows and is recognized by no real scientific researchers. Basically people only tend to notice symptoms when they’re made aware of EM sources (real or fake) near them.
If we want to look at it from a physics standpoint, at any point in the day you are subject to near infinite numbers of electromagnetic sources. The sun emits broadband radiation in this famous curve:
of which parts are absorbed by our atmosphere. There are also countless radio antenna, cell phone towers, and even power lines emit at a constant 60 cycles per second.
Some high frequency radiation can be very damaging and causes DNA to mutate, and very focussed (as in hundreds of Watts not hundredths (1/100) of Watts that WiFi uses) can heat water (how your microwave oven works), but most is harmless and either passes through you or is absorbed causing no noticeable effect (like a little rain on your car won’t slow you down on the highway).
The last thing that these children need is to be taught from home by Luddite parents to fear the world around them.
Of course these may be the same people who think that windmills are bad because of the similarly made-up Wind Turbine Syndrome.
Also read the Globe and Mail’s article which sums up the supposed controversy and a bit of the evidence.
Like a good little skeptic I was concerned when I read on BBC that the “majority of oil has been dealt with“. “What do you mean, dealt with!?” I thought to myself. The report went on to explain that only a quarter of the 4.9 million barrels of oil that had been spewed into the ocean has been left behind for us, humans, to deal with.
Speaking on the ABC television network, White House energy adviser Ms Browner said: “The scientists are telling us about 25% was not captured or evaporated or taken care of by mother nature.”
“Mother nature will continue to break it down. But some of it may come on shore, as weathered tar balls. And those will be cleaned up. They can be cleaned up. And we will make sure they are cleaned up,” Ms Browner said.
Now, I’m willing to admit that I’m a bit of a hippy; I’m in environmental studies, I like the sound of a didgeridoo and I will never have my license, purely out of principle… but doesn’t it piss off other non-hippies when people talk about “mother earth” as if “she” is something that is going to solve all of our gigantic screw ups? The Earth is supposed to be seen as some self-regulating system that will just “fix” itself no matter how badly we treat it?
Alright, I’ll give this idea a little bit of lee-way, but not much because it isn’t going to self-regulate fast enough to put up with what we do to it (or her…whatever). As secularists/humanists/atheists we should care about the environment a lot anyway, because we know this life is all there is and we need to treat it (life and giver of said life) with respect to make it (life and giver of said life) last as long as possible.
Treehugger has done a story questioning this information, a little bit.
And as John Laumer has reported, there’s still a pretty serious health risk presented by all of the oil that has evaporated into the air — air that is of course routinely breathed by residents around the Gulf Coast.
So I’ll make a point that I’ve gotten used to making in the course of the BP Gulf spill coverage: Whether or not the US government says that the remaining oil only poses a ‘slight risk’ or not, as the NY Times reports, it’s better to remain skeptical of their reports until independent studies are done, and we realize the full extent of the damage.
Unfortunately, if there is one thing I’ve learned from Chris Mooney it’s that once there is a headline on some major media outlet, it is hard to take it back and correct people’s opinions on the matter.
I’m not saying that the BBC is wrong in saying that a lot of the oil has been “dealt with”, if by “dealt with” they mean “humans can’t really do anything about that 75% of oil at this point so lets just forget about it and say that mother earth did us a favour”… But what BBC *has* done is that they have made it seem like the oil spill is less of a big deal because the oil has, by natural causes, become “less of a problem” than if 4.9 million barrels were just sitting there waiting for us to scoop them up. And they did this before, as treehugger mentions, “we realize the full extent of the damage”.
I can hear it now. I’ll be talking with some oil-driven asshole about the oil spill and he’ll say “well, you know 3/4 of that oil was dealt with by natural processes, so I don’t know what you’re so upset”. Then no matter how hard I try to tell them that they’re stupid, I’m just going to get called a crazy/dirty hippy. Thanks BBC, et al.!