Saturday, October 31, 2015

How some animals avoid cancer

I found an interesting article on the BBC World website about animals that don't get cancer (or that are at least prone to much less cancer than expected).
About 20% of humans are likely to die from some from of cancer. But what is less well known is that almost all animals, even marine animals, get cancer, in much the same way as humans do. Even sharks, which have gained a mythical reputation for being completely cancer-free, are susceptible to melanoma skin cancer.
Cancers occur when old or damaged cells spiral out of control and keep reproducing instead of being destroyed. So, typically, larger animals and animals that live longer lives trend to be more prone to cancer, simply because this increases the likelihood that one of its cells will succumb to a random cancer-causing mutation to begin the process. Thus, large dogs get more cancers than small dogs, and even taller humans are more cancer-prone than shorter people.
But there are some exceptions to this.
Elephants are clearly much bigger than humans and have a comparable age span, but only a quarter as many elephants die from cancers as do humans. The reason appears to be that they have twenty times more copies of a particular cancer-fighting gene known as p53 than we do. The gene stops a mutated cell from proliferating, giving it the time it needs to repair itself, and, if the cell cannot be fixed, the gene prompts it to commit suicide ("apoptosis").
Bowhead whales are among the largest animals on the planet, and can live up to 200 years, but they very rarely die from cancer. The key here appears to be a poorly understood mutation in their genome that helps prevent DNA from being damaged, thus protecting the whales from cancer to some extent.
At the other end of the scale, naked mole rats, diminutive and strange-looing rodents, regularly live as long as 30 years, much longer than would be expected of an animal of its size, and have never been observed to contract any kind of cancer. In their case, a thick, sugary substance called hyaluronan, found in the spaces between their cells, prevents mutated cells from dividing and reproducing further, thus preventing cancerous tumours. Humans also produce hyaluronan, but a different shorter-chain version, and in much smaller quantities.
Of course, even if any or all of these natural cancer-fighting techniques could be artificially replicated, there is as yet no way of knowing if any of them would be beneficial in humans. In the few tests that have been done on mice to date, the improved ability to prevent cancer comes with other, often fatal, side effects. Through evolution, over the millennia, elephants, bowhead whales and naked mole rats have obviously developed other adaptations to overcome the negative impacts, adaptations that we are only beginning to look into and understand.
As usual, there is no quick fix.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Don't push back too hard against the IARC's processed meats report

The recent decision by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC, part of the World Health Organization) to add processed meats to their Group 1 carcinogen list has lots of knickers in a twist, as it puts processed meats on the same list as cigarettes, alcohol, asbestos and arsenic. Red meat in general is listed in Group 2A as "probably carcinogenic".
The IARC (whose remit, it should be noted, is to identify potentially hazardous carcinogenic substances, not to indicate their relative risks) claims that there is sufficient evidence to show that processed meats - which basically means meats that are smoked, cured, salted, or subject to some other preservative, and therefore includes hot dogs, sausages, pastrami, ham and bacon -  cause colorectal cancer. This is actually not news, and the World Cancer Research Fund, among others, has been advising people for years that processed meat is a cancer hazard.
The majority of the more incendiary articles in the wake of this report tend to complain specifically about the fingering of bacon on such a list, bacon having some kind of sacred status among foodies and meat-eaters. As a vegetarian of 35 years, I don't have strong feelings either way about bacon, but the way this has all hit the media fan has certainly been interesting.
The earliest media reports were rather bald and perhaps unnecessarily alarmist announcements of the contents of the IARC's press release. Many later reports chose to stress, almost to a fault, that bacon and processed meats in general are clearly not as dangerous as cigarettes and other substances in the cancer-causing stakes. The Globe and Mail's editorial on the subject is a good example of this, as it points out that, in comparison with the 1 million cancer deaths a year attributable to smoking tobacco, processed meats leads to "only" 34,000 deaths a years. That may be true, and in the scheme of things colorectal cancer is admittedly not one of the largest killers, but it seems to me an awful lot of unique individuals to write off in so cavalier a way, and was probably not in retrospect a great way of making their point that the IARC report is misleading and alarmist.
The Guardian's guide to "Processed and red meat: what are the cancer risks?" is a good article on how we should interpret the report and the associated media hype. This is pretty much what everyone already knows: cut down your intake of red meats and processed meats in particular. Or, in Michael Pollan's memorable words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
The bottom line is that it is better to know about the risks, and make informed dietary decisions accordingly, than to go on blithely assuming that what you don't know won't hurt you, because some of it will. Frankly, the IARC report will probably not change anyone's eating habits, least of all the bacon aficionado's. Much of the media it has generated subsequently, though, might actually have the unfortunate adverse effect of mollifying and disarming people TOO much, so that the warning in the message gets lost completely. And that would be a shame.

Monday, October 26, 2015

"A Beautiful Truth" a poignant insight into chimp psychology

I thoroughly enjoyed Toronto author Colin McAdam's latest (2013) novel "A Beautiful Truth". It is a book about chimpanzees, which is not necessarily a good recommendation in itself, but it is a clever, thought-provoking and essentially humane novel that just happens to be about chimpanzees, which is a much more positive recommendation.
I read it hard on the heels of a series of Guy Gavriel Kay's speculative fiction, interesting and worthy enough in its own way, but not what you would call iconoclastic or challenging. "A Beautiful Truth", I feel, IS challenging, not so much in its vocabulary (which is pretty basic throughout), but in its requirement to identify and empathize with another species of animal, and also in its often gut-wrenching (even if understated) emotionality, and in its steadfast refusal to take a moral stance on the many ethical issues that come up.
There are two main story arcs in the book, which ultimately begin to coalesce and merge. One story, ostensibly the "main" one, follows a chimpanzee who is adopted by a well-meaning and kind childless couple in rural Vermont as a child surrogate. It follows the trials and tribulations (both physical and emotional) of bringing up an engaging, hyperactive and intellectually-challenged animal as a family member, rather than as a pet, and the varied reactions of friends, family and the powers-that-be. Despite being thoroughly spoiled and dressed up as a pseudo-human, the chimp is not just a figure of fun, though: his innate joie-de-vivre is celebrated, and his frequent misunderstandings and faux pas are portrayed as both amusing and touching.
The other plot line (presented in a haphazard chronology, which only makes some sense later in the book) involves a colony of chimpanzees living in a Florida scientific research centre, where they are the subjects of linguistic research and medical experimentation. The latter in particular can be quite disquieting at times, but it is not presented as a diatribe against the iniquities of vivisection and animal experimentation. Indeed, both sides of the argument are described in equally flat and dispassionate prose.
The two stories come together late in the book after the antics of the child surrogate finally goes beyond the pale, and he is snapped up by the Florida research institution and thereby introduced to the research subjects. Not surprisingly, both parties are emotionally and sociologically messed up, albeit in different ways, and their integration is never going to be an easy or trouble-free process. The human-raised chimp has no experience of other chimpanzees, and thinks of them as "dogpeople", more like the family pet than like himself; the other chimps just see him as a complication in their already complex society, with all its tortuous rules and protocols.
Whatever stance you might take on the various ethical issues the book embraces, it appears to be well-researched and convincing in its descriptions of animal psychology and sociology. The unpleasant and violent nature of chimp group life, with its bullying alphas, its constant fearfulness, scheming and conniving, and its scatological and sexual obsessiveness, is described in a credible and authentic manner, as are the bewildered, irrational and arbitrary thought processes of individual animals. Their confusion about, and often complete misinterpretation of, the strange human world into which they have been inserted, is depicted convincingly, and often poignantly.
The chimps' thoughts (and, indeed, even those of the human protagonists in the book) are presented in a strange, staccato, slightly off-kilter language, composed of simple enough words but often with unexpected relations to each other or in strange juxtapositions. Neologisms (such as "blone", "plekter", "yek", "skropulus", "rinjy", etc) are introduced for chimp concepts and notions that just do not exist in our civilized tongue, or for human concepts and constructs that make little sense in chimp terms, but these are used sparingly and do not become annoying.
"A Beautiful Truth" is an unusual book, and a rich and rewarding read. If you've ever wondered what the chimpanzees were thinking on those PBS nature documentaries, I think this book goes a good way towards giving us an insight into their world. And it does so in the guise of a poignant and compelling story, not a dry and earnest technical dissertation.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

A Liberal majority - what does it mean for Canada?

No doubt the new political landscape in Canada will be picked apart in excruciating detail over the ensuing days, but, for what it's worth, here are my own initial reactions BEFORE reading all those deliberations.
The Liberal Party of Canada under Justin Trudeau has won a resounding victory in the 2015 federal election, winning 184 (54%) of the 338 seats, with 39.5% of the popular vote. The increase, from just 34 seats and third place in the 2011 election, is the largest in Canadian history. The seemingly interminable Harper era has finally ground to a halt, as the Conservatives pick up just 99 seats (29%) from 32% of the vote. Stephen Harper is to stand down as leader of the Conservative party.
The first thing that jumps out right there is the distorting effect of Canada's first-past-the-post electoral system. The Liberals have pledged to reform the electoral system within 18 months of forming a government - as have the NDP and the Greens (in fact, all the major parties apart from the Conservatives) - although exactly what form this might take is not yet clear. Some kind of proportional representation system seems likely, so this may well be the last majority government Canada sees. Not such a bad thing, taken all in all.
Secondly, the lurch from Conservative majority to Liberal majority appears to be radical, but on reflection it may not be as profound as it looks, especially when one considers the popular vote percentages. It seems that there will always be a core Tory support of around 30% (essentially, people with money they don't want to share, people who want to make more money and don't mind how, and people with narrow-minded and unprogressive social views). Of the Conservatives' 10 years in power, only the last 4 have been as a majority party, and their share of the popular vote in the last three elections has remained around the 37-39% level before this latest fall. Even the Conservative majority victory in 2011 represented more of a protest vote in my opinion, a combination of a reaction against the corrupt Liberals of the day, their culture of entitlement and their weak and uninspiring leadership material, but also in good part a result of vote-splitting of the left-leaning progressive part of the electorate between the Liberals and the ascendant NDP under Jack Layton.
Thirdly, the witch is dead! Stephen Harper has been the worst thing to happen to Canada for many a decade. He has presided over a mean-spirited and rapacious period in Canadian politics, a period in which Canada has all but lost any moral authority it may have had in international relations, environmental reputation and social standing. Harper has been more polarizing and divisive than any politician in living memory, even more so than Pierre Elliott Trudeau, on a level that can perhaps only be compared to Margaret Thatcher's reign in Britain.
Fourthly, after their stellar rise in the 2011 election under the charismatic Jack Layton, the New Democratic Party has imploded in this election, winning just 44 seats (13%). Under the earnest but distinctly non-charismatic Thomas Mulcair, the traditionally left-wing NDP chose to lurch to the centre-right in the hope of winning centrist votes, but at the cost of its soul. The result was a mish-mash patchwork of policies, some progressive, some almost in Tory territory. In reaction this this, canny Liberal advisors took their party further to the left, into the vacuum left by the NDP, and look how that turned out for them! The NDP now remain in limbo, having alienated and confused their traditional base, and having lost most of the gains Jack Layton had made in Quebec (although, paradoxically, these were mainly lost over the niqab non-issue). Mulcair has not said he will resign as leader, although quite frankly who else do they have who could fill the gap?
And finally, hopefully this election will put paid to recent Tory claims that Canada has made a deep-rooted and inexorable turn to the political right, and that the underlying soul of the nation is blue. This never rang true to me. Canada in truth is a nation of fence-sitters, of fairness, tolerance, liberalism-with-a-small-l, and middle-of-the-road politics, and I mean this in the nicest possible way. I truly believe that we are not, as a nation, hawkish, reactionary and selfish (apart perhaps from that 30% core of died-in-the-wool Tories who have been behind Harper's recent success). Even the previous successful Conservative regimes of Mulroney and Diefenbaker were much more progressive than Harper's recent foray into radical neo-conservatism. This has been an aberration, which is now in the process of self-correcting.
If anything, the Liberals, as they have often claimed over the years, are the "natural ruling party" of Canada. They have certainly been the most successful Canadian political party over the last century or so, and their very centralism and wishy-washiness fits well with the Canadian character, for better or worse. Justin Trudeau, whatever you might think of him, is a good example of this earnest desire to do the right thing without upsetting too many people, which is at least a breath of fresh air after the cynicism and political opportunism of Stephen Harper.
I truly hope that Trudeau turns out better than I am expecting, and I do wish him well. Certainly Canada deserves better than Harperism, and now finally we have put that unfortunate little episode behind us. The future can only be brighter.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Political polling in the Canadian election - use with care

There was an interesting graph in yesterday's Globe and Mail, tracing support for the three main parties in the upcoming Canadian federal election, since the writ was dropped in early August up until today, just a few short days before election day, and mapping on it 14 major political events during that time which one might reasonably expect to affect support for one or more of the parties.
Unfortunately, the online version of the article does not include the actual graph, so I have actually laboriously scanned it (rather badly), and here it is:

The numbered political events are as follows:
  1. Aug 6: Trudeau holds his own in first debate
  2. Aug 12: Nigel Wright testifies at Duffy trial
  3. Aug 24: Chinese stock market rattles TSX
  4. Aug 27: Liberals promise deficits
  5. Sep 3: Alan Kurdi photo prompts calls for refugee action
  6. Sep 14: Conservatives trumpet $1.9-billion surplus
  7. Sep 16: NDP promises balanced budgets
  8. Sep 16: Conservatives vow appeal of niqab ruling
  9. Sep 24: Mulcair stands firm on niqab
  10. Sep 26: Terrorist stripped of citizenship
  11. Oct 2: Tories announce 'barbaric cultural practices' hotline
  12. Oct 5: TPP deal reached
  13. Oct 13: Harper appears with Fords
  14. Oct 14: Liberal campaign co-chair resigns
So, back on August 6th, the three parties were all bunched up, with the Conservatives (blue in the graph above) leading the polls at about 32%, followed by the NDP (orange) at 30%, and the Liberals (red) trailing at 28%. Two months later, the Liberals are showing at about 37%, followed by the Conservatives at just below 30%, and the NDP having sunk to 23%. In between these two dates, there have been various twists and turns, with, at one point, for example, the Conservatives way out of contention and the NDP in the lead, and another segment where all three parties are completely neck-and-neck-and-neck, swapping leads almost at random.
In fact, it is this apparent randomness that captured my attention. Looking at the graph, in relation to these events:
  • Yes, the Tories lost some support after complaints about their Syrian refugee policy in the wake of the Alan Kurdi photo, as predicted, but their fortunes had actually been sliding for some weeks before that, and indeed just a few days after that Conservative support shows a strong uptick, à propos of nothing in particular.
  • Justin Trudeau's out-on-a-limb promise of deficit spending at the end of August, which might have been expected to have a dramatic effect one way or another, actually seems to have had very minor consequences.
  • Events in early September, like the Conservative economic surplus news, the NDP's pledge of balanced budgets, and the much-ballyhooed Tory battle against the niqab in citizenship ceremonies, appears to have had next to no effect on relative party support (the complicated braiding in the middle section of the graph).
  • It was only when Thomas Mulcair came out strongly against the niqab ban on September 24th that the NDP's support begins to plummet to present levels, largely through perceptions of the issue in Quebec, and the Liberals appear to be the ones reaping the rewards of this, through no direct action of their own.
  • The resignation of the Liberal campaign co-chair, Dan Gagnier, is such a recent event that there is no way to predict how, if at all, Liberal support will be affected.
Of course, all of this is subject to many different interpretations, for example: people's political views are not strongly affected by day-to-day current affairs; people react unpredictably, even randomly, to political and economic events; polls are not good indicators of people's attitudes and voting intentions; etc.
The last of these may be especially important. Despite great advances in modelling and theory, the social science of political polling has taken a series of hits in recent years, right across the world, with several major elections yielding totally unexpected results, completely at odds with the predictions of respected polling organizations. A particularly good example of this is the "shy Tory effect", which I have described in more detail in a previous blog posting, whereby Conservatives are often too embarrassed to admit to their anti-social and selfish views until hidden behind the screen of a ballot box.
In fact, another recent article on the psychology of voting suggests that we are actually way less logical and reasoned in our voting habits than we might think ourselves. For example, however little sense it might make, studies have shown that voters tend to punish incumbent politicians for natural disasters (or other bad news over which the politicians clearly have no control) that occur just before an election. Also, however much we may feel that attack ads do not affect us, it is a proven fact that negative and ad hominem advertising does in fact lodge in our brains more than positive or purely factual advertising. Thankfully, though, studies have shown that attack ads are not actually all that effective in changing voter intentions, although - beware! - the later in the campaign the ads are shown, the more effective they are.
Even something as random as the gender of our children can affect our supposedly logical voting habits: parents ( and particularly fathers) with daughters are more likely to lean to the left than those with sons. What?! Paradoxically, perhaps, the more our views are directly challenged, the stronger and more entrenched our opinions become. And, finally, and perhaps most depressingly, we are more likely to believe information that is easily available (which, in this Internet age, could be of entirely unreliable provenance), and we are more likely to focus on aspects of an issue that are easier to understand (say, niqabs, for example) than on more complex aspects (say, the vagaries of taxation policy or carbon pricing), regardless of the relative importance of the issues. In fact, all in all, the less said about our emotional and inexplicable voting behaviour the better!
The other thing to be aware of in all this is the shortcomings of popular support polling in predicting seat allocations in Canada's first-past-the-post political system. Overall average support for a particular party does not necessarily translate to a similar level of representation in parliamentary seats, depending on how that support is distributed geographically. For example, the Conservatives won a healthy majority in 2011 with just 39% of the popular vote.
So, by all means make use the polls and predictions if you must (Three Hundred Eight and the CBC Poll Tracker are perhaps the most reliable). But - caveat emptor - use them with a healthy dose of skepticism, and don't expect the final result to bear much relation to even the most recent of polls.

For what it's worth, with the benefit of day-after-the-election 20-20 vision, we can conclude that maybe polling is not dead after all. The final count of the popular vote in the election itself compares pretty closely with the latest polls:
                                      Liberal           Conservative         NDP
Actual:                           39.5%                  31.9%            19.7%
Latest poll:                     37.2%                  30.0%            21.7%
In my own individual riding of Beaches-East York, the polls were also remarkably accurate (Liberals in poll 49.7%, actual 49.2%, NDP in poll 29.5%, actual 30.2%).

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Apparently anti-immigration policies are popular with immigrants

It's interesting to see how the Tories' rather transparent anti-immigration ploy is playing out in the ongoing Canadian federal election. It certainly doesn't seem to be doing them any harm, and may actually be benefitting them.
For example, boosting a complete non-issue, like their opposition to the wearing of the niqab face-covering at citizenship ceremonies, into a full-blown party policy, should have reflected badly on them in a supposedly fair and open-minded society like Canada's. All the other main parties are against it, and it has repeatedly been thrown out of the highest courts in the land as illegal and unconstitutional.
But this non-issue has had the effect of decimating the strong support in Quebec for the NDP, which has spoken out vociferously against the Conservative opposition. Quebec is such a liberal (small "l") and progressive province in many respects, but so blinkered and reactionary in others, including race and identity. And not all of the missing NDP support in Quebec has gone to the Liberals (which also opposes the ban); much of it has been transferred to the Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois (which has gleefully jumped on to the anti-niqab bandwagon - as if they really cared about what goes on at a Canadian citizenship ceremony!)
I have listened to radio interviews with apparently intelligent Quebec residents saying words to the effect of, "well, I was going to vote NDP, but after this whole niqab thing, I think I may have to go Conservative". Clearly, for many Quebeckers, the issue of reasonable accommodation for immigrants, however tiny the numbers involved, is important enough to outweigh all the other policies - the economy, jobs, taxation, infrastructure investment, energy, the environment, political transparency, judicial practice, voting systems, foreign policy, international reputation, etc, etc. That's an awful lot of important issues to subsume for the sake of a single, relatively inconsequential viewpoint, which has little or no chance of ever being legally enacted anyway.
I find all of this very strange, unsettling and inexplicable behaviour. Of course, a telephone poll is very different from a final vote in the ballot box, and one can only hope that these responses are just spur-of-the-moment knee-jerk reactions, and that cooler heads will prevail on the day.
But, related to this, another inexplicable phenomenon came to my attention just today. Apparently, 42% of foreign-born Canadians voted Conservative in the 2011 federal election, substantially higher than the 37% among native-born Canadians. Indeed, the Tory vote among racial minorities has seen a dramatic increase from around 9% in 2000, back when the Liberals were always considered the natural party of immigrants. Whether this is something to do with the rise of the NDP, or with a change in the type of immigrants Canada is now allowing in (e.g. those with more money, or from more conservative or repressive backgrounds), or whether it merely results from a more assiduous courting of new Canadians by the huge Conservative political machine, I really don't know.
Furthermore, it seems that the Tories' deliberate stoking of anti-immigrant sentiment and religious and racial intolerance during the current election campaign has only served to strengthen the Conservative brand among new Canadians. The exact same thing happened in David Cameron's latest campaign in Britain. In fact, the move shows all the hallmarks of the divisive "dog-whistle" approach of the controversial Australian elections strategist Lynton Crosby, who was recently contracted by the Conservatives (and who was also credited with helping David Cameron win his latest election campaign), although I have seen nothing specific to suggest that this is in fact the case.
So, contrary to everyday logic, perhaps, anti-immigration policies are apparently popular with immigrants. Who knew? The Tories, it seems. And almost certainly Lynton Crosby.

Friday, October 09, 2015

Ted Cruz's global warming diatribe based on a fallacy

The right wing and climate denying sections of the popular press and the blogosphere have been positively salivating recently over a video showing denier-in-chief and potential Republican nominee Senator Ted Cruz grilling Sierra Club president Aaron Mair on climate change. The exchange occurs as part of the testimony to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Oversight, Agency Action, Federal Rights and Federal Courts, which Cruz happens to chair, a mouthful of legalese usually shortened to "the global warming hearings".
Mair, considering his position, does a terrible job of standing his ground, and Cruz is clearly by far the better politician, using his years as a lawyer to great effect. The video is excruciating to watch, and while some have castigated Cruz for bullying, he does so in an apparently respectful and reasonable way.
But are Cruz's claims actually factually correct?
Unfortunately not. Cruz's main contention is the so-called "Pause", with a capital "P". This is  the idea that, in Senator Cruz's own words from the interview, "The satellite data over the last 18 years demonstrate no significant warming whatsoever". It is a sacred tenet in the climate denial belief system, and an attempt to use science to make their case. The claim has been refuted many times, though, despite Cruz's slick presentation of it as irrefutable science. One of the best and simplest explanations of the phenomenon I have found comes, surprisingly enough, from an article in the straight-laced but undeniably reputable Washington Post, which is essential reading on the subject. It turns out that the "Pause" claim can be refuted on many fronts.
For one thing, it relies on just one specific source of data, satellite temperature readings in the lower troposphere, mainly based on reports by Carl Mears of Remote Sensing Systems. But satellite data do not actually measure temperature and temperature changes directly; rather, they measure "radiance" from the sun, which is then converted using a mathematical model into a measure of temperature. Unfortunately, this model has repeatedly been shown, even with a couple of tweaks over the years, to systematically underestimate atmospheric temperatures.
So, when Senator Cruz, and many other climate change deniers, claim that satellite data is the best and most reliable data we have on climate change, they are being disingenuous at best, and deliberately obfuscatory and self-serving at worst. Mears himself cautions that satellite data is notoriously unreliable, and that we should pay at least as much, if not more, attention to the ground-based temperature data of the NOAA and NASA, which show much stronger warming trends. Both NASA and NOAA, using different methodology, show 2014 as the warmest year on record, followed by 2010, then 2005 and possibly 2013, and only then 1998. In more long-range terms, the World Meteorological Organization's data show that the 2000s were indeed globally warmer than the 1990s, which were in turn warmer than the 1980s.
Furthermore, it should be noted, even the satellite data that Senator Cruz is using do not show "zero warming", as he claims, just a slight slowing down of the rate of the increase. Carl Mears again: "Does this slow-down in the warming mean that the idea of anthropogenic global warming is no longer valid? The short answer is 'no'."
Cruz also selectively picks data beginning in 1998, an unreliable and exceptional year due to the very strong ENSO (El Niño - Southern Oscillation) in that year. It is Mears again who points out: "When one starts their analysis on an extraordinarily warm year, the resulting trend is below the true long term trend". Both the El Niño and the opposite La Niña effects have been stronger in recent decades than historically (partly due to, guess what?, global warming), making temperature data much more variable than heretofore.
So, Aaron Mair was quite correct to say that: "97 percent of the scientists concur and agree that there is global warming, and anthropogenic impact with regards to global warming". But his feckless and embarrassing performance under pressure has unfortunately just given the denial camp another stick to beat the climate change activists with.
As for Ted Cruz? Full marks for political opportunism and aggressive interrogation, but very few marks for science, I'm afraid. It certainly takes a lot of gall to say, with a straight face, as Senator Cruz does in this interview, "The problem with that statistic that gets cited a lot is that it’s based on one bogus study", when in fact it is he that is the one guilty of just that.

Courtesy of The Guardian: With just a month and a half left in 2015, it’s clear that this year will be by far the hottest on record, easily beating the previous record (which was set just last year). So, the temporary slowdown in the speed of warming of global surface temperatures (which was mainly due to the prevailing La Niña conditions from 1999 to 2012) has ended, as each of the past four years has been hotter than the one before.
If we look at the temperature trends just for El Niño years, for La Niña years, and for neutral years, each has a trend of 0.15–0.17°C global surface warming per decade since the 1960s (see the graph in the same Guardian article). Note that the years during the mythical “pause” fall right along the long-term trend lines for each category.

It seems that Senator Cruz can no longer even rely on the one climate metric which even vaguely supported his case, as the Mears figures at Remote Sensing Systems have recently been updated for "diurnal drift", which makes them slightly more reliable. And, guess what, they also now show significant warming throughout the so-called "Pause" period.
The figures are still in need of some other model adjustments, which would have the effect of bringing them even more in line with surface and ocean temperature warming trends, but even this minor adjustment effectively puts paid to Cruz's claims. Don't expect any shamefaced admissions and humble apologies any time soon, though.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Trans-Pacific Partnership probably not a big deal for Canada

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal has been signed amid much hoopla, and, as Stephen Harper crows, "Canada will be in". Mr. Harper refers to it as "the largest economic partnership in history", but in reality it is probably not such a big deal for Canada.
Firstly, it was never about Canada. The TPP has always been about America looking to dictate the terms of trade in the Pacific region. US President Barack Obama has been quite upfront about this: "If we don't write the rules, China will write the rules out in that region. We will be shut out." Canada has not been a mover and shaker in this, and is merely responding to circumstances, desperate not to be left out of anything the USA is involved in. If anything, from a Canadian perspective, it will actually water down some of the preferential access to the huge US market we have enjoyed as part of the existing NAFTA trade block, as well as allowing in competition from several less developed countries with much cheaper labour forces.
Secondly, as with all these major pacts, the deal still remains to be ratified by the 12 countries involved before anything concrete comes of it, and this will be a time-consuming process. Ratification is by no means a slam-dunk either. In Canada, the Conservatives are of course behind it; the NDP, in an almost knee-jerk opposite reaction, is vehemently against it (claiming, among other things, that it would result in up to 20,000 jobs in the Canadian automotive sector alone); the Liberals are hedging their bets, as usual, and say they will consider the deal after what Justin Trudeau calls "fulsome and responsible" discussions (Mr. Trudeau, please look up the meaning of the word "fulsome" - I'm sure that's not what you really mean). The deal is not even a slam-dunk in America, and Obama will have quite a job forcing it through a skeptical Congress, and even through many lawmakers in his own party. Even Democratic nomination front-runner Hilary Clinton has recently come out against the pact.
Thirdly, even if were to be ratified one day, the net effect of the pact for Canada will probably be much smaller than many people believe. The only large Asian economy in the agreement is Japan - China, India and South Korea are conspicuously absent. Most items on the grocery shelves and on high streets are unlikely to be significantly affected, mainly because Canada already has low tariff agreements with many of the countries in the Pacific region anyway, but also because Canada has fought hard to keep some key import protections intact, and because any savings for consumers rely on companies passing on their lower production costs (which is far from certain).
Perhaps the most obvious effect consumers might see may be the elimination of a 6.1% tariff on imported Japanese cars, although even this is to take place over 5 years, and I am not sure that increased road traffic is something we should be promoting anyway. It also makes it easier to use offshore parts in Canadian-built cars. The Harper government has also promised the auto sector a $1 billion sweetener (out of tax-payer's money, of course) to compensate them for any lost business. Ironically enough, this is to be done through the Automotive Innovation Fund, which was originally set up to encourage Canadian vehicle makers conduct research into greener engines, and which the Conservatives, in their inimitable way, have summarily axed.
A lot of ink and milk has already been spilled over the effect of the TPP on the Canadian dairy, egg and poultry industry, but the fact is that only 3.25% of the dairy industry will be exposed to foreign competition under the deal, and even less for eggs (2.2%) and chickens (2.1%). So the net effect on the artificially high prices maintained by Canada's "supply management" system for dairy products is likely to be minimal, even if the dairy industry is being offered a $4.3 billion compensation package by the government for the disruption.
Mr. Harper thinks he has a winning election issue in the TPP, and is already vigorously tub-thumping. Most polling experts, though, are not expecting it to be a major issue in the forthcoming Canadian federal election on October 19th. In fact, all in all, it is a deal, but not necessarily a big deal.

Take medical studies with a pinch of salt

Another article on medical issues in today's Globe is worth relaying. A study published recently in the journal Plos One suggests that psychotherapy (including cognitive behaviour therapy and interpersonal therapy) for the alleviation of depression is perhaps 25% less effective than previously thought.
This finding is the result of some medical detective sleuthing into publication bias in favour of encouraging findings. Published journal articles tend to exaggerate the benefits of psychiatric treatments, in much the same way as other studies have shown that they tend to exaggerate the benefits of antidepressant drugs, and for much the same reasons and to the same extent.
Many completed studies are never published, or even submitted for publication, mainly because the researchers think that a finding of no net benefit stands little chance of actually being published. Including such unpublished studies with negative or inconclusive outcomes in the overall results, as this review has tried to do, substantially reduces the observed effectiveness of the treatments, just as has been previously found in pharmacological trials. The study was not able to determine whether the authors of published papers have massaged data to make the treatment appear better than it really was  (as had happened in some of the drug trials), but that also seems distinctly possible. What's more, one assumes that a similar level of publication bias exists in other fields as well.
So, in conclusion, psychotherapy, and particularly cognitive behaviour therapy, is indeed modestly effective in treating depression, especially in combination with antidepressant drugs, but perhaps not to the extent previously thought. And peer-reviewed medical literature, although the best guide we have to the effectiveness of current practices and the promise of future developments, is good but not completely reliable.
The system is not broken, then, just slightly rickety. But maybe medical journal articles should come with a government health warning, and an added pinch of salt.

Why it is harder to lose weight today than it used to be

An interesting article in todays paper on weight control and obesity caught my eye. The article suggests that excess weight is not only about calorie intake and lack of exercise. Recent research at the universities of York and Alberta, but based on US source data, suggests that it really is harder to lose weight today than it was 30 years ago, and that a person in 2008 who consumed exactly same amount of calories as a person in 1971 would actually be about 10% heavier on average.
Now, this is not a huge discrepancy, and the study emphasizes that by far the most important factors in weight regulation remain calorific intake and exercise. But for the first time (at least to my knowledge) the extent of the influence of hidden, environmental factors has been quantified. Among these environmental factors are:
  • Constant exposure to low-levels of environmental chemicals (such as pesticides, growth, hormones, plasticizers, flame retardants, heavy metals, etc) may interfere with hormone levels and lead to increased fat stores.
  • Exposure to these kinds of chemicals in the womb may have the effect of pre-programming the body for weight gain later in life.
  • There has been a large increase in the prescription of drugs (e.g. for mood disorders, migraines, hypertension, diabetes, etc) for which weight gain is a major side effect.
  • Chronic stress and lack of sleep in our increasingly 24/7 lifestyle may cause higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is associated with abdominal fat gain and impaired blood-sugar control.
  • Many different studies have shown that our modern gut flora is inferior in numbers, quality and variety - largely due to highly-processed, low-fibre diets that are high in fats and refined carbohydrates - one consequence of which is the reduced ability to absorb calories efficiently.
So, overeating and inactivity are still the main culprits, but we should probably also be avoiding plastic containers, getting more sleep, and eating more unprocessed and organic foods, and particularly foods like whole-grains, fruit, vegetables and yoghurt that encourage the growth of healthy gut bacteria, and even looking more closely at our medications.
Nothing we didn't already know really, but studies of this kind have a way of concentrating the mind a little more.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Statistics, damned statistics and guns

Yet another mass school killing in the Land of the Free, this one in the small lumber town of Roseburg, Oregon. Nine dead, seven wounded, followed by a suicide, pretty standard fare. 26-year old gunman, a bit of a weirdo and a loner, and had attended a school for teenagers with behavioural problems, but still managed to buy his 13 guns legally, nothing new there. Barack Obama tries to make sensitive but meaningful noises after a mass shooting for the 15th time in his presidency, and vows to make gun control a political issue, but don't hold your breath.
But even these stark statistics, like the top of an iceberg, hide much worse below. And in the usual heart-searching and tub-thumping that accompanies these sad events, some truly shocking stats have surfaced.
Yes, Obama has made 15 public statements after mass gun violence events, but he has presided over no less than 994 mass shootings in the three years since his re-election in 2012 ("mass shooting" defined as an incident in which four or more people are killed or injured by firearms), with 294 just this year so far (more than one per day). More specifically, this is the 45th school shooting in the United States this year, which, if nothing else, serves to highlight the fact that President Obama did not make any public statement after the vast majority of them.
In total, 9,956 people have been killed by firearms so far this year in the USA, and more than 20,000 have been injured. The 11,385 people who have died on average annually in firearm incidents in the US between 2001 and 2011, compares to an average of 517 Americans killed annually in terrorism incidents during that period (INCLUDING the 2,996 killed on 9/11). In fact, between 1968 and 2011, about 1.4 million American deaths by firearms were recorded, well over the estimated 1.2 million US deaths in every armed conflict from the Revolutionary War to Iraq.
The USA has by far the highest per capita number of gun deaths in the developed world, according to the Human Development Index, over 4 times that of next-placed Switzerland, over 6 times that of Canada, and 20 times that of Australia and New Zealand. Also, a much larger proportion of America's homicides (around 60%) are gun-related than in other developed countries. In the undeveloped world, though, Honduras racks up over 20 times as many gun deaths as the USA per capita, Jamaica 12 times as many, and Brazil over 5 times as many. In absolute numbers, Brazil suffers over 4 times as many firearms-related deaths as America, and Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela all register more annual gun deaths.
There are thought to be around 310 million guns in the USA, almost one per person on average, although they are concentrated in the hands of about one-third of the population, particularly in the predominantly Republican and rural centre and south of country. But there is no gun registry in America, so these figures are ball-park estimates only.
Statistics? I'll give you statistics. You won't like them, though.