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Protected from the anti-science brigade November 22, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Education, Life in London, Science, Singapore.
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Having grown up in Singapore, the one thing I am most thankful for is my excellent education in science. It was tough, it was rigorous, and I probably took it for granted. But I’m now starting to see that the quality of science education is not so universal. It may sound ridiculous for me to say this, but I am so glad that in Singapore, kids are taught that science is a good thing.

I’ve been living in the UK for more than a year now. And I got the shock of my life when I walked into a pharmacy one day about a year ago, to discover that they sell little bottles of sugar pills for more than S$10 each. Not just any old sugar pills. Sugar pills that have been dipped into water containing a “homeopathic substance” at a 10-60 dilution (For those of you without a calculator at hand, that’s one molecule of the original substance per 1034 gallons of water). In other words, sugar pills dipped into water. Pills that have been shown in hundreds of clinical trials to be no more effective than a placebo. Now, I had heard of homeopathy before, but I didn’t think that anybody actually took it seriously. How was I to know that that pharmacies would sell plain water and sugar pills as medicine, and that there would even be a hospital devoted to homeopathy, and that even the NHS recognizes it as a form of alternative medicine1? I see that not only as a huge failure of the promotion and understanding of science in the general population, but also a flagrant disregard for the scientific process and evidence-based medicine by the authorities.

Perhaps even scarier than the acceptance of homeopathy is the worrying fact that in some neighborhoods around London, measles has become endemic among children. Measles is not a nice disease at all: it is extremely infectious, has a not insignificant fatality rate, there is no specific treatment, and it can result in serious complications and sequalae. Measles is hardly a problem in Singapore because all children are given the MMR vaccine, which confers good resistance against measles, mumps, and rubella.

So why is the incidence of measles so high in a civilized city like London? Well, some people choose not to vaccinate their children because they believe that the MMR vaccine is linked to autism. This belief started due to a paper published by Andrew Wakefield in 1998. Wakefield’s research methods were poor, he made up a new syndrome (“autistic enterocolitis”), he manipulated data, and his claims were downright dishonest; but the media lapped it up anyway, sensationalizing his paper and broadcasting his lies. Despite the fact that his paper was eventually retracted by The Lancet, despite new reports that his claims were fraudulent, and despite at least 4 (that I know of, at least) subsequent studies on the subject denouncing the Wakefield’s MMR-autism link, this was all ignored by mainstream media. We cannot blame the parents who didn’t know any better (Or maybe we can blame them for turning to tabloids as their source of health information?). The resurgence of measles in the UK is single handedly the fault of the unregulated salacious tabloids willing to spout outright lies to sell copies. While I am disappointed by the absence of press freedom in Singapore, I am at least thankful that until now at least, even our tabloids have not sunk low enough to promote anti-science nonsense just for profit, whilst risking the health and lives of thousands of people. Free press or not, there is a line at reporting scientific untruths.

I guess it could be worse. I could be living in the US, where the anti-science sentiment exists even louder and prouder amongst a significant proportion of the population.  We should count ourselves fortunate that creationists have no influence over our education system, and our kids can learn scientific facts about evolution and the age of the earth, untouched by the blatant scientific untruths of 2,000-year-old books. We should be glad that the terms “genetically modified2”, “chemical”3, “stem cell research”, or “cloning” are not dirty words that immediately provoke a kneejerk reaction of disgust and suspicion. And I sure as hell am happy that science is not used as part of a political agenda in Singapore by portraying the acceptance of science as a form of oppression of the “average Joe”. It seems as though the Republicans not only shun science, they have a burning disdain for it, a hatred of intellectualism, and a distrust and scorn for members of the intellectual elite: scientists, academics, and the educated class as a whole. This is a party that uses the word “professor” as a smear to discredit people who they deem to be too educated.

Of course I’m not saying that every Singaporean is a glowing example of scientific thinking and rationalism. We do have our share of people who believe in baseless pseudoscience, superstition, and dubious medical claims. But one thing we have going for us is that we are taught to respect intellectualism and revere knowledge. We appreciate that knowing more about the world around us is always a good thing. As someone who is just starting a career in science, I am always grateful that my scientific curiosity was nurtured instead of discouraged, and my education in science remained factual, not censored.

Footnotes

  1. I wouldn’t say all alternative medicine is bunk. It’s just untested, unverified, and unproven. I just wish that “alternative” medicine would be subjected to the rigors of (statistically sound, large sample size, randomized, double-blind, controlled) clinical trials and safety testing in order to weed out the nonsense, and so the treatments that actually work can actually be upgraded to be called medicine.
  2. For clarity sake, genetic modification of crops is not bad because it is bad for health, it is bad because of economic and ecological reasons.
  3. Just because something is “chemical”, it is not necessarily bad for health – sugar, salt, amino acids can all be defined as chemicals. Similarly, just because something is “natural”, it doesn’t mean it is safe. Snake venom is a perfectly natural substance. “Artificial” does not automatically make something bad for health either.

Learning about the birds and the bees at 21 February 7, 2010

Posted by laïcité in Education, Singapore.
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Last semester, I took the single most useful course in my entire academic life: a general module about reproductive health. That’s right, a course on sex education. Now, I’d like to think of myself as pretty knowledgeable regarding this topic. After all, I took biology at the A levels, and as an avid supporter of comprehensive sex education and the ill effects of abstinence only sex education on teenagers, I do quite a bit of reading into this subject. But I took the module anyway, partly out of interest, but also partly out of a morbid curiosity for a potentially propagandistic pro-marital-pregnancy, anti-pre-marital-sex message from the government.

If what passes as “sex education” in Singapore schools was anything to go by, I wasn’t too optimistic about the impartiality of the module and the lecturer. I went to my reproductive health class with a healthy dose of skepticism. After all, so called “sex education” in schools is tinged with not-so-subtle disapproval of premarital sex, high praise for the wonders of abstinence, and a general arrogance and judgmentalness of abortion, contraceptives, anal sex and the like, as something “other people do”, maybe we’ll learn a bit about those deviant acts, but not without driving home the point that this is not what decent, normal people like us partake in.

Imagine my pleasant surprise when none of these sentiments arose at all in any of the lectures and tutorials. Everything was so matter-of-fact, just as how it should be. No nonsense about right or wrong, should or should not. No judgmental comments, no moralistic notions of “sin”, no snide remarks about homosexuals or prostitutes or sex before marriage, no government-endorsed pro-family propaganda. Just the unbiased facts. Facts about the physiology of the reproductive systems, facts about the effectiveness of different types of contraceptives, facts about the social demographics and possible socio-cultural reasons of women who undergo abortions, and even gory, explicit head-on videos of babies being born (which, I might add, could be pretty good contraceptive incentives in their own right :O), all the way up to facts about obstetric health, and menopause and andropause. Such an honest approach to sex education was refreshing. I was so used to the concealment of the truth and the mishandling of facts in sex education talks held in my younger years.

It wasn’t that pre-marital sex, homosexuality, anal sex, abortion or prostitution were encouraged, or even condoned. That is the beauty of what “neutrality” is. They were simply treated as acts which some chose to partake in, and others don’t, and here are the medical, scientific and sociological reasons for and consequences of these acts. (It never fails to perplex me why conservatives and traditionalists so reluctant to supply our youths with such information at schools, when they are always free to carry out their moralistic preaching in the private spheres of their homes and places of worship, but I digress.)

I could go on about that reproductive module all day and how empowering it felt to be treated like an adult and not have the facts censored for me. But I won’t, because there’s more to this post than just enthusiastic gushing.

After my initial surprise at how enjoyable and insightful I found the course, I started wondering why this thoroughly useful and honest course was only taught to a small class of university students. They should make such content compulsory for all undergraduates. Hell, they should make it part of every teenager’s and young person’s school syllabus. After all, practically all of us are going to eventually have sex, if we’re not already doing it. All of us are owners of bodies with reproductive systems, and almost all of us will have to familiarize ourselves with that of the opposite sex. Almost everyone would find family planning advice useful, and you’d have to admit that enlightening men (and even women! A surprising number of women don’t even know about what’s going on inside them) about menstrual cycles and pregnancy would do more good than harm. Who doesn’t need to learn the important skills of getting pregnant when you want to, not getting pregnant when you don’t want to, and about maintaining your reproductive health in general?  What better place to learn about these useful life skills but in schools?

What hit me even harder was the irony that of all the people in Singapore, us university undergraduates were the ones with greatest access to such information. At the risk of sounding classist or elitist, I dare say that we are not the demographic group most in need of sex education. It is those from low income families who have the most to lose in the event of an unplanned pregnancy (be it teenage or even within marriage).It is the less educated women who need to learn about contraception in order to be empowered within their relationships or marriages. It is those who may not even get the opportunity to study about human biology who are most susceptible to believe falsehoods perpetuated by those with conservative agendas.  It is the young teens, those with the greatest number of misconceptions about sex (i. E. Peeing after sex will flush out the semen and prevent pregnancy?) who are in most dire need of accurate and non-judgemental sex education.

But instead, what we have in secondary schools and junior colleges are morality-based preaching sessions telling us the evils of sex, which, study after study shows to be ineffective against curbing teenage pregnancy or STD rates.

The fantastically informative and enlightening sex education I received at 21 only highlights the inadequacy of sex education in our formal education system. It is sad that I had to wait 21 years to learn the unbiased facts about something as fundamental to human life as sex and my reproductive health. It is even sadder that the vast majority of Singaporean youths will continue to live in ignorance and be fed with untruths that prevent them from making informed choices about their own bodies.

The ineffectiveness of abstinence-only sex education June 21, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Education, Science.
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Although this is by no means a new issue, I thought it would be useful to have the facts of the issue in one post, at least for easy access to “ammunition” against those who push for puritanical and fruitless abstinence-only sex education.

 

Studies have indicated that abstinence-only sex education programs are ineffective

 According to a study done by the American Psychological Association (APA), it was found that comprehensive sex education is more effective at stopping the spread of HIV infection. From the article:

 Based on over 15 years of research, the evidence shows that comprehensive sexuality education programs for youth that encourage abstinence, promote appropriate condom use, and teach sexual communication skills reduce HIV-risk behavior and also delay the onset of sexual intercourse.

 In contrast, scientifically sound studies of abstinence only programs show an unintended consequence of unprotected sex at first intercourse and during later sexual activity. In this way, abstinence only programs increase the risk of these adolescents for pregnancy and sexually transmitted illnesses, including HIV/AIDS

 The full article is available here.

 

According to a research team from Oxford University which reviewed 13 US trials involving over 15,000 people aged 10 to 21, it was found that none of the abstinence-only programs had an impact on the age at which individuals lost their virginity, whether they had unprotected sex, the number of sexual partners, the rates of sexually transmitted diseases or the number of pregnancies.Their research, which was published in the British Medical Journal, showed that in comparison, programs which promote the use of condoms greatly reduce the risk of HIV.

 

A study by the nonpartisan Mathematica Policy Research also showed that abstinence-only sex education does not keep teenagers from having sex. The study used a rigorous, scientifically based approach involving two statistically equivalent groups – a program group which received abstinence-only education, and a control group which did not.

 “There’s not a lot of good news here for people who pin their hopes on abstinence-only education,” said Sarah Brown, executive director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, a privately funded organization that monitors sex education programs. “This is the first study with a solid, experimental design, the first with adequate numbers and long-term follow-up, the first to measure behavior and not just intent. On every measure, the effectiveness of the programs was flat.”

 Brown said Mathematica’s results underscore what other, smaller studies have shown: “The most effective programs are those that say abstinence is the best choice but birth control and protection are also worth knowing about.”

An official at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States agreed.

“Comprehensive education means teaching about abstinence and a myriad of other topics,” said spokeswoman Martha Kempner. Among them, she said: “contraception, critical thinking, one’s own values and the values of your family and your religious community.

“Abstinence-only was an experiment and it failed.”

 

Virginity Pledges

 In addition to abstinence-only sex education, we are also seeing more teens taking so called “virginity pledges, where they (or sometimes even creepier still-their parents) pledge to stay virgins until they get married. However, it was found that not only are teenagers who make such promises just as likely to have sex, but they are also less likely to use protection.

 By 2001, Rosenbaum found, 82 percent of those who had taken a pledge had retracted their promises, and there was no significant difference in the proportion of students in both groups who had engaged in any type of sexual activity, including giving or receiving oral sex, vaginal intercourse, the age at which they first had sex, or their number of sexual partners. More than half of both groups had engaged in various types of sexual activity, had an average of about three sexual partners and had had sex for the first time by age 21 even if they were unmarried.

“It seems that pledgers aren’t really internalizing the pledge,” Rosenbaum said. “Participating in a program doesn’t appear to be motivating them to change their behavior. It seems like abstinence has to come from an individual conviction rather than participating in a program.”

From these findings it is highly possible that these teens were pressured to take such pledges, either by their peers, parents or religious community. Their purity rings aren’t a symbol of their dedication to celibacy, they are a symbol to prove how conservative and religious they are. As a result, not only are the pledges ineffective, they are also counterproductive in that the teens end up engaging in unsafe sex.

 

Expecting all teens to abstain is unrealistic

 In addition to the facts that almost all humans have a natural desire for sex, and that we are hit with an especially potent cocktail of hormones during our teenage years which make us all the more horny (tsk tsk), the brains of teenagers also make them more prone to impulsive behavior. Brain scans have shown that the frontal lobes, the part of the brain that control impulses, don’t mature until age 25, and their connections to other parts of the brain continue to improve to at least that age. This results in teens making bad judgments. (Incidentally, this is also the reason why teens are usually not tried as adults in the court of law.) Given this, it is simply unavoidable that some teens will eventually have sex, regardless of how much the abstinence message is drilled into them, and even regardless of their own plans to abstain.

 

So the question is, do we just want to let these teens to fall through the cracks, and punish them (by means of pregnancy and STDs) for their inability to control themselves, nevermind the fact that unwanted pregnancies, teen marriages and STDs all have negative impacts on society? It seems like the conservative right wants to do just that. By continuing to push for abstinence-only education in schools despite overwhelming proof that it is ineffective, it is clear that the conservatives care more about their own consciences than about the real consequences faced by individuals and eventually faced by society. Our society can do with less of such selfishness and self-righteousness, and more respect for our youths.

Britain: Children as young as four are given ‘gay’ assembly June 7, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Education, International.
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This morning in my hotel room in London I happened to chance upon a very interesting headline in today’s copy of The Daily Telegraph. Children as young as four were given an assembly about homosexuality as part of the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia. From the article (emphasis mine):

In a statement sent out to schools by the council education officer Lynne Miller said: “Young children are exposed at a very early age to homophobic language. Pupils may call each other ‘gay’ without really understanding what it means, but learn that it means something negative, useless, and not positive.

If such usage is not challenged it makes it much more difficult to address homophobic bullying in secondary schools.

“Schools are well placed to explore different lifestyles as they are able to reach all children and young people and do this in a professional and evidence-based way and within a safe learning environment.”

Other than the fact that this issue mirrors the fiasco over Aware’s sexuality education program in schools in Singapore, I found a couple of things about it particularly refreshing.

Firstly, although there were indeed parents who complained about this assembly session about homosexuality, it was not because they were concerned about their kids “turning gay” or because of homosexuality being “immoral” or “sinful”. Instead, they were concerned that their children may have been too young and too easily confused by issues such as homosexuality. In fact, a parent even commented “I think for the older children they could understand as they tend to know about things already. But for my younger daughter Keira I think it was quite confusing.” So their concern was with the age at which the children are given the ‘gay” assembly, not the message itself.

Secondly, the authorities, the supportive parents, and the school involved have their priorities right: putting the interests of the children first, even if it means undertaking potentially controversial and unpopular actions. In this case, serving the interests of the children means preventing the occurrence of homophobic bullying, thus not only protecting the students who may eventually identify as homosexuals, but also protecting those who do not conform to traditionally accepted gender roles and behaviors from homosexual slurs. Moreover, what is even more commendable is the recognition that schools have a duty to give its students unbiased and factual information in a safe and non-judgmental environment.

After reading this article, I could only look back with dismay at how the Aware sexuality education program controversy turned out. The sad fact remains that when it comes to educating our children, Singapore’s conservative parents and education ministry have little respect for the principles of openness, inclusiveness, honesty or non discrimination. Maintaining the conservative status quo still remains their top priority, regardless of the welfare of the children, the existence of factual and scientific evidence which contradict their position, or the fact that prejudice and bigotry and intolerance are simply unethical.

Mixing religion and politics May 28, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Education, Politics, Religion, Singapore.
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NMP Thio Li-Ann recently denounced the bewildering notions of “militant secularism” and “secular fundamentalists” in parliament. I suppose this is in contrast to mere secularism, where a certain dose religion can be allowed into politics? What a load of pointless semantics; what can only be perceived as an attempt to demonize secularism in order to legitimize the entrance of religion into public discourse. Indeed, she did argue that religion would sometimes be appropriate in policymaking, given the fact that many MPs themselves are religious. This view is flawed on so many levels.

 Firstly, MPs should be aware that they are not arguing for or against policies in their own individual capacities. They are representing the interests of all Singaporeans (or at least those in their GRC), inclusive of people of different religions, and nonbelievers. Because of this, it is essential that they put their own personal beliefs aside.

 Secondly, religious arguments are simply not applicable to those who are not in their religion. In alienates the rest of us, the same way conversing in Chinese to exclude a non-Chinese friend is alienating, non-inclusive and demeaning. By asserting that Policy A should be implemented because Religion X thinks it is good, it is making the self centered assumption that Religion X’s values must also apply to all other Singaporeans. Or worse, it is making the suggestion that the values of Religion X take precedence over the beliefs and principles of other Singaporeans.

 Thirdly, if an argument is made solely on religious grounds, it is usually an indication that there is no scientific or sociological evidence to illustrate its merits. Stating that something is a “sin” or an “abomination to God” makes an appeal to our emotions. But in no way is such an argument based on facts. In this way, an argument based on emotion instead of reason and logic simply has no place in public discourse.

 So what is considered an acceptable argument to be made in a secular public space?

 Take, for example, the debate from a few years ago over whether or not to allow a casino to be built in Singapore. Let us consider the following hypothetical arguments in parliament:

 

1. I am from Religion X. Gambling goes against my religion.

(Bad argument. So what if gambling goes against an MP’s religion? We’re talking about national policy here, not an invitation to poker night.)

 

2. Religion X says that gambling is a sin.

(Bad argument. Singapore is a secular country, not a Religion X-ian country.)

 

3. The Singaporeans from Religion X are against gambling because it goes against their religion.

(Bad argument. Why should that mean anything for the construction of a casino, or the other people who are not of Religion X who wish to gamble or reap in its economic benefits?)

 

4. Studies from other countries have suggested that the construction of a casino would lead to the following social problems:…

(Good argument. Instead of appealing to the beliefs of a single individual or a religious group, a good argument appeals to the issues that affect society as a whole, and provides facts and statistics to back up its claim.)

 Perhaps my point can be made most aptly with one of my favorite quotes from US President Barack Obama:

 Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason.

Judgmental, moralistic sex education has no place in schools May 25, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Education, Liberalism v Conservativism, Singapore.
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Imagine that the Association of Wellness, Obesity and Nutrition Knowledge (AWONK) runs a course on diet and nutrition in schools. It teaches children about the nutritional values of certain foods, the negative implications of nutrition related diseases, and the importance of making healthy choices. It also teaches that some people have diet restrictions for moral or religious reasons, but does not pass judgment on this.

 Inexplicably, there is a backlash from parents. Angry parents have written to the newspapers about AWONK’s neutral stance on eating meat; after all, everyone knows that meat is murder and immoral. Other parents have complained that by teaching kids that meats such as pork and shellfish contain nutrients, we are promoting their consumption and blatantly going against the word of God in Leviticus 11:7 and 11:10-12. One parent piped up, “My child mentioned that he happened to learn about the consumption of horse or whale meat in other countries. You are supposed to condemn these actions because it does not reflect our social norms! How could you treat it in a neutral light when it would surely lead to the decline of our traditional values?” After much pressure from parents, the education ministry finally suspended AWONK’s program.

 Utterly ridiculous, you say? Well it is precisely this ridiculousness which is occurring in Singapore right now with MOE’s decision to stop Aware’s sexuality education program on the basis of it not reflecting society’s norms. This issue goes far beyond sex education. With one single action, MOE has made its stance clear: pacifying parents and maintaining social norms are more important than teaching students unbiased, scientific facts. Never mind the fact that these norms justify intolerance and discrimination, or the many studies that have shown that such approaches to sexuality education cause worrying increases in the suicide rates of gay teenagers. No, no. Preserving the status quo is more important than that.

 Preserving the Status Quo as an End in Itself

 The question we should ask those who justify judgmental views towards homophobia or premarital sex based on the preservation of social norms is this: is the preservation of traditional norms and values a good thing in itself, or is there some sort of benefit achieved from this judgmental approach?

 Many conservatives view the preservation of the status quo as a good thing in itself. This is perplexing to me because there is nothing inherently good about something just because it used to be practiced in the past. In fact, societies have abolished many things that the conservatives of their time would have militantly defended on the basis of “traditional values”, yet even many conservatives of today would regard as morally abhorrent: slavery, bans on interracial marriage, the denial of the right of women and blacks to vote… Conservatives seem to have forgotten that society has always been changing, and find it difficult to accept that it will always change.

It is incoherent to defend the perpetuation of such judgmental viewpoints on the basis that they represent traditional (and therefore moral) values. Such is the fallacy of the appeal to tradition, where it is assumed that something is better simply because it is older, traditional, or “it has always been done”.

 If there is indeed something beneficial about labeling homosexuality and premarital sex as wrong, conservatives are welcome to state their reasoning and evidence. Numerous studies have already indicated that abstinence-only education not only is not effective in reducing the cases of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, it in fact results in a higher rates of pregnancy and STDs when compared to safe sex approaches to sexuality education. As mentioned before, a negative approach to teaching about homosexuality results in a higher rate of suicide in gay teens. Opponents to unbiased sexuality education should be able to provide evidence for their cause instead of relying on emotive, dogmatic “reasoning”.

 Non-Universal Morality

 Some actions are universally immoral, such as murder and theft. But other actions are not universally regarded as immoral across all religions, cultures and times, especially actions pertaining to sex. By implementing courses that portray homosexuality and premarital sex as wrong, policy makers and educators are alienating the families and parents who do not share these views. It is blatantly ignoring the existence of parents with more progressive beliefs. How’s that for a “pluralistic” society?

 Simply by the fact that there is much disagreement over the morality over such issues, it is the most fair to maintain a neutral stance in schools, and allow the moral judgment to take its more appropriate place at home or in religious institutions. In this way, MOE’s action does not merely reflect social norms; it alienates liberals with its conservative bias.

 Respect

 Ultimately, it’s all about respect. Not just respect for others and their lifestyles and choices, but also respect for your own children. Do you aspire for your children to grow up to simply dogmatically inherit all your beliefs, your values, your ideologies? Or do you respect your children enough to want them to receive all the unbiased information they can so that they can think critically to make their own choices and become mature, self-actualized individuals?

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