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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.
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My entire life philosophy in 9 minutes April 9, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Rants, Religion, Science.
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If there is one thing that frustrates me more than conservative right wing religious extremists, it is the anti-science brigade that proudly denounces rational and scientific thought in favor of the mumbo jumbo world of psychics, homeopathy and astrological signs. The “faithful” folk that are blind to reason and rationalism, and prefer to let faith guide them into the bs-filled world of faith healings and alternative medicine devoid of any evidence or scientific validity. The mystical types who claim that my life is empty without the belief in a higher power or the afterlife, but who are themselves arrogant and ignorant for not recognizing that the sheer beauty of the natural world is more worthy of respect than any “god” described in obsolete texts, and how the mysteries of the scientific world instil awe, wonder and curiosity – not the need for magic and miracles.

I only wish I could refute them as eloquently and elegantly as Tim Minchin did in this awesome video.

Science adjusts its views based on what’s observed.
Faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved.

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.

On homosexuality – Why we’re asking the wrong questions June 15, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Liberalism v Conservativism, Science.
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Debates about the acceptance and neutrality of homosexuality often revolve around the issue of whether homosexuality is a lifestyle choice or whether it is a natural occurrence. Those who justify the discrimination against homosexuals often argue that homosexuals choose to partake in such “immorality”, and that they can even be “turned straight”. On the other hand, liberals and gay activists would argue that homosexuality is not a choice, and that it is unfair to punish someone for something that he or she had no control about.

Obviously I am not one to be swayed by faith-based arguments. To me it is obvious that homosexuality is not a choice; gays do not consciously choose to be gay, just like how I did not consciously choose to be straight, and neither can we consciously choose who we are sexually attracted to. It is also pretty clear that homosexuality is not unique to humans; homosexual behaviour has also been observed in no fewer than 1,500 species of animals, including swans, sheep and apes. Numerous studies by reputable medical and psychological journals have evidence to back up this position, and the facts of this issue have already been thoroughly discussed in many blogs and articles. In fact, there is even much discussion about whether there is in fact a strict binary straight/gay dichotomy, or if human sexuality falls along a continuous spectrum.

But I digress. In my opinion, the question of whether or not homosexuality is a choice is not even an issue. So what if it were a choice? Why would that do anything to justify discrimination against people who make a certain choice about something as private as their sex lives and sexuality? What has someone’s sexuality got to do with society’s approval? As long as it’s between consenting adults and done in private, I fail to see why the law, or conservatives, or the moral police (also known as right wing religious fundamentalists) should have any say in the matter. In this way, it’s not an issue of whether homosexuals are born that way. It is an issue of how much we allow society and the law to dictate what we can and cannot do in our private spheres, when those choices and actions cause no direct harm to others, and are basically none of anyone else’s business.

Of course there are also those who argue that the question matters, because those who “choose” to be homosexuals are choosing to sin. Even if we ignore the fallacious and cherry picking nature of those who believe homosexuality to be a sin, we are left with a religious based argument – homosexuality may be a sin to Christians or Muslims, but not to Buddhists or secular humanists or atheists/agnostics. There is no reason why a secular’s country’s position should be based on the teachings of one or a few religions, or even the beliefs of conservatives. It is simply not justifiable for a law to discriminate against a group of people, regardless of whether or not they chose to be in that group, for no reason other than to reflect and reinforce religious or conservative opinions. The question we must ask is this: Is the purpose of the law to perpetuate social norms, regardless of the harm that such a position may cause to the minority being persecuted, or is the purpose of the law to protect the freedoms of its people, so as to allow the maximum amount of individual freedom as long as it does not encroach onto the freedoms of others?

Conservatives may argue that society and the law should have a say in sexuality and sexual practices, because the “immoral” nature of such practices would have a negative effect on society. But such arguments are not backed by evidence. Instead, they are usually backed by powerful emotions such as disgust for homosexual acts, and fear of committing a sin. But when we take away such biased conservative emotions, we will see that there is no reason to assume that tolerating, or even accepting homosexuals has a negative impact on society. Plenty of civilized, liveable, family friendly countries do not have laws against homosexuality or homosexual sex, and studies have even found that homosexual parents are no better or worse than heterosexual ones. In fact, the demonizing of homosexuality and discrimination of homosexuals increase the occurence of suicides and have negative effects on health issues. In any case, the burden of proof lies with the conservatives to provide us with evidence to justify the discrimination against homosexuals by showing that  the social “benefits” of such discrimination outweigh the invasion of privacy and intrusion of individual freedoms that such a position entails. Until then, the practice of judging, labelling and criminalizing the private actions of a group of individuals, regardless of whether they can help being the way they are, remains unethical and unjustifiable.

What it all boils down to is how much of our private lives do we want to be controlled by the government or by the self-righteous conservatives. If groups of people continue to be discriminated against because of who they are or the choices they make, Singapore will never become the open and inclusive society that it aspires to be.

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