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The news is giving me grey hairs

It’s a whack world out there, and the past couple of weeks have convinced me that organisations like Association for Science and Reason (ASR) are needed now more than ever. Let’s take a look at the events that spurred me to write this.

First up was the decision by the Ontario Supreme Court that found that various federal laws involving prostitution were unconstitutional. Immediately the forces of moralisation launched into action with the usual screams of outrage. Led by Charles McVety, who runs a Christian-based organisation called the Institute for Canadian Values, there was a lot of yelling but little substance. “I was deeply aggrieved because of all the damage that will happen to women and children especially.,” said McVety. “No one wants their daughter to go and become a prostitute.”

So according to him, legalising prostitution will lead to more women and children being victimised, but he says so with no explanation as to how or why this would happen. He fails to understand that in other legal and legitimate professions, whether it be accountancy, bricklaying, or baseball, nobody is being forced to participate. Why would prostitution be any different? I could go on a rant for a while here, but that is something I will save for a more in-depth commentary on this specific issue. Let’s move on to number two.

On September 29th a group of retired U.S. Air Force personnel held a press conference at which they dragged out one of the oldest justifications for belief in aliens: the idea that there are intelligent aliens out there who have been worried about our development and use of nuclear weapons. According to this scenario, ever since WWII aliens have been buzzing around our world paying particular attention to our air force bases and nuclear power plants. Well I suppose that’s a little more comforting than the stories from those who believe the aliens have been fixated on our buttocks, but it still misses a very important point ñ why don’t these extremely smart aliens land outside the U.N. building, march into the chambers, and give us all a stern finger-wagging? Why be so elusive? Either it doesn’t bother them enough to be open about it, or they aren’t really there at all. Guess which one I’m betting on?

I don’t use the services of sex workers and I don’t waste my time looking for UFOs, but number three hits home personally. In the high-stakes world of fishing tournaments, an insidious new mechanism has begun to creep in. It isn’t a new lure that outfishes all others or a high-tech fish-finder that gives you the species and weight before you even drop your line in; it’s a polygraph ñ that pseudoscientific contraption that can exonerate the guilty as easily as it can convict the innocent.

In a recent tournament that used a polygraph a cheater was caught, but what was lost in all the hubbub was that his duplicity was not uncovered by the polygraph but by someone actually finding lead weights in the belly of one of the bass he turned in for weighing. Sensitive fingers trumped squiggles on a graph, but the use of these electronic ouija boards is growing. I run a tournament every year, and I guarantee that they will never be used in mine.

Number four is something that I also have a lot of experience with: driving. Specifically, driving with distractor conditions. In America a report has been released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that calls into question the current spate of laws banning the use of hand-held cell phones while driving. Studies show that there has not been a decrease in crashes as a result of those laws; in fact, they correlate with an increase.

“Texting bans haven’t reduced crashes at all. In a perverse twist, crashes increased in 3 of the 4 states we studied after bans were enacted. It’s an indication that texting bans might even increase the risk of texting for drivers who continue to do so despite the laws.” – Adrian Lund, president of both HLDI and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The news is both interesting and disturbing, but it was given a ridiculous hue when reported on by ABC’s Alex Stone, who said, “- Adrian Lund of the institute says, unlike seatbelt laws, texting bans for some reason are not working.”

Two things, Mr. Stone. First, I have read the report at the IIHS website and it doesn’t mention seatbelts (perhaps it was a personal communication, but I can only go by what is available). Second, how do seatbelt laws reduce crashes? Apart from a handful of crashes that ensue when a person loses control of their car, spins, and winds up in the passenger seat and is unable to prevent an upcoming crash, seatbelts cannot prevent crashes! They are designed to lessen the chance of death or injury when a crash occurs, and that is all. To try and draw some comparison or connection between seatbelt laws and cell-phone laws is a sure sign that very little thinking went in to producing the all-important sound bite.

Number five is truly painful because it comes from someone who should know better. It has been announced by the University of California-Santa Cruz and the Carnegie Institution of Washington that they have discovered a new extra-solar planet that revels in the name Gliese 581g (that hurts too; can’t we be a bit more imaginative?). What makes this planet interesting is that it is the closest analogue to Earth that has yet been found, with a similar mass, and it exists in the so-called ‘habitable zone’ around its parent star, where temperatures would allow for liquid water.

Fair enough, it’s exciting and we will allow those involved to gush about it. But let’s not get carried away. Here’s a quote from the Discovery Channel web report relating the comments made by Carnegie Institute astronomy professor Paul Butler: “The question wouldn’t be to defend that there is life at Gliese 581g. The question,” he said, “would be to demonstrate that there isn’t.”

Can someone please reign this guy in? We have a planet that may or may not have liquid water and already he’s declared that it should be proven to not have life! I hope it does, as I’m certain you do, dear reader, but for a trained scientist to make such a statement is an example of how not to reach out to the public. Science should be presented as exciting, but not given to unfounded speculation. All such a statement does is set people up for a possibly very crushing let-down and drive them away from the real wonders that have been confirmed.

That’s all for now. I’m going to brush in a little Grecian Formula™ before going to bed.

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