A sudden intake of breath

A sudden intake of breath

Emily Rosa is the youngest person to have a paper published in a peer reviewed medical journal. Her story is an inspiring one, how at age nine she conducted research that debunked therapeutic touch. Little wonder that the tale is often told, including, in 2011, by Michael Shermer at a talk he gave right here in Ottawa.

I was in the audience that night, sitting with a group of friends: my wife, a female scientist friend of ours, and various other acquaintances. Now the exact words are forgotten and the reason why he told the story is forgotten but I do remember how it ended, which was by flashing up on the screen an image of the adult Emily Rosa in a bikini with a comment that was something like, “and look what she grew up to be.”

And – certainly from our little corner of the auditorium – there was a sudden and sharp intake of breath.

Shermer gave a great talk that night, entertaining, educational, fascinating,  but when we were talking afterwards among ourselves, several people mentioned the picture of Emily Rosa in a bikini. It was incongruous, it was odd, and it made at least several people that I know of uncomfortable.

Maybe there wasn’t a point; perhaps it was just supposed to lighten up the talk at midway. I’m sure no harm or offense was intended, and yet… I’ve talked about this specific moment since then, over a year after Shermer gave the talk, and had a few more people say that yes, they remember that slide and that, yes, it was… odd. One person recalled that moment without my prompting them. That it was incongruent. Uncomfortable. Yet another person spontaneously said, when I asked if they remembered Shermer’s talk, “oh yes, that was the really sexist one.” Why? Because so many of the images he’d used to illustrate optical illusions were of parts of women’s bodies (or things that look they are).

So: Shermer came to Ottawa and gave a very interesting talk, but a talk where many of the images used were of women’s bodies and where at least one of the female bodies shown was to illustrate a story about a nine year old girl scientist. As one of my female friends said, “it’s like it was a talk for boys but a bunch of women had inexplicably also been invited.” Again, this was an unprompted comment after being asked if they remembered his presentation.

Many of us know, and indeed are, women, and it’s a good idea to think about how women might respond to a communication style heavy on close ups of female bodies and bikini shots. I’ve sufficient evidence from my peer group to tell me that Shermer’s talk was not a universal hit among that group of people. It’s worth considering why that might be. And if he’s still giving this particular talk, with these particular visual aids, It’s time to stop. Skepticism isn’t a boy’s club anymore.

A just cause, the wrong celebrity, a PR disaster

A just cause, the wrong celebrity, a PR disaster

One cannot help but feel sympathy for the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation. Their Bust a Move Ottawa event raised over $350,000 dollars last year. This year, with 30 days to go, they’ve set a goal for $500,000. With a track record like that it’s achievable;  but for the fact that their recently announced celebrity attendee is the anti-vaccination, anti-evidence, anti-science, anti-health Jenny McCarthy.

They were doing a good job building momentum for the big announcement, which was made on Tuesday night, and presumably they had primed journalists at the Ottawa Citizen to help them break the news. The Citizen did just that, shortly after the announcement, only they ran an article with an unfavourable headline – “Anti-vaccine crusader Jenny McCarthy to headline Bust a Move Ottawa” – and then put up an editorial that was also unfavourable – “Great cause, poor choice”. Straight out of the gate, Bust a Move Ottawa 2013 was in bad PR territory and all the publicity that the ORCF and the Bust a Move event were hoping for turned negative. By the afternoon of the next day, #dropjenny was gathering speed on twitter.

The Citizen justifies its editorial position. “A health and fitness fundraiser, in service of a health-related foundation, should not hitch its wagon to an advocate for a harmful and unfounded ideology.” Jenny McCarthy’s interventions in public health have been damaging, perhaps profoundly so. An entertainer she may be but there are a lot of people who are more outraged by her past statements on vaccinations than they are dazzled by her celebrity. For a lot of people it is not possible to separate the negative aspects of her work, about which the organisers were presumably unaware (or did not think would be important), from the positive. And how will this affect fundraising? People in Ottawa aware of Jenny McCarthy’s background are going to feel quite justified in refusing to pledge when their friends and family come asking for money for Bust a Move.

Bust a Move looks like a fun, high energy event. It should be building on the success of last year and going on to greater things. But when the local newspaper of record cripples your horse as soon as it gets out of the gate, media attention turns negative, a chorus of voices on twitter criticize and a health charity that does valuable work becomes associated with antivaxx quackery, it’s hard to see how that could be possible. It’s truly sad that ORCF and Bust a Move Ottawa are in this position. It’s a PR mess and a branding disaster. I hope they can extricate themselves with honour, and get back to fundraising and the good work that they do.


Anti-Vaccination Advocate to Headline Ottawa Cancer Event: CFI Canada, CASS and Ottawa Skeptics Issue Response

Anti-vaxxer Jenny McCarthy to front Ottawa cancer charity fundraiser

Great cause, poor choice

We’ll take the money you can bring us, even if you’re antivaccine

Pondering My Unexpected Activism

Climate change denial course puts the K in quality at Carleton

Climate change denial course puts the K in quality at Carleton

News from Canada: We learn that in the nation’s capital, Tom Harris, a Heartland associate and PR guy for the oil industry, has been teaching a course on climate change at Carleton University for the past few years. A science watchdog (the Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism) reviewed videos of the course and uncovered a hefty 142 errors, clear evidence of bias, and serial misrepresentation of the current scientific opinion on climate change.

So it’s basically what you’d expect from a Heartland associate and PR guy for the oil industry, but not at all what you’d expect from a university.

This was a review course for non-science majors, so its reasonable that the students don’t access primary sources such as the peer-reviewed scientific literature. However, one would expect that the instructor would at least have a passing familiarity with it and be able to accurately convey the relevant scientific information to his students. Nope. Harris would rather call a friend than crack open a journal.

Credit where its due, though. It takes effort, creativity, and skill, to put together a course on the science of climate change that runs for twelve lectures and studiously avoids most of the science of climate change.

You might wonder what Harris was doing all that time. Twelve lectures is a lot of dead air to fill. Fortunately, he has a lot of buddies, including a few living locally, who are equally as befuddled and confused about climatology and were more than willing to star in this gong show.

Step up Tim Patterson, tenured professor at Carleton, a devotee of the Sun as the one true cause of the climate change that isn’t happening and a fervent believer in cosmic rays that can’t be measured as responsible for the global warming that isn’t going on. He’s a palaeontologist and geologist, and therefore blessed with the profound insight that comes from working in the context of deep time. For him, climate always changes; oh yes, that it does, and many sage geologists nod their heads in agreement; but did he never once stop to wonder why it might? Perhaps that’s a question too far.

As a special treat, students get to see an elderly Australian by the name of Carter feverishly fantasising about climate science being exploded by metaphorical torpedoes of denial. It’s the sun – Boom! Did you know temperatures go up as well as down? Take that, warmists! 20th Century warming? Nothing unusual there! But never mind that it got warmer, because here comes an ice age! Oh, it’s fine comedy. One hopes the students were suitably entertained. They paid good money for this.

What’s next for our Carleton undergrads? How about a full length movie? Why not? Its time for The Great Global Warming Swindle, wherein a smarmy producer fakes data, truncates graphs and misrepresents climate science and scientists for 90 minutes. That’s another lecture out of the way.

Then there’s local “friend of science” Tad Murty, who, in a courageous and bold attempt to ignore overwhelming evidence, tells us that the oceans… are cooling. All the fish currently expanding their range into previously uninhabitable areas of the sea would be deeply surprised to learn that fact.

But for most of the lectures, Harris has to bumble along by himself. He has the students play “Blooper of the Week”, a version of “Guessing the Teacher’s Password” wherein they have to find innocuous statements by public figures that would cause Harris to shake his fist angrily at clouds. “The climate is always changing, so this cannot be stopped as we do not have such control over the sun and other cosmic forces that greatly correlate to the warming and cooling of Earth. We cannot change climate just as we cannot change the seasons from winter to summer,” one possibly baked student explains. It’s cosmic, man, truly cosmic. Down the rabbit hole we go: “the climate problem is so difficult that we may never solve it,” Harris says, accidentally acknowledging there is a climate problem, before twisting hurriedly away from the implications; “the idea that CO2 rise is mainly caused by humans, the idea that temperature rise is definite, it’s occurring; – many of these things are either not true or are simply unknown, or highly debatable.” So many contradictory beliefs, all simultaneously true, except for the things that scientists actually agree on? Now this is how you do science! Why bother to test a hypothesis, when you can simply believe in as many as you wish? Cosmic rays, the sun, the urban heat island effect, all the one true cause of the global warming that isn’t happening and doesn’t matter anyhow because there’s an ice age just around the corner. Confused? You should be.

Alright, so it would be neither fair nor accurate to say Harris didn’t expose his students to proper science. He does mention the IPCC report, although it’s the second edition, the one from 1995, that grabs his attention. That there had been two more since that time, each one becoming firmer and more confident about the causes and extent of anthropogenic climate change, is a fact of which he appears to be blissfully unaware. The students are left similarly unenlightened. Not that he has good things to say about the IPCC, standing as it does for all that is false and loathsome in the world of science. Only 2.5% of the scientists involved in the IPCC agree with the conclusions of the IPCC, we are told, something that would be a matter of great surprise to a great many climate scientists: two surveys have found 97% agreement among climate scientists with the IPCC’s main conclusions. A recent report in PNAS went on to point out that the few percent that do disagree “have climate expertise and scientific prominence substantially below that of the convinced researchers”, a polite way of saying that they are cranks.

So what have we learned? Carleton University, the educational establishment that Ottawans once liked to joke “puts the K in Quality” (I don’t know why – this sort of erudite humour escapes me, but then I never did study the classics in school), but turned its reputation around in recent years, and has been rated 7th or 10th in Canadian university rankings, nevertheless has managed to put a man in charge of a science course who teaches students that there’s an ice age coming. I always considered The Day After Tomorrow to be a fun, yet silly, doomsday movie. For Harris and his friends, well, it’s more of a prediction. “Expect global cooling”, he says. Brilliant!

One wonders why the university would give this guy a job. And how on earth did he get it? Did they advertise the position or was he just one day handed the keys to crashing Carleton’s reputation?

It’s probably the latter. His aforementioned good buddy, the cosmic-ray-fearing Professor Tim Patterson, used to teach the course. Patterson went on sabbatical a few years ago and Tom took over. Harris himself said that “95% of the course materials” came from Patterson. What with Harris being a mechanical engineer with no relevant scientific publications, his pointing out that a tenured professor provided the course materials was probably an attempt to provide some cover and credibility. What it did was just land Patterson right in it, as well as raising further questions.

Because what this implies is that Carleton (did I spell that right, or should it be Karleton? Let me know when it’s funny. I really don’t understand this university humour) has been running ERTH2402, a mangled pile of spat up and reheated climate change denial, for about ten damn years, with nobody at that august institution making a peep of complaint. One can easily imagine a kwality student emerging from this course, all bundled up in sweaters and scarves (Canadians do so understand the importance of layering) against the coming reign of the ice giants, planning some cod fishing off the Bahamas, and proudly informing their more fact-prone lecturers in other classes that everything they are teaching about global warming is wrong. Yet nobody said anything.

I do still have faith in Carleton. I want to believe that it’s only the Earth Sciences Department that’s taking a post-modernist approach to the pursuit of truth. Carleton is a university with a lot of young and creative researchers and there’s a vibe there that good things are happening. I want to believe that the only way is up for CU, but right now the Earth Sciences Department is the anchor dragging them down. If CU wants to be able to hold its head high, then how about some much needed scrutiny? They know where the problem lies, and they know with whom it lies. They have to stop hiding behind the excuse of academic freedom and start taking responsibility for educating, rather than misinforming, their undergraduate students. They deserve a whole lot better. It’s long past time.


Further reading:

PDF: Climate Change Denial in the Classroom

Fake Heartland “Scientist” Infiltrates Canadian University 

Climate Science Denial at Carleton University: A Detailed Take-Down

Climate denial at a Canadian university

Climate Change Denial being taught at Carleton University

Tom Harris Teaches Heartland Institute Fake Science to Students

Professor criticized for course denying climate change

CASS: Skepticism FTW

Climate Change and Education: Are Schools the Next Battlefield?

Heartland Institute Climate Change Denial 101

Climate misinformation coming to a school near you?

Carleton course denying man-made climate change

Denialists In The Canadian Classroom

Heartland Institute Associate Got Inside Carleton University

Denial in the Classroom

Heartland agent at Carleton University

It comes in threes

Heartland ‘expert’ taught climate denialism at a Canadian university

Climate scientist ‘troubled’ by skeptic’s teachings at Carleton University

Ottawa City Council debates urban sprawl

Ottawa City Council debates urban sprawl

Every five years, the city’s official plan comes up for review. Developers have been pushing for a huge increase in expansion of the urban boundary of some 2,000 hectares. This despite the city’s stated vision of intensification and densification and the existence of a greenbelt around Ottawa. The city has also been dealing with the consequences of amalgamation, which increased the city size and incorporated outlying communities. As a result of that process, council members represent some very different wards with very different interests, and it is unsurprising that council debates are often split on the big issues.

This debate was no different.

While developers had been pushing for 2,000 hectares, city staff had recommended just over 800 hectares, a recommendation that had been approved previously in committee.  However, full council, by a vote of 12 to 11, approved only 222 hectares connecting Kanata and Stittsville for new construction.

Councillor Peter Hume put forward this motion, after an attempt by Councillor Diane Holmes to halt all expansion failed by a vote of 10 to 13.

Here are some of the highlights:

Following the clear cutting of a wooded parcel of land on the urban boundary –  clear cut so that it would be more likely to win approval for development if the boundary were expanded – Councillor Jellet proposed that specific area be eliminated from the proposed urban expansion area. As Councillor Hume put it, to include the site of the ‘Orleans tree massacre’ would “just be rewarding that kind of behaviour”. Gratifying to see council pushing back.

Councillor Harder was put out that council did not want to respect the committee’s recommendation or the work of city staff. Legal counsel told her that ‘Council reigns supreme’ and any motions passed would overrule the committee recommendations.

Councillor Monette took umbrage at a previous suggestion that we could be more like Europe. The very idea. “We are not like Europe. In Canada we have ample land.” Well, that told this European. He argued that families dream of a home with a garden, and we should keep that dream alive. New Canadians [the sprawl-loving trouble makers], are in Orleans because they are able to purchase single  family homes there. If we don’t expand the boundary, we could run out of single homes, and we want our grandchildren to have the chance to buy a single home. Yes, the ‘think of the grandchildren!’ argument.

Councillor Jellet was succinct and emphatic. I paraphrase slightly: “We don’t need any more land. We meet all the regulations, we have plenty of land within (the boundary).” As laconic as Leonidas.

Back to the real engine of urban sprawl, the New Canadians. We were all apparently raised on the American Dream and reruns of Blame it on Beaver. Councillor Wilkinson, speaking on our behalf, told council that ‘New Canadians want to have their own place’. We need starter homes, apparently, and for New Canadians, the ability to own our own place is very important. Her ward has lots of New Canadians moving in, all in pursuit of the white picket fence. Oh yes, and “to say ‘never expand’ is to say that people can’t have their own place.” She paints an unusual vision for the city, one where the core is filled with indigenous Ottawans, practicing their native and entirely unappealing to outsiders culture, while New Canadians all head for the suburbs to, one supposes, take commuter jobs as advertising executives. Did she miss the part of the plan that talks about intensification and densification?

Enter Diane Holmes, with the one, truly passionate speech of the afternoon. She got straight to it, calling the official plan ‘timid’ and saying with just a small adjustment, by changing the proportions of different housing types, we would not have to expand at all. I have to paraphrase again: “We are subsidising people to buy single family homes in outside areas to enable people to live in the 1950s American Dream. But we can’t afford to live that 1950s dream. What is the most efficient use of the land? That is holding the line. That is going from single homes to doubles. We need to be living in smaller places. Using transit. What I am hearing is the same old 1950s thinking.” You know what Councillor? Me too! I felt that we just shared a moment. But she wasn’t done. There was a segue into climate change, and a dig at some council members for their denialism: “Some people think there is no green problem. But that is not facing reality.” So what is the future, what is the vision? “Smaller houses, smaller lots, fewer single family homes.” And she’s right. Densification and intensification necessarily means just that, and she’s also right that it is the most efficient use of the land. Sprawl doesn’t benefit the city. Studies have shown that urban expansion has cost 1,000 dollars per unit in the city core, amounting to a subsidy paid by the inner city denizens so the suburbs can live the American Dream.

Councillor Hunter doesn’t believe those studies. Council’s role, he told us, is “meeting the demand of what our citizens want and not social engineering into what we want it to be.”  No word on when the city’s planners will be having their job titles changed to ‘social engineers’, and no word on whether Councillor Hunter has ever played Sim City. I have and if I learned anything it is that social engineering is, like, hard, so I’m totally with him on that. But oh yes, back to the study, the one about the core subsidising the suburbs. I wonder if he read it?  Apparently,he told us, if Ottawa doesn’t grow, other communities will, and they will use our park and rides, our amenities and our hospitals, and we won’t get the tax revenue. The thing is, councillor, if Ottawa isn’t getting net tax revenue anyway from our suburban sprawl, surely not expanding is a net plus on the balance sheets?

Councillor El Chantiry invoked the Canadian Dream, which was uncannily similar to the aforementioned American variety, expressed some vague disatisfaction with the greenbelt and deployed a new acronym: BANANA. Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone! Cute, but it doesn’t quite square with the intensification and densification plan, which would mean, by definition, ABSNS, Always Building Something Near Someone. He also pointed out that if council doesn’t support the committee recommendation and the recommendations of city staff, it was a waste of taxpayer money to have made the recommendations at all.

Councillor Feltmate, like Diane Holmes, also has the vision thing. Not the 1950’s dream, but the sustainable living vision, one based around the city’s light rail and transit plan. Densification and intensification used to make a lot of coherent sense when the transit plan was in place,  but it got ditched by the new mayor in between the old official plan and the new official plan. So keep the urban boundary as tight as possible, people, and remember, 1,000 dollars in the hole if you live downtown and we expand the boundary.

Finally, GM got a shout out from Councillor Deans. “I’m not sure that it is 1950s planning… but I will say that 20 years ago, I would not have imagined we would see big car companies collapsing, and they are collapsing because they didn’t get the importance of change. And city council has to get the importance of change.”

I’ll end on that note. And one final comment: council has been listening to its constituents, and the community has been making its opinions known. This from the Ottawa Citizen:

Councillors against expansion were bolstered by a growing community push to limit suburban sprawl, which studies show drain the municipal finances and can harm the environment.

So there you have it. Writing to your councillor really does make a difference. So keep it up, and hopefully Ottawa will become more like Futurama, the world of tomorrow, and less like a subsidized, sprawling and inefficient version of ‘I Love Lucy’.

Does money get votes? A city of Ottawa example, part I

Does money get votes? A city of Ottawa example, part I

The city of Ottawa, Canada,  has an official boundary and a greenbelt. They exist to purposefully constrain growth outside the city and encourage intensification within. In the long term, it is a more sustainable approach to city development than continuous urban sprawl. It is also more efficient. Each expansion of the urban boundary means increasing the distance that sewage and water services have to be extended, it means more road building and more demand for transit. On the other hand, there will always be a demand for low density, single family homes and there will always be people willing to commute from these homes. Developers stand ready to build what people want.

At the planning and rural affairs committee meetings, councillors were presented with three options. First, freeze all expansion and maintain the city’s current urban boundary. Second, limit expansion to just 300 hectares . Third, allow an expansion of 842 hectares (recommended by city hall staff).

Ecology Ottawa took a look at the amount of campaign cash taken from developers by Ottawa city council members in 2006. As they put it, “Ecology Ottawa hopes the acceptance of these donations does not influence how our councillors end up voting.”

Lets take a look at that. I’ve taken their figures and matched them with the votes cast by the members of the planning and rural affairs committees.


Freeze boundary 300 hectares 842 hectares Contributions from developers (% of total)


Gord Hunter n n y 49.15


Jan Harder n n y 39.92


Doug Thompson n n y 39.09


Rob Jellett y y n 39.05


Bob Monette n n y 31.79


Eli el-Chantiry n n y 11.15


Steve Desroches n n y 8.29


Diane Holmes y y n 0


Peggy Feltmate n y n 0


Peter Hume n y n 0


Glenn Brooks n n n 0

Some councillors took very large percentages of contributions from developers, while four of the councillors on the committees took no money at all. So does money line up with votes? The four that took no developer money voted no for the largest expansion. One of the four voted no for everything – no for freezing the boundary, no for the 300 hectare expansion and no for the 842 hectare expansion, for reasons unknown. Of the councillors that did recieve campaign contributions from developers, one is outstanding in his field. Rural councillor Rob Jellet voted to freeze the boundary, or to permit a small expansion to 300 hectares, but no to the largest expansion, 842 hectares.  For the six remaining councillors on committee that receieved developer money, freezing the boundary wasn’t an option and 300 hectares was not enough, but 842 hectares expansion met with their approval.

There are other factors to consider. A single analysis like this doesn’t in any way prove that money equals votes. Councillors that represent wards outside the city proper may want to see expansion and development in their communities in response to their perceived community needs, and arguments can be made for expansion that are not necessarily for the express advantage of developers. Considering that developers were pushing for a 2,000 hectare increase, and city council staff recommended an 842 hectare expansion, these votes are not all that unreasonable. But remember also, companies do what they do because they have certain expectations of success; why would developers give money to Ottawa city councillors at all?

From the Center for Responsive Politics in the US, on the recent TARP payouts:

“The companies that have been awarded taxpayers’ money from Congress’s bailout bill spent $77 million on lobbying and $37 million on federal campaign contributions, Center finds. The return on investment: 258,449 percent.”

That’s just one example of the success of lobbying and donations.

In part II, when the full council votes on the expansion, we can see if donations from developers again line up with votes.