Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Into the lion's den: respected climatologist survives attempted mauling unscathed

Climatologist Michael Mann is barely able to hide his incredulity
as he fends off asinine attacks in Washington on March 29, 2017.

Last week's Committee on Science, Space and Technology hearing in Washington should have been a sober discussion about the latest findings on climate change and the direction the U.S. should take towards mitigating the damage.
Instead, it was about as productive as a World Wrestling Entertainment match. Lots of melodrama and smackdowns with no real winners, but one very real loser: the truth.
At the bottom of the scrum was Michael Mann, a mild-mannered paleoclimatologist who works with proxy data to map historic temperatures. He and his colleagues produced a graph in 1998 that took the world by storm. It was dubbed the "hockey stick" graph because the sharp upward turn in the past century or so resembles the blade of a hockey stick.
An extended version of the graph was incorporated into the Third Assessment Report by the UN's International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2001. And that report was memorable for concluding with reasonable certainty that humans are warming the planet and that it is a major cause of concern.
Mann's graph became an instant touchstone of controversy, particularly after former vice-president Al Gore employed it to great effect in his film "An Inconvenient Truth."
It became a primary target of contrarians, most of whom were and still are backed by the oil and gas industry for whom global warming is, indeed, inconvenient.
A handful of doubters attempted to shoot down the graph by either questioning its statistical methods, or suggesting the extent of current warming is not an anomaly. While a couple of flaws were uncovered, the essential science behind the graph remains robust.
Many still think today the graph has been exposed as a fraud. Mann has appealed to courts in at least two instances to defend his reputation.
But the hockey stick has actually been reinforced at least a dozen times by scientists using their own analytical methods.

Original hockey stick graph (blue - MBH1998) compared to Wahl & Ammann reconstruction (red).
Instrumental record in black (
Wahl 2007).
I suspect many of us who watched last Wednesday's hearing did so mostly for the entertainment value. It was clear from the start there would be no progress made. In fact, it was clear well before it started, since chairman Lamar Smith had already played his hand at a Heartland Institute event only days earlier.
The institute's so-called annual conference on climate change is, in fact, a cheerleading session for like-minded deniers. When Smith took the floor to list the three contrarians Mann was to face, the Heartland audience cheered loudly. Then they booed when Mann's name was announced.
“That’s why this hearing is going to be so much fun,” a grinning Smith told them.
The love-in was witnessed first-hand by journalist Jeffrey Mervis, writing for the journal Science. When Mann brought it up at the hearing, Smith clumsily tried to shrug it off.
"That is not known as an objective writer or magazine," he said, as if one of the world's most respected science journals was no more credible than the National Enquirer.
Mann stood by his statement. In fact, he went out of his way to emphasize what a ludicrous exercise the hearing was. After all, 75 per cent of the panel — Judith Curry, John Christy and Roger Pielke Jr. — represented a paltry three per cent of scientists worldwide who still challenge the overwhelming consensus that climate change is real and primarily caused by human activity.
Throughout the hearing, Mann was the only one who delved at any length into actual scientific findings. It was usually in response to some asinine theory thrown at him by this or that representative.
It wasn't easy. He faced a steady stream of well-worn myths: ice caps aren't melting (yes, they are); climate models are inaccurate (if anything, they're too optimistic).
Among the long-debunked talking points raised was the one that scientists were all predicting an ice age less than 50 years ago. If they thought the Earth was cooling then, why should we believe them now?
In fact, the idea was not at all prevalent among the science community. It gained traction among the public after magazines such as Time and Newsweek published stories based on these outlier predictions.
Not only that, but the science behind them was not altogether unfounded.
A Sidney Harris cartoon
from the 1970s.
An article to Skeptical Science highlights how ice age hypotheses centred on concerns about aerosol concentrations such as sulphur dioxide. Some felt — for good reason — that increasing levels could block sunlight reaching the Earth.
Air pollution was causing other problems as well. It was affecting health and causing environmental damage (see: acid rain). So several countries enacted clean air legislation and airborne pollution started to decrease.
Unfortunately, greenhouse gas production didn't.

Few of the science deniers on last week's committee really cared about such facts, of course. They were more interested in bluster and bombast.
California Republican Dana Rohrabacher gave perhaps the most Oscar-worthy performance when he railed against those "people" who were maligning poor Chairman Smith and other eminent scholars like those flanking Mann on either side.
"Especially at a time when those who disagree with the mainstream are being brutalized into silence this type of hearing is vital to hearing the fundamental arguments," he growled, slowly raising his voice.
Brutalized? Seriously?
"Unfortunately, from the get-go, we have heard personal attack after personal attack after personal attack coming from those who are claiming to represent the mainstream of science," he barked.
One can imagine how Mann must have felt being portrayed as the villain rather than the victim — after enduring years of ridicule, slander and vexatious litigation from high-ranking Republicans and anti-science cranks trying to push their agendas.
But no. Pity the poor deniers.
The best part? Rohrabach went on to spew a litany of incoherent untruths about climate change: that it's only about CO2 (the greenhouse effect also involves other heat-locking gases); that there's been a lengthy "pause" in warming (not quite, and warming has continued apace); and that the term "climate change" was coined by retreating scientists in the mid 2000s to underplay the notion of global warming.
The latter myth is especially nonsensical. G.W. Bush pollster Frank Luntz admitted years ago that he was the one who encouraged the Bush administration to use the term "climate change" because it sounded less ominous. Even then, it's astounding Rohrabach and others have failed to notice that "climate change" is incorporated into the very name of the IPCC — an agency founded in 1988!
I've added the Rohrabach segment here. It's especially revealing to watch contrarian Judith Curry pick up on his cue of playing the victim, rather than correcting him on his ridiculous misunderstandings.


Monday, March 27, 2017

Agnus Dei - Samuel Barber LIVE

I was just browsing through some concert reviews I filed more than 15 years ago, and came across one I wrote on a Quintessential Vocal Ensemble concert in May 2000. The choir, conducted by Susan Quinn and primarily populated by Holy Heart of Mary graduates, was in its prime at the time. One of the pieces it performed was Samuel Barber's Agnus Dei, which the composer set to his famous Adagio for Strings. You can find it on QVE's album Ave Maris Stella. Meanwhile, here's a rendition I found performed by the Flemish Radio Choir based in Brussels. Beautiful.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

I'll take the blue pill — and I don't mean Viagra

 A belated review of The Red Pill, a film by Cassie Jaye

In February, federal Conservative leadership hopeful Maxime Bernier received an endorsement from Alberta Wildrose MLA Derek Fildebrandt.
It was an important coup for Bernier who would normally face an uphill battle convincing right-leaning Albertans to bet on a Quebecer. He wanted to tweet something clever, something to show that Fildebrandt "gets it" — that he sees the real thing when he sees it. So he posted the following meme.

It's an allusion to a scene from the 1999 film The Matrix in which the main character is offered a choice: take the blue pill and remain in the artificial reality you're blissfully trapped in now, or take the red pill and discover what's really going on behind the scenes.
As metaphors go, it's a sledgehammer. And it's been exploited endlessly since the film came out. We're being manipulated by the system. Do you want to wake up to reality, or stay asleep?
The tweet would have seemed innocuous — except for one thing.
In the past few years, the term "The Red Pill" has been hijacked by men's rights activists (MRAs) in the form of a Reddit forum by that name. And the movement gained even more traction with the release last year of a similarly titled documentary by American filmmaker Cassie Jaye.
So, Bernier found himself pilloried by feminists of all stripes, who were convinced he was giving a wink to the MRA cause.
I was personally unaware of the MRA connection — as was Bernier, apparently.
So I decided to rent The Red Pill online.
Below is an extended trailer:

Jaye presents her film as a journey of discovery. She'd done a couple of pieces on women's issues such as abortion and single motherhood and wanted to try something different. She typed the term "rape culture" into Google and found a flood of rebuttals from the MRA brigade. Hmm, she thought. What's all that about? I think I'll tumble into that rabbit hole and see what happens.
And fall she did. Head over heels.

Cassie Jaye
The opening sequences seem innocent enough. Jaye summarizes her beginnings as a child actor, and her frustration at landing only bit roles as a victim — she had a good scream, she says. So, at the tender age of 21, she decided to try her hand at filmmaking.
The meat of The Red Pill then consists of Jaye driving to the homes of well-known MRAs and lending them  a sympathetic ear. She listens intently as they posit a supposed pattern of discrimination against men and boys, aggravated by hard-hearted women.
Jaye could have lent some credibility to their claims if she had actually asked a tough question or two. That doesn't happen. Instead, she seems entranced by this horrible new revelation that men are the real victims in the battle of the sexes.
Interspersed throughout the film are short video diaries, where Jaye ponders her findings thus far. It should be a chance to offer analysis and context. But she comes across as bereft of critical thinking, unable to distinguish fact from fiction. I don't know what to think, she says time and time again.
"(S)ometimes I think the MRAs are just duping me and giving such a strong pitch about what they believe in to convince me of … some out-there theory that men are discriminated against and that women have the advantage," she muses at one point.
Alas, the notion never seems to stick. 
Jaye solicits a few comments from feminists, but they only offer broad strokes. The MRAs spout their grievances at length. Counterpoints get short shrift.

First, let's get one thing straight: men do have legitimate issues.
Men often have a hard time in custody battles. Even when both parties are competent, the woman usually prevails.
Men do experience domestic violence. Those that do deserve as much support as women.
And it's no secret the education system has failed boys in many respects.
But The Red Pill ultimately fails to properly address any of this.
On the contrary, it tries to make the exception the rule.
Listen to what her subjects actually say. It's truly remarkable.
"Why aren't more people angry about discrimination against men?" asks outspoken MRA Paul Elam. "The only reason that I can think of is that people aren't angry because they don't see men as human beings."
Fellow warrior Dean Esmay chimes in with his own lament: "It's an ocean of pain out there."
And it's a walk in the park for women?

Paul Elam
So what's the evidence for this holocaust of hatred?
One of the most touted statistics comes from a 2010 Centers for Disease Control survey that found one in four men suffer violence from their opposite-sex partner — compared to one in three women.
Hold the phone! This sounds serious.
Indeed, Jaye lingers for a while on the thought that men are being battered at an extraordinary rate. There are thousands of women's shelters all over the country, one MRA laments. Where are all the men's shelters?
Well, don't trust everything you hear.
The CDC cites violence as all manner of aggression, including rape, stalking and psychological abuse.
Furthermore, it's a survey, a telephone poll, not an analysis based on objective facts.
When you look at hard numbers, you get a different picture — like these cited in the Huffington Post, based on actual Justice statistics.

Perhaps the most absurd arguments are those that have nothing to do with women's rights, i.e., the fact vastly more men die in battle and in the workplace.
But feminism is not the culprit.
In a patriarchal world, it's men that make the decisions, and the ones who face the consequences. They declare wars and fight them. They go off to face the big, bad world while the women stay home and keep house.
The Red Pill makes every effort to lull the viewer into a dream world where men are the oppressed, not the oppressors. You're meant to feel sorry for these big, old teddy bears who've been crushed under the heels of feminist zeal.
Instead, I couldn't help but think these dudes need to get a grip.
Stuck in a dead-end job? Trying to make ends meet? It's the economy, stupid. Knocked a girl up and now she wants you to scram? Yes, maybe she's a miserable person — or maybe you're just a loser. It's hard to know without context.
The point is this: there is no conspiracy. But there is definitely an elephant in the room. If you honestly think women's shelters are a product of overzealous advocacy and not dire need, you really need to re-examine your knowledge base — or lack thereof.

Anti-MRA protesters in Toronto.
When the film first came out, it was greeted by a storm of protest. In some places, such as Australia, opponents even managed to shut it down.
This is not healthy.
We should be alarmed at this increasing trend towards stifling the free expression of ideas, no matter how distasteful they may seem. Frank debate is key.
But I understand the anger.
The Red Pill paints a ridiculously milquetoast picture of men's rights. Many of those interviewed have said some pretty hideous things over the years, yet Jaye seems oblivious. She lobs her softball questions and nods earnestly as they feed her their tripe.
In reality, the movement has provided a front for what is nothing short of raw misogyny. You can see it every day on far-right websites, and even in mainstream media. They undermine rape victims and bully women over abortion rights.
Take the clip below of  British MRA Mike Buchanan from a recent TV spot. As soon as it's his turn to speak, he has little to offer but nasty insults. If I were on this show, I'd be a lot angrier than these women appear to be.
But I haven't walked in their shoes.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

On intoxication and consent

In the past 36 hours, social media has exploded over a controversial headline in The Telegram. The story, by court reporter Rosie Mullaly, covered the first day of testimony in the trial of Carl Snelgrove, an RNC officer charged with sexual assault against a young woman to whom he offered a ride home in the wee hours of the morning. (Some have also condemned CBC's and NTV's television and online reporting of the trial.)
Before we get to that, this is what's known so far through evidence presented in court. The constable saw the complainant on a street downtown. She was intoxicated He offered to drive her home. She accepted. After that, the woman says, everything is hazy. She vaguely remembers the officer helping her in through a basement window because she couldn't find her key. She evidently let the officer in the house. Then things go pretty well blank, although she has a fragmented recollection of him engaging in anal sex. And the man's DNA was found on her furniture.
Let all that sink in for a second.
Can anyone honestly disagree this man lacks the moral fortitude to be an officer of the law? You can picture any number of similar situations arising downtown. Men and women, highly intoxicated, lunging at or flirting with each other. Along comes an officer, tasked with serving and protecting the public. It's not clear whether she was sexual flirtatious or not, but even if she was, she's surely not the first person to have been so with a police officer late at night. I imagine it's a regular occurrence. And I would expect any officer on duty to exercise the utmost professionalism and to respect the delicacy of the situation. He (or she) has no business trying to pursue a perceived opportunity in that situation. None whatsoever.
So, yes, this cop is a creep. That's a given.
What the trial is about, though, is whether he's a rapist. While on the surface it may seem so to many people, it's up to the court to establish his culpability under the Criminal Code.
There is a lot of confusion swirling around the issue of sexual assault, and women's advocates have been understandably reiterating some of the important facts in the wake of this controversy.
The main one is that a rape victim is a victim. You can't blame a victim for rape. It is the rapist's fault. This may seem obvious, but experience shows many victims are prone to blaming themselves in the wake of an assault. Did I accidentally lead him on? Was it something I said? Perhaps I shouldn't have gone out so late. Maybe I should have resisted more.
This us why so-called victim-blaming is such a lightning rod. Every now and then you'll hear a judge say something to the effect that the complainant "should have kept her knees together." The fact that such attitudes persist is what leads many advocates to say we live in a rape culture. Sometimes I feel that term is a little overused. But the fact that men are still frequently excused and even exonerated for bad behaviour proves we have a long way to go.
At any rate, here's the headline that caused the storm.

It's not the best headline. It seems to belittle the complainant: Oh, I get it, she was really loaded – well that just says everything now, doesn't it!?
I understand that some may make that inference. It's a knee-jerk response. It's blaming the victim, isn't it?
Except it isn't.
The headline describes exactly the thrust of the testimony in court. The complainant said she has some memories from earlier in the night in question, but doesn't recall consenting to sex.
She was downtown. She was drunk. Heck, almost everyone is drunk downtown at that time of the night. So this is not victim-blaming. It's just a fact.
The question is whether she was too drunk to consent. And if her testimony is to be taken on face value, she was.
(An important sidebar here: simply being intoxicated is not sufficient to prove lack of consent. I've seen several people say this in the past day, and it is wrong. Check the criminal code. The level of intoxication here is key. If you draw a complete blank as to the previous night's events, that's a pretty good sign you were not capable of given consent, according to its legal definition.)
Another factor that may play into this case is that of the authority of the defendant over the complainant. He was a police officer; she was his charge, at least at the time he was giving her a ride. That may be a factor in deciding whether here was a necessary "level playing field" as such for consent to have occurred.
The bottom line is this: the court decides.Don't prejudge the trial until it gets properly underway and the main themes come out.
You can still advocate for victims without letting it blind you against the essential tenets of our justice system.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Trump, annotated

I considered composing my own annotation of Donald J. Trump's inauguration diatribe, but instead will defer to this excellent piece from Vox.

Monday, January 16, 2017

We're talking about children here

A scene from "The Sweet Hereafter" (1997).
A school bus rides along an open country road in winter. The children are laughing and jostling, the two in back waving at the man in a pickup following behind.
Suddenly, the driver loses control. She tries to straighten the vehicle, but instead swerves off the edge and trundles down an embankment. The man in the pickup pulls over and rushes over to see the bus fishtail out to the middle of frozen lake. It comes to a stop, then slowly sinks as the ice beneath it gives way.
This is the horrific central event in Atom Egoyan's 1997 film "The Sweet Hereafter." There are no special effects or explosions. Just the sickening vantage point from the road as the vehicle slowly submerges. When the witness rushes to the scene, we can hear the screams of children. Fourteen of them perish.
"It is typical of (Egoyan's) approach that 'The Sweet Hereafter' neither begins nor ends with the bus falling through the ice of a frozen lake, and is not really about how the accident happened, or who was to blame," Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film. "The accident is like the snow clouds, always there, cutting off the characters from the sun, a vast fact nobody can change."
 The movie, he wrote, is more about the eternal grief of the "living dead" — those who survived or were most closely touched by the accident. It haunts the parents, the driver, the girl whose legs had to be amputated — even the class action lawyer handling the lawsuit seems uninterested in the money he's about to earn.
"The Sweet Hereafter" is based on a book by Russell Banks, which in turn was inspired by an actual accident in Texas that killed 21 kids. But it could easily have happened in any small town in North America, including Newfoundland and Labrador.
We're no strangers to tragic road accidents here. But school buses are in a category all their own. They are our golden chariots, safely ferrying our most precious cargo to and from school. We expect the utmost standards from their owners and drivers.
It is unfathomable, therefore, to think a contractor in this province would even consider compromising school bus safety for any reason. Yet that is exactly what a west coast firm was recently charged with.
C-MAC Construction has been charged with violating inspection regulations after allegations arose that certificates were issued without inspections actually taking place. In all, 16 buses were taken off the road.
It's the second time a school bus company has been charged since the province brought in tighter regulations last year.
"I think the system is working," school board representative Terry Hall told the CBC. "We are getting through, we are doing the inspections, we are removing buses that we feel need further work or shouldn't be carrying kids at that time."
This is encouraging. But does the punishment fit the crime?
What part of child safety do those behind these violations not understand? Is it that much of an inconvenience to check fuel and brake lines, to tighten a few nuts and bolts?
Can they not imagine the lasting legacy of grief their inaction could inflict on communities in this province?
It's frightening to think anyone could allow such negligence, but Hall admits there are companies out there that try to sneak under the radar.
The solution? Stiff fines. Permanent bans. Imprisonment. Anything to prevent the scenario envisioned in Egoyan's haunting film.
Our children — and their parents — deserve no less.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Do you want a media conspiracy or not?

Until this week, it would have been hard to imagine how the words of Trump and his spokespeople could become any more Kafka-esque. But Kellyanne Conway managed it.

On Monday, the incoming president's chief counsel told an American TV audience that the media should stop listening to what Trump says and look instead into his heart.

The subject was Trump's unambiguous mockery of a disabled reporter during the election campaign — a shameful event revisited by actor Meryl Streep in a short speech at Sunday's Golden Globe Awards. Trump mimicked the reporter's jerky movements during a rally as supporters cheered him on.

Conway, of course, has for several months proven herself unparalleled in her ability to dodge questions. Even Paul Calandra's antics in Canada's Parliament seem amateur in comparison.

On Monday, however, Conway outdid herself.

“Why don’t you believe him? Why isn’t it taken at face value?” Conway told CNN's Chris Cuomo, when asked why Trump has conjured lame excuses rather than simply apologize. “You can’t give him the benefit of the doubt on this and he’s telling you what was in his heart? You want to go with what’s come out of his mouth rather than what’s in his heart.”

Now, it's not clear what Messianic powers Chris Cuomo might wield, but most journalists are taught to rely on what people say and do, not what may or may not be in their hearts. Short of conducting an endless stream of polygraph tests, there's little else to go on.

So which is it? Does Kellyanne want the media to do their job, to fairly cover what politicians do and say? Or does she expect them to look through rose-coloured glasses, to bend over backwards to give the president-elect the benefit of the doubt?

If the latter, why would the media's supposedly generous treatment of the outgoing administration be seen as dishonest and conspiratorial? Were they not just doing what she expects them to do now?

Inquiring minds want to know.