When Bullies Grow Up

To mark the joyous occasion of Rick Santorum dropping out of the Republican primaries, here’s an observation that I wrote a while ago but never got around to publishing.

Last night I watched the movie Fucking Åmål, or as it was retitled in the USA, Show Me Love. (I have a sneaking suspicion that The Shins’ song Phantom Limb is based on it.) It reminded me of my short school career in good ol’ Sherwood Githens Middle School in North Carolina. The homophobic student body there had a rather broad definition of homosexuality: presumably it would have included actual homosexuality if they had known what that was, but it also included getting good grades, or being bad at sports, or… well, okay, it was pretty arbitrary who got beaten up for being ‘gay.’

The school placed a lot of emphasis on respect and “stomping out killer comments,” as one school poster campaign at the time put it, but even the good teachers only had ineffectual measures at their disposal for stopping the bullying. This was because the prevailing policy in American education at the time was that every child had a right to their ‘self-esteem’ and the children’s right to express themselves was paramount, even if it came at the expense of other children’s right to express themselves.

I believe it’s fallen out of fashion, but this self-esteem business is something that would make today’s conservative pundits and Republican politicians howl. “Your children are being persecuted by their peers for performing well in school!” I imagine them yelping in moral outrage. “And that’s exactly what the liberal conspiracy in America’s schools wants!” Well, it was a flower-power philosophy, and it was stupid, so this is one of those rare times I’d have to side with the conservatives.

Wait a minute though. Conservative politicians hate gays.* So diminutive homophobes punching gay children are actually the real American heroes in this year’s Republican primary. Well, too bad for the smart gay kids, at least the smart straight kids will catch a break if we get a Republican president, right?

“President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob. There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor to try to indoctrinate them. Oh, I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image.” — Rick Santorum, Americans for Prosperity rally, Feb. 25, 2012

“I understand why Barack Obama wants to send every kid to college, because of their indoctrination mills, absolutely. […] The indoctrination that is going on at the university level is a harm to our country.” — Rick Santorum, interview with Glenn Beck, Feb. 23, 2012

Conservative politicians hate gays and education! It was then that I realized the awful truth:

Republican politicians are what happens
when middle school bullies grow up.

*Of course not all conservative politicians hate gays. For example, I’m sure Mitt Romney is just pretending to hate them. Of course, what Romney’s homophobia lacks in sincerity, Santorum’s makes up for in oversincerity. What I mean when I say “conservative politicians hate gays” is “conservative politicians think that more voters want them to hate gays than not.”

Republican politician of tomorrow

Republican president of tomorrow. (Attribution: Diego Graz, licensed CC-BY.)

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Wisteria Hysteria

Dutch wireless disease? (By Yug, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Dutch wireless disease?

Faced with the prospect of funding cuts from the new anti-intellectual government (“We don’t pay you to think, Mister Scientist!”), apparently someone at Wageningen University’s PR office has decided their results need to make more waves.

The university’s press release on their website is unfortunately only in Dutch, but in it they say that while observing young ash trees growing for three months, close proximity to six wireless routers seemed to cause discoloration and death of leaves. They then go on to say [translation mine],

Although the effects were observed using various sources of radiation and various trees, the researchers think it desirable to repeat the experiment, preferably during a longer period and on a larger scale.

This is code for “Our results were not statistically significant,” which in layman’s terms means “It might or might not be true, but we proved jack.” Now this research has the potential for far-reaching consequences in our modern society that depends on wireless internet and other sorts of electromagnetic waves, and the subject is also a touchy one, about which many people have a strong opinion which is totally unsupported by facts.

Let me state here once and for all that I don’t know the facts either. I tend to start out skeptical of these “studies” because of all the nonsense floating around, but like any good skeptic, I am open to being convinced by sound science. Several serious mistakes indicate, however, that while the as yet unpublished research may be sound, the press release doesn’t even come close:

  • Mistake #1. Sending out a press release before the experiment was finished, apparently. What if this premature conclusion is disproved when the experiment is repeated over longer periods and with more trees, as the researchers say they need to do?
  • Mistake #2. Misrepresenting collaborating parties in the press release. Only the city of Alphen is mentioned in this version of the press release, at whose request (and presumably, on whose dime) the research was carried out. However, other news items also list Delft University and the independent research lab TNO as parties in the research. That indicates to me that they must have been mentioned in an earlier version of the press release. Turns out, TNO issued a statement on their website explicitly distancing themselves from the conclusions! Let me assure you, this does not happen lightly in science.
  • Mistake #3. Including numbers in the press release to inflate its importance, without explaining what they mean so that readers can understand.

Let me elaborate a little on Mistake #3, since numbers are important in this game. The exact words are [again, translation mine]:

…frequencies varying from 2412 to 2472 MHz, and a power of 100 mW EIRP at 50 cm distance.

So this just means that they used wireless routers, transmitting at 2.4 GHz, and placed them half a meter away from the trees. The frequency “variation” here means nothing. The researchers didn’t vary anything, those frequencies are just the standard channels used by 802.11b and 802.11g wireless. Why didn’t they test 5 GHz, which is also a common frequency used by wireless routers? Couldn’t they afford more than six routers?

I also had to look up the abbreviation EIRP, which stands for equivalent isotropically radiated power. This is too technical for me to get into in this post (although if you’re curious I’d be happy to explain it) which means it had no business being in a press release for the public. Also, it makes no sense to quote the EIRP in this case, so I’m guessing the PR office just got it off the side of the box the router came in. For nerds who know what I’m talking about, the power the tree is actually exposed to, depends not only on the distance to the source (and it falls off as 1/r²) but also on the surface the tree presents to the source!

The figure of 100 mW, besides being dubious, also means nothing to the average reader when taken out of context. Let me illustrate: a 100 mW green laser beam will blind you if you look into it. It might sting you if you stick your hand into it, and it might burn paper, all depending on how tightly it’s focused. But a regular 40-watt lightbulb, which radiates both light and heat, lights up your room nicely and harmlessly, despite radiating four hundred times as much power as the laser beam.

You stay the hell away from my baby, you internet tree-murderer! (By blaackhawk, freely reusable, from sxc.hu)

You stay the hell away from my baby, you internet tree-murderer!

All this has led to a spate of news articles with titles like “Wireless internet makes plants sick!” The irresponsibility exhibited here just astounds me. Hippies everywhere are going to don their tinfoil hats, and mobile phone users are going to be subjected to the kind of crusade that smokers have already had to face: “Put away that phone, you irresponsible jerk!” concerned mothers will scream at us. “Your secondhand radiation is giving my kid cancer!” Of course I’m exaggerating, but the damage is already done.

The worst example of this is Spits’ (a freely distributed newspaper, i.e. you get what you pay for) take on the article: you might as well stop reading when you see the giant radioactivity signs in the photo! Conflating ionizing nuclear radiation with non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation is pure fear-mongering, because they are as similar as Santa Claus and Parmesan cheese. If you do read beyond the photograph, bravely risking the loss of several IQ points, you see that Spits can’t even avoid contradicting themselves within the three-paragraph extent of the article! [translation mine.]

Whether radiation is really the cause of these phenomena, did not become clear in the study. […] In the study, the possibility that ultrafine particulates caused the phenomena was not ruled out. In any case, it is certain that the dead leaves and stunted growth were caused by radiation, according to the researchers.

The last sentence is also an outright lie, if I’m to believe the university’s press release. All because some PR monkey or fame-crazy researcher couldn’t wait for conclusive, publishable results and decided to fan the flames of the public’s fear instead. Sorry people, but when the results are not conclusive, that means the results are not conclusive. That’s the way science works. Suck it up and deal with it.

Fox News don’t know Jack Bleep

This travesty was brought to my attention: Freaky Physics Proves Parallel Universes Exist, a worse-than-amateurish piece of what I hesitate to call scientific journalism by Fox News. I won’t waste space on why I consider the article so terrible, since someone else has already heaped scorn upon it better than I could: The Worst Physics Article Ever. Besides, it’s Fox News, and by now it shouldn’t be a surprise that they just write down whatever the hell they feel like.

I want to draw your attention to something mentioned in the article that I find much more worrying and insidious: the name Fred Alan Wolf. Wolf is a former physicist, turned crackpot, and anytime you hear his name mentioned in connection with legitimate science, alarms should start going off inside your head.

I recognized him as one of the “experts” featured in What The Bleep Do We Know, a piece of pseudoscientific rubbish that basically asserts that quantum mechanics allows us to control our destiny by wishful thinking. Just to give you some background, it’s a propaganda film made and paid for by students of Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment. This hotbed of charlatans is led by one J. Z. Knight, a cigar-voiced medium from Washington who claims to channel a 35000-year-old warrior named Ramtha from the lost continent of Lemuria.

To be fair, not everyone interviewed in the movie is a fraud. For example, there’s Professor David Albert, who, according to this Salon.com article, spent hours on camera explaining why the film’s physics was utter nonsense, only to see his contribution spliced and edited so as to imply the exact opposite.

Fred Alan Wolf, on the other hand, was not misrepresented in the least. Wolf, whose stage name is Dr. Quantum, has been on the lecture circuit since the 1980’s promoting quantum wishful thinking, according to an interview on the What The Bleep website. This claptrap has been popularized more recently by Rhonda Byrne and cronies in the bestseller The Secret, and what do you know, Wolf also appeared in the film version of that.

As far as I’m concerned, Dr. Quantum has about as much to do with real, falsifiable science as the iPad has to do with blue cheese. One might ask why I care so much. Let me put it this way: if Fox News not giving a crap about proper science reporting is a slap in the face of my profession, then the thought of Fred Alan Wolf being any journalist’s go-to guy for quantum physics is a kick in the nads.

PS. If you’re interested in what was actually achieved in the experiment, hysterical claims of time travel aside, here is the original press release from UCSB. Or see Nature 464, pp. 697–703 (2010).

Train at my front door

Shopping downtown last Saturday I was accosted by someone handing out some sort of paper. Usually I avoid these people like a week-old sandwich, but before I could break eye contact and ignore her, she said the magic words “RijnGouweLijn.” I took one of the papers. It was a folded A3-size newsletter with some utterly forgettable but sharp-looking graphic design.

The RijnGouweLijn (English, Dutch), complete with asinine StudlyCaps, is a light rail system, not built yet, which is supposed to go from the city of Gouda, through Leiden, where I live, to the coast towns of Katwijk and Noordwijk. The part of the track I’m interested in was originally planned to go through Breestraat, where I live, down to Leiden Central Station, and stop at Leiden Bio Science Park, where I work, before continuing on to Katwijk. A train that picks me up at my front door, and lets me off again at work? Sign me up! I don’t even care that it won’t be completed until long after I’ve finished my PhD and will probably live and work somewhere else: I think it’s a good idea on its own, even without pandering to my laziness.

That’s because Breestraat is an utter mess. A large number of the bus routes in Leiden run over its entire length. Despite its name meaning “Broad Street,” it’s hardly wide enough for two buses to pass in opposite directions. Add to that supply trucks that serve the many shops located there, and after store hours it gets worse when cars are allowed in and start speeding through it. There’s only one(!) crosswalk with a traffic light, and nobody, not even pedestrians, pays any attention to it whatsoever. So buses are lining up and passing each other, cars are speeding, pedestrians are dashing across the road at arbitrary points, which means I pretty much take my life into my hands every time I ride my bicycle down the street. If they built train tracks there, they’d have to reroute the buses and hopefully reduce the number of them, since the light rail would now serve some of the bus passengers.

Alas, it was all a dream. The Leiden city government held a plebiscite in 2007 in which the populace voted against having the track pass through Leiden at all, but the county was overridden by the provincial government. To placate the citizens, who were understandably disgruntled at having their vote rejected out of hand, they agreed to reroute the proposed track so it didn’t pass through Breestraat anymore, nearly doubling the projected expense of the Leiden portion of the construction, from 50 million to 90 million euros. I can only imagine what a public relations nightmare this was for the city.

So who caused the most damage in this situation? The voters with their knee-jerk NIMBY reaction? The county government who abdicated their responsibility and decided to leave to voters the decision on the public transport improvements this city so desperately needs? The provincial government, who chickened out and agreed to spend 40 million extra when, as long as they were overriding the referendum anyway, they could have just done whatever the hell they wanted? I honestly don’t know.

All this happened before I even moved here. Why am I writing this now? That brings me back to the newsletter pressed into my eager paw last Saturday. I read it, but it’s a trite piece of gosh-don’t-y’all-think-we’re-just-the-absolute-greatest propaganda, paid for by the RijnGouweLijn Project Organization, a consortium of relevant parties. On the front page they even included a little dig at the referendum, with the sneering sentence “In Leiden, they’re also eager about [the plans], evidenced by the reactions from the Chamber of Commerce and Leiden Bio Science Park.” I may not think it was wise to vote against the plans, but it did occur to me (and you’d think it might occur to the copywriters) that this isn’t the best way to convince people to rally round the plans that are now being forced down their throats.

Of course this is going to be seized on in the upcoming city council elections. I’ve seen campaign posters for D66 (a social-liberal party advocating direct democracy) with the slogan “RGL — Didn’t you say no?” This takes things to a whole new level of irresponsibility, since as I understand it there isn’t anything the local government can do about it anymore. But then again, the Dutch government haven’t exactly distinguished themselves in responsible decisions this week, have they now?