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[FORUM] Do you think that human beings are too dumb for democracy?

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I heard the CBC Ideas documentary Too Dumb for Democracy on Thursday. Centered around the arguments of PhD student David Moscrop, the documentary’s thesis is that democracy isn’t perfectly compatible with the human being. Far from being perfectly rational individuals, human beings are actually substantially non-rational, and in politics we are prone to accepting claims and persons who aren’t good objectively simply because they or things they do appeal. (Rob Ford’s popularity was an example.) The argument was summarized at CBC.

“You would think that for high-involvement situations, like deciding on who to vote for, we should be creating spreadsheets of pros and cons and deliberately considering the pros and cons of candidates’ platforms,” says [neuroscientist Tanya] Chartrand.

But the truth is, most of us don’t.

Moscrop says that election campaigns are run on a presumption that voters’ political preferences are already formed.

A campaign, then, isn’t really about engaging citizens in a rigorous exchange of transformative ideas, but rather reaffirming people’s existing ideological biases and mobilizing citizens to vote for their respective camp.

If the goal of democracy is to engage in a rigorous exchange of ideas that results in a greater good for all citizens, one of the first things to do is downplay the role of television ads during election campaigns, says University of Toronto philosophy professor Joseph Heath.

“Reason resides in language and our ability to explicitly articulate how we get from point A to point B in an argument,” says Heath.

“If you’re trying to communicate through visual stimulation, it won’t encourage a rational appreciation of things, and that has a bunch of implications. Reason is very, very slow. Speed encourages gut reactions.”

What do you think?

Written by Randy McDonald

October 6, 2014 at 3:59 am

[LINK] Six links on Ebola in the United States and Canada, and on why people should not panic

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The CBC reported on the first discovery of a case of Ebola in the United States, in this case of someone of Liberian background in Texas who contracted the virus on a recent trip to his homeland.

Top health officials have confirmed the first case of Ebola diagnosed in the United States, saying a patient who recently travelled to Liberia has the disease and is being treated in isolation at a Texas hospital.

[. . .]

Edward Goodman, an epidemiologist at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, said Tuesday the patient is ill and being seen by “highly trained, competent specialists” under intensive care.

[. . .]

According to Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the patient left Liberia on Sept. 19 and arrived in the U.S. the next day.

Ebola symptoms can include fever, muscle pain, vomiting and bleeding, and can appear as long as 21 days after exposure to the virus. The disease is not contagious until symptoms begin, and it takes close contact with bodily fluids to spread.

The patient had “no symptoms” when leaving Liberia or entering the U.S., but began to develop symptoms around Sept. 24. Two days later the patient sought care, Frieden said, and was admitted to hospital on Sunday.

National Geographic went into more detail, mentioning that the patient was initially released from hospital when he first appeared.

The patient had recently arrived in the U.S. from Liberia and was confirmed to be infected on Tuesday. He reportedly told officials at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital of his recent travels when he went to an emergency department for care last week. He was sent home but was readmitted on Sunday, much sicker.

[. . .]

It’s hard to identify Ebola in its early stages because the initial symptoms of the disease—fever, diarrhea, vomiting, and aches—are the same as for many other illnesses, including malaria, which is also common in West Africa.

That’s why the Dallas patient was able to leave Liberia on September 19 without any indication that he would soon be ravaged by Ebola. The West African nations where the virus is raging are supposed to test outgoing passengers for fever, to make sure that no one with Ebola symptoms gets on a plane and spreads the disease.

[. . .]

The people who came into close contact with the Dallas patient while he was sick, from September 24 until he was isolated in a hospital room on September 28, are at risk for the virus.

Public health officials are tracking 12 to 18 people in Dallas who had contact with the patient, including 5 children who have been asked to stay home from school. Medical personnel plan to check their temperature twice a day and to look out for other symptoms.

Wired suggested panic about a general spread in the United States was unwarranted.

There is little risk of the disease spreading widely in the U.S., Frieden said. Unlike highly contagious airborne pathogens like influenza, the Ebola virus requires contact with bodily fluids such as urine, saliva, feces, vomit, or semen to be transmitted. The risk is highest for people in direct contact with patients—typically healthcare workers and family members. In Africa, the lack of treatment centers and supplies has hampered efforts to contain the virus. But in the U.S., hospitals are better stocked and have better isolation facilities. In addition, public health officials have well-tested strategies to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. “This kind of contact tracing is core public health, it’s what we do day in and day out,” Frieden said.

[. . .]

The patient came to the U.S. to visit family members who are citizens and was not known to be participating in any aid efforts for Ebola patients in Liberia before coming here, Frieden said. The patient left Liberia on a plane the 19th, arrived in the U.S. on the 20th, and became symptomatic on the 24th or 25th, Frieden said. The patient sought medical care on the 26th, but was not admitted to the hospital until the 28th. Asked about that discrepancy, Frieden noted that the symptoms of Ebola, which include fever, severe headache, and muscle pain overlap with symptoms of many other infections. He added that the CDC is urging physicians to ask patients with these symptoms about their travel history.

“It is certainly possible that someone who had contact with this individual, a family member or other individual, could develop Ebola in coming weeks, but there is no doubt in my mind we will stop it there,” Frieden said.

National Geographic also noted that hospitals had been preparing to handle Ebola cases for some time.

American hospitals have been preparing since midsummer for the possibility of having to care for an Ebola patient, but Tuesday’s news took the development out of the theoretical realm. Since then, there have been 12 false alarms—patients suspected of having Ebola who did not have the disease, the CDC said.

“It was virtual before,” said Belinda Ostrowsky, an infectious disease expert at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. “Now it’s happened, so it just makes us that much more vigilant.”

The CDC has been advising hospitals for several months to prepare for patients with Ebola, though each hospital is preparing slightly differently.

At Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, staff ran a drill last week to prepare for possible patients, according to the hospital’s epidemiologist, Edward Goodman.

At Montefiore, signs in the emergency department ask patients to let caregivers know if they’ve recently traveled to the West African nations of Liberia, Sierra Leone, or Guinea.

MacLean’s noted that Canada is also preparing.

Canada is considering placing doses of an experimental Ebola vaccine in hospitals around the country that have been designated to treat Ebola cases if any arrive in the country, the new chief public health officer said Wednesday.

Dr. Gregory Taylor said having vaccine at the ready means it could be used if health-care workers treating Ebola patients had risky exposures.

“We’re considering prepositioning some of that at receiving hospitals across the country who may be looking after Ebola patients. This is for the health-care workers,” Taylor said during a news conference held in Banff, Alta., where the federal, provincial and territorial health ministers met Wednesday.

Taylor said that includes the Ontario hospital that has been designated to care for Canadian responders if any become infected in the Ebola zone and are transferred back to Canada for care. He did not mention the hospital by name, but it is Toronto Western.

To date, that need has not arisen.

Scientific American, meanwhile, noted that because of the nature of the virus and the way it spreads, it is very unlikely that Ebola will become airborne.

Here is what it would take for it to become a real airborne risk: First off, a substantial amount of Ebola virus would need to start replicating in cells that reside in the throat, the bronchial tubes and possibly in the lungs. Second, the airborne method would have to be so much more efficient than the current extremely efficient means of transmission that it would overcome any genetic costs to the virus stemming from the mutation itself. Substantial natural hurdles make it unlikely that either event will occur.

Currently, Ebola typically gains entry into the body through breaks in the skin, the watery fluid around the eye or the moist tissues of the nose or mouth. Then it infects various cells of the immune system, which it tricks into making more copies of itself. The end result: a massive attack on the blood vessels, not the respiratory system.

Even viruses that are well adapted to attacking the respiratory system often have a hard time getting transmitted through the airways. Consider the experience so far with avian flu, which is easily transmitted through the air in birds but hasn’t yet mutated to become easily spreadable in that fashion among people.

What’s the hold-up? “The difficulty is that those [flu] viruses don’t have the protein attachments that can actually attach to cells in the upper airway. They have to develop attachments to do that,” Schaffner says. So even if a virus were exhaled, it would need to lodge onto something in another person’s cells that are already prepared for it in the upper airway. “Since the virus doesn’t have attachment factors that can work in the upper airway, it’s very rare for it to go human to human, and then it almost always stops and doesn’t get to a third person,” Schaffner notes. Similarly for Ebola, the virus would have to develop attachments that would allow it to easily attach receptors in the upper respiratory pathway—something that neither it (nor any of its viral cousins) has been known to do in the wild.

And yet Ebola already spreads very easily without such mutations. The delicate lock-and-key protein–virus fit required for the virus to successfully latch onto and replicate in the airway has not developed because there is no evolutionary pressure for it to do so; it simply would not be an efficient option. Epidemiologists can take some comfort in that.

Written by Randy McDonald

October 2, 2014 at 8:45 pm

[LINK] “Underwater Victory Squeals Signal a Job Well Done”

Wired‘s Mary Bates notes new evidence for a high level of intelligence among cetaceans: they celebrate with speech acts.

Sam Ridgway first noticed the sounds he would come to call ‘victory squeals’ in 1963. When three new dolphins arrived at his research facility, an engineer placed underwater microphones in their pool. As the researchers tossed in mackerel for these animals who had not eaten in 36 hours, Ridgway noticed that each dolphin gave a squeal as it seized a fish.

In the over fifty years since that day, Ridgway has heard this sound thousands of times. In echolocation circles, the sound is known as a feeding buzz. Like bats, dolphins and some other cetaceans use echolocation to find their prey. As they close in on a food item, the animals emit more rapid pulses. After a cetacean catches a fish, the clicking becomes so fast that it sounds like a squeal to human ears.

Ridgway, however, thought this squeal indicated more than just the capture of a fish. Unlike bats, cetaceans continue the feeding buzz after they have captured their prey, suggesting the sound may also have emotional content.

“When we train dolphins and belugas, we reward them with fish for correct responses,” Ridgway says. The trainers whistle after the animal performs the correct response, a sound that indicates to the animal that it will get a fish reward. Ridgway and his colleagues were surprised to notice that dolphins and belugas gave the squeal not only after receiving their fish, but after the whistle, as well.

Ridgway started calling this sound a victory squeal after an experiment in the 1960s with a dolphin named Tuffy. To see how deep Tuffy could dive, Ridgway and his colleagues set up a task in which the dolphin had to dive to the bottom of the ocean to turn off a tone by flipping a switch. “Each time the sound went off, the animal would squeal,” Ridgway says. “When he accomplished the deep dive, it certainly seemed to us to be a victory.” On hearing the squeal, Ridgway’s wife Jeanette said it reminded her of a child’s squeal of delight; hence, the victory squeal.

Written by Randy McDonald

September 23, 2014 at 7:52 pm

[LINK] “The Mathematics of Ebola Trigger Stark Warnings: Act Now or Regret It”

Terrible news about the prospects for Ebola in West Africa, as reported by Wired‘s Maryn McKenna.

The Ebola epidemic in Africa has continued to expand since I last wrote about it, and as of a week ago, has accounted for more than 4,200 cases and 2,200 deaths in five countries: Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone. That is extraordinary: Since the virus was discovered, no Ebola outbreak’s toll has risen above several hundred cases. This now truly is a type of epidemic that the world has never seen before. In light of that, several articles were published recently that are very worth reading.

The most arresting is a piece published last week in the journal Eurosurveillance, which is the peer-reviewed publication of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (the EU’s Stockholm-based version of the US CDC). The piece is an attempt to assess mathematically how the epidemic is growing, by using case reports to determine the “reproductive number.” (Note for non-epidemiology geeks: The basic reproductive number — usually shorted to R0 or “R-nought” — expresses how many cases of disease are likely to be caused by any one infected person. An R0 of less than 1 means an outbreak will die out; an R0 of more than 1 means an outbreak can be expected to increase. If you saw the movie Contagion, this is what Kate Winslet stood up and wrote on a whiteboard early in the film.)

The Eurosurveillance paper, by two researchers from the University of Tokyo and Arizona State University, attempts to derive what the reproductive rate has been in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. (Note for actual epidemiology geeks: The calculation is for the effective reproductive number, pegged to a point in time, hence actually Rt.) They come up with an R of at least 1, and in some cases 2; that is, at certain points, sick persons have caused disease in two others.

You can see how that could quickly get out of hand, and in fact, that is what the researchers predict. Here is their stop-you-in-your-tracks assessment:

In a worst-case hypothetical scenario, should the outbreak continue with recent trends, the case burden could gain an additional 77,181 to 277,124 cases by the end of 2014.

The Eurosurveillance paper is here.

Written by Randy McDonald

September 19, 2014 at 7:49 pm

[LINK] “Japan to Resume Whaling Next Year, Defying International Whaling Commission”

Oh, Japan. From National Geographic News:

Japan announced Thursday that it will restart its scientific whaling program next year in response to a new resolution adopted by the International Whaling Commission placing stricter regulations on scientific whaling.

This new nonbinding resolution—proposed by New Zealand—adopts the criteria used by the UN’s International Court of Justice earlier this year when it ruled that Japan’s current whaling program was not scientific.

The new guidelines establish criteria for the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) scientific committee to consider when it reviews whaling plans submitted by member countries. The criteria include consideration of whether a program needs to lethally sample whales to obtain data, how many whales a scientific program will take, and whether the number to be taken is justified.

At this week’s IWC meeting, Japan’s representatives stated the country’s intention to revamp its scientific program based on “international law and scientific evidence.” They planned to submit their proposed program to the IWC’s scientific committee this fall, with the aim of conducting scientific whaling next year.

If Japan were to abide by the new regulations, the country would have to submit a plan to the scientific committee next year, delaying the start of its whaling activities until 2016, says Leigh Henry, a senior policy adviser for wildlife conservation with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Washington, D.C.

Written by Randy McDonald

September 19, 2014 at 7:42 pm

[LINK] “Radiation Blast Delays NASA Spacecraft’s Arrival At Dwarf Planet Ceres”

Universe Today’s Elizabeth Howell notes that NASA space probe Dawn will be delayed in arriving at dwarf planet Ceres by a month. All seems well otherwise, thankfully.

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft experienced technical problems in the past week that will force it to arrive at dwarf planet Ceres one month later than planned, the agency said in a statement yesterday (Sept. 16).

Controllers discovered Dawn was in safe mode Sept. 11 after radiation disabled its ion engine, which uses electrical fields to “push” the spacecraft along. The radiation stopped all engine thrusting activities. The thrusting resumed Monday (Sept. 15) after controllers identified and fixed the problem, but then they found another anomaly troubling the spacecraft.

Dawn’s main antenna was also disabled, forcing the spacecraft to send signals to Earth (a 53-minute roundtrip by light speed) through a weaker secondary antenna and slowing communications. The cause of this problem hasn’t been figured out yet, but controllers suspect radiation affected the computer’s software. A computer reset has solved the issue, NASA added. The spacecraft is now functioning normally.

Written by Randy McDonald

September 18, 2014 at 1:57 am

Posted in Science

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[NEWS] Some Tuesday links

  • Al Jazeera notes the breakdown of the Libyan state.
  • Bloomberg mentions Finland’s new interest in NATO, notes European Union plans to strengthen sanctions against Russia, takes note of China’s vetoing of democracy in Hong Kong and looks at China’s strengthening of its South China Sea holdings, and in West Africa notes the unburied bodies in the street in countries hit by Ebola and observes the apparent spread of the epidemic to Senegal.
  • Bloomberg View observes how the crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong is alienating Taiwan, notes that Scotland may secure its future in the European Union by leaving a United Kingdom hoping to leave, looks at the frightening military theories of Russia, considers whether taxation may spur corporate consumption in Korea, wonders if France’s Hollande can pull off Mitterand’s turn to the right, examines secular stagnation, considers the issues of Macau, and warns Israel about economic issues ahead.
  • CBC looks at how walking bichir fish may explain how vertebrates moved onto the land, notes that Canadian federal government roundtables on the sex trade aren’t inviting sex workers, and notes that convicted serial killer Russell Williams has settled lawsuits made by some victims and their families.
  • Defense One notes that the Islamic State controls mainly areas around roads (but then, the roads are usually the areas that are controlled).
  • The Inter Press Service examines the settlement of Somalian refugees in Istanbul, considers the future of Ukrainian agriculture, looks at the spread of jihadi sentiments in Tajikistan, points out that the United States and Brazil will soon improve genetically engineered trees, examines anti-gay persecution in Lebanon, and looks at the legacies of the balsero migration from Cuba 20 years later.
  • National Geographic examines the positions of Yazidis in northern Iraq versus the Islamic State, notes the mobilizatin of Assyrian Christian refugees in the same region, and notes that more trees in the mountains of California means less run-off.
  • Open Democracy notes the precedents for Russian policy in Ukraine two decades earlier in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and provides a critical tourist’s perspective on Belarus.
  • Universe Today notes an ancient star that preserves legacies of the first generation of stars to form, and observes the preparation for the landing of the Philae probe on the surface of its comet.
  • Wired examines sriracha and maps where future roads should be placed.

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