Tuesday, June 27, 2006

My mother made me do it

On another blog, Janet D. Stemwedel gives her take on the news that sexuality may be determined in the womb. My reaction is somewhat different. I don't see something caused in the mother's womb as biological determination so much as environmental. It's certainly not genetic, as Andy Forrest from Stonewall, quoted in the BBC article, seems to think. The extension of this is that it's not impossible to foresee a time in the future when we will be able to advise pregnant women to eat certain things, or take certain pills, to reduce the risk of their child being born gay.

I'm not at all sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, there are disadvantages to being gay that most parents would want to spare their children: the discrimination and prejudice, the far narrower field of potential mates, the inability to have (or at least difficulty in having) genetic offspring. If it were a matter of taking a pill to reduce the risk of your child being born disabled or stupid, I can't see many parents refusing it – in fact, we already do it in the form of vitamin supplements and whatever it is the government is advising us to eat this week.

But what if it were a pill to reduce the risk of your child being born red-headed? Or, less obviously unacceptable, how about a pill to reduce the risk of your child being highly emotional? Emotional people (easily upset) can be put at great disadvantages in life too.

I don't agree that there's anything intrinsically wrong with saying that some states of being (such as being able to walk) are better than others (such as being paralysed), in the sense that the 'better' state is generally more enjoyable for the person concerned (not that the person in the 'better' state is intrinsically a 'better' person for it). But even with a continuum of characteristics with number of usable limbs at one end and hair color at the other, it's unclear where sexuality should come on the scale.

Misguided concepts of balance

A group of thirty leading paediatricians and vaccination experts have written an open letter calling for parents to allow their children to receive the MMR vaccination. (I can't find a copy of the letter itself, but it's widely reported throughout the news media.) They blame 'misguided concepts of balance' in the media for confusing people about the validity of the research that suggests a link to autism.

Done properly, the peer review system should work well at weeding out dodgy research. But it's a paradigm that's very unfamiliar to the mainstream media and to most of those who gain their information from it. 'Person B says that the thing Person A said last year was dangerous isn't so scary after all' isn't a very good headline. How can the reader weigh up the relative merits of the arguments in a very specialised field with a completely different worldview?

The reference to 'misguided concepts of balance' is, I assume, a suggestion that the normal 'two sides to every story' approach taken by the media is counterproductive in this case. It implies equal validity on both sides, and the writers of the letter believe that Dr Wakefield's research is invalid and should be treated in health reporting similarly to the way the BNP is treated in politics journalism. This seems sensible, given the large amount of research suggesting the vaccine is safe, but in a way I can see the point of the opposing argument. Are people not intelligent enough, do we not respect their independence enough, to let them look at the evidence themselves and make up their own minds?

Interestingly, though, the very BBC webpage publicising this story gives, under the 'related links' section, a link to JABS, a group which opposes the vaccine on the basis of Wakefield's evidence, but no site arguing the opposite view, or even a link to the full text of the letter. If it's an open letter, surely it can be republished?

Monday, June 26, 2006

Which comes first: the eagle, or the green energy?

I hadn't truly paid much credence to the idea that wind farms were a hazard to birdlife. But there seems to be evidence that a Norwegian wind farm has directly caused the death of a number of white-tailed eagles. So it seems we need to look to our priorities: is a charismatic, beautiful and evocative species more important than alternative sources of energy that will help stave off the greenhouse effect?

I think so, not because 'eagles' are 'pretty' (though they're certainly beautiful birds), nor because I believe in preserving the exact environmental status quo, but because if we forget why we're trying to save the environment then we've lost something in ourselves.

Monday, June 19, 2006


Japan have gained an initial victory in its attempt to restart commercial whaling. In a way I think this could be a good thing: my natural honesty is offended by what they do in the name of 'scientific research'. Perhaps we should call it commercial whaling, but keep the limits exactly where they are now.