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Posts Tagged ‘Saturday Stub’

Saturday Stub: Maybe Humans and Neanderthals Didn’t…you know…

Posted by Ethan Clow on August 18, 2012

So I’m doing Saturday Stub’s again. For a refresher, this is where I take a small item and write a bit about, not too much since it’s Saturday, but enough to get you thinking.

A while back there was an interesting news story that hinted that perhaps, long ago, our human ancestors interbreed with Neanderthals.

It was not something completely out of the question. Early humans were living areas where there were lots of Neanderthals. The question of course is how much interbreeding and what was the outcome? Not just in biological terms either. What did this mean when it came to human-Neanderthal diplomacy (if I can use that word) Because early humans were sharing space with these folk, it’s likely they were also competing for resources, shelter, and everything else. Did humans and Neanderthals try setting aside their tribalism and interbreeding was the result? Or was this the result of widespread contact that was not always consenting?

But here’s a news story suggesting that the initial idea might not even be true. Quote from The Guardian:

“When scientists discovered a few years ago that modern humans shared swaths of DNA with long-extinct Neanderthals, their best explanation was that at some point the two species must have interbred.

Now a study by scientists at the University of Cambridge has questioned this conclusion, hypothesising instead that the DNA overlap is a remnant of a common ancestor of both Neanderthals and modern humans.”

Basically it comes down to 4% of our genetic link to Neanderthals. One explanation for this connection that most people who lived outside of Africa had, was that their ancestors who left Africa in the past, interbreed with Neanderthals and the native African population, descended from people who didn’t leave the continent never interbreed and thus don’t that that shared 4% of DNA.

Scientists Andrea Manica and Anders Eriksson are suggesting that the so-called 4% is an over-estimation. Further, they suggest that it can be explained as an indicator of a common ancestor that humans and Neanderthals shared about 500,000 years ago.

So what about the fact that Africans don’t share the 4 (or less) percentage of DNA? Manica and Eriksson say that we need to take into account “substructuring” which is the variation of genetics among populations that are not homogeneous or well mixed, as Manica and Eriksson claim African populations were like during the time period in question.

A link to the actual study can be found here.

The folks championing the interbreeding hypothesis, aren’t taking this laying down either (no pun intended) Professor Svante Pääbo, who sequenced the Neanderthal genome, is quoted as saying that Manica and Eriksson’s hypothesis was viewed as “a less parsimonious explanation.”

Pääbo has a paper awaiting peer review that he believes will further support his conclusions.

I eagerly await more human-Neanderthal intrigue.


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Saturday Stub: And Another Thing That Bugs Me…

Posted by Ethan Clow on February 4, 2012

While we’re on the subject.

The other day was waiting for a bus in Vancouver. It was a typical day, the sun was out, it was still cold but it was one of those brisk late winter days where the sun is shining and people were in a good mood. I was waiting for a bus and quietly trying to think of a more efficient bus system that I could give to Translink because this particular bus is/was always late.

Anyway, there I’m standing, watching the cars drive past and people walk about when I see this shiny little black car pull up next to the bus stop. I glance over and notice something curious on the side of the door. On the door it has a logo with the slogan “Stop Religious Violence”

Well, that got my attention!

I took a step towards it and that’s when the freaking bus decides to show up.

Quickly, since the bus is already pulling up, I pull out my phone and queue up the camera app and take a quick picture of the car, hoping there’s website or something to follow up on. However, I didn’t catch it. The bus had arrived and people were hustling on and I had no time to run over and chat with the driver of this awesome car.

I did snap this picture as I was getting on the bus. The top part reads “My Spiritual Leader Licks my Face” and below that is the slogan “Stop Religious” The license plate reads “Evolv”

I was kicking myself because I really wanted to ask the driver about his car, I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t just some decoration he put on their but was actually some sort of advertising for either a website or organization. At least, I think it was. The web address doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Perhaps the site hasn’t been created yet or it’s just temporarily down. I also found this comment thread on Reddit with a picture of the same car.

If anyone knows this fellow or his car give me a shout. I’d like to invite him to a skeptics in the pub one night.

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Saturday Stub: What Day/Month/Year is it? Whatever…

Posted by Ethan Clow on December 31, 2011

So loyal readers/listeners of this site might have noticed an alarming* drop off in the number of witty, sarcastic, and sometimes angry posts by me the past few weeks.
*Depending on how seriously my opinions are for you.
The last couple weeks have been extra-ordinary for me in that I’ve been busy with a whole bunch of projects. Everything from starting a new job to working on an upcoming talk (see my skeptical highlight in the show notes for episode 146) and of course the weekly going on’s for Radio Freethinker. All this stuff combined to keep me very occupied.

Nevertheless, I’m here now to provide you with your skeptical Saturday fix.

You might have noticed that the year 2011 is coming to an end. In a few days the year will roll over to 2012 and according to some people, that’s all we get. For some people, this transition from one year to the next is a time for celebration, alcohol consumption and general revelry. For others it’s a time to face palm over the celebration of an arbitrary number change.

As a historian, people sometimes ask me about the origins of this arbitrary and somewhat unnecessary date roll over. Why do we celebrate it? What are its origins? and what does original meaning has been lost  in today’s drunken pub crawl?

The problem with these questions is that they pre-assume that history flows in this rather orderly, cause and effect, narrative where things have clear and defined origins and reasons for coming into existence. But this is a rather incorrect, or at least, difficult view on how meme’s and ideas travel through history. It’s not a straight line but rather this wibbly wobbly timey wimey…stuff.

And the history of the calendar is no different. So when I came across this video explaining how our calendar actually works, I was very impressed! Take a look:

Pretty neat eh?

See, we like to assume that at some point someone sat down and said “Okay, what we need here is a logical progression of measurements for time so that our society can function properly.” But this isn’t how things went down. Instead what we get is a hodgepodge of different memes and ideas, smushed together in odd ways, accounting for the influence of dozens of cultures and traditions so varied and hidden by the ages that we may never know the true meaning and history.

There are lots of instances of such a thing happening throughout time. Take for example the French number system. When Napoleon took power, he decided to change the system. So the current system of numbers in France is a strange combination of pre-Napoleon counting and post-Napoleon that continues to frustrate students learning French to this day.

Likewise, many skeptics might bristle at the Christ in Christmas but let’s not forget the Thor in Thursday or Mars in March.

Religious terms aside, few of us feel any cognitive dissonance over calling ourselves atheists and using the word “Thursday” to refer to Thursday. In time, we may also look back on the word Christmas and not immediately assume the Christ has a religious connotation.

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Saturday Stub: More Crimes for the Catholic Church to Answer

Posted by Ethan Clow on December 17, 2011

It’s becoming an obscene statement to publicly hope that the Catholic Church won’t be found mired in some sexual abuse scandal, given the recent revelations from victims all over the world. What is rapidly becoming clear, is that the institution of the Catholic Church is like some hideous onion, each layer you remove, you find some new hideous example of abuse.

Such is the case in the Netherlands. The BBC has the story that after a commission set up in August of 2010, it has been revealed that there was widespread abuse taking place in religious institutions. The report estimates that 10,000-20,000 minors’ were abused in the care of Catholic institutions between 1945 and 1981.

The commission looked into eighteen hundred cases of abuse and identified nearly eight-hundred abusers, of which, nearly one-hundred are still alive today.

A few key points are asserted by this commission:

  • The abuse was known in the Catholic hierarchy and appropriate actions were not taken.
  • 1 in 10 Dutch children were said to be abused, and that number rises to 1 in 5 if those children attended a religious institution.
  • The abuse was not limited to Catholic organizations either, other religious groups had abuse scandals as well.

To quote from the article:

Bert Smeets, an abuse victim who attended the presentation of the report, said it did not go far enough in detailing precisely exactly what happened.

“What was happening was sexual abuse, violence, spiritual terror, and that should have been investigated,” Mr Smeets told the Associated Press news agency. “It remains vague. All sorts of things happened but nobody knows exactly what or by whom. This way, they avoid responsibility.” – source

Some day the Pope, Ratzinger, will find himself in the Netherlands, but not to apologize to victims, which is appears to be the Catholic way of dealing with the problem; but rather to face the criminal charges for crimes against humanity at The Hague. I hope.

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Saturday Stub: Hungary Outlaws Homeless

Posted by Ethan Clow on December 3, 2011

When I first saw this headline I was impressed. Oh wow. Hungary has outlawed homelessness, how interesting! But then I read it a bit more carefully. Hungary has outlawed homeless people. Ah, that makes less sense.

In an article reported here by the BBC, the Hungarian parliament overwhelmingly passed this new law that makes it a criminal offence to be caught sleeping in the streets. There’s no mention if other public sleeping is now illegal. I’ve seen people here in Vancouver fall asleep on the bus. What about a warm day in the park or on the beach? Do you need to carry around your deed to your house to avoid getting punished by this law?

If you’re caught sleeping on the street, you receive a warning first, further rule-breaking will net you a fine ($600 [£384]) or prison.

This might seem like a dumb question. But where would a homeless person get $600? This reminds me of a real stupid law that Vancouver had a decade or so ago (I think its gone now) where if you were caught washing car windows for change, you could be fined large sums of money. This is one of those catch-22 laws that lead the victim into an endless cycle of “I need the money for X so I need to do Y, but Y is illegal and I get a fine, so I need to get money for the fine so I do Y” and so on and so on.

Budapest, capital of Hungary, is said to have a homeless population of 10,000 people. So what exactly does this law do to reduce that number? Well, obviously it doesn’t. It just moves these people to a different area, prison. Rather than finding ways to help these people, they’ll just be sent to prison, out of sight, out of mind.

This is also another example of irrational thinking when it comes to making laws. Instead of trying to address the problem of homelessness, they make a law that hurts homeless people. Of course the reason they didn’t make a law outlawing homelessness is because such a law puts the burden of applying it on the government and community, instead they have a law here that puts the burden of blame on the homeless people. Instead of having a law that cast the shadow of “we failed to account for the safety and security of our citizens” on the community and country, they have created one which puts the homeless person at fault; “its their fault they don’t have a home, if only they worked harder”


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Saturday Stub: Things have finally gotten better for Female Royalty

Posted by Ethan Clow on October 29, 2011

For today’s Saturday Stub, I submit to you that it has finally gotten better for women in the British Royal Family. I guess there was an Occupy Buckingham Palace.  This story is pretty straight forward. Basically, the nations that still accept the monarchy have scrapped the law of primogeniture from the rule book. What that means is that a girl is now eligible to be considered “first in line” for Queen. Prior to this, if the current royals had a girl had been first, she would not be the immediate heir, rather a younger brother would have been the heir (despite being born second or third or however many times it took)

So whew. It’s nice to see that will all the other issues going on in the world, we’ve finally sorted out the monarchy.

I actually rather like the opening line of the New York Times piece linked to above.

“The 16 countries that recognize the British monarch as head of state struck a historic blow for women’s rights on Friday, abolishing male precedence in the order of succession to the throne.” – New York Times

Seriously? A blow for women’s rights? Are you allowed to say that about the monarchy? A system so out dated and opposed to “rights” as any other political organization. Okay, okay, its a little less discriminating against girls… girls who have to be born into the monarchy in the first place. Calling this a blow for women’s rights is something of a massive overstatement.

In addition to changing the rules of succession, the British monarch will no longer be forbidden to marry a Catholic. Yes, prior to this, British monarchs were not allowed to marry Catholics. This goes back to when Henry the VIII broke from Rome and took control of the Church in England. So now that the Royals are free to marry Catholic royals and their daughters can become queen, I suppose that means everything about the monarchy is now fair and just. Not so fast!

A British royal can marry a Catholic and their daughter can become queen, but there is no way she can become queen if she’s Catholic! That’s right! The head of the Anglican Church is British monarch. And how can a Catholic be the head of the Anglican church??

I very much look forward to Canada having a revolution.

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Saturday Stub: Climate Change Skeptics Won’t Change their Minds

Posted by Ethan Clow on October 22, 2011

For this week’s Saturday Stub, I’d like to point your attention to this story. It’s about a new study on climate change and not surprisingly, supports the assertion that climate change is happening that its human caused.  So why is this any different from the rest of the body of work that establishes the reality of global climate change?

Well, this study was funded by climate change skeptics.

Conducted by the Berkeley Earth Project, this independent (i.e no government funds or direction) non-profit (funded by donors with the largest single donation $150,000 coming from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, noted multi-million dollar supporter of climate change skepticism) open source (meaning the information is available to anyone and everyone to check) study uses more data streams than any previous study ( including Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa), and the Met Office’s Hadley Centre, with the University of East Anglia, in the UK) and finally it focuses on direct criticisms of  global warming skeptics. In short, this study should be considered one of the best case scenarios for climate skeptics.

The study hasn’t been peer-reviewed yet, however it is publicly available for anyone to look at.

The big question here is whether climate skeptics will look at the evidence and come around in their thinking. In fact that’s the whole point of this project. Peter Cox, professor of climate system dynamics at Exeter University was quoted as saying:

“These studies seem to confirm the global warming estimated from the existing datasets, which is pleasing but not exactly a surprise to those of us who know how carefully the existing datasets are put together. It is surprising, however, that the authors believe that this news is so significant that they can’t wait for peer review, especially when their conclusions aren’t exactly revolutionary.”

Of course this study doesn’t bring much new information to the already robust scientific consensus, rather the goal appears to be specifically to give climate change skeptics exactly the kind of study they’ve always wanted, essentially calling their bluff, are you skeptics or deniers? You claim to be skeptics so here’s a pile of evidence that you funded, are you going to re-examine your claims or just ignore the science and act like deniers?

Would it be pessimistic of me to say: let the hand wringing and moving the goal posts begin!

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Saturday Stub: Getting Political with David Letterman

Posted by Ethan Clow on October 15, 2011

For this week’s Saturday Stub I thought I post a couple clips from recent episodes of the Late Show with David Letterman. Why would I do that? Well, recently Dave had on as his guest former President Bill Clinton and the next night the host of the O’Reilly Factor, Bill O’Reilly.

Now I don’t normally dive into the arena of politics or political science (except for the few times I do) but I was rather intrigued by situation of Letterman interviewing Clinton and O’Reilly consecutively. Obviously O’Reilly is known in most circles as a right-wing pundit with more attitude than facts, generally you don’t go on his show for informed debate, usually its to get yelled at by O’Reilly and called a “pinhead.” Nevertheless, I’m always intrigued to see him outside his comfort zone. And I can’t imagine the Late Show is his comfort zone, on a previous appearance, Letterman suggested he was full of shit (paraphrasing)

Not to come across as some Clinton cheerleader either, I have major objections to his politics and I’m often surprised by how frequently he touts his “accomplishments” when he was President, really makes it sound like he’s campaigning for re-election. Nevertheless, here we have two spokespeople on either side of the political spectrum in American and Letterman asks them both some interesting questions about the Occupy Wall Street protests among other things. Have a look:

President Clinton on Dave Letterman Oct. 12 2011 Part 1

President Clinton on Dave Letterman Oct. 12 2011 Part 2


Now take a look at O’Reilly:

Part 2 of O’Reilly on Letterman Oct. 13 2011


And if you’re wondering, no I haven’t read O’Reilly’ book. I did however glance at it the other day in the book store. I noticed a few things right off the bat, first, O’Reilly’ name is a whole lot bigger than the other author. I flipped through it quickly and read a few lines, would you be surprised if I said a few red flags came up? Okay, honestly its not as bad as you might expect. Basically its more of a personal taste thing. But the book begins with a fictional narrative of Lincoln. What I mean by that is it has one of those… “Lincoln felt cold and anxious and slowly rubbed his temples as he contemplated…”  one of those narratives. I assume that’s only at the beginning. Nevertheless I’ve always disliked it when writers do that. It can really give the subject a voice or impression that isn’t accurate and really colour the rest of the book with a bias that may or may not be correct.

Anyway, perhaps I’ll borrow a copy from the library some time.

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Saturday Stub: Anti-Vaccination in South Park

Posted by Ethan Clow on October 8, 2011

Welcome to another Saturday Stub, where I take something interesting and talk about it…yah yah yah. You know the rest.

This late edition to Saturday comes from a recent episode of the frequently obscene cartoon South Park, the show recently aired its 15th season midseason premiere episode entitled “Ass Burgers” (this might be a good time to say that this Saturday Stub will probably contain spoilers for the midseason premiere of South Park. Boy, that’s a sentence I never thought I’d write. Oh and some of the humour in South Park isn’t for everyone…so language and content warning.)

The episode is the second part’er of the episode “You’re Getting Old” in which one of the boys, Stan discovers he’s becoming a cynical jerk. Much to his horror, the music he used to like, the movies and TV shows he used to like are now being perceived as shit. Literally, he hears fart noises in his music and sees pieces of shit in movie trailers… anyway. The episode ends on somewhat serious note as it appears that the series might be coming to a close as the main character loses his friends and no longer is interested in the juvenile humour of his youth, which is also something of an double joke as well since South Park is also an example of crass humour.


Anyway as we pick things up in “Ass Burgers” Stan is still depressed and cynical. As he arrives at the bus stop for school, his now estranged friends are complaining about getting the HPV Vaccine. Unaware that the vaccine is only for girls, the boys start arguing over about why the government is forcing them to get vaccinated so they “don’t get warts in their vagina’s” (quoting the show) One of them explains that some people think getting vaccines causes autism and aspergers which they of course think is spelled “ass burgers.”

I initially thought that was going to be the point of the episode, South Park is known for their rather ruthless skewering of pop culture memes and such, which had me momentarily concerned they might be on the side of the anti-vaxers. However I was wrong on both counts. The episode, it turns out, only used this anti-vaccination material as jumping board for the rest of the story.

Basically, the boys go to school while still debating the vaccine issue until at school Stan has an emotional outburst telling them all to shut up. He’s sent to the counselors office where he’s mistakenly diagnosed with aspergers syndrome because he was given a flu shot last year. This leads to short portion where Stan’s parents claim he was given aspergers because the government “forced vaccinations” on the children and President Obama signs a bill (called Stan’s bill) ending mandated vaccinations for school children. I thought this is where they might satirize the anti-vaxers by having epidemics break out or something but actually this plot point pretty much ends.

I’m not sure but I think they are lampooning the anti-vaxers (I could be wrong, its somewhat subjective) but there is a line where Stan’s dad gives a press conference where he says “and then the government comes along and with one shot, turns your child into a mentally incapacitated freak!” This could be spoofing the extremely negative way anti-vaxers claimed autistic children were “damaged” or “broken.” (See Paul Offit’s book Autism’s False Prophets)

Like I said, this plot point is abandoned after this and the show goes on into a typical South Park direction with more fart jokes and a odd Matrix spoof.

So I’m a little conflicted about this. On the one hand, I think they were mocking the anti-vax movement. But they never really made it clear that the anti-vax movement is full of shit (to use language from the show) The problem with just including it without a debunking or major ridicule, is they add to the zeitgeist or popular culture another voice (even a crude one) that vaccines are linked with autism. It’s not very reasusring to believe, but little anecdotes like this in pop culture seem to have a powerful effect on people.  It just becomes one more “source” people remember when they think of vaccines and autism. It’s not like they cite South Park as a reliable source of information but it enters the memory as just another “hit” for the scientifically implausible connection between vaccines and autism.

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Saturday Stub: Not Catholic Enough for Canada

Posted by Ethan Clow on September 24, 2011

Welcome to another Saturday Stub, where I take some bit of interesting something and present here for you all to enjoy and consider, at least for a little while, this is Saturday after all.

Earlier in the week I came across this story in the National Post: Name Mary’s mother, and other tests of a refugee claim.

Needless to say, this caught my eye.

So what is the story about? Basically, a refugee from China, a Mr. Mao Qin Wang, fled to Canada because he was being persecuted for his religious beliefs in China. According to the article:

“Mr. Wang, 26, says he turned to religion after his father was seriously injured in an accident and a friendly Catholic said he was praying for him. When his father improved, he started attending his friend’s underground church in 2007, he says.”

However the Chinese government shut down his church, calling it an illegal religious establishment. They soon came after him as well and so Mr. Wang decided to flee the country. After paying a smuggler $30,000 to get into Canada, he filed for refugee status saying he would face “arrest, jail and maltreatment because of his religious beliefs if returned to China.”

The next step was for Mr. Wang to prove he was Catholic enough. After all, we here in Canada can’t just open the flood gates to everyone feeling religious persecution, you need to prove that you’re really as religious as you claim. Otherwise, we could be overrun with fake Catholics. (Maybe an expert on immigration would inform me on the true danger of fake Catholics?)

Anyway, so Mr. Wang fell into the hands of Rose Andrachuk, an IRB adjudicator who previously was chairwoman of the Toronto Catholic District School Board. Andrachuk decide to quiz Wang on his knowledge of Catholic dogma to see just what sort of Catholic he was. Turns out, Wang isn’t so up to speed on the finer points of Catholicism. When asked who was Mary’s mother and who was John the Baptist’s mother, Wang was clueless. The answer is Anne and Elizabeth, DUHHHH!

Jesus' Grandma

To quote the article again:

“The claimant was asked whether the consecrated wafer or the bread represents the body of Jesus or whether it is the body of Jesus. The claimant responded that it represented the body of Jesus, which is incorrect,” she wrote in her IRB decision.

She continued: “The claimant was asked to tell the panel what happens at Mass from the beginning to end. The claimant listed introductory rites, liturgy of the Word, liturgy of Eucharist and conclusion rites, which is correct. The claimant was asked to explain introductory rites. He replied that it is sprinkling of water and priest’s blessing. Neither are essential parts of introductory rites.”

This guy is worse than a fake, he sounds like a Protestant!

So to summarize, Wang knew Mary was Jesus’ mom and that Jesus was baptized by the aptly named John the Baptist. But he couldn’t name of Mary and John’s mothers; Wang correctly answered questions about the rosary and the seven sacraments; he named books of the Old Testament but didn’t know what they were about; and he failed to note that 2009 was dedicated to St. Paul by the Catholic Church… that fucking heathen!

Based on all this, Andrachuk ruled that Wang was unlikely to be a real Catholic. However, Mr Wang appealed this decision to the Federal Court of Canada where it was decided that Mr. Wang was held to “an unreasonably high standard of religious knowledge.”

What’s my take in all this? Personally, I think Andrachuk was being a dick. The arrogance of this woman that she and she alone knows what makes a True Catholic, a True And Genuine Believer no less. One really has to wonder who else Andrachuk has thrown out of the country because they couldn’t meet her unreasonably high standard of Catholic Trivia Pursuit? Let’s not forget that Mr. Wang needed a translator for his quiz, and perhaps we should also consider he was from an underground church! Perhaps not the best place to learn the intricacies of Catholic mythology?

What really annoys me is the confidence that Andrachuk has that she knows the One True Faith and that she gets to sit on a high horse and dictate who measures up to her benchmark of a “true Catholic” Now I could make a comment about sexual abuse and where that fits in with who a real Catholic is but I think you all already know what I think about that.


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