Hilary Versus Bernie – It’s Supposed To Be Hard

DEM 2016 Debate

Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, left, and Hillary Rodham Clinton talk before the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)

Entertainment value aside, there is not a lot to say in favour of the way the US runs its elections. However, it seems to me that a lot of people are intent on throwing away one of its few good points – that every four years it pretty much forces people to think.

In most countries, in you’re not one of the few signed up to a political party, you really don’t need to do too much hard thinking about politics at all. Choose the party that appeals to you most, and every few years walk into the polling booth and tick the box next to the appropriate candidate. If you live somewhere with preferential voting you might need to think about who gets your subsequent preferences. That aside, the only hard choices may be if the party you vote for alienates you so much you go looking for someone else, or if a new party appears that catches your eye.

Americans can do the same thing come November, should they choose, but millions will also make a choice before then from within their parties. For this, they can’t just rely on past decisions, they have to make the choice all over again, and hopefully that will lead to some serious thinking about what each candidate represents and their respective merits.

People considering voting for Trump or Cruz probably aren’t doing a lot of hard thinking, but things should be different on the Democrat side. Which is why I am disappointed at how many people seem to have just made a choice between Bernie and Hilary and decided that this is where there thinking can stop. They don’t need to acknowledge that there are a lot of different criteria to choose between the candidates, and it is entirely possible that each of them scores better on some. No, no, let’s just pretend that whoever we have picked is better on everything.

It’s all a bit this, really.

How You See Your Candidate.... - Imgur

Except that both candidates are far more intelligent, and three dimensional, than Jar Jar Binks.

I realize that for many Americans who are actively campaigning for one candidate or the other, they may not want to admit that they do see some points where the opposing side would be better. That’s fair enough – it’s not the job of an advocate to make part of the other side’s case.

But I’m a bit disappointed in a lot of my Australian friends on this. True, I’m mostly just going on your Facebook and Twitter posts, maybe there is a lot more subtle thinking offline, and this certainly doesn’t apply to everyone, but I see a lot of people who enthusiastically posting links that all point to the same conclusion, without a lot of commentary suggesting any nuance. I’m also directing this at people I greatly respect, who will no doubt never read it, who present themselves as commentators rather than campaigners, yet are still spending most of their time on one side.

To be clear here, I’m not doing the classic “I’m so impartial” thinkpiece. I’m hoping Sanders will win, although I don’t think it is likely he will (writing this while Nevada is still voting). But in doing so, I am deeply aware of a lot of reasons to prefer Hilary. You might not agree with me on all of these, but fellow Sanders supporters, do you really agree on none?

The closest I see from most people feeling the Bern to an acknowledgment of complexity is that “they’d like to vote for a woman”. Personally I think that is pretty important. The global signficance of a woman as the most powerful person on Earth would be pretty huge. To pick just one example, would parents in places where female infanticide or sex-selective abortions are popular be quite so keen to be rid of daughters if there was a woman in the Oval office?

But it is far from the only reason. It’s true that current polling shows Sanders doing better against each Republican candidate than Clinton, but if you think that is the last word on electability you haven’t paid much attention to American history. Given how truly awful the Republican field is, I can’t see how anyone who cares about progressive politics could not be a bit worried that choosing Sanders could hand the White House to Trump, Cruz or Rubio. In particular, I’m not impressed with the blithe suggestions that higher turnout will fix any loss of centrist voters. Plenty of people have said that before, they’ve seldom been right. Moreover, while Sanders’ capacity to mobilize youth has been amazing, with Democrat attendance in Iowa and New Hampshire well down on 2008, I’m far from convinced that this vast disenfranchised mass will turn up.

Personally, I am also worried about a lot of the handwaving in Sanders promises. Certainly a campaign that was almost certainly not expecting to be anywhere near as strong as it has turned out to be can be forgiven for not thinking it needed all that much detail, but when you’re making promises this big, it would be good not to rely on magic asterisks to show they can be done. Are there no other Sanders supporters who feel the same?

Turning to the other side, I’m frankly amazed my the number of people saying, “Hilary believes in the same things Bernie does, she’s just more pragmatic.” Really? Because we’ve got quite a long record to indicate what Clinton believes, and that’s not how I see it. It’s not just that she boasts of her friendship with Kissinger and supported the illegal Iraq invasion, even after a lot of Republicans had realised it was a disaster. Someone who would vote against a ban on cluster bombs, a weapon used almost exclusively for killing civilians isn’t taking a pragmatic path to peace, they just don’t value human life very high. Nor was this a case of Sanders versus the Democratic establishment – two thirds of Democrat Senators were for the ban (Sanders was still in the House btw), but not Clinton (or Biden for that matter).

Clinton is running away quite hard from some of her record in other areas as well, such as her previous support for the mass incarceration of, well pretty much anyone the police don’t like, but do you really prefer that to someone who has opposed punitive law enforcement his whole life?

Just as I am disappointed that those posting for Sanders can’t acknowledge his weaknesses, I really wish that some of the people fiercely defending Clinton would admit that the vast amounts of money she is receiving from businesses with appalling human rights records are almost certainly going to influence her decision-making. Is it not at least a little bit inspiring the extent to which Sanders has built his campaign on small donations that couldn’t influence him if they tried?

There may be legitimate questions about the economic competence of Sanders advisers (although Robert Reich’s support should count for something), but at least they’re trying to build a better world. Doesn’t Clinton’s history of surrounding herself with people who spend the rest of their lives sabotaging every struggle for human rights and environmental justice they can bother you at all?

I know this whole post sounds whiny, judgmental and holier than thou. But I’m saying this because I I’m referring to some really smart people, much smarter than me in many cases. Which means I think it’s possible to do better. Support your candidate sure, and if you’re out on the campaign trail bury your doubts. But if you’re far enough away that your posts won’t be changing votes, or you’ve admitted that’s not your job, then take the opportunity this provides, to look at the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate and think about what an ideal progressive movement, built out of the best of each, would look like.

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Martian Thoughts


I finally saw The Martian this week, thanks to some encouragement from Richard McConachy. I loved it for all the reasons many people have. But I had an additional reason to love one scene, as it reminded me of one of the largely unknown stories of Australian science.

Bit of a spoiler warning.

Towards the end of the film where Watney is lightening the load on the MAV to allow it to go high enough to meet the Hermes craft. He throws (and blasts) various bits of no doubt very expensive equipment off the MAV as if they were worthless junk, which under the circumstances they are.

This reminded me of a story told to me by David Cooke (one of the scientists in my book) who worked at the Parkes observatory for many years, including during the Apollo mission. Parkes was not intended to have a role in the Apollo 13 mission, with NASA choosing to use one of the smaller Australian telescopes. However, when everything went pear-shaped it was realized that Parkes was the only radio telescope in Australia (or indeed our timezones) capable of communicating with the craft in its damaged state.

Naturally NASA commandeered The Dish for saving the astronaut’s lives. The telescope was being used for deep space astronomy at the time and carrying equipment that was unsuited to the new purpose. Time was naturally of the essence, and it took too long to send equipment down in the lifts as well as bringing the new receivers up. So highly expensive antenna and imaging devices were simply taken to the edge of the Dish and dropped off the side. I don’t know if anyone bothered to place mattresses around the bottom in the hope of salvaging something, or if they were just allowed to smash.

Besides being amused by this story, it also serves as a reminder of just how little money matters when an astronaut’s life is in danger. Watching the film I wondered briefly whether the US and Chinese governments really would be willing to spend the vast amounts required to bring a single astronaut home should circumstances such as seen in film occur.

The answer, I think, is yes. Of course the costs involved in The Martian, amusingly parodied in this meme, would be far larger than a few smashed receivers. However, by Cooke’s account, no one blinked an eyelid at the cost. There are many reasons for this, but one is that public pressure demanded it.

Millions of people die each year who could be saved with food or medical supplies that would cost a few dollars, but when we know the individual’s name, let alone have become attached to their personality, no expense is spared. That’s not intended as a criticism. I want people to care more about the starving children they know nothing about, but I don’t think that need be achieved by caring less about the person they see on the nightly news.

We can’t spend hundreds of millions of dollars to save every endangered person on Earth, and maybe that means we shouldn’t spend that much just because someone happens to be prominent, but we should always want to.

The dust storm that kicks The Martian off is many times more powerful than anything the red planet is capable of. But that aside it is largely scientifically accurate.  And I think it also gets the psychology and politics pretty much right as well.

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You May Well Be Born Gay (Or Straight) But Not Everyone Is

Several friends have posted a link to an article titled “No One Is Born Gay (or Straight): Here Are Five Reasons Why“, apparently impressed by what it had to say. I’ve written some short comments on why I think it is badly flawed, and that got enough interest that I thought I would write something more extensive, albeit probably a bit belated.

In the article E Jane Ward takes aim at the gay rights activists who argue that sexuality is innate and therefore society should not discriminate against it, since people can’t help being “born this way”. She’s right that this argument often gets taken too far, such as the example she quotes when Cythia Nixon was told off for saying she had chosen to be a lesbian. But Ward’s argument is really the flip side of the one she is attacking. Some people say they were born with their sexuality, and demand that the same be true of everyone else. Ward thinks her sexuality is a product of environmental factors and her own choices, and insists this must be true of everyone else.1 Neither side allows for human diversity.

The positions not only fail basic logic, they misrepresent the latest science on the issue. I think what the science is revealing is not only far more interesting than either of these approaches, but more liberating as well.

Ward takes aim at some fairly dodgy popular representations of science associating sexuality with exposure to hormones in the womb, as measured by finger length. On the other hand, she entirely ignores multiple pieces of research that indicate a genetic influence on male sexuality. It’s true that these have generally been badly misreported with headlines about “gay genes” burying the subtlety of what has been learned. However, that’s no reason to ignore the actual research.

What seems to be emerging from several different tests is that genes matter for at least male sexuality, but it’s more complex than a “gay gene” in three ways.

1) The correlation isn’t perfect. You can have the “gay gene” and identify as straight or vice versa, but the chances are significantly skewed

2) Sexuality seems to be influenced not by a single gene but by a patch of the genome that is often transmitted together.

3) The best bit: It’s not one but two patches, on entirely separate chromosomes.

Genetics isn’t my strong suit, but unless I am badly mistaken these two patches are entirely independent. Having one has no influence on your chances of having another.

Let’s call the versions of these patches that are associated with identifying as gay G1 and G2, and the other versions S1 and S2

If you’re a cis man and your genome is S1S2 you’ll almost certainly identify as straight. If it’s G1G2 version you’ll probably identify as gay. And if you have one of each…well here is where it really gets interesting.

A giant bisexual flat on an outing at Melbourne's Pride March

A giant bisexual flag on an outing at Melbourne’s Pride March

Should your code be G1S2 or S1G2 the chances you will identify as gay fall somewhere in the middle. But as far as I know, this is all based on studies where men either tell the researchers they are gay or straight. Those who consider themselves bi, pan or whose sexuality has changed with time have been excluded from at least some of these studies, maybe all, as just too tricky to worry about. Which is fine as a starting point, but something that really needs to be addressed as research in the area advances.

I don’t know that the S1G2/G1S2 men are more likely to have fluid sexuality than those with a double up. But would anyone be surprised?

Isn’t it rather likely that all those gay men who say “I was born this way” really were, because their two patches happened to align? Meanwhile others had one of each, giving more room for their sexuality to be shifted by other things, including things that may change with time.

Of course it’s not as simple as G1G2=gay, S1S2=Straight and G1S2/S1G2=bi. If it was there would be a lot more men identifying as bi. Sexuality is a spectrum and there are a lot of people who fall near, but not at the edge, they have some attraction to both men and women, but they’re not equally strong. A combination of circumstances and preferences leads some to take up the bi identity, but many others happily go through life identifying as gay or straight.

I haven’t seen any reliable numbers on the frequency in the population of these two patches, but back of the envelope calculations suggest we’re probably looking at about each patch occurring about one seventh of the time. In which case, around three quarters of men have S1S2 genes, about 2% are G1G2, and around a quarter have one of each.

Ward says that sexuality cannot be genetic because there were lots more gay men in ancient Greece, where it was not only socially acceptable but desirable and our genes could not have changed that fast. But I don’t think there is any evidence that most men of the time were having sex with other men – just lots more than openly do today. The crude model I have suggested could encompass that perfectly well.

Still Not Determinative

I imagine that if Ward bothers to read this piece she will argue that not all G1G2 men identify as gay. This is indeed true. We’re increasingly finding that almost nothing is pure nature or 100% nurture. But even if, for example, 20% of G1G2 men end up preferring women in bed, that shouldn’t overshadow the genetic influence.

For one thing, there could be other genes out there that have additional, more subtle influences.  The ratio of hormones in the womb, the basis of the claims Ward rightly attacks, probably also plays a part, albeit much more subtle than is frequently claimed. And there is almost certainly some effect from what happens to us as we grow up.

Nevertheless, if the combination of genes and environment in utero means you’ve got a 90% chance of eventually identifying as gay as you come down the birth canal then I think saying you were “born this way” is a pretty legitimate call. It’s like saying you were born to be tall – sure exceptional circumstances may prevent it, but those things determined before birth were still more important.

What About The Women?

One of the things that has puzzled scientists and the general public alike since the first announcement of a “gay gene” has been how such genetics could survive. When she first heard about the idea a friend scoffed, “Yes and they’ve found the gene for celibacy too”. Various possibilities have been raised, for example the hypothesis that gay uncles are good for one’s survival chances.

However, leading geneticist Professor Jenny Groves has pointed out that this involves looking at the data all wrong. There is no gay gene, she says. Instead we have genes for sexual attraction to men. There is evidence that women who have these genes are not only no more likely to be lesbians than anyone else, they’re actually particularly fond of getting it on with men. The research is still a bit preliminary, and therefor not conclusive, but it appears that women who have either G1 or G2, or both start having sex with men earlier and have more of it, possibly because they enjoy it more.

These days, with access to advanced contraception, that may have no effect on the birth rate. Indeed it may be that if they like sex that much these women are even less inclined to spend years too tired to do much of it. For most of human evolution, however, such a genetic combination was likely to result in women who had it having more children, easily explaining its continuation in the population even if the men who inherited it had fewer.

Put this way, these “gay genes” could just be an accidental by-product of genetics whose main function was to make women more keen on sex with men. The sound you can hear is gasps of horror from both homophobic bigots and lesbian separatists.

There is one thing Ward and Graves seem to agree on however, which is that male and female sexuality are mirror images. Graves seems to think we haven’t found the lesbian genes because less work has been done researching female sexuality. Ward dismisses the idea that women have more fluid sexuality than men saying, “where have I seen that idea before?  Ah yes, heterosexual pornography.”

They could both be right of course. Certainly, female sexuality has been neglected for research compared to that of men, so it is quite possible there are Sapphic genes out there that, as Graves seems to expect, make men particularly strongly attracted to women.

On the other hand, it’s also just possible that there is no lesbian gene. Or, that there are several. Imagine, just for a moment, if there were three independent genes that encouraged attraction to women and each occurred about one eighth of the time. In that case two thirds of the population would have none of them. Roughly 33% would have one or two, and 0.3% would have all three. If this is true, and remember I am just speculating here, only a tiny number of women would be “born lesbian”. On the other hand, there would be a larger number of women than men born with a some genetic push each way. Depending on a range of factors and experience this could lead them to identify as straight, lesbian or bi. Or to change their identity several times in their life. Which might be where identities like queer come in handy.

I’m not saying the last paragraph is true. It’s entirely possible that the fact that more women identify as bi than men has to do with patriarchal messages that posit female bisexuality as a turn-on for the male gaze, while male bisexuality is denied or condemned. I just think we shouldn’t be too quick to assume this is the only explanation.

What are the implications of all this politically? Well, let’s start with the fact that it doesn’t matter what the cause is, love is love and should be treated the same. If there is legal recognition for marriage, it absolutely must be recognized for any consenting individuals.

On top of that, well maybe we should all just be a bit nicer to each other. The woman who heckled the bi contingent at Melbourne’s Pride March to “get off the fence” might consider that this isn’t as natural a manoeuvre for some as others. Of course that is true even if I am completely wrong and there is no genetic component to sexuality.

But if we start to realise that it is not just that your sexuality might be different from mine, but the causes of your sexuality might be different from mine we might make some progress on acceptance, or at least tolerance. One of us might have a genetic combination that pretty much meant our sexual identity was set from birth, while the other might have been totally up in the air until we encountered the love of our lives at 20 and forever after chased after people who resembled him/her. Each has its own aspects can can make life tough in a society that tries hard to squelch minorities. Let’s start with solidarity, rather than judgement.

From a progressive political viewpoint, this seems to me to allow us a rare example of having our cake and eating it to. One the one hand, evidence that some people’s sexuality is innate makes it much easier to argue against discrimination. On the other hand, those people who don’t want to feel bound by their DNA don’t have to be (at least unless they decide to collapse the wavefunction by getting their genome sequenced).

Super Nerdy Addenda

Pretty obviously, I’ve restricted this discussion to people whose gender identity aligns with their genetics. I’m not meaning to be exclusionary of trans people, I just wanted this to be a blog post, not a book. I doubt we have any data on how the genetics of someone with a Y chromosome who identifies as a women shapes their sexual attraction. Given how much easier this sort of research is becoming, we probably will soon. When we do I’ll be happy to write about it, but until then the possibilities are so vast and numerous I think this post is long enough (although if anyone has links to thoughtful articles I’ll happily add them).

There is however, one additional complexity I didn’t want to include in the main article for length, but thought I would add for those who want to geek out about it.

One of the male gay patches is on the eighth chromosome and therefore exactly the same in men as women. Consequently the whole, “makes women into het sex” idea is straightforward (although even if this idea is right, we don’t actually know if this predisposes these women to be particularly straight, or just increases enthusiasm for sex in general).

However, the original “gay gene” I’m calling G1 lies on the X chromosome. So while men only have one version, be it G1 or G2, women have two. I don’t think we know anything about its recessives or dominance.

The whole idea of dominant/recessive genes turns out to be a bit more complex than the Mendelian simplicity we were taught at high school, but that is a level of nerdy I am not going to go near. So let’s stick to Mendelian thinking for today.

If the male-attraction version is recessive then it wouldn’t affect women much at all. Most women would have at least one S1 version, and this would dominate. So as far as the X-chromosome patch goes the whole idea of male homosexuality being a by-product of genes to make women have more sex would go out of the window.

On the other hand, if S1 is dominant then almost twice as many women as men would be influenced by it. That’s a substantial portion of the female population who would have a gene that strongly inclined them towards attraction to men, and pre-contraception made them more likely to have children.

One more point. For simplicity’s sake I have treated the two patches as equivalent in effect. But we don’t know that. It’s possible one is a stronger predictor than the other, providing a more powerful push. It’s also possible that one is more common in the population than the other (this probably is something that “we” meaning the human race knows, scientists have probably got some grasp on their relative frequency, I just haven’t found it).

But it is also possible that they do something a little different from each other. Maybe, and I am really speculating wildly here, one of them is more about lust and other other is about love. So if you have both male-attraction versions you will both tend to fall in love with men and want to fuck them. Ditto with both female versions. But if you have one of each you may be inclined to want long walks on the beach with one gender and rolls in the hay with the other. Think about THAT everyone who doubts the existence of male bisexuality.

1 I’m very familiar with dashing something off that oversimplifies one’s position because no one is likely to read it, and then being embarrassed when lots of people do. But this doesn’t seem to be the case for Ward.  When the piece became successful she added a clarification, which didn’t address the concerns I raise at all, instead tackling an entirely different criticism, in the process indicating she stood by the aspects I deal with here.

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Anti-Science: The Left Learns Slowly, The Right Not At All

It’s not exactly news that anti-science is rife on the Right, at least in English speaking countries. Climate change denial, opposition to teaching evolution, wind farms seen as worse than asbestos or passive smoking… The list goes on.

The few on the right who have not joined this stampede, and many in the center of politics, respond by arguing that “it’s just as bad on the left”. As John Quiggin has noted, this is a truly pathetic defense when coming from the right. Does it, however, have any merit as a “plague on both your houses” argument when coming from the center?

Again Quiggin has covered a lot of what I would say – most of the examples of anti-science views on the left come from fringe dwellers in no way equivalent to the overwhelming majority of Republican Senators, for example, who have signed on to the AGW denial bandwagon.

But I was struck by a different angle on this when it comes to anti-vaccination, one of the key examples of science denial in the developed world.

In Mother Jones  Tasneem Raja and Chris Mooney have a piece on the problem of people opting out of vaccinating their children, and the associated rise in whooping cough, although the same story could be written for measles.

Anti-vaccination is one of the things that those arguing that anti-science is equally distributed like to pin on the left. There certainly people on the left (and to my shame perhaps particularly in the Green component) who are susceptible to the anti-vax lines. However, the same is true on the right (there is no left-wing anti-vaxer of the status of Michele Bacchman) and among people of no clear political affiliation.

As evidence that the anti-vax movement has a left lean

Vashon Island is beautiful. The next time I come it may also be safe. Credit David Ensor

Vashon Island is beautiful. The next time I come it may also be safe. Credit David Ensor

one can point to the low rate of vaccinations in places like Byron Bay. A US equivalent is Vashon Island, where I spent three very enjoyable nights, blissfully unaware of the danger I was putting myself through, as a result of the astonishing 17% of kindergartners not being vaccinated.

Raja and Mooney have three maps indicating the situation by US state. The first two provide weak support for the idea that anti-vaccination is stronger on the left. Vaccination rates are lowest in left coast Oregon, and Michigan and Vermont are in the next bracket. On the other hand, so is hard-right Idaho, so the pattern is not quite clear. Likewise, it is generally easier to get an exemption for your child being vaccinated in Democrat states than Republican ones, although Arizona and North Dakota complicate the picture.

However, I think it is the last map that is really interesting. Some states have responded to the rise of the preventable diseases by making it harder to get exemptions. As Raja and Mooney note, this appears to raise vaccination rates – many who seek exemptions are not that passionate about it, and will drop the idea if the paperwork is too hard.

Other states, however, have gone the other way, making it easier to put your own child’s lives, and that of babies they might encounter, at risk. And here, the picture is reversed. Five of the seven states moving in the right direction are liberal strongholds. The backsliders are more mixed, but show a slight lean to the right.

What this suggests to me is that, at least among the political class, the left has been slow to get the science on this issue. They’ve bowed to demands for individual liberty or anti-science scaremongering. However, once the evidence gets really overwhelming, once people start getting sick, the left does catch on. Politicians elected by those same vaccine haters in places like Vashon get the message and start to do something. I’d much rather they listened to the scientists straight up, but at least they have grasped the core principle of science, the capacity to change one’s mind in the face of evidence.

What about the other states? The people who noticed children coming down with diseases that can kill them and said, “I’ll have me some more of that thanks”? There are some regrettable exceptions, but most of them are the same sorts of places that don’t want climate science, or even evolution, taught in schools. There is absolutely nothing that will reach these people.

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Very Late Thoughts on Scotland

Most of my Facebook friends, at least those bothering to comment, seem to be hoping for a Yes vote from the Scottish Referendum. I’m not one of them.

Before I discuss why, let me stress that I think it is a great thing this referendum is happening. I believe all peoples should be given the option of independence. Moreover, I am quite consistent in this, applying it to everyone who might have a claim to be a potential nation-state. It’s been interesting watching the cheers for Scottish Independence from people whose “solution” to conflict between the Jordan and the Sea is a single state, with any attempts at independence by the Jewish minority met with a response at least as brutal as that inflicted on Gaza.

Nevertheless, just because you have the option doesn’t mean you should take it. I’m all for no-fault divorce, but that doesn’t mean I want to see some of my friends break-up.

I can certainly see the attractions of voting yes. For one thing, the temptation to stick it up some of the obnoxious outsiders who have been coming in to tell the Scots what to do, of which Abbott’s line has to be one of the most offensive. And yes, in some ways it would be one in the eye for imperialism.

Moreover, I think some good things would come out of it. As Guy Rundle suggests in this very interesting article,  the first few years after independence would likely see a cultural flowering that would be exciting to watch, let alone take part in. The Scottish National Party has formed one of the most environmental governments in the world, and independence may allow them to go further still. Putting more power in the hands of a proportionally elected parliament, rather than Westminster’s archaic First Past the Post single member electorates would be a win for democracy. Most trivially, I’m very partial to Scottish music, and the yes case has all the best tunes.

However, against this need to be set a few things. I think that most of my friends imagine that an independent Scotland might be a little poorer overall, at least once the oil runs out, but would also be fairer than the UK, and this is a price worth paying. If I thought such an outcome was likely, I would agree, but I doubt it. Firstly, as JK Rowling has pointed out, the more states there are the more opportunities for mobile capital to play them off against each other to the benefit of the very rich, and the detriment of everyone else.

Perhaps even worse is the intention to keep the pound. It is simply staggering after the Euro has provided a hideous demonstration of the consequences of monetary union without fiscal union, that the yes case is intending to repeat the whole disaster (actually worse this time). An independent Scotland still using the pound might not become Greece at the first economic setback, but Spanish levels of unemployment are almost inevitable, and without Spain’s climate. The austerity that is likely to be imposed in such circumstances will hit the poor far harder, and probably prove very difficult to unravel when boom times return.

A beaten down Scotland, surviving economically only by attracting capital through beggar-thy-neighbour tax-breaks and poor working conditions strikes me as a big price to pay for a brief cultural renaissance and the chance to stick it to the men.

I realise most of my tiny readership will be more interested in my predictions than my opinions, so I will say that I think it is most likely the no case will win, but I am far from sure. In general yes cases in referenda underperform compared to polling. The one thing that keeps me in doubt is the fact that most of the polling conducted has used entirely inappropriate methods for the circumstances, and therefore is quite unreliable. There is no way of knowing in which direction it will be wrong, but when I think the methodology allows for an error as high as 6%, hope remains for the yes case since without these problems I would predict No with 54% (52% in the polls minus a 2% drop from yes cases underperforming).

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Scattered Thoughts On the Day

So much of the world is mourning Robin Williams, and quite rightly people are encouraging those experiencing depression to seek help, rather than take their lives. Naturally I concur with this, but it seems to me that the commentary has often treated depression as a single condition.

In fact, one of the major obstacle to successful treatment is that depression is almost certainly a complex of different conditions, which are best treated in different ways, and one of the great challenges is to identify the particular form a person has.

There is a theory held by a substantial, albeit still minority, group of health professionals, that says that a large portion of people diagnosed with simple “depression” are actually suffering from type 2 bipolar disorder. In Williams’ case his manic side was so obvious that bipolar was probably the first, rather than the last, thing considered, but the majority of coverage I have seen has failed to specify that he had been diagnosed with bipolar, a missed opportunity to increase awareness.

I’m only marginally more qualified to discuss this than your average anti-vaxer or climate change denier is to speak on the topics on which they hold forth so readily. So I can’t really say if the theory is right.

Nevertheless, it is clear that it is true for at least some people. One of my closest friends spent years being fruitlessly treated for depression with SSRIs and various other treatments. Then he encountered one of the advocates of this theory, was put on medication for bipolar and experienced an almost immediate turnaround in his life. Even before this I was sympathetic to the idea, having heard it from Professor Jack Pettigrew, who developed a theory to explain the causes of bipolar that I find utterly fascinating.

I’m certainly aware of the dangers of extrapolating from the experience of those I happen to know, while being influenced by the elegance of a relatively untested theory.

Nevertheless, whether you accept the claims of widespread misdiagnosis or not, the general lesson I would draw is that if a treatment is not working, look around for others. If the therapist you are seeing is unwilling to consider other options, get a second opinion. I know that is easier said than done. When depressed the effort to reach out once can be enormous, to reach out a second time may seem impossible, particularly if, like so many depressed people, you feel that you are unworthy of any support that may be offered. All I can do is encourage everyone to do so.

While on sad topics, I want to pay tribute to Chris Mardon. Chris died on Saturday, but I only found out today. Chris was a founding member of the Victorian Greens, one of the original 17 who formed the party. I didn’t know him well – we tended to operate in different parts of the organization, but his efforts were hard to miss. It was only recently that I learned of his impressive achievements outside the party, both as an engineer and as one of the first to bring climate change to public attention in Australia.

So on a sorrowful day it was good to bring some beauty to quite a lot of people’s attention. I don’t have the figures on how many people have viewed this article, since the bitly link that sometimes provides me with data was not created in this case, but 21 hours after it was posted 80,000 people have liked it.

The phenomenon of bioluminescent surf got quite a run a few months ago when Will Ho’s pictures made it to Gizmodo, but I think Phil Hart‘s work is even better. I hope lots of people have clicked through to his page to see his amazing astrophotography as well.

George Monbiot recently posted a column about how the environment movement needs to focus on promises, not fears. I haven’t yet really digested this, so I’m not sure to what extent I agree. And I’m even less sure how we go about achieveing such a shift most of the time. But I think photos like this probably have a part to play.

Bioluminescent surf and the Milky Way in the Gippsland Lakes. Phil Hart

Bioluminescent surf and the Milky Way in the Gippsland Lakes. Phil Hart

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Put a Scientist In Spring Street

Tim_Read_profileLast year I wrote about how proud I was to have a scientist doing ground-breaking work as my local Greens candidate. It wasn’t, however, very likely that Dr Tim Read was going to win Wills, a seat that stretches to places where the party is in single figures. Now Tim is running for Brunswick, and there is a real chance he could win, so it’s time to expand on why I think he is a truly great candidate.

I should say upfront that the most important thing for me is a candidate whose values I share. I would have a lot of difficulty voting for a bad Greens candidate, but I’d vote for a mediocre one over a melissadavisphotography.com.au     more impressive figure from another party.            However, that is not a problem I will have to face this time.

Having met Tim as my local doctor I consider his talent for listening to people’s problems, essential in a good GP, is one of the things that make him well suited to parliament.

Nevertheless, having got to know him later through the Moreland Branch I was surprised when Tim put his hand up to run. I thought he might make a good legislator, but he seemed too self-effacing for the media or public-speaking. The Wills campaign completely satisfied me on that account. Tim is great at communicating a message using a combination of clarity and sly, unexpected humour. Unsurprisingly, one-on-one those GP skills come through.

Tim has now moved into working on sexually transmitted diseases (and if you can make people comfortable in that clinical setting there is probably little that will faze you in politics). More significantly for me, in the course of his PhD he’s been doing cutting edge research on the effectiveness of the Gardasil vaccine (skip the first six paragraphs of the linked story if you just want a summary of his work). While I gave it a run in Australasian Science, I really wish there’d been a paper on this topic timed so I could write it up for I Fucking Love Science – its work that deserves global exposure.

As I discussed in the previous piece I think public health is a greatly undervalued field, and I’d love to see more people with a background there getting into parliament. However, even more, I value the sort of thinking that makes a good scientist.

Not all scientists make good politicians. Not only is there the question of values, but some people managed to gain a Bsc, or even postgraduate qualifications, having missed the whole bit about weighing evidence and attempting to move past prejudice.

Nevertheless, along with the necessary people skills and concern for the future of the planet, I think the capacity to be a really good scientist – to formulate a hypothesis and then develop and change it in the face of evidence – is something that we need much more of in parliament. Tim’s publication list speaks for itself on that account, even if he does like to say he “just got lucky” with the topic of his thesis.

I feel embarrassed that I haven’t done more for Tim’s campaign. A combination of my work for IFLS and student election administration, combined with other roles in the party will make it hard for me to step it up, but I hope that this post can be a small contribution in that direction.

Temporary Update: This post is getting a bit of a run online at the moment, so for the next few days I’ll take the chance to plug the fundraiser for Tim’s campaign on Friday August 1.

Permanent Update: Having accidentally used the photo without attribution I would like to try to make up for this by attributing twice – check out Melissa Davis‘ site – some superb photos there, including the one of Tim speaking at a candidate’s debate.

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