The shirt

Presumably you’ve heard the story of the European Space Agency scientist who wore an incredibly stupid shirt (sci-fi-esque scantily clad women) to the big press conference when the probe successfully landed on the comet.  I think it’s debatable about just how sexist the shirt is (though Phil Plait’s take is my favorite) but can we at least call him an utter moron for thinking this is appropriate (even if the figures were space aliens instead of women) attire for a public event of this nature.  Seriously?


Photo from the ESA news stream, via @RoseVeleth’s Twitter feed

Personally, I think given the nature of women and science, it is a more than justifiable claim that the shirt is inherently sexist and inappropriate on that basis alone.  Debatable, but I do think a fair charge.  What kills me is the number of comments (from otherwise smart people) along the lines of “he landed a spacecraft on a comet, he can wear whatever he wants.”  Seriously??!!  Being an excellent scientist some how should give you a pass from basic norms of society.  Including norms that others may have reason to find highly offensive?  Would people make these comments if his shirt said F*** the police or I hate black people, or MLK with a line through it, or whatever?  Of course not.  Did some feminist critiques go to far?  Probably, I haven’t really delved that extensively into the matter.  But damn do I chafe at the idea that if you are really smart or responsible for some scientific accomplishment that basic rules of human propriety no longer apply .

Will your birth control fail?

Over 10 years?  Probably.  Love this super-cool interactive graphic from NYT on 0-10 year failure rates for common birth control based on “typical” and “perfect” use.  (You really should click through to play with the interactive version):


Three things I found especially interseting.  First, those LARCs really are quite effective (and there’s basically only “perfect” use).  Secondly, it’s pretty amazing to see the difference between typical and perfect use of the less effective methods.  And third, those less effective methods sure lead to a lot of pregnancies over the long term.

Science of convenience

I’m not big on calling politicians out for hypocrisy.  In truth, hypocrisy is pretty much part and parcel of politics.  That said, some things are just too rich to let go by.  Here’s Mitch McConnell on the Keystone pipeline:

In remarks on the Senate floor, hours before a vote on a bill that fast-tracks construction of the pipeline, McConnell pointed to the “science” supporting the legislation.

“Those who took a serious look at the science and the potential benefits reached the conclusion long ago,” he said Tuesday. [emphasis mine] “They understand that the whole drama over Keystone has been as protracted as it is unnecessary. We hope to turn the page on all of that today.”

As you can imagine, when it comes to global warming, however, McConnell is, of course, “not a scientist.”

Photo of the day

Had no idea this amazing Japanese snow wall even existed till a friend just posted a photo on FB.  Truly awesome, and many more images here.

Photograph by SIEMA @

Murodo-daira of Tateyama has one of the heaviest snows in the world, and the snow reaches about seven meters (23 ft) on average. In particular, the snow mantle at Otani, a five-minute walk from Murodo Station, sometimes gets more than 20 meters (65.6 ft) because of snowdrifts. The famous “Snow Walls” are formed by expelling this heavy snow, and the 500-meter-long area with such snow walls is open to sightseers from mid-April to late May. [Source: Japan National Tourism Organization]

The racism of felon disenfranchisement

This was a lot of fascinating history to me, but suffice it to say, I’m not exactly shocked that America’s felon disenfranchisement laws have a history seeped in racism.  All the more reason we need to absolutely abolish all of them now.  From Brent Staples in the NYT:

The state laws that barred nearly six million people with felony convictions from voting in the midterm elections this month date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Southern lawmakers were working feverishly to neutralize the black electorate.

Poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses and cross burnings were effective weapons in this campaign. But statutes that allowed correctional systems to arbitrarily and permanently strip large numbers of people of the right to vote were a particularly potent tool in the campaign to undercut African-American political power…

The history of disenfranchisement was laid out in a fascinating 2003 studyby Angela Behrens, Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza. They found that state felony bans exploded in number during the late 1860s and 1870s, particularly in the wake of the Fifteenth Amendment, which ostensibly guaranteed black Americans the right to vote.

They also found that the larger the state’s black population, the more likely the state was to pass the most stringent laws that permanently denied people convicted of crimes the right to vote.

These bans were subsequently strengthened as the Jim Crow era began to take hold.

The white supremacists who championed such measures were very clear on their reasons. In 1894, a white South Carolina newspaper argued that voting laws needed to be amended, lest whites be swept away at the polls by the black vote. In 1901 Alabama amended its Constitution to expand disenfranchisement to all crimes involving “moral turpitude” — a vague term that was applied to misdemeanors and even acts not punishable by law. The president of the constitutional convention argued that manipulating the ballot to exclude blacks was warranted, because they were inferior to whites and because the state needed to avert the “menace of Negro domination.”

Regardless of whether or not these laws currently disproportionately affect Black Americans (which, of course, they do), any laws with such a history simply should not exist.  And I would go so far as to defend them is therefore inherently racist.

It’s not really moving

Collection of very cool optical illusions from Wired.  I think this one is my favorite.

This zen image tricks your brain’s pattern-seeking bias to evoke leaves blowing in a breeze. CLIVE GIFFORD


Convicted by junk forensic science? Tough luck

We now know that a lot of forensic “science” that has been relied upon for years to send people to prison is no more science than is phrenology or astrology.  Okay, good, we’ve learned and we don’t use it anymore.  What almost defies comprehension though, is that when it comes to people still in prison who were convicted on the basis of this junk science, many people just prefer to pretend their convictions are valid and they don’t deserve a chance for an actual fair trial.  It’s incredibly disturbing.  It is amazing the degree to which some people insist on believing that somebody is guilty of a crime simply because they were convicted for it, despite strong evidence suggesting otherwise.  In some ways, it seems we haven’t really come all that far from throwing a “witch” in the water to see if she floats (if she sank, she wasn’t a witch, just dead).

Why bring this all up?  Just a sad, sad case of all-too-typical American injustice via Radley Balko:

In a short opinion issued last week, a three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit unanimously upheld a federal district judge’s ruling against Louisiana prisoner James Koon, who in 1996 was convicted of killing an infant and sentenced to life in prison.

The medical examiner who testified against Koon was Steven Hayne, a controversial figure about whom I’ve written at length over the last eight or so years. The panel rejected Koon’s petition for a new trial based on what Koon claimed was newly discovered evidence that calls Hayne’s credibility into question.

The rejection itself was nothing new. Despite Hayne’s impossible workload (over about 20 years he performed on average 1,200 to 1,800 autopsies per year, by his own admission), his lack of board certification, and the fact that he has on multiple occasions given testimony that other medical examiners have said ranged from implausible to malpractice, to date no court has rejected Hayne as an expert witness.While some courts have overturned a handful of convictions that were based on his testimony, they’ve only done so in the most egregious instances. Where Hayne has given plausible testimony, or even implausible-but-not-completely-nutty testimony, the courts have generally refused to intervene.

But if Hayne isn’t a credible witness, he isn’t a credible witness. If he has shown that he’s willing to say outrageous things in a few cases, has lied about his certification, and has been shown to be sloppy and unprofessional in his work, the cases in which he gave plausible but debatable testimony (and was opposed by a more competent medical examiner) should be seen just as tainted as those in which his testimony was transparently ridiculous. [emphasis mine]

As Balko explains, the whole system is simply legally unable to properly and fairly cope with situations like this:

And while the criminal justice system can’t seem to keep bad science out of its courtrooms during trial, once someone has been convicted, the same system then puts a premium on the “finality” of a guilty verdict. It’s a point Congress and past presidents have hammered home over the years by revising the federal criminal code to limit habeas appeals in federal court. In order to get relief from a federal court in post-conviction, a convicted person today not only needs overwhelming evidence of innocence, they must also show that this evidence is either new or was undiscoverable at the time of trial, and they must file their petition for within a year of the new evidence becoming available.

The problem with these laws with respect to bad scientific evidence is that science doesn’t operate on deadlines. Science is a process.

Balko’s whole piece is long and completely infuriating. Balko has example of example of heinous injustice and completely discredited forensic science upheld and even worse, actively supported by many in the legal community who are supposed to be seeking “justice.”   The amount of utter irrationality in a supposedly rational system is an affront to any meaningful conception of justice.  And we all idly stand by and let this be how our criminal justice system works.  Really, we’ve not come all that far from carrying hot iron bars or swallowing or putting your arms into boiling war.

%d bloggers like this: