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Drawing Lines Between Risks

Wednesday, 25 January 2012 21:08

Last week, a physicians' group called on governments to make helmets mandatory for both children and adults on ski slopes. Lots of people support that. They feel that skiers should not be permitted to decide for themselves whether to wear a helmet because skiing without one is too dangerous. Two days later, Sarah Burke, a champion "superpipe" skier, died as a result of injuries sustained in competition. Burke was almost universally praised as a courageous and talented athlete who died doing what she loved.

Does that make sense?

Maybe it does. I don't know. The question isn't rhetorical.

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  • Source © Ottawa Citizen

Why Waste Money On Science?

Tuesday, 28 June 2011 17:15

Federal and provincial governments employ many scientists and underwrite the work of many more. Why?

Oh, politicians say their decisions are informed by science but that's a fairy tale they tell sleepy children and reporters. In reality, politicians cite science when it supports decisions they want to make anyway, for other reasons, whether ideological or political. When science does not support their decisions, they ignore it.

And, since no politician has ever suffered at the polls for abusing science this way, voters seem to be just fine with that.

So why waste money on science?

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  • Source © Ottawa Citizen

Remember That "Eurabian Civil War"?

Thursday, 06 January 2011 11:06

If someone mentioned terrorism in Europe, you would probably have an idea about the size of the threat and who's responsible.

It's big, you would think. And growing. As for who's responsible, that's obvious. It's Muslims. Or if you're a little more careful with your language, it's radical Muslims, or "Islamists."

After all, they were at it again just in the past month. On Dec. 11, a 28- year-old naturalized Swede - originally from Iraq - injured two people when he blew himself up on the way to a shopping district. And on Dec. 29, police in Denmark said they thwarted a plan by five Muslims to storm the office of a Danish newspaper and kill as many people as possible.

So the danger is big and growing, and Islamists are the source. Right?

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  • Source © Ottawa Citizen

Beware The Overconfident Expert

Wednesday, 13 October 2010 19:38

I hand the worn and faded book to the old man, and he smiles. He remembers it well.

He is Professor Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan. Little-known in this country, Swaminathan, 85, is a legend in Asia. He is the scientist who brought the Green Revolution to India in the 1960s and in doing so he likely saved tens of millions of people from starving to death. Maybe hundreds of millions. He may even have saved India itself.

The book in his hands is Famine 1975! It was a hugely influential best-seller in 1967. "This is Paul and William Paddock," Swaminathan grins. The Paddocks argued that mass global famine was inevitable. It was "foredoomed," as they put it. Efforts to avoid it -- efforts like Swaminathan's -- would fail. "They said Indians, and others, were like sheep going to the slaughterhouse. They'll all die."

The Paddocks were wrong and Swaminathan was right, a fact that was established long ago. But this is not ancient history. The story of how Malthusians like the Paddocks were certain that mass starvation would sweep the world, and destroy nations like India, is an important reminder to beware experts who are sure they know what the future will bring. It's also an important warning for decision-makers: Excessive confidence can be extremely dangerous.

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  • Source © Ottawa Citizen

Lawnmowers, terrorists, and other major threats

Wednesday, 01 September 2010 14:28

Lawnmowers, terrorists, and other major threatsI do not wish to alarm the public, but I must urgently report the discovery of a disturbing fact: It seems that in 2006 -- according to the most recent StatsCan data -- two Canadians were killed by lawn mowers.

As I said, disturbing. And there's more. Much more.

Also in 2006, nine Canadians were killed in accidents involving kayaks or canoes. Three were killed by dogs. Six by hot tap water. Thirty-two drowned in pools. Fifty-four were killed by falls from ladders, while three more died after falling from trees. One person was killed by contact with a thorny plant. Another died after being stung by an unspecified "nonvenomous insect." Medical "misadventure" claimed the lives of 18 more.

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