Don’t trust any of these “fuzzy expectations”

Published Dec. 31, 2012, in The Waterloo Region Record.

It’s a hoary tradition. At New Year’s, pundits are supposed to look ahead and tell readers what to expect – or not – in the year to come. A wise reader won’t buy any of it. No one knows what is going to happen next week let alone 10 or 12 months from now.

A year ago, who would have predicted the devastating hurricane Sandy or the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School? Who would have predicted the United States Republican party would blow a presidential election it was favoured to win? Who would have predicted that the dim bulbs who run the National Hockey League would have allowed their arrogance, greed and ineptitude to lock out the players for the third time since 1994? For that matter, who would have predicted a year ago that by year’s end, the Toronto Blue Jays would be installed by Las Vegas bookies as favourites to win the 2013 World Series?

Setting such caveats aside, let’s see what may or may not lie ahead. These, I stress, are not predictions, just fuzzy expectations subject to recall without notice.

Let’s start with Ottawa. There will not be a federal election in 2013. The Tories have their majority and the next election isn’t scheduled until October 2015. Stephen Harper will be free to pursue his life’s work – transforming the Conservatives into Canada’s natural governing party. If that involves making Parliament more irrelevant than it already is – or driving the Liberals into the ground – well, who’s to stop him?

Speaking of the Liberals, they will gulp three times and make Justin Trudeau their leader in April, praying there is more to him than has hitherto met the eye. Martha Hall Findlay, a Toronto lawyer, former MP and failed leadership candidate (in 2006), will place second, ahead of Quebec MP and former astronaut Marc Garneau. The Harper party will launch a series of blistering attack ads against the entire Trudeau clan: father, son and family dog (if there is one).

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty will bring down a budget with a larger than promised deficit. He will blame ordinary Canadians for not reducing their household debt.

The Conservatives will not proceed with the purchase of F-35 fighters in 2013. They will buy time by ordering more studies, hiring more accountants and enlisting more spin doctors to help them get their cover story, facts and figures reasonably straight before they announce a decision on the jets. Peter MacKay will survive as defence minister. No one outside Harper’s inner circle will understand why.

Stephen Harper will not hold a press conference in 2013. He doesn’t like journalists. He also will not invite provincial premiers to a federal-provincial conference. He doesn’t like crowded stages.

Five senators will reach retirement in 2013. The prime minister will somehow manage to find five worthy Tories to replace them.

There will be provincial elections. The Parti Quebecois will hold on in Quebec. The Liberals will lose British Columbia and Ontario. Tim Hudak will become premier and will promptly commission a statue of his mentor, Mike Harris, for the lawn at Queen’s Park. No one will remember who won the Ontario Liberal leadership in late January to succeed Dalton Who?

Rob Ford will still be mayor of Toronto, as mellow as ever.

Gun control will not happen, not in Canada and certainly not in the United States, where the National Rifle Association will preserve the fiction that it exists to defend the Second Amendment rather than admit what it really is. It’s a lucrative front for firearms manufacturers, importers, and retailers whose profits the NRA spends to buy politicians in order to defeat even the most pallid efforts to limit gun ownership.

Las Vegas will be proved right. The Blue Jays will win baseball’s World Series. The Toronto Maple Leafs will not will win the Stanley Cup, again. This last “expectation” has no best-before date. The others are good until, say, noon tomorrow.

Happy 2013!

The case for gun control

Published Dec. 24, 2012, in The Waterloo Region Record.

Let me start this Christmas Eve with a confession. I am, and always have been, a firm believer in gun control. This began long before the senseless massacres at Sandy Hook Elementary School this month, at Virginia Tech in 2007 or at the Ecole Polytechnique in 1989, among other atrocities.

I have never understood why a supposedly civilized society, one that is truly concerned with the safety of its citizens, permits some of them to walk around with weapons with which they can kill children, students, teachers, co-workers and other fellow citizens (or kill themselves). If I were advising the prime minister – which, don’t worry, won’t happen in a million years – I would urge him to ask Parliament to ban the private ownership of firearms, and to implore Washington to adopt a similar ban in the United States.

In my capacity as unpaid and unwanted adviser, I would recommend that Parliament, having imposed a blanket ban, then craft a series of careful exemptions and controls for legitimate civilian gun users – for farmers, hunters, perhaps target shooters.

None of this is going to happen, alas. The Harper government appears to be in the thrall of the gun lobby and the Obama administration is terrified of the National Rifle Association and its Second Amendment followers. Barack Obama has talked a tough game since Sandy Hook, but his “initiatives” have been weak-kneed. He is simply asking Congress to reinstate an ineffectual earlier ban on the manufacture of assault weapons.

Even if he can get Congress to act, which is by no means certain, his half-measures will do nothing to address the gun culture in the Unites States – a country where, it is estimated, there are more firearms than there are people.

Let tell you a personal story. Twenty years ago, I moved from Toronto to Tampa, Florida. One of my coworkers there was a Canadian woman who was married to an American whom she had met and wed in Toronto. When I arrived in Florida, they invited me to dinner. After dinner, the husband took me aside to say: “Look, the first thing you need to do is get yourself a gun. This is not Canada. Down here, you have to protect yourself and your family.”

“What?” said I, the naïve Canadian, “You have guns?” He had seven of them, he replied, in his home, office and car, including two in the bedside tables of the master bedroom. “Any (expletive deleted) who tries to break in will be dead before he gets through the door.”

A few days later, he took me to a gun show in the Tampa armouries. I had never seen anything like it: table after table laden with everything from revolvers to submachine guns to bazookas, and creepy-looking customers in camouflage garb wandering around with automatic rifles slung on their backs.

Gun shows were – and are – a major source of illegal firearms. Knowing this back then, the state of Florida had introduced a pair of controversial measures that angered the gun community. It required purchasers of weapons to wait a day or two for a background check. And it changed the rules for itinerant gun dealers. Previously, they could sell weapons and ammunition out of the trunk of cars at gun shows; now they were required to have an address, although a hotel room would do.

Matters are not likely to deteriorate to this extent in Canada any time soon, but there are worrying signs. The government listens to an advisory committee that is dominated by gun lobbyists. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Harper was forced to intervene when the committee proposed to loosen controls on ownership of prohibited weapons.

Last week, his government, having already done away with the firearms registry, quietly scrapped regulations that would have required gun dealers to, among other things, notify the police before they hold a gun show.

I hope it’s not the start of a slippery slope.

Transparency and accountability on reserves is a worthy goal

Published Dec. 23, 2012, in the Toronto Star.

The federal government is pushing forward on a First Nations accountability bill that would require all band governments to publish the salaries and expenses of their elected chiefs and councillors, among other things.

In principle, most aboriginal leaders and communities are supportive of what this legislation is trying to achieve.

Indeed, it’s hard to come up with even one compelling argument for why any democratic government should not be as transparent as possible to its citizens about its financial dealings.

Yet, some indigenous leaders and communities have mobilized against the legislation, arguing that it shouldn’t be passed.

Continue reading…

More from the Conference on Aboriginal Economic Development

Previously, I wrote a little bit about a conference I attended in October on “Partnering for Successful Economic Development: Lessons Learned and Best Practices.”

The conference was interesting in a number of respects.  Today, I received a summary of the small group discussions that occurred at the conference, which again is not the norm for most conferences.  At the end of the small group discussions, all of the attendees met to summarize their discussions and then to vote, using “dots” for which points they thought they were most important.   Here were the results.

Top vote getters were:

  • Establishing partnerships requires looking at the strengths and needs of the community.
  • Research partnerships should be driven by ideas from the community.
  • When working with communities, document everything! (meeting notes, emails, etc).
  • To build capacity, partners and communities need to recognize transferable skills and build on them.
  • Good communication requires partners to take time to build trust and respect.
  • Community engagement is best accomplished by encouraging entrepreneurial spirit.

As you can see, these best practices are probably more useful to practitioners than academics.  As well, I’m not a big fan of dotmocracy, which seems to suffer from the same problems that some forms of direct democracy suffer from.  Still, it was an interesting conference.



Gun Control in the United States?

I’ve been meaning to write something in this space that draws upon some public policy theory to argue that this horrible shooting might actually spur meaningful policy change in the United States re: gun control. However, Andrew Gelman has a great post at the monkey cage which says much of what I had planned to say:

After this latest school shooting, things seem different. I have no idea if we’ll end up with meaningful bullet control (as Chris Rock would say), but the translation of grief, anger, and frustration into policy seems more likely this time, compared to previous mass shootings in recent years.

What’s special about this case? Some natural hypotheses:

– The event itself is particularly horrifying: an elementary school instead of a high school, more kids getting killed, and the killer using three guns that were just lying around the house.

– Cumulation: each new shooting is added on to what came before, eventually enough people become motivated to act.

– Political timing: no national election for 23 months, now is the time for politicians to act without fear of the gun lobby.

– Political alignment: the Republicans have had so much success getting gun voters to their side that Democrats now have nothing to lose politically by supporting gun restrictions. And, if the Democrats move to restrict guns, savvy Republicans can move toward the center on the issue, confident that their Democratic opposition won’t outflank them on the right.

– The pendulum: to put that last point another way, gun policy has swung so far to the right in recent years that the force of public opinion will tend to pull it back to the center. This latest shooting has given politicians a chance to realize this and act on it.

Beyond all these reasons, let me suggest another which arises from my preoccupation with political geography.

The shooting happened in Connecticut. When people get massacred in Colorado, Arizona, or western Virginia, that’s every bit as horrible, but I wonder if there is an implicit social contract: we recognize that people in the southern and western states have lots of guns, they demand to have lots of guns, and it will be hard to take these guns away. People in these states don’t seem to mind all the guns. So from the standpoint of a voter in the east coast, sure, a shooting in Colorado or western Virginia is terrible, but nothing can be done about it because the voters there don’t want to do anything. It’s sad, but there’s nothing that can be done.

But if there’s a school shooting in Connecticut, that’s another story. The citizens of New England have not agreed to be bathed in guns. Yes, I know the long history of gun manufacture in the northeast, Springfield rifles and Smith & Wesson and all the rest. But bringing semiautomatic weapons to school is another story. Or, perhaps more to the point, the most prominent Americans defending the use of semiautomatic weapons in schools—the people who wanted to make sure that people like Nancy Lanza had the right to own these guns—are not, by and large, anywhere near Connecticut.”

John Sides disagrees somewhat here.

I think the case can be made that the age group of the children (5-10) killed in Connecticut might be the difference maker for policy change this time around.  But this is the United States and gun control so change is unlikely.  We shall see.

Property Rights and Treaties: A Little Bit of Self-Promotion

Here is my co-author and former M.A. Supervisor, Tom Flanagan, talking about our book (cover below) via video conference with Dr. Brady Deaton and his Land Economics class at the University of Guelph.

Speaking of books, my new book on modern treaties is now available for order from University of Toronto Press! You can pre-order the book here but it won’t be ready to ship until March 2013.


After the F-35, there are options for a jet fighter

Published Dec. 17, 2012, in The Waterloo Region Record

Now that the Harper government has “hit the reset button,” as they say, on the acquisition of new jets for the Royal Canadian Air Force, what happens next?

That’s not at all clear – transparency not being a hallmark of the Conservative regime. What we do know, because the government told us this much, is that an “independent” panel will review the evaluation process to replace the aging CF-18s. How independent the panel will actually be is also hard to tell, although some of the experts named to the panel seem to be free from entanglements with the military establishment or the warplane industry.

That’s good. But will the government actually pay heed if the “evaluation process” recommends an aircraft other than the one that got it into this mess in the first place: the absurdly over-priced F-35 Lightning stealth fighter made by Lockheed Martin in the United States.

Just about every country that was proposing to acquire the F-35, including the U.S. itself, is experiencing buyer’s remorse and is either reconsidering or reducing its purchase plan. Canada finds itself, along with Australia, in the vanguard of this parade of the disillusioned.

To have credibility, the new process needs to be separated from the bureaucrats and politicians who were involved in the decision to buy the F-35 without looking at any alternatives. Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose, new to the F-35 file, should be good to go, but not Peter MacKay, the embattled defence minister, who led the Tory cost cover-up for the past 2 ½ years.

Let’s take Ambrose at her word when she said last week: “[We] are taking the time to do a complete assessment of all available options.”

Options do exist. There is no perfect aircraft for Canada. But there are a few candidates. We can exclude the new generation of jet fighters manufactured and marketed by Russia and China, because there is no way, politically, that Ottawa will go there.

That leaves the Typhoon, a multi-role fighter built by a European consortium, the French Rafale, the Gripen (built by Sweden’s Saab), and the American Super Hornet, made by Boeing. Each has limitations, as does the F-35, but each would cost significantly less than $48.5 billion – that’s the latest estimate for 65 F-35s (the original price, remember, was to be a “mere” $16 billion for the planes and a maintenance contract). Each of these other aircraft is already in service somewhere, unlike the oft-delayed F-35.

The simplest decision for the government would be to stick with the aircraft and supplier with which it is most familiar. That would be Boeing and the F-18 Super Hornet, the new version of the CF-18 Hornet, which has served the Canadian Forces reliably for three decades.

The Super Hornet does most of the things Canada needs. It does not have the same  “stealth” capacity as the F-35 to evade enemy radar, but it has adequate range and with two engines is better equipped than the single-engine F-35 to police long coastlines and vast Arctic spaces.

The Super Hornet is not cheap; no modern warplane is. Calculating the cost of military aircraft is a mug’s game, as the Harper government discovered. But as nearly as I can figure, if the base price of one F-35 works out to $88 million (that’s for the plane only without maintenance or any of the related expenses), the comparable figure for one Super Hornet is just over $55 million, or 60 per cent of the F-35 cost.

A betting person would wager that the government will take its time. It’s already been seven years since it decided the F-35 was the plane for Canada. It will take time to undo that decision. The evaluation process will take a year or two, then the bureaucracy will have to review the recommendation, and the cabinet will have to ponder a decision.

The next election, due in October 2015, will be safely in the history books before anything happens.

LISPOP Associate to speak at Conferation Club

The Confederation Club hosts Darrell Bricker, CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs, for its monthly luncheon Dec. 13, noon to 1:30 p.m., at the Kitchener Delta Hotel.

Bricker’s talk is called The Big Shift: The seismic change in Canadian politics, business and culture.

The center of gravity in Canada is shifting westward. As you move from east to west unemployment is lower and economic and population growth is higher.

–Link to Article–

My Final Verdict on the Flipped Classroom

Late last week, I finally finished grading the last assignments and exams for my first year seminar on Politics and Film and submitted final grades to the Registrar’s office.  Whew! What a term!

As I’ve blogged about previously, this year I’ve been using the flipped classroom technique to teach my first year seminar course on Understanding Power and Conflict through Film. The main idea behind this pedagogy is to use class time more effectively.  Rather than the professor lecturing or facilitating discussion for the entire class, as is the norm for most first year classes and upper year seminars respectively, the flipped classroom pedagogy asks students to learn the basics at home and to spend actual class time applying their learning to a variety of problems and situations, with the guidance of the instructor.

In my first year seminar this term, for instance, students were asked to read several academic readings at home each week before completing an online quiz that required them to find examples from the real-world to illustrate certain ideas and concepts from the readings.  From those quizzes, I would write a 10-15 minute lecture on the topic for that week, spending particular time going over the concepts that the students seemed to have the most trouble with in the quiz.  After that short lecture, we would spend the rest of the class in small and large groups working on applying the various concepts to a variety of problems and situations. We would usually end with a class discussion or formal debate on the strengths and weaknesses of the concepts or theories being studied that week.

In previous blogs, I talked about how I used the flipped classroom pedagogy to structure my lessons on the state of nature and rational choice/game theory.  For the rest of the term, we covered the concepts of structure and agency, institutions, class and capitalism, and colonialism.  The basic structure for these classes was the same as outlined above. The final exam asked students to watch a film and explain what happened in that film by using the course concepts and readings covered in class during the term.

So what’s the final verdict? I think the flipped classroom pedagogy is a keeper.  Students seemed to like the the class and format.  In an anonymous survey, for instance, students mentioned they learned more in this class than any other first year class they took this term.  They liked how the class exercises, discussions, movies, and assignments, were all focused on helping students learn and apply course concepts to a wide variety of phenomenon. While some first year seminars this term suffered from high levels of student attrition (e.g. one instructor reported that s/he had only eight regularly attending students by the end of the course), my classes always had between 19 or 20 students out of a total 20 in attendance.  While another first year seminar instructor complained that the 3 hour length of their seminar was far too long, my classes always went the full three hours and none of my students ever complained about this fact; indeed, some (just a few though!) were disappointed when class exercises and discussion had to be cut off due to the 3 hour class limit!

That being said, there are some things about the flipped classroom that I need to tinker with next year:

  • Online quizzes: Although they were really useful for helping me figure out what topics and concepts the students were struggling with (and hence what I needed to cover in lecture), they were really time consuming to grade.
  • Small group work: Most small groups had fabulous discussions.  However, some small groups spoke very little so I need to find stronger incentives for individuals to participate in small group discussions.
  • More variety in terms of in-class activities.  The state of nature and game theory weeks were really easy to do, partly because they were the kind of topics that were most open to games.  The weeks after, were slightly more difficult.  I ended up creating formal debates at the end of most classes, which involved two debating teams trying to convince a panel of their peers that their position was the more convincing one.  Most students liked these formal debates. A few did not.
  • Modify my goals and expectations.  For the most part, I assigned academic readings on what are some pretty heavy social science concepts.  Unsurprisingly, perhaps, students did not always come away with a full mastery of the concepts but they did learn some core ideas about them and how they might be applied to a variety of situations.  At first, I thought this meant I had failed in achieving my course learning objectives.  But by the end of the course, I saw this outcome as a victory, especially once I thought about how these outcomes compared to the typical final exam answers I get in my second year lecture course.

There were other issues as well, for this course, which I will need to tinker with but these other issues had more to do with non-flipped classroom things.

I’ve been told that I will be allowed to teach this course next year, which I am really excited about doing!  The next task, however, will be to see if I can “flip” my second year lecture course on Canadian politics, enrollment of 125.  Stay tuned!

Sense finally prevails on the fighter jets

Published Dec. 10, 2012, in The Waterloo Region Record.

The three most difficult words for any politician to utter is, “I was wrong.” Or “I screwed up.” If the process of getting from a wrong decision to a right decision involves admitting mistakes, it can take a devil of a long time.

It has taken the Harper government seven years to concede it was wrong – dead wrong – when it decided to equip the Royal Canadian Air Force with F-35 Lightning II jet fighters to replace its aging CF-18 Hornets. Shortly after taking office in 2006, the Conservatives signed a memorandum of agreement to purchase the 65 supposedly state-of-the-art aircraft from Lockheed Martin in the United States.

One could argue, I suppose, that a new government didn’t really know what it was doing; it had never bought military hardware before. However, it had no such excuse four years later, in July 2010, when it announced the cabinet had decided to go ahead with the purchase of the F-35s – without bothering to check out competing aircraft for price, performance or availability. Continue reading

I started writing columns questioning the F-35 decision as early as June 14, 2010. In a column on July 19 that year, I angered a lot of Conservatives and military aficionados by leading with this question: “Are the heads in the Harper cabinet screwed on tight?”

As it turned out, the answer was “No,” although I didn’t know that for sure then. All I knew was it didn’t make sense for a government facing a $54 billion annual deficit, as Ottawa was then, to spend $16 billion ($9 billion for the 65 planes plus $7 million for a maintenance contract) to purchase aircraft that seemed so ill-equipped to serve Canada’s military requirements.

Silly me, I didn’t know that $16 billion was a fiction, a low-ball fantasy, concocted by the military and defence department bureaucracy and whispered into the ears of gullible ministers who failed conspicuously to do due diligence. Once the parliamentary budget officer and auditor general got into act, more realistic numbers began to emerge – $25 billion, $29.3 billion, and now something north of $40 billion seems likely to be the final pricetag. And this, please note, does not include any spare fighters to replace those that break down or crash.

Cost aside, it has been apparent for at least three years that the F-35 is the wrong plane for Canada. It is an attack aircraft and Canada is not in the air-attack business. It is not the right plane to patrol Canada’s long coastlines and high north. For one thing, it has only a single engine, making it hazardous for long-distance patrols (the CF-18 it would replace has two engines); its range is shorter than the CF-18’s; and the F-35 is slower than some of the other aircraft on the market today.

It’s principal selling point seems to be that it is a “stealth” aircraft, able to slip undetected past enemy radar. Advances in radar technology, however, have reduced the effectiveness of the stealth feature.

The government plans to announce a “reappraisal” of its F-35 decision in the next few days. Don’t expect Stephen Harper to announce that he or anyone in his government has screwed up; that would be expecting too much. Don’t expect any heads to roll, although they should. And don’t expect an announcement that the F-35 is dead. But it is. This bird will never fly the friendly skies of Canada.

What the government will do is announce that, due to soaring cost estimates, it is relaunching the acquisition process. It will start with the question it should have asked seven years ago: What kind of plane does Canada need? It will ask another question it should have asked back then: What aircraft will best meet Canada’s current and future needs?

Just watch the lobbying by aircraft makers. It will be fierce. After all, it isn’t every day a prize worth as much as $40 billion is put up for grabs.

Genes, Politics, and Epigenetics: Wonderfully Messy Complexity

Following on Chris’s theme of genes and politics, I want to remark on a contrast in his post between the approaches political scientists have adopted from behavioural and population genetics, on the one hand, and findings on the health benefits of vitamin D, on the other. Those findings have to do with gene regulation, and are part of the burgeoning field of epigenetics.

This field has longstanding roots in older work on transposons, noncoding RNA, and various mechanisms regulating genetic expression and development and evolution, the deeper implications of which are only now being fully realized. Continue reading

There’s a nice piece in a recent issue of the Economist that captures the excitement and importance of these developments, but also the humbling complexity unfolding in the life sciences around the big questions of genetics. The report riffs on the findings of David Kelley and John Rinn, who study so-called lincRNA, and have discovered, among many other fascinating things, curious relationships between these molecules and transposable elements (my wife is a geneticist whose early interests were in transposons, and she has reminded me that McClintock, in her pioneering maize research, presciently called these “controlling elements“).

Why does this matter to political scientists interested in relationships between our genes and our political attitudes and behaviour?

In one respect it doesn’t: if there are durable heritable roots to the psychological dispositions that inform political phenomena, then we want to be precise about those relationships, not least to know where to direct future research in both genetics and social sciences. We don’t need to worry too much about the causal complexity that leads to those stable heritable dispositions.

On the other hand, science is ultimately about explaining that complexity, so if political scientists want to be players in that game, then simply pointing, as several of these studies do, to correlations and specific clusters of genes, is a good start, but not in itself a very satisfying explanation.

True, many studies of political behaviour proceed as if ideas and environment were everything, and so these ‘genes and politics’ studies are a useful corrective to that view. Still, the humbling possibility is that ongoing work on regulation and expression may force behavioural and population geneticists to rethink some of the durable assumptions behind their methods. While scholars involved in the ‘genes and politics’ field recognize the inordinate complexity of genetic regulation and organism development, they tend to fall back on the familiar old definitions (what a gene is) and assumptions (the stability of protein conformational states), and the methods they’ve inherited from the great innovations of the past in behavioural and population genetics. Those methods remain powerful, but the old assumptions and definitions are, alas, increasingly simplistic or outright mistaken.

Consider this gloss from that Economist article:

Once, and not so long ago, received wisdom was that most of the human genome—perhaps as much as 99% of it—was “junk”. If this junk had a role, it was just to space out the remaining 1%, the genes in which instructions about how to make proteins are encoded, in a useful way in the cell nucleus.

That, it now seems, was about as far from the truth as it is possible to be. The decade or so since the completion of the Human Genome Project has shown that lots of the junk must indeed have a function. The culmination of that demonstration was the publication, in September, of the results of the ENCODE project. This suggested that almost two-thirds of human DNA, rather than just 1% of it, is being copied into molecules of RNA, the chemical that carries protein-making instructions to the sub-cellular factories which turn those proteins out, and that as a consequence, rather than there being just 23,000 genes (namely, the bits of DNA that encode proteins), there may be millions of them.

I think applied behavioural geneticists wandering into the social sciences, and the political scientists adopting their methods, should be humbled by that complexity, even as they do increasingly good work identifying heritable dispositions associated with politics. There is a certain elegance to the statistical and experimental methods these scholars have inherited, but the wonderfully messy complexity of genetic regulation and expression may, as it becomes increasingly well-understood, force us in the social sciences to ask hard questions about just what we are actually explaining with the tools we inherited from an earlier generation.

But of course that’s science.

Genes, Politics, and Vitamin D

There is now a large and well-established literature in political science that examines the relationship between genes (as well as other biological aspects) and a variety of political attitudes, behaviour, and phenomena. Continue reading

In their classic article on whether political orientations are genetically transmitted, Alford, Funk, and Hibbing argue:

We test the possibility that political attitudes and behaviors 
are the result of both environmental and genetic factors. 
Employing standard methodological approaches in behavioral 
genetics—specifically, comparisons of the differential 
orrelations of the attitudes of monozygotic twins and dizygotic 
twins—we analyze data drawn from a large sample of twins in the 
United States, supplemented with findings from twins in Australia. 
The results indicate that genetics plays an important role in 
shaping political attitudes and ideologies but a more modest role 
in forming party identification; as such, they call for finer 
distinctions in theorizing about the sources of political attitudes. 
We conclude by urging political scientists to incorporate genetic 
influences, specifically interactions between genetic heritability 
and social environment, into models of political attitude formation.

Recently, I’ve been following some research on the importance of Vitamin D, specifically as it relates to breast-fed infants (since we have a new 5 month year old son), but also to adults more generally.  Some of the research suggests that Vitamin D has a powerful effect on our health:

The researchers found 2776 binding sites for the vitamin D 
receptor along the length of the genome. These were unusually 
concentrated near a number of genes associated with susceptibility 
to autoimmune conditions such as MS, Crohn's disease, systemic 
lupus erythematosus (or 'lupus') and rheumatoid arthritis, and 
to cancers such as chronic lymphocytic leukaemia and colorectal 
They also showed that vitamin D had a significant effect on the 
activity of 229 genes, including IRF8, previously associated 
with MS, and PTPN2, associated with Crohn's disease and 
type 1 diabetes.
"Our study shows quite dramatically the wide-ranging influence 
that vitamin D exerts over our health," says Dr Andreas Heger from 
the MRC Functional Genomics Unit at Oxford, one of the lead 
authors of the study.

These findings make me wonder: Does Vitamin D also have a strong effect on the genes that affect political behaviour? If so, what kinds of political behaviour effects should we expect from different Vitamin D levels in human beings?


University’s Not Meant to be Easy

That is the headline of a recent op-ed by Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail.

I rarely agree with Wente’s columns, (although I do appreciate the need for her perspective to spark debate and dialogue in society), but her most recent column on rising stress levels among university students contained a lot of arguments that I agreed with.

There’s no question that universities need to take seriously the trend of rising levels of student anxiety and stress.  As I mentioned in a previous blog post, the trick is to figure out what is causing the rising levels of stress so that universities can implement the right (read: “effective”) policies to successfully address the issue.

But I also think it’s important to remember that universities are supposed to be stressful places!  Continue reading

Universities are not only places of knowledge creation and higher learning about new ideas and old debates, they are also places that require students to develop and use independence and time-management skills to facilitate their own learning and contributions to knowledge creation.

Indeed, as Ken Coates has argued, the university degree used to be a highly sought after form of accreditation.  Employers wanted university graduates because the university degree was a credible signal that the potential employee actually had a number of important skills, including critical thinking, time management, and independence.  Today, that credible signal no longer exists.  Many students get through their program without these skills and employers no longer can bank on a potential employee having the necessary skills they need.

All of this is to say that there is no question that universities need to provide a variety of support services to students to help them cope with mental stress.  On the other hand, universities need to resist any proposals that would require professors to reduce their expectations of the students, including opposing suggestions that they need to reduce the number of readings, essays and tests that they assign.


Universities and the Rise of Mental Health Issues

Recently, there’s been a barrage of news reports about the growing number of university students experiencing severe levels of stress and mental anxiety.  This has sparked an important and much needed debate about how universities should address these issues, including one university, Queen’s University, creating a task force to study the subject.

Although we lack comprehensive data on the subject, anecdotal evidence suggests that indeed, levels of stress and anxiety have risen, with various centres and workers indicating that they are seeing record numbers of students reporting mental distress. Continue reading

Much of the debate so far has centred on figuring what universities should do to reduce stress and improve the mental health of their students.  What seems to have been lost in this debate, however, is the cause of this increase in student mental distress.  Instead, universities seem to be implementing a wide range of solutions in an attempt to cover all of the possible causes.  This scatter-shot approach to student mental health is necessary because, quite frankly, nobody knows why mental health issues are rising dramatically on campus.

So what are the possible causes? Very briefly:

1) Mental health issues have always been present on campus.  The difference now is that students are now willing and able to report them.

2) Related to (1), perhaps what we are seeing is not a rise in the student mental health issues at university, but simply a regression toward the mean. Perhaps what we are seeing on campus is simply what exists in the rest of society, with mental health issues on-campus now reflecting what exists proportionally off-campus.

3) University has gotten harder. Perhaps professors today are more demanding than their predecessors in terms of readings, assignments, and exams.

4) Poor preperation at high school. High school curricula and teaching pedagogy has changed dramatically over the last ten years.  Although these are really broad brushstrokes, gone are the day of rote learning, zeros for incomplete assignments, and mountains of homework.  Instead, strong emphasis on higher-ordered thinking, positive feedback, and experiential learning have left students unprepared for the university environment, which is a much more challenging and unforgiving learning environment.

5) Change in parenting styles. The advent of helicopter parents may leave students unprepared to fend for themselves in university.

6) Weaker students. Universities have grown exponentially over the last two decades.  University degrees have become a necessary condition for a good job, and so demand has increased for university education. Universities welcome this demand to feed its ever growing need for new revenues to build new schools and buildings.  To meet demand, universities lowered the minimum high school grade average that they required for students to get into university (as one colleague at another university put it to me, try asking the university administrators what their rejection rate for admissions was and the answer is probably close to zero!). The result is a new university population that is simply unprepared to succeed in university and so suffer sever mental distress as a result.

These are just a few possible explanations.  We badly need empirical studies to investigate and test these possible explanations.  In the meantime, it seems the scatter-gun approach is the only solution for universities that want to avoid the type of outcomes that Queen’s has experienced over the last several years.


Harper foreign policy discards a proud legacy

Published Dec. 3, 2012, in The Waterloo Region Record.

There was a time, not so long ago, when this country punched above its weight in the world. Canada was only a middle power in a world dominated by Cold War super-powers. Yet Canadian leaders and diplomats moved in the same league as the big hitters. Our friendship was valued, our support solicited and our advice considered (if not always heeded). Continue reading

Canada’s contributions in two world wars commanded respect. Lester Pearson’s vision and perseverance in negotiating the creation of an international police force to resolve the 1956 Suez crisis, for which he was awarded the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize, ushered in an era when Ottawa was the first capital to be called when peacekeeping was needed somewhere in the world.

We were seen as honest brokers under both Liberal and Conservative governments. We served with India and Poland on the International Control Commission, trying to maintain peace in Vietnam. We did far more than our share in accepting and resettling tens of thousands of Southeast Asian boat people following the Vietnam war. We took a leadership role politically and diplomatically in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Thanks to the unrelenting efforts of Stephen Lewis, Canada helped make the elimination of HIV/AIDS in Africa an international priority. We made important commitments to actually do something about global warming.

It was a legacy of which all Canadians could be proud. Unfortunately, since the arrival in power of the Harper Conservatives, the proud legacy has been discarded. Gone is the role of peacemaker, honest broker, humanitarian, seeker of international consensus.

The Harper foreign policy can be stated in these words: “We can’t worry about the whole world. We will do whatever we decide is best for Canada – provided it does not upset the United States.”

Doing whatever is best for Canada (without discombobulating the U.S.) means promoting trade at the expense of human rights and humanitarian causes. It means abandoning any pretense to an even-handed approach to the Middle East – a hallmark of Canadian policy since Pearson’s day.

With one eye to the Jewish vote at home and one to the wishes of Washington, the Canadian government took an embarrassing drubbing at the United Nations last week on the bid to upgrade the Palestinian Authority’s observer status. Canada stood with the U.S., Israel and just six other counties in opposition to the resolution. The other 179 states (138 in favour; 41 abstentions) thought Canada’s position was wrong-headed, even reckless.

On the environment, Canada’s me-too policy is in lock-step with Washington’s. The United States never did sign the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions. Under the Liberals, Canada did sign, but the Harper Conservatives withdrew that approval. Their position is rigid: economic growth, oil exports to the U.S. and job creation in Harper’s Alberta take precedence over global warming, which barely registers on the Richter scale of Tory concerns.

I almost feel sympathy for poor Peter Kent, the environment minister, who had to go to an international conference in Qatar this week as spokesman for a privileged nation that chooses to be a global outlier, a nation that could do so much but chooses to do so little.

Finally, there was the absurd – and disturbing – spectacle last week of the Tories using their majority to squash a previously approved NDP private member’s bill to make cheaper generic drugs available to sick people, particularly AIDS sufferers, in impoverished third world countries.

Why do the Conservatives want to deny life-saving drugs to poor people? They probably don’t want to deny them. They just don’t care enough about the issue to let the NDP take credit for an enlightened piece of legislation. In Ottawa these days, what’s good for the Harper Conservatives (and Washington) is synonymous with what’s good for Canada.

Memories of an independent Canadian foreign policy – sensible, intelligent and useful – are fading, just like memories of the days when Canada made a positive difference and a great Canadian won the Nobel Prize.