Category: Science

Your Blood Group is Determined by Biology and is a Social Construct

I doubt this is original but it is worth going through because strange right-leaning people keep shouting about biology at me. Oddly though, I was prompted to write not by an argument about nature v nurture but a different argument about invention v discovery in mathematics. I’m not an expert on blood groups (which is sort of the point) so apologies for any biological errors.  Note also this is a description of one specific relationship between a social construct and biology. Others may have things in common but that doesn’t mean they are the same or have the same relationship between a biological aspect and the associated things that a society may construct around it [i.e. neither the social constructs of gender nor ‘race’ is directly analogous to blood group]. Anyway, here we go.

You probably know your blood group. Once upon a time I regularly gave blood and felt a moral obligation to do so. I’m O negative, which is a handy default blood type for donation as it contains neither A, B or Rh factors and hence shouldn’t trigger an immune reaction in most people of other blood types.

But ABO and Rh are just two blood typing systems and even with those two systems, there are variations. Group A can be further subdivided into approx 20 subgroups of which A1 and A2 account for most type-A people. In terms of inheritance, there are also exceptions to the commonly understood rules – CisAB (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cis_AB ). More generally there are tens of other blood typing systems that categorise other factors that can exist in human blood and which can potentially complicate blood transfusion.

The ABO/Rh system is a very effective simplification of a set of much messier, more organic categories. Yes, it is determined by your biology (you don’t get to pick) but the significance of whether you are “A” or “AB negative” etc depends very much on the existence and practicalities of a blood donation system. That system also has practical constraints but it is effectively something societies choose to do and requires political and social support as well as the existence of hospitals and an infrastructure to support them.

I also said that I used to give blood. I’m not allowed to currently because I lived in the UK during the height of the BSE/Mad cow disease outbreak. Concerns about the transmission of a prion disease via blood transfusion have meant that many countries place restrictions on blood donations. That rationale makes some sense given the extent to which prions are not well understood. What makes less sense is the restrictions imposed on men who have sex with other men (phrased that way to match the eligibility questions). Rules on blood donation to prevent the spread of HIV prevent people who have engaged in ‘at risk’ sexual behaviours (e.g. http://www.donateblood.com.au/faq/sexual-activity ). Such rules prevent many gay men in long-term monogamous relationships donating blood. The rules arise out of medical and practical considerations but such rules also have a social impact and arise because of social aspects (from international travel to personal and sexual relationships).

You should note another trick I employed above: I said ‘type-A people’. Once we have categories that can be applied to aspects of ourselves it is easy to see them as categories of people. I’m O negative, well no, no *I* am not, not really – my blood is O negative for the purpose of blood donation, it really isn’t much of a thing about who I am beyond that. The notion of me being O negative only really makes sense in the context of donating blood or receiving a blood transfusion (or a few other related circumstance). Prior to the development of safe blood transfusion and large scale blood donation, your blood group is not something people would know or care about. Even that history is entwined with complex social factors including the development of modern healthcare infrastructure but also the development of modern warfare.

Blood groups have also generated their own pseudosciences and racist theories – a kind of inevitable consequence of any system that allows a categorisation of people entails a dark desire to identify that categorization with other aspects including personality or as a means of identifying some inherent purity. Suffice to say there is little evidence of blood group actually determining anything other than the most likely blood needed in a blood transfusion (and as we’ve seen even that is a simplification – although a very effective one).

In most developed countries blood donation is voluntary but even such a primarily altruistic system has social implications. It isn’t had to imagine a situation in which blood donation was more heavily required or in which there were more significant socio-economic implications to donating blood. In such a situation the layers of social significance to blood type would be greater both in a direct sense and in the sense in which any social division generates its own myths and stereotypes. A world in which blood transfusions had to be more common and was connected to economic status, would with a capitalist-style economy lead to more weird (and unpredictable without knowing more details) stratifications by blood group.

So what’s my point if it isn’t a point about gender or race? The point is very much NOT that other social construct work the same way as blood group might in a fictional society. However, a broader point remains true. Critics of the term ‘social construct’ treat it as if a person is saying ‘wholly arbitrary’ or ‘completely made up’ or ‘fictional’. Treating the term like that makes it an easy strawman to knock down. No society exists in a vacuum*, so the things that our societies construct** are things that have practical limits and which are influenced by the environment that is constructed in INCLUDING the existence of other constructs. But the physical, ‘real’ influences on how a social construct has evolved over time do not mean that the categories, stereotypes or social expectations that arise apply in a deterministic way to individuals – some elements might (e.g. O- blood is safe for me to receive), others less so (e.g. whether there is a greater moral imperative for ‘O- people’ to donate blood) and others not at all (e.g. pseudoscience blood-group personality types).

tl;dr Societies and social attitudes are shaped by ‘real’ things including biology, but that does not imply that biology (or physics or chemistry) somehow validates them, makes them somehow extra true, or makes departure from them (either as an individual or as a direction for society) some kind of revolt against reality or science.

*[OK maybe there is a society of space squid, plying the void between the stars but that is a separate issue.]

**[You’d think that was obvious from the term ‘constructs’. Anything we physically construct has physical limits and depends on physical rules but can still be a work of creativity in which arbitrary, non-determined choices are made.]

Is Hidden Figures Science Fiction?

I’ve actually written a longer piece on this film, which is still unfinished and may be unrescuable because of far too many tangents (less obvious ones including Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Alfred Hitchcock’s use of a toilet, and the nasty rightwing Christian ‘Focus on the Family’ group). In the meantime, this is an attempt to address the question I intended to address in the other piece but never actually reached. Somehow Ludwig Wittengstein* ended up in this one. Sorry, he gets everywhere.

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More Bad Science from the alt-right

uah_lt_1979_thru_november_2016_v6-550x318

Speaking of the Alt-right, their house journal has been getting its knickers in a twist over global temperatures. Resident UK spreader of warming nonsense, James Delingpole got himself somewhat agitated about the fall in temperatures after the 2016 El Nino.

 Global land temperatures have plummeted by one degree Celsius since the middle of this year – the biggest and steepest fall on record.

But the news has been greeted with an eerie silence by the world’s alarmist community. You’d almost imagine that when temperatures shoot up it’s catastrophic climate change which requires dramatic headlines across the mainstream media and demands for urgent action. But that when they fall even more precipitously it’s just a case of “nothing to see here”. http://www.breitbart.com/london/2016/11/30/global-temperatures-plunge-icy-silence-climate-alarmists/

As happens so frequently, Delingpole reveals the stark evidence for global warming inadvertently in his critique. According to Delingpole, we are now in a chilly El Nino. But what do the actual temperatures show?

Dr Roy Spencer is himself a climate change ‘skeptic’ and the satellite temperature data has been lauded by Delingpole in the past.So what are the satellite data showing? http://www.drroyspencer.com/2016/12/uah-global-temperature-update-for-november-2016-0-45-deg-c/

Yes, temperature anomalies have dropped since the 2016 EL Nino peak but they are still high. Indeed November 2016 is substantially higher than most of the data points in the satellite record.

uah_lt_1979_thru_november_2016withline

Taking Delingpole’s blather seriously would imply that his chilly La Nina is HOTTER than early 1980’s El Nino’s.

Don’t forget climate change: The Science section

So that’s one whole section complete of a very odd book.

Intro, Ch 1, Ch2, Ch3, An Aside, Ch4, Ch5, Ch6,…

The first 6 chapters of the IPA’s book “Climate Change: The Facts 2014” was ostensibly about the science of climate change. It is fair to say that it was short on facts. We had numerous mini-lectures on science history and methodology, we had some interesting challenges from Richard Lindzen and we had outright credulity from Abbott and Marohasy.

The two main messages were:

  1. science is a thing
  2. don’t trust climate models

I feel like I need a little science history tale to add to what we’ve had so far: Tycho Brahe. I’ve discussed Brahe before. In the wake of Copernicus and Galileo and the rising enthusiasm for the heliocentric theory Brahe had his doubts. He developed his own model and his reasoning was not without merit. He had some of the best observational data available and he had cause to be doubtful due to his observations of distant stars not showing the amount of parallax that he expected.

He was, of course, wrong.

The shift of understanding that underlies the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis has not been sudden. The physics that underlies the greenhouse gas properties of CO2 have been known for many decades and are absolutely solid science. Yet climatologist earlier in the twentieth century were less inclined to suggest that anthropogenic global warming was a possibility because other climatic influences were more substantial. We can sum up this notion as what I’ll call ‘Business as Usual’ or BAU: CO2 is a greenhouse gas and increasing its concentration in the atmosphere should lead to some nominal warming but this will be small and not noticeable compared to other factors.

More than one author referred to Khun’s notion of paradigm change in science – where rather than a gradual change in understanding one old consensus among experts is replace by another primarily through social factors in the experts themselves, such as older experts retiring in a given discipline.

In this case, the ‘old’ paradigm would be BAU (above) and the new would be AGW if we are going to go down the simplistic model of shifting paradigms. What we see in these chapters is a kind of rear-guard action in favour of the older way of looking at climate. Although there were various calls for a ‘new paradigm’ of climate science, the thrust was continually for a twiddled version of the old consensus. The quality of the twiddling was very variable.

The most Brahe-like was Lindzen but even he didn’t have a workable model. Lindzen’s iris effect hypothesis is not well supported empirically and lacks a strong theoretical basis. Ironically the only recent support for it has been from the kind of climate model disparaged by other contributors.

More generally we’ve had:

  1. it might not be happening because the temperature record has errors
  2. climatologists are ignoring water vapour
  3. climatologist are placing too much emphasis on positive feedback from water vapour
  4. its natural cycles of some kind
  5. its the sun or it is natural solar cycles
  6. climatologists are ignoring other factors
  7. climatologists are cheating by considering other factors

Collectively it is a mess of contradictions but presented as if each author was contributing to a single edifice of argument. Beneath the FUD you can make out the shape of something. That something is people struggling with trying to deny the science while limiting the extent to which they may end up rejecting science. At one end of that spectrum, is Lindzen’s chapter and at the other is Abbot & Marohasy’s.

What can we infer from the way each author structures their argument around something: it is getting warmer – there was only limited attempts to claim this isn’t the case and more revealingly was multiple attempts to suggest alternate mechanisms that might cause warming.

  1. it is getting warmer – there was only limited attempts to claim this isn’t the case and more revealingly was multiple attempts to suggest alternate mechanisms that might cause warming.
  2. CO2 really is the most likely culprit – even Lindzen arguing relatively cogently for a possible lower level of climate sensitivity to CO2 needed a mechanism by which likely warming would be less.

Only one chapter in this science section when completely off the rails (chapter 6) but overall the section was still short on science and high in vague uncertainty.

Reason Hell special: Scares and authority

As anybody reading this blog may have noticed, I’m having a nice old chat with John C Wright about global warming. I’m sticking the global warming replies here but there is another issue in Wright’s post that I’m pulling out separately and which is best exemplified by this paragraph.

The hoax was clear from the beginning for those with eyes to see because of the hysteria surrounding it. It was a scare, a panic, and there was no more evidence for it than for the DDT scare, the ALAR scare, the radon scare, the mercury in the fish scare, the acid rain scare, the hole in the ozone layer scare, the power cables causing cancer scare, mobile phone towers causing cancer scare, the chloroflourocarbons scare, the overpopulation scare, the salmonella scare, the Mad Cow disease scare, and so on. Have you ever heard even one retraction or apology for any of these false alarms, even long after the fraud was exposed? Is DDT available even thought Rachel Carson’s mass-murdering fraud is well known to have been scientifically absurd?

In a more recent reply Wright has offered me a challenge:

I offer you the following challenge: name for me the environmentalist
scare that turned out to be wrong or exaggerated. It can be one I have
listed here, or another famous one.

Either put up or shut up. Either name the false alarm or admit that you cannot.

If you cannot admit that there are any false alarms in the system, not
even one, then you attribute unrealistic if not supernatural accuracy
and perspicacity to the system.

Which is really kind of fun – particularly as it ties in so neatly with the recent theme of authority and credibility. So, I’ve put Timothy the Talking Cat outside to chase small animals (he is no use at a time like this) and sharpened my debunkotron, fired up Google and off we go!

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