Category: Health

Rehtaeh reaction

Not surprisingly, yesterday’s Contrarian post on the furore over Rehtaeh Parsons’ death has produced a lot of email, pro and con. Much of the angry reaction appeared on Twitter, where Contrarian tweets as @kempthead.

Before sampling the reader response, two important preliminaries:

  • What Rehtaeh’s family has been through this week is about as awful as human experience gets. They have been loyal in support of their daughter, and courageous in their rejection of vigilante action against those accused of abusing her. Whatever one’s views on the issues I raised, compassion for this family ought to be universal.
  • As I said yesterday,  if you or anyone you know are having suicidal thoughts, please call the toll-free Kid’s Help Line at 1-800-668-6868 or the toll-free Suicide Prevention Line at 1-888-429-8167. Also please check out this website, and this list of warning signs.
  • Any effort to completely decouple sex and alcohol is bound to fail, but by the time they reach puberty, all boys and girls ought to clearly understand that a person of any age who is drunk to the point of throwing up cannot legally consent to sex, and anyone who has sex with someone in that state is committing a sexual assault.

Jeremy Akerman writes:

Just because we think we know something does not make it fact. Nor does something become fact because we want to believe it. Actually, we know very few actual facts about this whole affair. Of the original incident, we know what one person said that another person said had taken place. This whole matter has been subsumed by mob hysteria. The role of Anonymous is particularly sinister. They talk of sending “teams of investigators” to uncover the truth. More like a few self righteous people picking up gossip around cafes and school gates. These “investigators” got the Amanda Todd case horribly wrong when they “outed” a totally innocent man. It is surprising he was not killed.  What I have been saying is this: Leave the torches and pitchforks in the shed for the time being. Let us wit until we get all the facts before we start lynching people.

A reader called Patrice (no last name) writes:

Did you read Anonymous’ response? According to the boys’ peers, they were bragging that they committed the rape, even while showing them the picture they took to prove it. Similarly to the way teens sometimes arrange, film and upload videos of school beatings to Youtube.

Did they feed false testimony to the RCMP? Did their parents? Maybe all the kids who heard them brag but didn’t report it should be charged as well for not reporting it.

I would read Patrice’s comments and those from Anonymous, in the context of Jeremy Akerman’s remarks. Anonymous is not gathering evidence. It’s gathering rumours, gossip, and multiple hearsay in a superheated environment from excited and possible distraught or fearful young informants. Such activity has no place in the justice process.

A reader who asked that her name be withheld out of concern for her employment wrote:

In the rush for a salacious story, the media have—with a couple of notable exceptions—told one side of this story, while ignoring the pivotal issue: mental health.

Parents sometimes want someone to blame because they cannot accept that this happened to their child. But it does. And sometimes there is no blame. Ask the Fountain family, which lost their much-loved son to depression. Or the family of Jay Smith, who was talented, popular and loved.

I take issue with the media coverage of this case for the reasons you have mentioned. They have—with a couple of exceptions—made her death a one-cause suicide, which is the very thing that psychiatrists advise them not to do. They have glorified her death and made her a martyr. Mental health is more complicated than that.

We don’t know if she was medication, some of which produces suicidal tendencies. We don’t know why she released from hospital. We don’t know if she was raped because we have only heard from her mother, who is devastated and grief-stricken. The RCMP say it was a he-said, she-said case, but we have not heard from the he side.

The one thing I did find unsettling about this story was the family’s contention that it took the RCMP ten months to interview the alleged rapists. If this is accurate—and hopefully we will find out—then I do not believe that was acceptable.

This is one point I hold in common with those demanding an inquiry. If the facts Rehtaeh’s family hve reported are true—that it took 10 months to interview the boys, and they were interviewed in a group—then this requires an explanation. But there may be an explanation. No one is compelled to give evidence against themselves, and the boys may have had legal counsel who set the conditions for the interview. The point is: we just don’t know, and assuming the worst is unhelpful.

Colin May writes:

We don’t know all the facts, and never will. TV news has been treating this quite sensationally, including Evan Solomon. The lust for ratings knows no bounds, although CTV this afternoon had a very good interview with a Toronto criminal lawyer; tasteful and sensitive.

Chris McCormick quoted the moving public statement by Rehtaeh’s father, Glen Canning. [Link is to the Toronto Sun, because Canning’s website has been overwhelmed by traffic and knocked offline.]

“You have the opportunity here to do something good and let’s face it, the court system in Nova Scotia was just going to rape her all over again with indifference to her suffering and the damage this did to her. My daughter wasn’t bullied to death, she was disappointed to death. Disappointed in people she thought she could trust: her school, and the police. She was my daughter, but she was your daughter too. For the love of God do something.

“I’ve been contacted from media outlets from all over the world and as a past member of the media I understand why you all want to speak with me. You have all been very courteous, professional, and respectful. Please know, however, this is the only statement I am able to make. I’m [too] devastated. I feel like I’m dead inside.”

From Ian Johnston via Facebook:

I’ve appalled by what I’ve been reading from here in Toronto. Come on folks. Get a grip. It’s like hysteria….

[T]he most telling repeated line I continually see is that, “We need an investigation to get justice….” assuming of course a re-investigation will reveal an injustice. Seems a bit of a leap. As you said, folks seem to have leapt to the assumption of wrong-doing and are unprepared for if a new investigation gets the same result.

From another reader who asked me to withhold his name because, “I do not want to be attacked by a vigilante mob, or hacked by a bunch of outlaw geeks.”

Thank you for publishing your thoughtful perspective on the Parsons case. I find it deeply troubling on a number of levels – not just the obvious and utterly justifiable grief her family and friends must be enduring, but perhaps even more due to the apparent public reaction or, perhaps more accurately, overreaction.

This is an extremely complex situation, and as seems to happen far too often, the news media is appearing to overlook some basic questions that seem rather obvious.

[This reader then speculates on certain unknowns about the case, which I will omit out of concern for those involved, and the fact that, just like the inflammatory comments of those demanding vengeance, they are pure speculation.]

…I am deeply troubled by the knee-jerk reaction by far too many people towards wanting to lock the alleged perpetrators up forever without due process. I am equally troubled by those who in one breath blame our public institutions for what happened, and in the next call for MORE institutional  intervention to solve such problems. The disconnect there seems rather obvious to me…

I am going to try to tune much of this out over the next while. I fear nothing good will come out of this, and vigilanteism is never pretty

Longtime Contrarian reader Denis Falvey writes:

While I agree with you that there should be a high bar for conviction, I do think it would be a good idea to formally register society’s disgust with these “boys'” alleged behaviour, by at least challenging them to prove their innocence—likelihood of conviction notwithstanding. The facts as know would then be before the public, and there would not be the suspicion of the matter being swept under the rug. As it is, the public has only bile and innuendo on which to gnaw.

Innocence until proven quilt should not mean that everyone charged is somehow automatically quilty; nor should it mean that if you are not charged, you are therefore innocent.

There is talk on an enquiry now, probably at great expense. But isn’t that what could have been achieved by a judge and jury, at less expense?

Also, sometimes maybe, proving one’s innocence of the accusation of wrong doing may be enough to trigger self-examination of behaviour against acceptable standards of society? Isn’t that what we want in this type of situation?

Your underlying point is correct; we don’t know what happened here.

Thanks to all who contributed. Join in by clicking the “Email a Comment” link near the top of the page.  More later…

Let’s not make a heartbreaking situation worse

What if the cops and prosecutors were right?

What if competent RCMP officers carried out a conscientious investigation of allegations that Rehtaeh Parsons was sexually assaulted, and that a pornographic photo of the event had circulated among her acquaintances, before concluding there was no prospect of a conviction in the case?

Because we cherish freedom and abhor wrongful convictions, we set a high bar for criminal convictions. Accused persons must always be presumed innocent. To convict them, evidence presented in court must satisfy a judge or jury of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt—not a frivolous or fanciful doubt, or one based on prejudice or sympathy, but a doubt grounded in reason and common sense, and logically connected to the evidence (or lack of evidence).

A jury which concludes only that the accused is probably guilty must acquit, and police and prosecutors who reach the same conclusion should not lay charges.

What are the known facts here? On the night of April 4, Rehtaeh, a photogenic 17-year-old who had been hospitalized for depression had a sudden blowup at home. She ran to the washroom and locked herself inside. By the time her mother broke in, Rehtaeh had injured herself in a manner that would prove fatal.

Who can imagine a more devastating experience for a parent than a child’s death in these horrific circumstances? Everyone who hears this story feels heartbroken for Rehtaeh’s mother, her father, her loved ones. I feel awful for them, and I hope nothing I write here will add to their dreadful burden.

In her grief, Rehtaeh’s mother created a Facebook page in tribute to her daughter, that included the following allegations:

[O]ne dreaded night in November 2011 [Rehtaeh] went with a friend to another’s home. In that home she was raped by four young boys…one of those boys took a photo of her being raped and decided it would be fun to distribute the photo to everyone in Rehtaeh’s school and community where it quickly went viral.

These allegations made a heart-wrenching story utterly sensational, as anyone who has turned on a radio, opened a newspaper, or logged onto Twitter or Facebook in the last few days knows. When photos of Rehtaeh as an appealing, apparently fun-loving child began circulating, public emotions exploded. The hactivist collective Anonymous even threatened vigilante action against the boys accused of the alleged assault, and Toronto Liberal lawyer Warren Kinsella egged them on.

Notwithstanding ritual insertion of the adverb allegedly, many if not most of the news stories about Rehtaeh’s suicide proceeded from the assumption that Leah Parsons’ account is accurate: that her daughter was sexually assaulted, an explicit photograph of the event circulated cruelly among her schoolmates, and these events caused her death 17 months later.* We should bear in mind that these remain allegations; they are an account of the facts originating with someone who has the deepest possible emotional attachment to the story.

Leah Parsons’ account may turn out to be accurate and provable in court. It may turn out to be probable but not provable in court. It may turn out to be an understandable but flawed vision of events through the eyes of a devastated mother. In none of these cases does our collective rush to judgment make things better.

One uncontested fact that has received scant attention is that Rehtaeh was treated for depression, including at least one hospitalization. Depression is a terrible illness, and an often fatal one. Would that society could summon the same passion to combatting this scourge that it has in response to her terrible story.

Finally, if you or anyone you know are having suicidal thoughts, please call the toll-free Kid’s Help Line at 1-800-668-6868 or the toll-free Suicide Prevention Line at 1-888-429-8167. Also please check out this website, and this list of warning signs.

* To varying degrees, FeministingThe Huffington Post, ThinkProgress, The Toronto Star, the Halifax Chronicle=Herald, and the Globe and Mail could all have been more careful about separating their reports of the allegations from their narrative reconstruction of events that remain unproven. The National Post and the CBC, notably Stephen Puddicombe’s exemplary reports, were more circumspect.

Virtually all news media ran roughshod over well known guidelines for reporting suicide in a way that lessens the risk of contagion.

Just a setting on the washing machine

“To love someone,” wrote Jean Vanier, “is to show them their beauty, their worth, and their importance.” That can be a tall order, but a few Halifax members of the Asperger’s Syndrome Parents’ Empowerment Network give it a good shot in this short video, produced by Halifax filmmakers John Hillis, Michael MacDonald, Caley MacLennan, Kimberlee McTaggert, Andrew Starzomski, and Amy Spurway:

H/T: Valerie Patterson

Illness spread by word of mouth


Do wind farms make some people sick? Or do false claims of a connection between wind farms and illness make people sick?

The question arises because opponents of wind farms often contend they cause illness, but scientific studies have consistently found little or no evidence to support such a connection. [This report by Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health is typical.*]

Now a team of public health researchers at the University of Sydney in Australia has collected every known public complaint of wind farm-induced illness in that country (those filed with the wind companies themselves, those filed with three government commissions, and those collected by an independent council that monitors media reports), and cross-tabulated them against the location, size, startup date, and number of people living within five kilometres of all 41 Australian wind farms.

The results are instructive.

  • Nearly two thirds (63%) of the wind farms, including half of those with large (greater than 1MW) turbines, have never been subject to a single complaint.
  • Kangaroo_crossingThe state of Western Australia, with 13 wind farms, including three with large turbines, has never had a single complaint of turbine-related illness.
  • Of the estimated 32,677 people living within five kilometres of an Australian wind farm, only 120 have ever complained of turbine-related illness — a rate of 1 in 272.
  • Although almost 70% of Australia’s wind farms went into operation before 2009, 82% of the complaints occurred after that date, when wind-farm opponents began to promote warnings about alleged health effects.

The researchers noted:

As anti-wind farm interest groups began to stress health problems in their advocacy, and to target new wind farm developments, complaints grew. Significantly though, no older farms with non-complaining residents appear to have been targeted by opponents. The dominant opposition model appears to be to foment health anxiety among residents in the planning and construction phases. Health complaints can then appear soon after power generation commences. Residents are encouraged to interpret common health problems like high blood pressure and sleeping difficulties as being caused by turbines.

Their conclusion:

In view of scientific consensus that the evidence for wind turbine noise and infrasound causing health problems is poor, the reported spatio-temporal variations in complaints are consistent with psychogenic hypotheses that health problems arising are “communicated diseases” with nocebo effects likely to play an important role in the aetiology of complaints.

Nocebo was a new one on me. Wikipedia defines it as, “the harmful, unpleasant, or undesirable effects a subject manifests after receiving an inert dummy drug or placebo. Nocebo responses are not chemically generated and are due only to the subject’s pessimistic belief and expectation that the inert drug will produce negative consequences.”

Download the full report here [pdf].

H/T: Stephen Manley

* For other examples, see footnotes 3 to 20 in the University of Sydney study.


Sexigenarian vocabulary chops

In Merriam-Webster’s online vocabulary quiz, sixty-somethings blow the competition away:

Screen Shot 2013-03-16 at 11.25.22 AM

Take that, whippersnappers!

A thumb on the weather scale — more reaction

Contrarian reader Peter Barss waxes philosophical about the primal draw of radio-storms and weather-porn:

It ‘s exciting to sit in our warm, safe living rooms listening to dire warnings of impending weather doom. It’s even more of a thrill to turn on our flat screen TVs and watch weather gals and guys get whipped by wind-driven snow as they stand outside yelling into their microphones so they can be heard over the howling “weather bomb.”

We live in a society that is soft and luxurious. One of the luxuries we indulge is the illusion that if we just do everything right we can avoid all of life’s unpleasantries. Obey weather warnings and no one will be hurt on the highways. Wear pink T-shirts and bullying will go away. Warning your kid every ten minutes on her cell phone will keep her out of the clutches of the perverts hiding in the bushes.

While society at large presumes nothing bad will happen if we just do the right things, there’s something primal in us that needs a thrill, a threat of danger. We manufacture dangerous situations and enjoy them vicariously. After we’ve stocked up with groceries and turned up the heat, we can slump back in front of our TV and get our adrenaline rush without ever getting wet or cold.

After the storm we can watch hockey players beat each other up, race cars smashed to smithereens, and ordinary people humiliated on “reality shows.”

Exaggerated weather drama and all the rest of it satisfies our need to flee or fight while we snuggle under a warm blanket several steps removed from any real danger.


A thumb on the weather scale — reaction

Most of the listeners who responded to my debate with CBC manager Andrew Cochran about the network’s (in my view) inflated coverage of weather are just fine with the CBC’s weather treatment.

Highway conditions at 3:30 pm, February 20, when Cape Breton schools closed early due to forecasts of possible freezing rain that evening.

Highway conditions at 3:30 pm, February 20, when Cape Breton schools closed early due to forecasts of possible freezing rain that evening: Pavement dry; precipitation nil.

This doesn’t surprise me. Some people like being frightened about weather, just as others like being frightened about crime. Lurid coverage of crime by some media has led to a sharp increase in the public perception of personal risk from crime even as crime rates have plummeted. I see a parallel with public perception of weather risk.

Two listeners added interesting points to the debate.

Geoffrey May of Margaree said forecasts have become more extreme because weather has become more extreme—a result of climate change. Maybe Geoff can supply confirming data, but my subjective impression supports his view. Let me be clear, however: It’s not detailed reporting of occasional serious storms that I object to; It’s inflated reporting of routine storms, as if they were serious. What Oran sports reporter Bill Dunphy deliciously termed, “radio storms.”

Rosemary Algar of Cape North, a listener who shares my annoyance at weather hyperbole, pointed out a subtle result of our current timorous approach. We are teaching our children, she said, that at the first sign of inconvenience, it’s OK to stay home and disregard our responsibilities to work and school.

Worse still, it’s school officials who are delivering that message.

After wasting a year, province will restore Talbot House funding

Almost exactly a year after precipitous–and as it turned out, groundless–complaints by the Nova Scotia Department of Community Services forced the closure of Cape Breton’s only residential addiction recovery centre, Talbot House will get its funding back this week.

Health and Wellness Minister David Wilson will deliver the news in Cape Breton Friday, a weekday traditionally chosen for announcements governments would prefer to inter quietly. Wilson became the minister responsible for recovery centres last September, when Premier Darrell Dexter, fed up with the continual barrage of negative stories about DCS mistreatment of Talbot, stripped that department of the file and handed it to Health and Wellness.

[Background to this long unsavoury saga hereherehereherehereherehereherehere, and here. Or just type “Talbot House” into the search box at right.]

The re-funding decision comes after a conspicuously slow Health Dept. review of an RFP for which Talbot House was the only respondent. A government source familiar with the review acknowledged Monday that Talbot’s Board of Directors did “a good job” on the RFP, but previous government mishandling had led to excessive diligence on the part of cautious bureaucrats.

It’s also the case that Health and Wellness had no warning it was to be handed  responsibility for the problem file, and no doubt needed time to ramp up its own resources.

Friday’s announcement will include funding for staff training at Talbot, some renovations at the half-century-old, community-built centre, and an annual budget that compares favourably with its pre-shutdown funding. After a few weeks to ramp up staffing, the recovery centre is expected to resume operations April 1. Fr. Paul Abbass will stay on as Executive Director at least through the hiring and start-up, possibly longer.

It was DCS’s furtive promotion of vague charges of sexual impropriety by Abbass that led to the centre’s shutdown. Cape Breton Regional Police spent eight weeks looking into the shadowy complaints, but found no basis for launching a formal investigation. A Contrarian freedom of information appeal to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia likewise turned up no evidence of wrongdoing. No actual complainant ever came forward.

Missing from Friday’s announcement will be any plan to investigate or even review Community Services’ handling of the travesty.  That’s a big missed opportunity. The landscape is littered with tales of abusive behaviour by DCS. To be sure, the department’s usually savvy bureaucrats suffered a humiliating defeat in this case, but there is no reason to expect any systemic change in their entrenched habit of bullying the poor and the non-profits who assist them.

If a New Democratic Party Government won’t clean up this department, who will?

When eco-trivia overwhelms real threats to the planet

mac-water-bottle-poster-2-webWith so many real and pressing environmental crises threatening to harm Planet Earth, why are so many well-meaning environmentalists so easily diverted into foolhardy projects like the campaign to ban plastic water bottles?

On January 1, the Town of Concord, Massachusetts, prohibited the sale of “non-sparkling, unflavored drinking water in single-serving polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles of 1 liter (34 ounces) or less.” To be clear, it’s still OK to sell small, plastic bottles of Coke, Red Bull, colored sugar-water, and carbonated water, and it’s OK to sell Just Plain Water in 40-oz plastic bottles or gallon jugs.

In an approving report on the ban, the Globe and Mail zeroed in an oft-repeated environmental trope that appears to have its origin in a June, 2007, editorial in the New York Times.

The recommended eight glasses of water a day, at U.S. tap rates, equals about 49 cents a year. The same amount of bottled water costs about $1,400, according to the tap water activist group Ban the Bottle.


  • The recommendation for drinking eight glasses of water per day is quackery, debunked at and many other places.
  • No bottled water defender recommends that people consume water exclusively from bottles, merely that it’s a convenient way to drink water in some circumstances — such as in a car or on a beach, where municipal water taps tend to be scarce.
  • The proposition that bottled water use lowers public support for municipal water supplies (which are all but ubiquitous in North American towns and cities) suffers from an absence of evidence.
  • The Concord, MA, ban wisely omits emergencies when municipal supplies are contaminated or unavailable—unusual, but hardly unheard of events.

For his part, Contrarian drinks many glasses of tap water, but from time to time, he prefers the convenience of a recyclable plastic bottle, whether newly purchased with water inside, or refilled with tap water from his non-municipal bore hole. Sometimes he freezes water in bottles to take to the beach on hot summer days.

When one of these bottles has served its purpose, Contrarian carefully places it in the recycle bin, thereby contributing revenue his rural municipality can use to maintain water systems in places other than Boularderie Island.

He would like the Globe and Mail and the Town of Concord to get off his case.

H/T: JP (who might disagree).

A virtual heart built from10,000 parallel processors

If you’re anything like me, your conception of the human heart comes from text book line drawings and plastic models in doctors’ offices.

To create a more useful, virtual model, the Barcelona Supercomputing Center used 10,000 parallel processors. The beating heart turns out to be a phenomenally complex electromechanical apparatus—wondrous, and almost spooky, to behold.

The center recently released a video simulation, although based on a rabbit’s heart rather than a human’s.

From Emily Underwood via Alexis Madrigal.

Journal articles:


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